Ten-year-old Damon Rouzer doesn't have a real home, so he painted one instead.
It's an orange dream house, painted on a wall mural inside the five-story homeless shelter where Damon lives with his family in downtown Baltimore. It's here, at the Salvation Army Booth House shelter, that families in the midst of hard times are turning to painting to illustrate their hopes and fears.
"This is me. I'm old and gray and 60 years old," Damon says, showing a futuristic rendering of himself on the mural, which shows him outside the house standing near a limousine.
The imaginary mansion is a piece of a larger artwork in progress at the Booth House in the 1100 block of Calvert St. The Hope Mural Project is a way for the temporary residents to channel their talents and energies, says Baltimore artist David Cunningham, who coordinates the effort.
Cunningham directs a group of adults and children most Thursday evenings. Under his supervision at a round-table discussion, Cunningham helps the shelter's residents to interpret and portray their experiences through art. Those images are painted by the residents on a mural that stretches across three walls in the shelter's meeting room.
He calls his method "creative intervention."
"Maybe just for a moment in the time I spend with them they can forget where they are, and it's not so difficult being in a place without a home," Cunningham says.
"For example, I might say, `Draw an idyllic place,' an area they might remember that gave them respite, as a way of triggering their imagination."
The soft-spoken 38-year-old artist embarked on the mural project in November as part of a three-way agreement among the shelter, an artists' group he belongs to called Gimme Shelter and the Mercy Children's Health Outreach Project.
With a whimsically colored sea, sky, angels, rainbows, schoolhouse, garden and birds, the mural is centered by a large apple tree with children's names painted on the leaves. The idea was suggested by Jeaneen C. Story, the Booth House director. Unlike most of the mural, the lavish tree was painted primarily by Cunningham.
"The clients enjoy doing it, since it allows them to express themselves while going through a crisis situation. It's an inspirational thing for them," Story said.
"It's fun every Friday to see what they put on the wall, and it's a stress-reliever for a very stressful situation. They look forward to David coming and ask, `Is it my turn?' They can't wait, even the parents."
Assigned a nature theme by the teaching artist, three boys decided to draw tornadoes and storms on a recent evening. Christopher Cannady, 8, carefully sketched jagged bolts of lightning on the practice table before he turned to the wall.
"You should see the nice quality of line, how he's following his own sketch," Cunningham said. "Christopher's so capable of staying on task."
Two other boys, Damon and Christopher's brother Corey, 7, took to painting in an abstract expressive style -- splattering and smearing colors against the wall, a la Jackson Pollock.
"Each of them expressed different ideas, but Corey and Damon improvise. It's all about the moment," Cunningham said.
Dana Burrus, 25, of Baltimore sat on the floor and painted blue clouds, providing a visual counterpoint to the tornado done by her son, Damon. Her boisterous 23-month-old daughter, Morgan, displayed her blue hands to press against the wall, while her other daughter, 3-month-old Macey, watched from across the room.
When she and her children came to the shelter this year, Burrus said, she was pregnant with Macey: "I was at the end of my road." The father had just left them, she said, which was how her troubles began.
"Art is Damon's form of therapy during this time of crisis we're going through," Burrus said. "He's so proud of his work."
Cunningham said he believes the open-ended character of the work contains a life lesson. "They see something changing, and it offers another possibility. And maybe a little comfort," he said.
The Calvert Street rowhouse offers an environment buzzing with recreation activities -- and ample social worker assistance in finding housing and employment.
Burrus has signed up to take classes at Morgan State University in the fall, and because she is in the transitional part of the shelter's program -- not the short-term emergency program -- she will have up to 18 months to learn self-sufficiency skills, Story said.
There are five emergency lodgings for homeless families in the city and five transitional shelter programs, which offer more social services, said Betty E. Schulz, a pediatric nurse practitioner at Mercy Medical Center.
Schulz put the Booth House program in place by awarding Cunningham a Mercy arts grant for working with the homeless. She said the Hope mural project is a way to marry creativity with her field of helping people in trouble, especially children.
It's worked out well enough to try other forms of art in other shelters. "This is only the beginning. I'm so excited. We have poetry and music planned next," Schulz said.
Story said the mural's tree centerpiece is also meant to make a serious statement about homelessness.
"By the time we add the names of all the children," she said, "we'll go across the walls."