Art From the Streets
Words By Camille Smith Portraits by Eric Morales Artwork Photos by Kenny Trice
Three days a week a group gathers at St. David’s Trinity Center to indulge in the creative process. Volunteers busy themselves with providing supplies, washing brushes, and gathering provisions, while the artists are given free reign of the materials and the opportunity to let the creative process consume them. Some are serial attendees (regulars) who tend to their works in progress; others are new to the group, easing in to their surroundings or hashing out ideas, and some just come for the snacks.
The art produced at these weekly meetings is as varied as the artists themselves, ranging from caricatures, to portraits, to landscapes, but the artists share a single commonality: they are all either homeless or have only recently acquired housing.
For 20 years, Art From the Streets (AFTS) has offered people in transitional living an opportunity to share a creative space. What began as a simple desire to do something “more” for Austin’s growing homeless population has blossomed into a highly respectable and organized artist cooperative. AFTS now holds yearly exhibits at the Austin Convention Center and features over 50 artists. Their weekly gatherings provide a temporary haven from the world at large: a respite from the often stifling heat of Austin’s streets in summer and a chance, however brief, to be something other than what their current station attempts to define them as. The word holds many connotations, but the art speaks for itself. “Homeless” artists cannot be reduced to a single label; like the art they create, their stories are varied and vibrant.
Bright, an army vet with a shy smile and an easygoing demeanor, came to Austin from Libya, via New Jersey in 2011. He received a catholic education and was renowned amongst the sisters for his artistic ability. “Whatever sister Margaret wanted, I did.” He has dabbled in watercolor and charcoal but mostly enjoys using acrylics. As the AFTS web presence has grown, so too has Bright’s audience, and he has been able to reinvest money from his sales back into supplies. When asked about what inspires his work, Bright replies, “Well, if it’s a rainy day, I try to paint something sunny and fun,” which is befitting, given his name. He says his work has been called “ethereal” and has dubbed his method “intuitive painting.” “I put a lot of thought into it & take time to explore my environment. It’s a process.”
Jeremiah was born and raised in Austin, “…at Brackenridge Hospital in 1955” to be exact. He grew up on Colgate Lane. “My dad sold the house to the first African American family in the neighborhood,” he says with pride. He has always been interested in art and attended Anderson High School, where he was president of the art club. He tells me he missed the Vietnam draft by “one number,” and when he decided to voluntarily enlist, they wouldn’t have him. Jeremiah was awarded a scholarship by mistake, and he took the opportunity to attend UT medical school in Galveston, where he was exposed to the work of leading heart specialist Michael Debakey. He eventually had to give up the scholarship but went on to participate in cancer research at Scott and White in Temple. He tried his hand in investment banking, real estate, dabbled in journalism, and did a brief stint on the carnival circuit. He regaled me with a story of barely escaping a tornado during a storm and riding from the Astrodome to Texas City on a broken bicycle. He always loved pen and ink collage, and after completing one particularly special piece, he tells me, “I was so proud of my work I took it up to Woodland and I-35 and sold it at the intersection.” Jeremiah suffered a stroke, and at one point feared he might have to abandon his art, but after securing stable housing, he was able to recover and now spends his days “creating masterpieces.” Jeremiah uses iconic imagery in his caricatures and names Daniel Johnston as one of his inspirators. He does not limit himself in his work however and moves freely between genres.
Crystal told me snippets of her story so softly I had to strain to hear them. She was born in Louisiana and spent much of her life in Houston, where she was involved in magazine production, design, and advertising. She later studied psychology at Huston-Tillotson University and attended ITT Tech. Crystal was seriously injured in an accident which limited her ability to continue working and hindered her financially. As a result, she lost her apartment, and she and her son ended up in a homeless shelter in Austin. It was at the shelter that Crystal heard about AFTS and began revisiting her old love of the arts. She even got enough money together to start her own gallery on Cameron Road called Crystal’s Artworks in Austin. While she has had her fair share of struggles, today Crystal has stable housing, a relationship with her son Terrance, of whom she is unabashedly proud, and seems to gain tremendous satisfaction from creating art and her involvement with AFTS.
“People are into the community and the positive human interaction,” says Art from the Streets executive director Kelley Worden. The money the artists make from sales is just an added bonus. Kelley has been with the organization for four years and is the only paid staff member. AFTS is operated by volunteers and funded in part by city grants and private donations. She and her team of dedicated volunteers work hard at cultivating a space of acceptance and inclusion. “Sometimes there are people that are beyond the scope of the program’s help and that’s hard on the volunteers…but [the volunteers] focus on providing a safe space to join in the community.” Kelley has witnessed first-hand how impactful the program can be. Kelley views AFTS as a stepping stone for many on the road to long-term stability and self-sufficiency. Adept at making people feel welcome, Kelley and her team of committed volunteers invite its artists to engage with the world in ways society often does not. AFTS empowers them to regain control over certain aspects of their lives by giving them the rare opportunity so many of us seek: to earn a living doing something they love.
Get involved! These artists and others can be found on the Art From the Streets website and social media pages. Visit artfromthestreets.org to find volunteer opportunities, view upcoming events, and purchase one-of-a-kind pieces of art.