Gallery Showcases Art’s Pathway to Self-Expression

words and photos by Alex Garland

The Columbia City Gallery is dropping an assist to art aficionados whose colossal passion for collecting is mismatched with a microscopic bank account.

The local artist co-op, which is associated with the arts division of South East Effective Development (SEED), is currently hosting its annual two week sale of local works produced by nearly two dozen South Seattle based artists. All watercolors, pottery, ceramics, and jewelry on display in the main gallery is priced for under $200 and will be available to purchase until April 16th.

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Serving a dual purpose, the yearly sale attempts to make art more accessible to the layperson, while exposing more residents to the gallery’s offerings.

A reception for artists with displayed work took place on Saturday, April 8th. While onlookers looked over the offerings in the main gallery, there were also equally compelling pieces showcased in the guest gallery by members of Path With Art.

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The organization provides art, music and writing classes for people dealing with the trauma of homelessness.

According to Path’s Program Director Jennifer Lobsenz, her organization, “believes art is a vital part of being a human, and that everyone should have access to it, so we provide holistic arts engagement opportunities to low income adults who are in recovery from homelessness, addiction, mental illness, domestic abuse, other forms of trauma, and give them the opportunity to make art, consume art, share art with other people.”

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The Path showcase fit with the Gallery’s 2017 theme: Shelter and housing.

During the reception, Path artist, Madeline Moon, gave a moving testimony about the program’s impact on her life.  The Emerald has chosen to present Moon’s speech in its entirety:

First and foremost, Thank You to Columbia City Gallery and SEED, and to the amazing people of Path With Art – the staff, teachers, creative mentors, board members and people who believe in the program, and thanks to all of you who’ve taken a moment out of your lives for whatever reason to be here tonight. Thank you so much for being curious and interested enough to stop by here and see what there is to see. I hope you learn something interesting and useful, and that you take that with you, and try to act on it in a positive way.

My artistic “process” is kind of organic, in that I relate well to visual and verbal images and some of the things I see and read stimulate my imagination, maybe even haunt me until I can get them out of my head and expressed/processed in a way that works for me… which usually means trying to create a visual/verbal snapshot of a human moment or an emotion that wouldn’t let go until I found a way to share it. Since I was a little kid, I’ve always liked to write, and to play with paper and glue, and I’ve always had an openness to connecting myself to the kind of feelings a photographer, or an artist, or some musical entity (band or performer) was trying to invoke with whatever it was they produced

But this show isn’t about me. It’s about what people experience when they become homeless, and how a group of homeless, or recently homeless, people in Seattle have found a way, through participating in PwA classes and activities, to express that experience in a thought provoking, hopefully awareness increasing way. Talking about “me” is easy, talking about this shared experience is hard, and I can’t say I speak for everyone, though I may be able to express some things we’ve all had in common in relation to my own personal experiences.

There are a lot of stereotypes, and a lot of stories we tell ourselves as a society to separate “homeless people” from the rest of “us.” They’re all junkies and drunks and mental patients. They’re all losers. They’re violent, they’re all scary felons, and, and well… they’re all worthless, right? That’s the kind of stuff we tell ourselves in polite society, to separate ourselves from the socially unacceptable “people who are not like us.”

Yes, there are some homeless people who have one or more of those issues to deal with, but those stereotypes don’t fit everyone who’s homeless, and most of those things that people on the streets might be trying to deal with are very difficult to get help with here. Yes, there are some people on the streets with substance use issues – though they might just as easily have developed them *after* they landed on the streets. Yes, there are a lot of people sleeping outside with health issues, mental & otherwise, that might have been fixed or improved if our medical & mental health systems weren’t so broken “because everybody needs to make a profit out of this” that waiting lists for existing programs are often years long and painfully difficult to get into, and if those programs weren’t continually having their support/funding cut out of state or federal budgets.

There are senior citizens sleeping out there who worked all their lives for not much pay, women who stayed home to raise families and aged, and whose spouse or partner passed away first without teaching them to balance the checkbook. There are men who fought in foreign wars to protect your freedoms, women with children who finally got enough courage to leave an abuser and found out there really isn’t a safety net for them. There are kids who aged out of the foster care system with no place to go on their 18th birthday, and so many people who got sick and lost their jobs and lost all their money trying to pay medical bills and creditors while the banks stole their money via fraudulent account protection plans that they refused to make good on when the funds were needed to get through that bad time their clients had been having and get some of those financial issues resolved.

One of the things I noticed when I was homeless is that you lose the respect of society at large. When you’re obviously homeless, you become invisible, almost non-existent to people who are not sharing your experience of homelessness. No one looks you in the face. People step away from you, or actively cross the street in order to avoid acknowledging your existence. No one talks to you, no one takes your words seriously, and everyone else knows better than you about what is good for you, or good enough, or even just OK. You lose your voice, agency, and perceived humanity.

After a time, I came to the conclusion that you lose the agreed on social respect that everyone else gets because people are afraid… I believe, for most of those average folks that step around and ignore the homeless people trying to sleep safely on their little corner of sidewalk, they’re afraid of finding themselves in that same situation. Maybe their budget is super tight and one little thing will knock them off their precarious, precious balance at the top of the Jenga stack.

Oh no, what if the scary homeless cooties rub off on them? Oh no! They don’t want to acknowledge what frightens them, because the idea that they could become that person out there is terrifying. No one wants to look at or see the scary monster of their own fear, because they might feel compelled to do more than toss a couple of coins into the hat as they run away down the street from that fear, and they have no idea what they’d be able to do. No idea at all. 

Then you, the homeless person, somehow finds out about Path With Art. Maybe you get into a program that partners with Path With Art, or maybe you see a flyer at Mary’s Place, or the Recovery Cafe, or a shelter, and you’re curious enough to ask for a referral. Maybe you find out about them through one of the public events, like the banner painting in Occidental Park last summer for the “We Are All Here” project. Somehow, in some way, you make the connection to Path With Art.

You decide to participate, and after a while, you realize – Path With Art teachers & staff always look you in the face and listen to what you have to say, even when you have communication challenges. They listen to you, to the best of their ability and within the time constraints of the classes, and they make it clear that they value the students input, that they value what you, the student, produce and express in your art. They make it so clear, in actions & deed that you’re still a human being, that you deserve respect. They make it clear in so many ways, including inviting all the participants who wish to attend to come to semi-annual discussions on the direction of the program and what kinds of classes and other activities the students are interested in. They let you know that your opinion (and by extension YOU) are valued and valuable.

Then you realize, at least in this one place in your life, that you’ve regained that something that we lose (in the eyes of overall society) when we become homeless. Path With Art gives program participants a voice, and helps us to be heard, and seen, and not be invisible. They give back that respect we’ve lost from society at large, and in that giving we slowly come to realize we’ve regained an even greater thing – a modicum of self-respect. I get so many things from participating in Path With Art classes and programs but the biggest (and least tangible) thing I get from Path With Art is RESPECT.

That’s what I think about Path With Art, and the experience of being homeless, and what I believe the art in this exhibit is really all about – respect for the Humanity of all people, regardless of circumstances. Thank you all for coming. Please, look around, enjoy, and think about what you see. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

 Alex GAlex Garland is a Beacon Hill based photojournalist and the founder of the Dignity Virus. He can be followed on Twitter @AGarlandPhoto

 

 

 

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