Artists who work the mean streets

Benefit: Artwork by homeless artists goes up for bid today at the American Visionary Art Museum.

November 19, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Donna L. Rich, The whimsical ceramic pigs, vibrant acrylic paintings and other art pieces set for auction today are not what many people might expect from homeless artists - a surprise that advocates hope will dispel myths, raise money and enlist support for a problem that besets between 3,000 and 5,000 people in Baltimore on any given day.

"There is talent among these individuals that breaks down the stigma; it breaks down the stereotype of homelessness," said Donna L. Rich, director of development for the Baltimore Office of Homeless Services.

"The art is very wonderful and expressive. I want people to see the talent that is part of these homeless citizens ... so that the community can embrace the problem and become part of the solution."

In recent weeks, art by homeless artists has been on display at Mercantile Bank, the Marriott Inner Harbor, the Hyatt Regency, the Holiday Inn and in vacant windows on Baltimore Street across from SunTrust Banks as part of a larger program called Art Exposure Inc., which displays art in hotels, office lobbies and in vacant storefronts.

The auction, to be held from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. today at the American Visionary Art Museum, will feature the art of seven homeless artists to help raise money as part of Baltimore's first celebration of National Homelessness Awareness Week, which runs through Saturday.

The auction will be held in the museum's sculpture barn and wildflower garden, at 800 Key Highway.

The money generated by sales of tickets - which are $50 each - and the art auction will go to a fund to finance substance abuse treatment for homeless people who request help, Rich said. A recent survey of the homeless found that 45 percent identified substance abuse as the main reason for their homelessness.

"A lot of times the concept of homelessness is an abstraction," said Michael Evitts, a spokesman for the Downtown Partnership. "But when you see the art hanging on the wall, it makes you look at homeless people as individuals, with different talents, different needs and abilities. We're wasting a great resource if we allow people to remain homeless."

In vacant buildings

Ann A. Wiker launched the art exposure program in February last year when she approached the Downtown Partnership, an organization of Baltimore business leaders, and asked about the possibility of putting art in vacant buildings on Charles Street. The partnership put Wiker in touch with buildings' owners and managers, and the idea took off.

"The concept is putting artwork in alternate spaces so that people are seeing it in their everyday lives - a gallery without walls," Wiker said.

"I like the idea that artists can help in the economic development of the city. Putting artwork in a vacant building improves the look of the space and also helps to attract tenants," Wiker said.

Artists pay a $35 membership fee to be part of the program. Building owners and operators also pay a membership fee that depends on how frequently they want the art rotated.

Grants from the Downtown Partnership help cover the cost of art that goes into vacant buildings. Artists receive 70 percent when a work is sold, in contrast to the 50 percent they typically would receive from a gallery.

The program has grown to 75 artists and 42 venues, Wiker said. This year, $24,378 worth of art has been sold, she said. An average of 18 to 20 pieces of art are sold each month.

The homeless artists, who often receive their art supplies through outreach services, are being paid for their art, which is expected to bring higher prices at auction.

"I feel honored to be part of this," one of the artists, Emmanuel Nwankwo, a 44-year-old native of Aba, Nigeria, said when reached by phone. "That's a plain way of putting it. It's good for the artists and the recipients."

Nwankwo, who has been painting for 10 years, said he doesn't mind giving up the pieces he creates, knowing that people will be taking them into their homes.

"I figure it's a gift that needs to be shared," he said. "It's more fruitful to know that they enjoy and cherish it at home. It's the greatest compliment, that it's making somebody happy."

"Through my work, I envision myself," he has said. "My paintings come from everyday experiences, things that appeal to me and things that capture people's attention and emotions."

He said that despite earning a bachelor's degree in urban studies in 1985 and a master's degree in transportation engineering in 1988, his life has taken twists that have led to his living in a small, temporary shelter in Northeast Baltimore.

Rhoda White, a self-taught artist, crawls under bushes to look for the hidden treasures she uses as part of her sculptures, some of which will be available at the auction.

White lives in a homeless shelter and buys as little as possible to create her work - only the clay and glaze to cover her sculptures. She prefers twigs, keys, coat hangers, discarded tin foil, pieces of fabric, scraps of paper, bottles, cans and old glue sticks.

`We're blessed'

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