Bright colors mix with wrenching words at the “How You See Me: Art and Poetry by HomeFront Artists” exhibit now on view at the Bernstein Gallery at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School through Friday, June 25. Combining individual artistic pieces with group poetry delivered visually as painting or collage, the exhibit reaches deep into the pain of the homeless women involved in HomeFront’s ArtSpace program and finds hope for the future.
According to Kate Somers, curator of the Bernstein Gallery, the show is right on target for the gallery. “The mission of the Bernstein Gallery is to use the arts as a vehicle to discuss important public policy issues,” she says.
The show is also a strong expression of HomeFront’s goals. “This project is core to our mission — to make sure that the wider community understands who our homeless families are and the degree of humanity and talent that some of our homeless neighbors have,” says HomeFront’s executive director Connie Mercer. “The whole exhibit blew me away and left me in tears. I did not know that our women were so impacted by the way the larger society has tried to marginalize them. I didn’t know it got to their souls as much as it did — as is clear in the art.”
One of the talented women with work in the show is Kim Lennon, who grew up in Trenton, Lawrence, and New York City and graduated from Lawrence High School in 2005. Lennon became homeless when she was pregnant with her first child in 2007 and moved into HomeFront’s Huchet House for young mothers-to-be. In 2008 she moved into another HomeFront facility, the Family Preservation Center, where she took group classes in life skills, parenting, and, says Lennon, “how to deal with going out on your own, by yourself, and reestablishing yourself in the community effectively — so you won’t be back in a shelter.” In October, 2009, Lennon was ready to move back into her parents’ home, although she still attends a part-time support program.
Lennon’s painting, “How You See Me,” which focuses on a woman’s head, with eyes closed, and includes a hand above holding rosary beads, adorns the exhibit poster. Speaking about her artistic intentions, she says, “It is supposed to exhibit all of the struggling people in the world who may not have the privileged life of others. They may be strong, but they are vulnerable,” she says. “There are a lot of single mothers doing everything on their own, starting from scratch — they don’t have anyone to turn to.” As for the rosary beads, Lennon says, they represent a spiritual side, where women who are broken down, poor, and homeless, may turn for help when they are vulnerable and be inspired to “break up some of their beliefs and change for the better.”
For Lennon, her paintings are about making others think, especially the other homeless and struggling people they might inspire. “It’s not so much about painting so I can be seen but so people can share my vision and get something out of it,” she says. “A lot of people will see them and know they are not alone. They can look at a painting and reflect on their lifestyle and what they can do to change for the better.”
Lennon has bloomed as an artist through her active involvement in Ruthann Traylor’s ArtSpace program at HomeFront, which provides a studio and art supplies for about 60 people a week. When Lennon first came to ArtSpace, she remembers Traylor telling her, “You don’t have to know how to paint. Just start painting.” She did, with great success.
Traylor moved to Hightstown in 2003 and started the ArtSpace program at HomeFront in 2005. For a little more than two years, she was supported through Americorps/ Vista and then became a full-time employee. Her goal with ArtSpace was to create a colorful and safe environment where people feel comfortable and at home; Traylor sees her role as a facilitator and motivator. “Once I tell the artists that there are no artistic rules, that it’s their room and we’re here to create, you can see their body language become more comfortable,” she says.
The ArtSpace program is just one of several HomeFront programs. The nonprofit provides both emergency shelter and transitional and permanent housing; it also makes available “wraparound” services including food, education, support services, and physical items to help the poor and homeless in Mercer County. Specific programs include a food pantry, a hot-meal program, a store with professional clothing, provision of goods like furniture and cars, and a community center in Lawrence. For children, it provides counseling, tutoring, a preschool program, summer camp, birthday presents and cake, new clothes and school supplies in September, and an independent living skills program for teens.
The Bernstein show was born out of Traylor’s reaction to published research by Amy Cuddy of Harvard University, Susan Fiske of Princeton University, and Peter Glick of Lawrence University (Applton, WI), on how people tend to stereotype economically disadvantaged groups. The research reveals that, generally, groups are judged on two dimensions, warmth and competence, with groups generally judged as being either warm and incompetent or cold and competent; but people who are homeless, poor, or on welfare fall in the incompetent and cold category.
