"What a wonder life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette

Aug 4, 2019

The Resident Artist

I haven't been writing very much over the past month-plus because I've been working on a series of paintings inside what will become the Visitor Center for Hope Village, the tiny-house community for the (formerly) homeless in Medford, Oregon.  As you may recall, I lived in another such community in Texas for nine months.  Community First Village  is 25 acres and expanding, which means that in addition to the 200+ chronically homeless served, a slew of Workampers such as myself could live on the property among the residents in exchange for our labors: in my case, creating cute signs and refinishing furniture for the houses.

"I went there to paint, I thought," has become my mantra since this life-transforming experience, and when I returned to Oregon I wanted to continue to help in a similar community.  You should look into such communities in your own area, for of particular need are committed volunteers interested in sharing some particular knowledge or skill.

Like Duanita, my sewing friend from our Red Hat Ladies group, who just started demonstrating and offering to teach basic through advanced sewing once a week; and also offers mending services, which has been very popular.  You know many people can't even sew on a button.

Me, I'm going to offer painting demonstrations and classes once I'm finished with what I'm doing. I've begun collecting suitable items in Goodwill to teach how to easily create 'shabby chic', distressed cottage or whatever it's called nowadays, and perhaps sell items in local shops and Saturday Markets.  I stress demonstrations, because if you do decide you'd like to try something similar, please remember that the people with whom you're interacting have just come off the street.  Which means they may be wary of strangers and simply watch from a distance until they're comfortable enough to approach and engage  I'd like to find someone to organize poetry readings and/or English composition, for many would like to write down their stories or at least compose a decent resume. Not me, for I dislike poetry except for the occasional There Once was a Man from Nantucket.

Another friend, a Master Gardener, offered advice on caring for the new community garden, planted by a local ladie's club.  Bless their hearts for the gift, but the ladies didn't think to teach the residents how to care for the plants.  They've since learned through trial and error, and I picked up in Goodwill one of those Reader's Digest Everything About books on gardening. That's the sort of help and encouragement that's needed; not being berated for not knowing better.  Many people have simply forgotten whatever through their difficult times on the streets.  Let's have some compassion.

I can imagine informal, conversational sessions in any language, just for fun. Stone Soup, organized by the volunteer yoga instructor, was a weekly get-together in the community kitchen in Austin, where everyone brought something to throw into the over-sized stock pot.  It was always popular (not to me, but I'm a picky eater).  The conversations which accompany these get-together's are rewarding, beneficial and often instructive, for residents are able to express themselves without fear of ridicule.

Duanita agrees.  I know some of these guys would be thrilled to be taken fishing one afternoon, or whenever they're biting. Teach a bit of carpentry; how to trim trees; something they could use to help get a job. Let them experience a taste of what life can be like without the burdens they are gradually shedding through counseling, and the safety of a home. One little act of kindness can do wonders for morale, you know it's true.  Ask for the Volunteer Coordinator in whichever tiny-house village is near you.

What residents need are people who are committed to showing up week after week, even if it's only to perform a dog-and-pony show.  This will help them to not only learn to engage with the general public again, but will instill confidence and trust.

Whatever problems you think you have quickly fly out of your head in the face of someone experiencing real troubles.  Nine months of practice turned my new way of thinking into a habit, thank God.

Speaking of, these villages are privately funded and often by religious organizations.  Pastor Chad, as he's known among the residents, asked if I could paint a mural representing the progression of the Village, from conception to completion.  A new, larger community center has just been finished, so they're turning the old one into a visitor center, left, and wanted something to pop.

I'm not really a muralist so much as a decorative painter: "More Donna Dewberry than Da Vinci," a favorite line; but over the years, lo and behold, this self-taught artist has developed her own style.  However, in comparison to others I'm slow as molasses, because despite poo-poos from artist-pals, I cannot draw.  No foolin', I can't even draw stick figures. And adding a sense of perspective?  Fuggedaboutit!  But in my defense, because of my lazy eye, I lack depth perception and so to me everything looks flat and slightly skewed.

That's where my last partner came in handy:  he'd point to the center if I was painting something like a clock; and let me know if things weren't straight or square.  He's the one who laid down all those lines in my first-ever mural, for the new liquor section in a supermarket in Puerto Rico, right.  Now that he's out of the picture, mine are all back to cockeyed, but colorful.

Mentor Miguel once advised, "If someone asks if you can paint something, YOU SAY YES!  Doesn't matter whether you've done it or not; you'll learn."  The motto of the true starving artist.

He was right, I learned over the years.  So when I was asked to create a mural in the Visitor Center I looked around the room.  All these walls, I thought to myself.  I haven't had walls to experiment on in over 20 years.  My boat and RV vignettes have been quite small, and I don't paint on canvases.

"How about a series of faux-windows representing the initial concept; construction; life in the village; etc?  Kinda like the Stations of the Cross, teeheehee."

I'm surprised I wasn't struck dead on the spot, but the fellows liked the idea and so I went to work.  Years ago I'd found a series of my Dad's sketches in Mom's attic. I'd always liked the idea of artists adding something of themselves in commissioned work, so I chose this sketch to represent a homeless person viewed through the office window of the gal who had the initial idea back in 2014 (I have to finish the calendar on the wall, an afterthought but helps with the timeline).

Muralists such as my hero Wyland can throw a life-size and larger whale on to the side of a 20-story building in a couple of days, but not me.  I channel my late, graphic-designer Father and painstakingly create mock-ups on my computer; reminiscent of the cut-and-paste advertisements I did while working for him earning summertime money.

I called Miguel the other day.

"How long do you paint?"

"Three to four hours a day is all I can manage nowadays," I replied.

"Oh, pffft, you should be able to get that finished in a week."

A week?  I was too embarrassed to tell him I'd been painting for five, not every day but still.  Miguel had been describing life in Puerto Rico and as per my earlier comment, my painting frustrations flew right out of my head. (This silhouette, Breaking Ground, is most people's favorite.)

I only had 3 of the 5 windows finished by the time the Mayors of Oregon took a tour last Friday, but they only had 15 minutes and likely missed my masterpieces anyway.  The Village made the front page of the Tribune and I got a great start because I had a deadline, so everyone was happy.

I'm usually in by 8am and attempt to recreate on the wall the scene I hodge-podge'd together the night before.  I'll take a couple of pictures before I leave, go home and put them up on the computer, and spend the rest of the afternoon tweaking the next day's painting.  

There must be an easier way and if I did this often enough I'm sure I'd discover it; but I've always been more of the tortoise than the hare, and do eventually finish the job.  And since I'm not charging a dime, no one can really complain.

At the moment I'm working on the main window, 34" tall x 94" wide, which is more of a landscape, with a life-sized Pastor Chad seeming to speak to the visitor from outside the window.  I'll post when completed.  These smaller ones are 34" x 30" and will be framed out with real lumber, which I'm also donating.  I figured it would be cheaper in the long run, and far less aggravating, than the time it would take me to paint faux-frames that looked square.  I can paint cheap wood to look nice.

I didn't want to appear too irreverent, so I looked up to see if there's a Patron Saint of the Homeless and sure enough, there is.  So I used my late husband Tino's self-portrait as a guide and painted a stained glass St. Benedict Joseph Labre, which happens to be Pastor Chad's favorite so far. I never claimed to be Michelangelo just like I'm no Hemingway, but I do put my heart into my (unpaid) work.

It's a good thing.

P.S.  Chad took a couple shots while I was painting and posted them a few days ago on their Facebook page; here's a peek if you're curious.




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