This gallery contains 13 photos.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
It is taking time to settle into both my new home and new job. About two weeks into my tenure as an AmeriCorps Program Director a co-worker who is about to retire leaned out of the office she was emptying and asked if I would like a big map of Kentucky, and because I still have a partial office wall to fill, I said yes.
She delivered it a couple days ago, with a palm full of the lethal looking, unique mounting devices for it. But she didn’t just leave it. She wanted to talk about it. She explained that the map’s surface was writable, like a white board. She told me the best marker colors to use so the surface would stay clean. Several times she mentioned the name of the staff person who acquired the map in the first place, and with what sounded like affection tinged with sadness that touched me because I have been feeling affection and love tinged with sadness, sometimes despair, for eighteen months straight and wonder if I will ever stop. Our apparently similar feelings about loss, in this case of a several decade’s long job, made me connect with this woman and wonder: Did her coworker retire too? Did she work with him for a long time? Does she miss working with him?
This interesting encounter started in the hallway, as I returned from one of many deliberately long walks to get away from my desk and computer. I am used to writing alone and in silence, spent the whole summer and fall of 2017 writing about late in life professional and personal losses, some of them profound, on blessedly quiet mornings in my old apartment, in public and private libraries in the afternoons, on weekends in coffee shops and, during the 2017 holidays, in a lovely dining room of a home I was helping to house-sit, so I am okay with solitude. But now that I am housed in an academic institution again and busy preparing to launch a new program I am eager for contact. First, however, I have to create many original forms and documents. This requires sitting in front of two computer screens that are not particularly companionable, and so loneliness is what I was escaping from when I saw that woman and she asked if I still wanted the map.
I almost said No, and I don’t know why. Maybe because she gave me the option. Maybe because I have a piece of Owen’s artwork taking up part of that wall, and it meant moving it and moving Owen’s things has left me drained and depressed and feeling bereft of a future, despite my new home and new job. Maybe that day I was afraid that map would be a daily reminder of his loss and the others that led me to a new life in Kentucky. Whatever it was I stifled it, and was glad I did, and for the woman’s company and the memories she shared over the map she is now entrusting to my care. Somehow, seeing the shape of state and the many roads that connect the hundreds of small towns to the much fewer large cities that comprise Kentucky, some of them places I visited with or lived in with Owen, makes me feel more grounded and not nearly so alone.
Gallery on Main, a community gallery in downtown Richmond, KY, invited SAFE project coordinators/facilitators to install ArtVention artworks for viewing from September to November.
ArtVention is an art empowerment and healing project focused on suicide education, prevention and awareness, funded through the EKU SAFE program within the Psychology Department at Eastern Kentucky University. I coordinated and supervised the ArtVention event on 9/13/17, in which suicide bereaved and survivors engaged in three visual art projects, one of them collaborative, creating a sense of community and healing from suicide experiences.
On 9/13/17 I had the pleasure (and awe) of helping to create an art-based, post-suicide prevention experience at Eastern Kentucky University’s Noel Studio For Academic Creativity. Held in honor of World Suicide Prevention Day (a concept I am only beginning to tolerate and consider, since my own loved one’s suicide), ArtVention is a unique art experience for all who have been impacted by suicide. Participants are encouraged to identify and visually express feelings about suicide via guided visual art activities. It’s not art therapy — it’s art empowerment led by a working artist who uses art to help herself and other vulnerable people survive and thrive.
We began with a hand “sign in” with medium on a blank sheet of muslin, which disappears when it dries — like the loved one we lost. Halfway through ArtVention we hit it with paint to make our marks reappear, a metaphor for the love we will never lose.
Participants also created a “before/after” collage guided by words and materials chosen for their positive/negative impact.
Lastly, ArtVention participants made Tribute Flags for themselves or the person they lost.
The best part of all, as usual, were the revealing and healing conversations that struck up while I interacted with participants, and they interacted with each other. Both the flags and the collages will be part of suicide awareness exhibits coming up in 2018.
Thanks to the EKU Suicide Awareness and Focus on Education (SAFE) grant, the volunteers who helped with ArtVention, including recent EKU graduate Abigail Emerson who came up with the idea, Crystal West who found and transported the cardboard and fabric (cut out lots of collage material!) and Dr. Melinda Moore who invited me as a teaching artist to make it happen.
I had the pleasure of connecting with Eastern Kentucky University’s Upward Bound program in June and July 2017, and worked with many amazing, promising young people as a result and on several innovative art projects!
Our first project: Create a sign like those that the homeless carry, but put on it something about oneself that viewers couldn’t possibly know by simply seeing you. This yielded many touching and surprising confessions.
Project 2: Create an artist book out of paper bags, and begin cover art on it. During this project I discovered how many creative types I had!
Project 3: Thanks to a PFE sponsored artist workshop I attended as a VISTA Leader, I shared with enthusiastic Upward Bound kidz the construction of miniature “crankies” — storytelling devices used during music and vocal performances to better engage audiences.
Project 4: Tagging, stencil cutting and spraying! Upward Bound @EKU students learned about the style of graffiti alphabets, how to brainstorm and create their own tag, the fundamentals of stencil cutting (which is more complicated that one might guess!), then sprayed their creations. A lot of these kidz already had impressive spraying skillz!
Late in April, the facilitator of my bereavement group asked if I had any artwork of Owen’s — or any artwork we made together — that might suit as cover art for a book she co-edited and is about to be published. And I immediately thought of this stained glass mosaic Owen created in 2015, and finished in early 2016.
This, and many additional stained glass mosaics were part of an economic empowerment project I created at the homeless shelter where Owen and I met in 2013. Dozens of artistic shelter and Art In The Annex guests engaged in the project, and were willing to have their mosaics shown and sold (with a percentage of the proceeds going to the artists) at an area gallery, then a special sale space called AIM (Art In The Margins) in the church across the street from the homeless shelter.
Here are images of Omega RedWolf Flying in progress, including two of Owen working on it:
It was so painful to shut down that space in the fall of 2016, and collect Owen’s artworks from it as well as the Annex at the shelter, and bring them to Berea. It was also painful to read the title of Dr. Moore’s book: The Suicide Funeral or Memorial Service. But there is also something incredibly redemptive and hopeful in that image of a wolf flying through a blue portal, and in knowing Owen, through this artwork, will live on and hopefully be of help to others impacted by suicide.
I am now connected to and art-working directly with military women and women vets via a wonderful organization: Athena’s Sisters — thanks to this engaged and empowered woman vet who reached out to me last fall, who is working hard to start and sustain an Athena’s Sisters chapter in Evansville, Indiana.
From their website: “Athena’s Sisters is an organization for all military women to use revolutionary expressions to grow in dignity and honor. Our members empower themselves through a sisterhood created by mind, body, and heart healing. Our artistic advocacy is building a community of courage.”
We met at the 5/13/17 VOICE Expo, held at the Evansville Armory, to promote the new chapter of Athena’s Sisters and to promote our summer art project: stained glass mosaics, similar to this one, created by Owen and about to be published on the cover of a book that helps educate those who help the suicide bereaved. Owen came from a military family, and although he did not serve he admired those who did. So I know he was proud to be part of this event.
VOICE (Veteran Organizations Involved in Community Education) acts as a sponsor and clearing house for events that help veterans and their families, as well as engage them within the community.