Finding shelter in their art

Exhibits: Theatre Project showcases the work of homeless artists and others who overcame the hardships of living on the streets.

February 13, 2003|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Many people are struck by Rhoda White's sculpted art, depicting subjects from dancers to basketball players to lovers sitting on a couch. Some marvel at the prices, which they consider a bargain.

White uses anything she can find to create her pieces. Light bulbs for pregnant bellies. Candy wrappers for collars. Cigarette butts for elbows, knees and calves.

Not too long ago, White, 43, was homeless, bouncing from city shelter to shelter. Now her work -- and that of several homeless Baltimoreans -- is on display at the art gallery at Theatre Project, 43 W. Preston St. The exhibit Charm City: Art About Our Streets will be featured through Feb. 21 and is open to the public Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, or by appointment.

"This particular show's purpose is for the public to visually see what people who are homeless in Baltimore struggle with -- mental illness, addiction, lack of affordable housing and their experience day to day without a place to stay," said Pam Stein, a social worker at Healthcare for the Homeless, a nonprofit agency that is sponsoring the exhibit. "It's also a way to give a positive perspective and see the talents of people who are homeless."

When the exhibit opened last week, about 80 people stopped by to view the sculptures, framed paintings, cardboard creations and other works.

Many came specifically to see the work of White, who has manic depressive disorder and dyslexia. She recently tested at a third-grade education level and sometimes has trouble remembering how she created a particular piece.

A vanload of men from I Can Inc., a homeless shelter on Greenmount Avenue, was there to support Richard Crowner, 45, who has lived there for five months. He tries to highlight addiction, among other ills, in his work. Crowner started drinking at 15 and later began using heroin and cocaine.

Other patrons came to see the work of Emmanuel Nwankwo, 43, who now lives with a family friend but used to carry his canvases and paint with him when he lived on Baltimore's streets. At times, Nwankwo said, his artwork was all that kept him going. Melanie Johnson, 35, a pharmaceutical representative from Pfizer, learned about the exhibit from Stein one day when she dropped off medicine samples at Healthcare for the Homeless, where some of White's work was displayed.

"Mrs. Stein was talking about the art show, and I saw some of the items Rhoda did," Johnson said. "It was a family unit similar to the one down bottom," she said, pointing to a sculpture that featured a man and woman walking together. "I sent her a check for $135."

"I love it, first of all because she told me what she makes it out of," Johnson said. "It's original, it's different and, you know, it's going for a good cause, so why not?"

Aside from the money artists stand to earn, Stein said the exhibit is important because it raises awareness of the plight of homeless people and improves their self-esteem.

"When you're homeless, you're treated poorly by the people in the community," Stein said. "Homeless people often feel like they don't fit in, and this is a way to help bridge that gap to show them they have skills and things that connect them to the larger community of Baltimore."

White, Crowner and Nwankwo seemed almost surprised by the attention their work received at the exhibit's opening.

"I feel good about myself because I'm doing more today than I did five months ago," Crowner said.

White, who now lives in a house in Owings Mills, said she is glad she and others like her are getting a chance to express themselves through their work.

"When you are out there on the streets, you get to see so much," she said.

"Kind of like the man I sculpted who was sitting rubbing his feet. I used to sit and rub mine after walking the streets. As I was making the piece, I was thinking if you could take off your feet and exchange them for another pair, you could go another mile or so."

Bob Weininger, 60, who attended the exhibit, said he wishes Baltimore could better address its homeless problem. On any given night, according to Healthcare for the Homeless, an estimated 3,000 people are homeless.

"I don't know the answer to homelessness, but with a lot of these abandoned buildings ... it seems there could be some effort to fix them up to where they could provide some shelter," said Weininger, a retired insurance underwriter.

Apparently, one artist shares Weininger's sentiment. One of his drawings is of a tall building. Underneath it are the words: "Big apartment buildings sitting Empty! Empty!"

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