Engagement

Not mine; wish it was!

Five years ago, a newspaper article was written about me and my efforts to help the homeless through visual art experiences. It never would have happened if I hadn’t walked into that shelter at the right time, and met the right kind of executive director who believed that the homeless have gifts to share with the community — and believed in me.

When people believe in you, you can move mountains, and I felt like I did during the three years I devoted time, effort and care to the homeless in my community by working directly with them, building trust, encouraging them to engage and take artistic risks when they spent most of their days being told by others what to do and how to do it — or else. I helped the homeless engage in three fundraisers (not just be the recipient of proceeds); I created an art-based economic empowerment project that for a short period of time helped the homeless earn while making art AND made them feel part of the community via art sales in local galleries; I made for them a peaceful, safe artistic space separate from the stress of the day shelter; and last but certainly not least, the homeless helped ME create a beautiful mural that I hope will stay on that smoking yard wall to remind staff and guests that the homeless have abundant gifts to give, if we just offer them the tools, and the chance.

M on wall with camo

Five years later, after almost three years living in a new community in Kentucky, I am finally feeling the urge to be engaged again. There are a lot of reasons for what caused this lengthy delay — such as the death of a marriage, the death of a loved one by suicide, health compromises, and what it takes to recover from those traumas as well as the length of time and energy it takes to rebuild ones life in middle age. It wasn’t hesitancy though. It was knowing what I could handle and what I could not. It was taking good care of myself. It was survival.

Now I am ready to begin helping the homeless again — but not via a program that makes shelter available to some instead of all, and not in alignment with any agenda, only as an artist. I am ready to engage my community in public art projects — and that means all of the community, not just the artistic or able. I also hope to spread an engaging message: That art is not just about teaching it, making it and selling it. Art is a resilience builder and a survival tool and I know this, because that is how Art has helped me.

Sweetheart Flying, 2017 Ink, marker, colored pencil and watercolor on paper

Pride

I recently sat in on a prospective AmeriCorps KY READY Corps member interview, during which she was asked to share a most significant project, most complex project or a project she was most proud of — and my heart went out to her and her struggle to find a story to relate. Though I had no doubt she would discover something, and she did, watching that struggle and hearing her openly confess: “Pride? I never really thought about anything I did as something to be proud of…” touched me and made me remember the shame of the homeless in terms of where they lived, what they did and how it got them there. It also reminded me of me as a kid and young adult without any self confidence or pride in myself or my family or where I came from.

That is why it was soooo amazing to be a part of helping the William Wells Brown kids last fall to create these panels because they are all about pride in themselves and the history of their community. But the best part was hearing that the panels would be part of a new exhibit at the Kentucky Horse Park, honoring the long history of African American jockey and trainer involvement in the horse industry.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The panels have also been made into a fundraising poster!

I plan to be at the Park on 7/5/18 when many of the William Wells Brown kidz will be present to see their work on the walls. THAT’s going to be empowering!!

Orientation

Me at KY READY Corps orientation, 4/27/18

One definition of orientation is: a usually general or lasting direction of thought, inclination, or interest.

And that type of orientation to art, learning and service are what led me to the place I am at now, Berea, Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky University, and the position I am in, as an AmeriCorps Program Director, involved in readiness and resilience for vulnerable individuals.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On April 27, 2018 I led the first KY READY Corps orientation, and it was a wonderful experience on many levels. It reminded me of many firsts, including my AmeriCorps Senior Connection orientation in 2014 and introduction to service other than volunteerism, and my decision to become an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader in early 2016 which led me to Berea and back to eastern Kentucky.

Me as VISTA Leader at Berea College, spring 2017

Me as VISTA Leader at Berea College, Spring 2017

It also reminded me of the excellent teacher I was and still am, and how right I was to believe I had more than sufficient experience and credentials to launch myself from a former art professor to a volunteer at a homeless shelter, to an AmeriCorps, then VISTA Leader and finally to an AmeriCorps Program Director.

Like all of my accomplishments of the last two years, this feels bittersweet. But I am learning to cautiously allow myself the happiness I deserve, though it has to be without Owen. Regardless, O is always with me, helping me move forward, pushing me onward, and for that I am truly grateful and blessed.

PS: I am still teaching art (Upward Bound, June 2018), making art and writing. The Art Bag Lady perseveres!

 

 

 

My artwork at Kentucky Crafted: The Market, 4/22/17

Thanks again to the folks at the Kentucky Arts Council for jurying me into The Illustrated Word. The exhibit traveled to the 35th annual Kentucky Crafted event at the Lexington Convention center last weekend. It was a real thrill to see artwork about O in public for the first time.

My work with LexEngage

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Through a fortuitous meeting with staff at the Lexington Living Art and Science Center, I am now connected to University of Kentucky’s unique LexEngage program.

LEXengaged is a first-year residential program on UK’s north campus, close to downtown Lexington, in which civic engagement is applied to students’ day-to-day life. Through course readings, discussions, guest speakers, and off-campus tours, participants gain a greater understanding of the larger community, focusing on engagement, service learning and social justice.

My job as a teaching artist is to help UK students interact with students at William Wells Brown via unique visual art experiences that focus on the topic of homelessness — something near and dear to my heart.  Our first project was “Who I Am” in which students built trust and understanding via tracing each others’ bodies and filing them in with name designs that expressed who they are using color, line, shape, placement and size — basic design concepts.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Our second project on February 15, 2017, was based on the Cardboard Stories collected by Orlando Florida’s ReThinking Homelessness project.  UK and William Wells Brown students made a list of words associated with the homeless, then discussed how those things — dirtiness, torn old clothing, etc. — are just superficial signs and are, in many ways, the way we look at times and for reasons other than homelessness. This pressed home the fact that the homeless are indeed “just like us”.

