Who Is The Art Bag Lady?

Me with outsider artist in homeless shelter smoking yard, on mural project, 2015

In the fall of 2013, a former, failed art professor walks into a homeless shelter for the first time. She has a resentful husband, a home that doesn’t feel like hers, and just lost her last chance at a traditional teaching career. She is also angry, and on a mission to reinvent and save herself along with other societal misfits in the process, because she knows, first hand, how art can help people survive. Maybe even thrive. She calls herself The Art Bag Lady.

She is soon stunned that the homeless are more like her than she ever dreamed – and that she finds the scary, scruffy men far more approachable than the hardened women, who have seen and done things she cannot imagine. Or maybe she can. Over art, people talk, and while she makes art with the homeless she learns that almost all of them have lost jobs they loved. Many are fleeing from abuse and endured abusive childhoods, sexual and otherwise. Most struggle with addictions, and will never be forgiven for the crimes they have committed, even after they have served their time, paid the price. All have been abandoned by family and friends, all have family histories similar to hers, and those histories made them homeless. That might be why she feels homeless.

They are also among the bravest and most artistically gifted individuals she has ever encountered in her two decades of teaching art to mistakenly entitled college students. One, named Owen, strongly reminds her of her long lost brother Michael, who died about the same time as her traditional teaching career.

Owen at our studio, August 2015

Owen is musical and artistic, shy yet passionate, and in his mid-thirties — so he also reminds her of her long estranged son. When The Art Bag Lady and Owen begin sharing their life stories over art making, on companionable walks away from the homeless shelter and finally, alone in secret spaces, they learn they are remarkably alike despite wide differences in age, upbringing and opportunity. The Art Bag Lady feels understood, appreciated, then loved for herself for the first time in her life, despite three marriages, the last one to a man who does not believe she was abused as a child and for his own complicated reasons, who got tenure at a higher education institution that terminated her for her honesty and integrity.

So begins a several year transformation from a traditional teacher, bitter faculty wife to an art activist and servant leader while trying to help a homeless man whom I cannot help loving even though mental illness is destroying him, and by extension, me. One day I have to choose between Owen and myself, just as I had to choose myself over my brother Michael, but over an unthinkably abusive childhood trauma that left me without years of memory, and scarred for life Once again, choosing myself means death for a dearly loved one. But after a year of grieving and finally understanding Owen’s suicide, it means freedom from a debilitating, lifelong sense of misplaced responsibility and guilt that no one should ever carry.

I am a veteran arts educator, creative writer and art/creative activist with several recently published autobiographical essays excerpted from an original memoir entitled Leaving Semesterland (Still Point Arts Quarterly, Botticelli Magazine, Line Zero, Spruce Mountain Press). I was single mother, adult-aged college student when I earned an MFA in studio art in the 1990s, and spent two decades thereafter as traditional teacher of art until I was asked to resign for things I never did, in the middle of an academic year, which never happens to academics unless they have done something dreadful. And I didn’t.

Since then I am dedicated to telling my life story in order to inspire others to rise above their life circumstances, and am committed to bringing art and expressive writing to powerless people in order to empower them, and change their lives for the better.

I am seeking agent/publisher representation for The Art Bag Lady.  Contact me theartbaglady@gmail.com, or here at WarriorWoman Productions.