I’m a KFW AMA Grant Recipient again!

In February 2019, I met with two high school girls and a Mom, and over art making talked about the mental health crisis at a local high school. This led to a brainstorming session about a collaborative community mural project involving at-risk girls, a contact with the dedicated therapist at one of the high schools, and a swiftly researched and written Art Meets Activism Grant to the Kentucky Foundation for Women. See the description here. Yup. I got the grant.

Writing the grant was scary though. The last time I got an AMA grant was in 2015-2016, and I was never able to produce a finished product from it. Owen Carl Chaney, lost to suicide on 8/22/2016, helped me with the project, was in many documentary photographs of the project, which also involved at-risk youth, and I just could not face the raw material while feeling so raw myself. For the first time in my artistic life, I felt paralyzed, blocked.

The KFW was extremely understanding about this. They gave me two extensions, and a retreat at Hopscotch House, hoping to help. It didn’t. To this day, when I think of that raw material, hours and hours of interviews of elder women and young girls and the projects we did together with Owen at my side, my throat still closes in panic.

I was truthful about the situation with my teenage artist partners. I warned them I might not get the new grant because of my failure to follow through on the last one. But not only did I get the grant, $3280 to engage teenage girls from Berea high schools in a public mural project focused on youth mental health and based on photographs of their hands holding objects that help them feel safe, secure and empowered. I got the best acceptance letter ever, full of compliments and encouragement. My hands shook as I opened the envelope. Then I read the contents and cried.

Since that Sunday morning early in June I have been able to do additional, formerly unthinkable things. I reached out to the new volunteer coordinator at the homeless shelter where I met and made art with Owen and offered to help her get our yard mural touched up and finally finished. I also attended a mural festival in Harlan, Kentucky, where I worked on a wall for the first time since before Owen died. I cannot describe the joy I felt when my body and mind effortlessly remembered how to do this, and remembered doing it with Owen.

So I want to thank the Kentucky Foundation for Women from the bottom of my aching, singing heart for this healing, growing, opportunity.

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

Settling In

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.

smallbigmapofky

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.

 

 

Upward Bound at EKU

Reminder on stairs in art building, EKU campus, Richmond KY

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.

What You Don’t Know Is…signs by Upward Bound EKU students, summer 2017

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!

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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.

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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!

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O’s Cover Art

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.

flyingwolf

Owen’s Omega RedWolf Flying, 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:

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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.

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Book cover, with Owen’s Omega RedWolf Flying.