Art for heart's sake The revealing imaginations of homeless children

April 19, 1991|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Evening Sun Staff

IN THE PAINTING, a white cat, outlined in black and apparently healthy, stares up in expectation -- of a dish of milk, perhaps. She is backed by a stand of lush, sturdy-trunked trees. The painting is called "Dead Cat."

"That's what it was. All my cats died," explains Lynette Ferguson, 15, a resident for 19 months of Rutland Apartments, a transitional housing program for homeless families. Ferguson created "Dead Cat" as a participant in a creative workshop series for homeless children organized by the Baltimore Arts United House (BAUhouse) and poet Susan Yaruta, administrator of Partners in the Arts, an artistic exchange program.

Ferguson's work and that of her companions from shelters around the city will be auctioned tomorrow at "Giving Shelter," a BAUhouse gala exhibition to benefit homeless families and children in Baltimore, as well as the arts group itself, which is celebrating its first anniversary.

Ferguson first created the cat, and then painted the trees, because,"I wanted the cat to stand out, because of death." The trees are full of color because, "Even though something's dead, the tree symbolizes everybody else. The trees are still living. You can't keep yourself down. [You have to] keep on living," Ferguson says.

And though the cat stands for all of her felines, it is foremost a memorial for Ferguson's cat Tabitha, "My most favorite cat in the whole wide world. My aunt let it out and wouldn't let it in . . . She told us she had moved away. That was just so wrong."

At first, Ferguson wanted to keep her painting. But then she let it go to auction. "It's just all bad memories to me," Ferguson says.

Yaruta and a team of visual artists returned several times to participating shelters. Each workshop featured a new theme from which the the art and poetry flowed. "Memory" paintings inspired poetry, which the children dictated to workshop leaders. As she painted in bold, dazzling colors, a 10-year-old girl named Keysha wrote this poem:

A sun eye

A rainbow mouth

And hands like spaghetti.

I dance

in the clouds

spreading joy.

I am the poet

who started it all.

Yaruta and the artists deliberately did not talk of homelessness, or ask the children to. "Listening to their conversations, you wouldn't know" the workshop participants had no place to call home, she says. The emergency shelter proved the exception. There, kids spoke of recent losses and urgent problems, Yaruta says.

But the children's concerns for comfort and stability emerged metaphorically, in response to the themes that shaped their work. The theme, "My dream house," prompted one 3 1/2 -year-old child to long in her poem for "a bed with pink sheets and three pillows." No Nintendo, no teddy bear, Yaruta notes. The children have simple dreams.

Though they did not speak directly of their plight, many of the children appeared bruised from their experiences, Yaruta says. Some were depressed, some were afraid of touch. One 3-year-old would remain aloof; another would jump into her lap. Starved for affection, some children lovingly stroked the artists' hair. "We had to win their trust," Yaruta says. "Sometimes it comes right away.

Emotional struggles emerged within the children's work. One poem spoke of dragons, anger, violence, and concluded, "I wish I was happy," Yaruta says.

Yaruta was reluctant to take away the children's art for the auction, thinking, "These children have already had everything taken away from them, and now they will have the art taken away from them for an auction."

She brainstormed. "I decided OK, I will go in and lay it out: 'Do at least two drawings. One is for you and one I want to take. You decide which one.'"

When they completed their work, almost all of the children told Yaruta, "Here, they're for you. You take them."

With the benefit, BAUhouse celebrates a successful year of presenting 152 performances, more than 550 performing artists and six exhibitions featuring 200 visual artists. Tomorrow's event features music by the Jane Lamar Trio, jazz vocalist Ruby Glover, and the group Beyond Words. Musician Slim Harrison will perform and auction the children's art. A buffet will be served. The event takes place from 8 p.m. until 1 a.m. at BAUhouse, 1713 N. Charles St.

Proceeds from the auction of 65 children's work and poems set in calligraphy benefit the Coalition for Homeless Children and Families. Admission proceeds will benefit BAUhouse: $35 for artists; $50 for patrons. Call 659-5520.

The Giving Shelter exhibition, which also includes work by regional artists on the subjects of shelter and homelessness, runs through May 17.

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