Traylor recalls a conversation with Fiske that taught her just how much poor people are marginalized. Fiske told Traylor that the neurons in people’s brains do not react when they see people who are economically disadvantaged. When Traylor then asked, “Does that mean that people ignore the homeless?” Fiske replied, “No, when people ignore others, their neurons move.”
Moved by this research, Traylor summarized it for her ArtSpace students and then invited them respond to it artistically over a two-year process. They described how they think that others see them, how they feel about that, how they see themselves, and how they can change these images.
Walking through the exhibit, Traylor describes both the work and the artists. Some of the most powerful pieces, she says, were group projects involving words more than purely visual images. In one, Traylor had asked a group of women to react to Fiske’s research with a phrase or a sentence. The result was a canvas titled “How You See Me,” with the following text in rainbow-colored capital letters: “Red, brown, black, white, we’re all seen under the same light. I cannot be judged. Our souls are one. Trust no one, watch all. I respect. Momma always told us, ‘Treat people the way you want to be treated.’ Never let the man bring you down. Find a way to channel the pain. Spread good. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Walk away from the pain. Seek joy! Keep your eye on the prize. Don’t let others in pain stop you from gain. Seek more. Be more.”
Another group created a picture of a live tree standing amidst fallen, dead leaves. The trunk features a poem about a little girl, written by one member, that all could identify with. The others contributed single words for the living leaves, like “nurture,” “faith,” and “support,” and for the fallen leaves, like “pain” and “neglect.”
ArtSpace tries to cover a portion of its costs. Although the artists do get most of the money from selling their exhibited pictures, ArtSpace retains a percentage to help cover costs of framing. ArtSpace also sells custom greeting cards based on paintings by its clients, and often Traylor will introduce her clients to the process of using a scanner and printer to transform a painting into a card.
When Traylor noticed that Emily Lewis, who was in a WorkFirst program at the Family Preservation Center, was very talented artistically, HomeFront helped her apply for a Bonner fellowship (a program of the Rhodes Scholarships, which offer service scholarships to students who have financial need and an exceptional commitment to serving in the community), which paid her to help out at ArtSpace. One of Lewis’s accomplishments was creating a public art program for ArtSpace, which sells artwork to corporations and doctors’ offices; she also painted some of the pictures. Lewis’s work has not only helped ArtSpace but also gave Lewis the opportunity to put together the portfolio she used to apply to four art schools. She was accepted at Parsons with a $40,000 scholarship.
Traylor grew up in Detroit, where, as a high school student, she delivered food to poor people. She attended Calvin College, finally getting a degree in art therapy from New Jersey City University in 2001, as an adult. She grew up in a well-to-do family, she says, and always wondered why some people had nothing. She adds that growing up in Detroit, which is so segregated by race and class, affected her life choices. Her father owned a real estate company, headquartered in Dearborn, with offices throughout Michigan.
Traylor’s first experience creating an art program was in 1993, for Catholic Community Services at St. Lucy’s Shelter, just outside the Holland Tunel in Jersey City. “I saw that there was a magic in it,” she says. “People would say, ‘I can’t draw,’ but the artwork I kept seeing was very good.” The art and the poetry through which people expressed themselves, she adds, gave them a voice, empowered them, and built self-esteem. Traylor stayed at Catholic Community Services for 13 years, doing art therapy with clients at many sites in several north Jersey counties.
In the 1990s she started to hold art shows in various venues to display the work of her clients. She remembers the first, two-hour show at National West Bank, now Bank of America, also in Jersey City, where all the pictures sold. For three years she used St. Lucy’s Church, located right outside the Holland Tunnel for shows. The church had been empty for some time and required Traylor and her clients to spend a year cleaning it up and throwing out trash. Miraculously, on the day of the first show, Traylor found a way to get the lights turned on.
Sometimes a client will ask Traylor, “What does painting a picture have to do with getting a job?” In her 25 years of experience, she has seen that her clients’ artistic work has been quite relevant to the real world. “They’re going to focus, finish what they start, and problem solve,” she says. “Once they can do that, they are often amazed at what they have done, and that breaks through a source of anxiety, and they can move on — they can focus some of that energy on their resume.”
Art Exhibit, Princeton University, Bernstein Gallery, Robertson Hall. Saturday, April 10, 10 a.m. On view to Friday, June 25. “How You See Me,” an exhibit of more than 50 works of art and poetry created by HomeFront clients focuses on how others see them and how they see themselves. 609-258-2222 or www.princeton.edu.