PAINTINGS AND DRAWINGS cover the walls at Imagine Art. The pieces created by more than 80 artists, most with various physical and mental disabilities, range from what proud parents would post on refrigerators to fine works worth gallery display. Monthly shows help the artists sell their creations.
One of the regulars, Larin, is a Hispanic man in his 30s who wore a baseball cap with the bill tilted off his forehead. Larin is blind, deaf, and autistic, but he makes ceramic cars that resemble the old Ford Model Ts. He sat at a table wedging the clay to thump out the bubbles. His instructor, Owen Moon, talks to Larin by tracing letters on his hand, the way Anne Sullivan taught Helen Keller.
In another room a volunteer showed Tasha, who has Down syndrome, how to use a sewing machine. AmeriCorps worker Kat Cunningham said Tasha, who is in her 30s and had never learned to use a ruler, was forming her own micro business. Tasha’s most popular product is a felted bag called the Everything Pocket.
Founder and CEO Debbie Kizer, 52, a former drug addict and now a Christian, envisions Imagine Art as an “integrated community” for both the disabled and nondisabled. She won’t say “students”: Everyone is an “artist.”
People who were historically perceived as unemployable, non-viable citizens, are today creating visual evidence of the depth and wealth of the creative human spirit.
THE ATMOSPHERE IN Art From the Streets is calm and relaxed—radically different from life in the streets. One regular, Dennis Milecki, has painted there for three months. Asked how long he’s been an artist, Milecki responded: “Several lifetimes maybe, who knows?” He only draws faces, mostly mugshot-style, since he wants to show people at their lowest point: “They’ve been arrested and don’t know if they’ll ever see the outside of a cell again. Yet, there’s hope in each face. Fortitude. Perseverance.”
Jack Hurd, a 65-year-old veteran who paints vivid watercolors, said he was destitute and addicted five years ago. After doing drugs in Cambodia, Hurd used cocaine and heroin, ruined his family, and moved from city to city as a “bum. … I was the person other people step over to cross the street.” A Veterans Affairs program helped him, and he had a VA administrative job from 1999 to 2009. Hurd remarried, but “I was prideful so I drifted out of the marriage.” Back on crack, he went through a rehab program and started painting, which helps him “stay clean and love other people.”
Kerensa, 40, lives in a tent under a bridge and mourns the loss of her parental rights to a son who’s now 3. She was drawing a self-portrait that displays a bleeding mouth, face and neck sutures, and other wounds. Jerry Hurta, 64, told stories of selling a painting to Lyndon Johnson and smoking marijuana with John Denver. He met his wife at a Bible study run by Church Under the Bridge.
Art From the Streets calls its homeless regulars “artists” and hosts public art shows by which gifted amateurs become professionals: One artist made $1,400 last year.