Art therapy brightens a city street corner Mural: Homeless women create 'My Sisters' Garden' at Cathedral and Centre.

December 01, 1997|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

At the southwest corner of Cathedral and Centre streets, as late summer turned to fall and fall turned cold, a garden budded and bloomed on a red brick facade, defying the incipient dormancy that attends the season.

Like so many cockle shells and silver bells, flocks of winking flowers, tangles of vines and here and there a make-believe bloom shaped like a star or blessed with a smile spread across the wall, which overlooks a parking lot catty-corner from the Walters Art Gallery. The lush flora has grown into one of those enchanting, old-fashioned gardens that pull you in and soothe your soul.

A storybook Victorian mansion, with turrets and windows glinting with deep blue light, rises above the garden. Overhead, stylized tears drop from the sky.

"My Sisters' Garden," depicted in a recently completed mural, was cultivated by more than 100 homeless women, women with mental illness, HIV and full-blown AIDS, with rotten luck and pasts afflicted by abuse and trauma.

It was first planted when art therapist Patti Prugh asked her clients at My Sister's Place, Baltimore's sole day shelter for women, to draw flowers that expressed the "beautiful part" of themselves.

A woman named Delores, for example, created a "flower of many blooms" with this explanation: "It is a flower that has all different types of blooms. Each bloom is a different color. It is different, it is very odd."

Another woman painted a big sunflower. "Because it is big and bright it stands out," she told Prugh. "It is a little like me, it isn't quite right but it is there."

Prepping the wall

The flowers were designed to be transplanted to the mural, in spots selected by their creators. But first, the wall had to be prepped, and the mural's design outlined onto the bumpy surface. Late this past summer, numerous women, including a core group of eight participants who remained with the project for the duration, wire-brushed, caulked and primed the wall, along with Prugh and artist Mary Carfagno Ferguson.

Every weekday morning, weather permitting, the women, who received a $4 an hour stipend, reported for work. In late November, they applied final touches and dismantled the two-tiered scaffolding from which they had painted the piece's upper reaches.

Lynn Fetterly, 33, was among the core crew. Last spring, working with Prugh, Fetterly invented a pink rose that represented her little daughter. "It is precious," she told Prugh. "When I look at a rose I think about my child. She is precious to me. She is a blessing."

Later in the year, Fetterly's daughter was taken away from her and adopted. She talks about her devastation as she turns yellow paint from a paper plate palette into a cluster of flowers.

"It really, really hurt," she says. She approached Prugh about a place on the mural crew. If I could work on it, it might stop me from dwelling on my daughter. I've got nothing but time on my hands."

At first, Fetterly could only face work for an hour or so at a time. But she progressed to full-fledged crew member. On a recent blustery morning, she joyfully shows off a photograph of her daughter that has been sent to her.

Painter Paulette Crosson, bundled in a hat and a purple sweat shirt, has enjoyed watching the mural evolve from a blank wall to a roadside attraction. The work "has been my therapy," she says.

The mural, scheduled to be dedicated next week, was funded by Catholic Charities, Baltimore Mental Health Systems, the Maryland State Arts Council, the Mayor's Advisory Council on Arts and Culture and private sources.

Two years ago, some of the same women worked with Prugh and Ferguson to transform the western facade of the Gore Brothers Building at 127 W. Mulberry St. into a dream-like mural called "The Magic Theatre," graced with benevolent angels and a comforting sense of provision.

At the Cathedral Street site, the Women's Mural Project has yielded several stories of personal triumph that testify, perhaps, to its healing properties.

Core crew member Seola Davison, for instance, was enrolled in a methadone treatment program during the making of "The Magic Theatre" mural and not allowed to climb the scaffold because she occasionally nodded off.

Still, she found in the project a way of staying busy, of applying her talents and becoming part of a team. She spoke hopefully of returning to the site one day triumphant over her addictions. During the second project, Davison was clean, and her painting domain was the second scaffolding level, which stands 17 feet high.

As she stands before it one morning, Davison sweeps her hand toward the work and says, "This mural is the way I feel inside."

Adrianne Ferguson (no relation to Mary), also worked on the first mural. Since then, she has found an apartment, been married and had a baby. She is in part the inspiration for the statue pictured in the mural of a woman pointing to the sky, as if to show her babe in arms all the possibilities the world now offers them.

Street theater

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