Portrait of Hope The mural: At My Sister's Place, homeless women are painting themselves out of a corner.

October 23, 1995|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

From her tall perch on a scaffold, Adrianne Ferguson gives a man walking below a piece of her mind about the Million Man March in Washington. Marching is one thing, she says, but cooperation is another.

"You-all ought to get together and make your own mural," she tells him.

Ms. Ferguson, sporting a denim cap over a Duron paint cap, coats the stucco wall in front of her with a delicious mulberry hue. She and a small platoon of other homeless women are transforming the westward facade of the Gore Brothers Building on 127 W. Mulberry St. into a huge, dream-like mural called "The Magic Theatre."

For Ms. Ferguson, who hopes to return one day to this spot triumphant over her addictions, the mural project has been a way to apply her artistic talents, stay busy and work as a team with other women from My Sister's Place, the day shelter next door.

"This might bring men together," Ms. Ferguson tells the man on the street, "handing each other paint brushes, handing each other tools."

The mural, which combines huddled homeless figures with angels and pastoral scenes to create a visual allegory, is an "empowerment piece," says Patti Prugh, an art therapist who has worked with women at My Sister's Place for five years.

Ms. Prugh and Mary Carfagno Ferguson, the Baltimore artist (and no relation to Adrianne) who designed the mural, conceived "The Women's Mural Project" as a way of engendering pride and self-esteem among the homeless women who visit My Sister's Place, many of whom are emotionally and physically maimed by lives on the street.

As each woman paints within the cartoon outlines of the mural, it emerges from the bottom up in evocative blues, greens and reds. The project is a way to show "that these women have something to give back to the community, Ms. Prugh says.

She and Mary Carfagno Ferguson began working with a core group of eight artists last spring at My Sister's Place. As the women discussed what they felt the mural should represent, an overarching sense of spirituality surfaced, Ms. Prugh says. "No matter how impoverished their world may have been, somehow a spiritual force came through," she says.

The women's faith gave form to the mural, which is inhabited by benevolent angels and a sense of provision, as if all those within its boundaries are protected by the Magic Theatre's utopian imagery.

The 15-by-50-foot mural is also inspired by the women's original artwork. Two inset panels, one of a bucolic tree and waterfall, the other of a man sitting on a park bench, are replicas of earlier artwork created at My Sister's Place.

The 20 women who make up the mural crew had to apply for their positions and receive recommendations from their case workers. Each earns $5 an hour.

As project director, Ms. Prugh "gives direction without appearing to give directions." An ebullient woman in her 40s, with long, red hair, she is ready to mediate should a dilemma or disagreement arise among participants. And when a crew member gets cold, Ms. Prugh lends her a jacket, with the gentle reminder to bring her own coat the next day.

Last Thursday morning, before crew members got started, Ms. Prugh gave them a pep talk on the importance of staying clean and sober for the duration of the project. Things had gotten off to a rough start the day before when one artist had a seizure, and a tussle broke out with a non-crew member.

Among those listening was Nicole Scott, 22, the woman who had suffered the seizure. She is not about to let the episode interfere with her participation in the project.

Her excitement about the project probably triggered the seizure, Ms. Scott says. "If I'd a calmed down, I would have been all right."

As a girl, Ms. Scott liked to draw cards and cartoons and write poetry. For her, the mural is one more good thing in a life that is getting better.

"I am starting to get myself together," she says.

Ms. Prugh has been a big help, Ms. Scott says. "She's like a person my age. She's somebody I can talk to I [paint] next to her so I don't hurt myself."

Karen Ranlion, 36, is also grateful to be on the mural crew.

"It's uplifting," she says. "I'm a part of something productive again. In the years to come, I can bring my children and show them what's possible when you are living correctly."

Originally, the mural was supposed to go up at Cathedral and Centre streets, but it did not fit historic district specifications. That's just as well, Ms. Prugh says. The mural should be close to My Sister's Place.

"This mural is theirs," she says.

Subject to weather conditions, the mural is expected to be completed by the end of this week. And then, it will bear the names of the women who created it as well as a long list of benefactors, which includes the Maryland State Arts Council, the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture, Baltimore Mental Health Systems, the Kriley Foundation, Walters Art Gallery, Associated Catholic Charities, Metro Properties, Matacho Construction, My Sister's Place and Ms. Ferguson's first cousin, "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno.

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