“My Liberation is Tied to Other People’s”: Non-Profit “Path with Art” Uses Creative Expression to Elevate the Vulnerable

by Alex Gallo-Brown

On a recent Monday in October shortly after she won the 2017 Washington State Book Award, Tara Hardy was back on the job—not writing her own poems but teaching creative writing to adults recovering from homelessness, trauma, and addiction. Hardy has been a teacher through Path with Art, a Pioneer Square-based non-profit, for years, bringing her gifts to a community that rewards her with one of the most powerful gifts there is: the feeling of belonging.

“I do Path with Art because it’s where I feel most at home,” Hardy explained. “The students here have been through many of the same experiences I have: trauma, addiction, illness, poverty, homelessness. The art they make is extraordinary, and the joy we exchange sustains me.”

Such joy was palpable during a recent rehearsal for Path with Art’s Fall Voice Performance Arts Showcase, which takes place at the Seattle Art Museum on Wednesday, November 1st. Path with Art produces presents students’ work quarterly, rotating between the performance and visual arts and occupying spaces provided by organizations such as the Frye Art Museum, the Richard Hugo House, and Path with Art’s own exhibition space in Pioneer Square. The upcoming showcase will be the second consecutive performance at SAM.

Hardy is only one of a venerable roster of teachers employed by Path with Art to teach students who have been referred by social service agencies, including Plymouth Housing, the Low-Income Housing Institute, the Pike Market Senior Center, and the Recovery Café. While much of the current discourse around homelessness involves housing, Path with Art addresses more intangible but no less pressing needs of creativity, community, meaning, and acceptance.

“When you’re engaged with an art form, you don’t think about what’s wrong with your life,” long-time student Carol Ann Hiller said. “After I got out of the psych ward, all I did was go into my room and lock the door. I used to say, ‘I’m surviving.’ And my friend would tell me, ‘There’s more to life than surviving.’ [I found] writing poetry for eight weeks was better than twenty years of psychiatry.”

Classes at Path with Art include drawing, painting, printmaking, choir, collage, creative non-fiction, and performance poetry, among other genres, and typically are held once a week for eight weeks. The classes are free to students, and teachers are paid. While students attend for many of the same reasons that typically compel artists to create, the emphasis on making art for and within community stands out, making the showcases and exhibitions important.

“I used to have a lot of shame about my past,” Pam Winter, another Path with Art student, said. “I had the message, ‘don’t talk.’ Hide. You’re worthless. And then I started the writing classes, and people were like, ‘It’s okay to talk.’ [Path with Art classes have] given me so many opportunities to take my life out of hiding.”

“Often, our students report feeling invisible, shamed, and disrespected by society,” Holly Jacobson, Path with Art’s executive director, said. “[In Path with Art classes] students learn to trust themselves and others, develop skills for self-expression, and regain their sense of dignity.”

For staff, students, and teachers, the goal is the same: to build meaningful human community through shared appreciation for the arts. “The vehicle is singing,” said Rebekka Goldsmith, who directs Path with Art’s choir, “but the essence is community. [We do this] to be able to hear and see each other so that we can have fuller, more authentic, more meaningful lives. My liberation is tied to other people’s.

Free tickets to the upcoming showcase can be reserved here.

Alex Gallo-Brown is a poet and prose writer living in South Seattle. 

Featured image courtesy of Path With Art