'Silent Messages' from the homeless

September 16, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Patti Prugh is not fazed by the angry, sorrowful, self-absorbed visitors who sit on a bland Thursday morning at My Sister's Place, a day shelter for women on Mulberry Street.

"Do you want to do any drawing today?" the art therapist cheerfully asks guests as they wander in. Some are regulars; others are new to the shelter; two have young children in tow.

Soon, several women are working with pastels and crayons. A woman in a bright yellow shirt named Carolyn, who does not give her last name, draws a soft grassy field, with the word "Life" in bold, three-dimensional red letters, rising above in the sky.

"I want to be able to live again -- I survived," she explains to Ms. Prugh, who nods. Living and surviving are two different experiences, she agrees. And then she gives Carolyn's work of art a title, inspired by the artist's explanation: "Surviving Is Different Than Living."

Both women are pleased with the work. "I see positive determination when I look at this picture," Ms. Prugh says to the artist. "What's you secret?"

"Inner strength," Carolyn responds.

Ms. Prugh will add it to her collection for safekeeping.

"I try not to analyze them but look at [the artwork's] emotion and direct it back to the artist and say, 'I see this in you,' but not to do any more than that," Ms. Prugh says. She has a contract with Baltimore Mental Health Systems to work with the women at My Sister's Place.

Ms. Prugh's ability to inspire those who often appear to have no hope left comes dramatically through in "Silent Messages," an art exhibit that continues through the end of the month at the Episcopal Diocesan Center. It features the artwork of 50 homeless women and men Ms. Prugh has worked with in Washington and Baltimore over the past eight years.

The exhibit, composed of the strongest work Ms. Prugh has culled from thousands of pieces, and its accompanying narrative are a primer for those who may not understand the causes and consequences of homelessness. Disturbingly, the landscapes and portraits also pull the viewer into a vortex of insanity and helplessness.

The show makes a strong argument as well for art therapy as a tool for reaching the homeless.

"There are people who work on shelter and who work on food," explains Ms. Prugh, who is also an instructor in the art therapy program at George Washington University. But there is also a need for "engaging people, in which art therapy has a role," she says. "We need creative techniques to reach a lot of mentally ill homeless who continuously seem to move into the system."

Though most of the artists suffer from drug addiction or mental illness, their artwork forms a remarkably lucid depiction of despair, madness and dreams of release.

There is an ink drawing of a city drawn by a non-medicated schizophrenic that zigs and zags at vertiginous angles. It is called "Big City Perception."

There is a self-portrait by a 19-year-old homeless woman with a drug addiction. It is incomplete: all disjointed lines and no features. "Her identity is gone," Ms. Prugh explains. "She had to stop because she wanted to make this statement."

In one self-portrait, called "A Polynesian Beauty," the subject exposes tiny, pebble-like brains and her face is merely a collection of geometric symbols. In yet another self-portrait, a woman has given herself horrific, vampire-like fangs.

But there is also the lovely watercolor in soothing blues and greens by a Baltimore woman who has come to grips with her mental illness. It is called "Tranquillity: the Daydream Quality of Life . . . for Peace of Mind . . ."

Madness and uncanny talent are connected in numerous works, including the self-portrait of a kindly, older woman that dissolves at its center into a swirling purple whirlpool that is nominally a nose. "That's part of the illness," Ms. Prugh says. "Because [she's] viewing reality from a different standpoint. Her art reflects that, where a trained artist probably wouldn't use [purple] if it were just an academic portrait."


When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays to Fridays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through September.

Where: The Episcopal Diocesan Center, 4 E. University Parkway.

Call: (410) 467-1399.

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