Then students brainstormed a list of things about themselves that no one would know by just looking at them.  They picked a few and transferred them to cardboard, and we hung them up and talked about the funny ones, the sad ones, and especially the unexpected ones.

The Lone Tree Planting, 11/12/16

The Owen quote

The Owen quote

On November 12, 2016, friends and loved ones had a small memorial ceremony for Owen Chaney in downtown Evansville, Indiana.  This world lost Owen on August 22, 2016, when he chose to take his life in Berea, Kentucky after a long battle with addiction, mental illness, and three years of chronic homelessness.

Everyone who knows me knows I loved Owen, and I join many who knew Owen to be a loving, kind, generous, talented person even while plagued by the stresses and illnesses of his adult life. Or maybe in spite of them.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In memory of Owen we planted a sycamore tree on the lawn of the Zion Church opposite the homeless shelter where Owen and I met and made art between 2013 and just a few short months prior to his untimely death. Owen loved nature and he loved sycamores, which he called “ghost trees” in keeping with Native American lore, and in reference to the color of their trunks and limbs. They literally glow in the dark on moonlit winter nights. Sycamores are also called “trees of life” because they have tremendous longevity, up to 600 years, and symbolize intuition, shelter, nurturing…among other things.  They also grow very fast and, to me, symbolize the surviving and thriving that Owen was never able to accomplish in this life.

A pack of Marlboros, the smokes Owen preferred, will show up at the base of The Lone Tree now and then, so those of you who are desperate for one can help yourself. I often witnessed Owen giving away his last cigarette to someone he thought needed it more than he. You are also welcome to stop by and put a memento on the sycamore, which will be nurtured by members of the Zion congregation. Many thanks to them, Pastor Kim, and the generous donations of Owen’s friends in attendance for making the tree planting possible.

Becoming Aware…

I attended my first suicide awareness event on 10/26/2016, at Eastern Kentucky University: Walk For Hope sponsored by the Richmond/EKU National Alliance for Mental Illness. I became aware of this event through a support group I joined after losing my beloved friend, close companion and artistic collaborator to suicide on August 22, 2016.  As anyone who has suffered such a shocking loss can tell you — Owen’s death has changed my life.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I believe this was the first event of its kind at EKU, and it was very well organized. The speakers, one who lost a son to suicide, were wonderful, and passionate as they told stories and explained their mission to help those affected by suicide — including the bereaved. Here is a link to a unique organization represented at the Walk For Hope, Shelby’s Way. The music was moving too.

I wish I could include more photographs of the crowds that attended — but I can’t. They weren’t there.  In fact — and maybe because I am one of the bereaved — I felt the curious and anxious eyes of pedestrians that passed us upon us as small, tight groups of supporters and sufferers sat and listened to wistful tunes and powerful stories of love and loss.  I could actually feel the stigma associated with the taboo subject of suicide as if it was catching, like an easily communicable disease.

With numbers of suicides in the area rising, this has to change. I hope I can be part of initiating that awareness-building and empathy encouraging change.  I think the very first thing I will voluntarily do is facilitate the creation of a beautiful, eye catching banner to hang at next year’s event.

 

 

Success of art at UCS Jazz Shoes Blues Fundraiser

Glass artist David Powell, artist and AIM volunteer Owen Chaney, me and former UCS intern and social work candidate Charlotte Critchfield.

At Jazz, Shoes and Blues: Glass artist David Powell, artist and AIM volunteer Owen Chaney, me and former UCS intern and social work candidate Charlotte Critchfield.

All our hard work paid off (literally!) at United Caring Shelter’s Jazz Shoes and Blues fundraiser on April 2, 2016.  Pictured here are artists and volunteers, some of them homeless shelter guests, who were instrumental in the event as well as the design, creation and sales of art created at Art In The Annex and exhibited and sold at Art In The Margins the Zion Center For Spiritual Development and Healing.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

These folks and UCS also helped me meet my Pollination Project Impact Grant match, thereby helping me continue the life changing (for all of us!) art experiences I provide at UCS for the homeless, and in nearby Henderson, KY with at-risk youth and the elderly.  I can’t thank you enough!

Artistic fundraising efforts at Art In The Annex, United Caring Shelters

Art work for the upcoming fundraiser, Jazz, Blues and Shoes began in earnest in February at United Caring Shelter’s Art In The Annex.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Two enthusiastic shelter/Art In The Annex Guests help stretch, gesso and begin painting canvases that will be auctioned off at the April 2 fundraiser.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

On 2/13, volunteers from University of Evansville as well as artistic shelter/Art in the Annex guests joined local glass artist David Powell in making “journey” rings to be sold to raise funds for the Art In The Annex program. They are on sale now, for $5, at AIM at Zion United Church of Christ in downtown Evansville.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And on 2/20, I met David Powell at his studio in Mt. Vernon, IN, and got a lesson in glass blowing. He also showed off three of the over two dozen bowls he is making for the upcoming Jazz, Blues Shoes fundraiser in April!

Art In The Margins!

Accomplished artworks, including mosaic stained glass and jewelry, all created by guests participating in United Caring Shelter‘s Art in the Annex Program, are now fully moved into the exhibit/sales space at Zion Evangelical United Church of Christ in downtown Evansville, just across from the homeless shelter. This is part of my ongoing efforts to promote awareness of the many gifts the homeless have to give their community!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

AIM is located off the Vegetableland lunchroom hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.  And many thanks to The Pollination Project for helping to fund this economic empowerment project for the homeless in my community!