Breaking Down Barriers Through Art

By Mindy Grossberg, Director, ArtStreet (a program of Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless), Littleglobe Affiliate Artist

With the ArtStreet staff, I direct a community art studio that serves those who are homeless as well as anyone in the community who wants to make art. The studio is more than a physical space; it is also a community created by an approach to collaborative art making. With its design, simple rules, physical layout, variety of materials and opportunities and its capacity to hold the creative dreams of diverse individuals, the studio is a practice of art breaking down barriers and building community.

What makes ArtStreet different than other art spaces is that we are set up to meet the needs of a wide range of individuals, including those who are not able to rent or own homes and who are living in shelters and on the streets. And, because the studio is open to all, individuals who would not usually mix find themselves together through the creation of art.

When you enter the studio, you will fairly quickly discover that people there are more similar than different—the common denominator is not one’s housing status but the desire and capacity to create. Inside, everyone is an artist who is free to roam, collect and create. Whether it be the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of art materials and techniques, to get to know each other, to make connections (that usually lead to a better understanding of the lives of those living without homes), or to learn more about available community resources, the studio offers something for everyone.

The studio utilizes the model of "Art as Therapy." We strive to create a safe space where artists, many who are dealing with a great deal of trauma, can find their own unique and healing relationships with the art-making process. At the same time, we provide workshops with visiting professional artists for those who want various levels of instruction and expertise. The studio also enables mentors who emerge from their own process of making art to assist others.

From the moment you walk into the space, you are bombarded by visual and auditory sensations, from the numerous paintings that adorn the walls to the various five-foot sculptures—yellow-polka-dotted, wheel-handed elephants or a goggle-headed creature made from old bicycle inner tubes—that hang on the cat walk and hover over the 2,680-square-foot space. The ceiling is 20 feet high, with visible blue ducts and a garage door. You hear a cacophony of sounds: FM radio, laughter, guitar or piano, hammering, tearing, water running and lots of conversation. If it is your first time, you will take a tour through the studio, led by paid community mentors who assist the staff by helping new artists find their way around. The mentor will say something like: "Welcome to our studio. Would you like to make art with us today?"

The studio is currently funded to be open two days a week. There is no paperwork except a very basic form for “new artists.” Because accessibility and safety are major priorities, we have only two rules: make art while you are here and be sober while you are in the studio. For some, this is a simple request. For others, caught in the web of addiction—which is usually entangled with untreated mental illness and the realities of life on or even off the streets—this is no small feat. Often, the open studio hours are the only times in which someone maintains sobriety.

Right away you will see our "in-house" library of books, most donated, about various artists, as well as art- and writing-instructional manuals. There is also large collection of outdated encyclopedias and bound versions of Art in America. Next you’ll come to the ceramics area, where you will usually find five to eight committed artists or "regulars" working on the two pottery wheels or hand-building with clay on the tables and counters near the bottles of glaze and the kiln. If you would like clay-making instruction, you can usually ask any of the regulars. Erica, for example, has been working on the wheel for over a year and has recently begun to share her skills with others.

As you move to a nearby small table, you’ll see a framed photo of one of our artists, adorned with dried flowers, pottery, pictures and notes—a memorial site dedicated to him. The artist recently passed away. The ArtStreet Advisory Council, a group of studio artists that meets monthly to make decisions regarding mentoring, workshops, new programming, etc., held a special memorial gathering at the studio and decided to create a space to honor him.

In the center of the space, there are four long tables placed end-to-end. Here, artists work on paintings, collage, found-object sculptures, sewing, crocheting, drawing, beading, etc. Nearby are shelves of magazines, cardboard, mat and foam boards, brushes, paints, glue guns, glitter, pastels, pencils, reams of various sizes and colors of paper, and more. We have only a small art-supply budget, and most of the materials have been donated by the Albuquerque community.

We ask our artists to respect and care for the materials, clean their various tools and help to clean up at the end of the day. By doing this, we encourage a sense of shared responsibility; the studio is cared for not just by the staff but by all the artists who utilize the space.

It can get very busy in the studio, and sometimes there’s tension. For example, on a recent crowded Thursday “Sylvia” got especially agitated. I asked her friend, also working in the studio, to move to another part of the space to do his hammering. Unfortunately, Sylvia took this as an insult. She began to yell at me. Other artists started to yell back at Sylvia. As this started to escalate, I worked hard to understand Sylvia’s anger as something other than a personal attack. I reminded myself that her reaction reflected her own unique reality, and I asked another staff member, with whom she responds differently, to help her move back to her art making. I knew that simply "reacting" to her or calling in staff to escort her out would be counter to what we are trying to do at the studio—namely, making this space accessible to as many people as possible. Allowing others to move in to do “the dance" with her might allow her to feel heard and safe. This was, in fact, the result.

This kind of “space-making” is essential for honoring both our philosophy as well as the safety of this community space. We understand it as a crucial form of "harm reduction”; we do not try to "do" anything to anyone but hopefully walk with them on their personal journey. Responding to an individual means listening not just to their words, but to their movements and their mood. It is as close to the concept of empathy as I can conceive. And, actually, when we witness someone in a particular emotional or physical state, the same neurological sparks that are firing in them are also firing in us. We simply need to tune into this phenomenon, observe it and react calmly and compassionately. Thus, we can better understand others and respond to their needs in a manner that can be creative, authentic and safe, for all of us.

In the daily de-briefing after this incident, my staff was a bit shaken. As they stated their concern about the other artists’ uncomfortable reaction to the situation, they were also reacting from their own history and experience—much like Sylvia. We discussed the importance of checking in with ourselves when we are responding to those around us so we know where we are coming from before we move to communicate with or direct others. The safety of the studio and our staff is of the utmost importance to me as a supervisor, as is the concept of holding a space for diverse individuals to tap into their creative selves.

The following day Sylvia returned and, although just as animated as the day before, she was playful. She shared her artwork and gave a gorgeous piece of cloth, a gift, to a staff member. I see this as a token of her appreciation for being allowed to be herself in our space. Also very important, being allowed to enter the studio the next day demonstrated to the rest of the community artists how we, as a community, can help "hold" the space for everyone.

As you continue your tour, you might see “Frank” hovering over “Nancy,” demonstrating the proper way of using an Exacto knife to make a clean cut for her papel picado. Frank stays at a men's shelter, is working on getting his SSI (supplemental income for disabled adults) and trying to go back to school in welding. “Nancy” called a few months ago wanting to volunteer. Her husband is working out-of-state, her son is off at college, and she wanted to do something “for the homeless.” I explained to her that we simply ask “volunteers” to come to the studio, make art and join in the community any way they feel comfortable. When Nancy first arrived, she wanted to have specific tasks. We had to keep encouraging her to find a space at the table to make art. At first, she worked by herself, covering up her drawings, poking fun at her images and often tossing them when she left. After a few weeks, she joined the writers’ group and shared some personal writings with the other artists. After that, she seemed to open up and could be seen engaging more with artists and asking for their assistance with her art making. In this way, we encouraged “Nancy” to understand the mutual cooperation that constitutes “helping” at ArtStreet.

“Nancy’s” story reveals something important. On any given studio day, you can walk in and have a very hard time distinguishing those with a home from those who are living on the streets. One of the professional artists who came to do a series of workshops told us this was the most surprising aspect of her visit—she went home with many of her own pre-conceived notions shattered. In addition, the staff joins the community as fellow artists. In this, we are pushing ourselves and others to move beyond our collective concepts of self and “other,” beyond the boundaries we have all created in order to define our various roles in society. Moving beyond these concepts also means looking at the judgments and prejudice around those aspects that often divide us. Here, the wall between housed and homeless, between professional artist and creative being, between clients and helpers, is dismantled.

Next, on your tour, you might find yourself in the kitchen area where an artist-mentor, “Sara,” is preparing donated food while “Maria” sets out the enchiladas she has been bragging about. Many community members—regardless of housing status—bring food for spontaneous potlucks, a way to give back to the community. Unfortunately, ArtStreet does not have the resources to provide food for everyone who walks in, so we reserve meals for those who will join us to make art. Asking people to leave if they are not interested in art making is incredibly tough, so we do our best to encourage all to stay with us to make art.

“Dolores” usually sits at the central table. For a few weeks when she first joined us, she had to be reminded to get her art out before getting her food. When she didn’t, others began to complain. When this happened, I sat down beside her, brought her some paper and pencils, and asked her about her day. I asked her what she might create. We started simply and slowly. After a few days, she started to go first for her art materials after she arrived. Then, it would be a half-hour before she even approached the food. Recently, she began volunteering to do dishes. Now, she is submitting her art for our selling tables and she recently she taught a class in candle making.

Back at the entrance, you’ll find an information board. This guides folks to resources in the larger service agency next door (it offers medical, dental and behavior health services) as well as free meal locations, housing services, utilities or rental assistance, and more. The ArtStreet studio is considered a "low threshold entry" to ending homelessness because we do not ask much of individuals to enter and artists have access (here at the information board and via our staff) to important resources. Instead of having to wait in long lines at various locations in order to get information or speak to someone, we are a program that has staff and information that is easily accessible. In this way, art making serves as a doorway to other essential services.

The entrance is your way in and out of our space; we welcome you to make art with us. We hope this “tour” of Artstreet reveals what we know well: individuals who are homeless are rarely "seen" in this society and, if they are, they are usually seen negatively. We believe that ArtStreet offers the individual an opportunity to tap into their potential and re-recognize themselves as well as be recognized by compassionate others. In this way, we work together to dismantle invisibility. At the same time, the studio offers the opportunity for all participants to re-define art: who practices it, the process and the product. Art is an experience that all should have the capacity to connect to, regardless of our training or socioeconomic status. By holding a creative space that is open to the public and especially sensitive to the needs of a diverse community, ArtStreet hopes to expand pre-conceived notions of “Art” and “Artist,” allowing us all the opportunity to better see our connections as loving human beings. In this way and so many others, ArtStreet breaks barriers and creates community.