They Made Me An Artist

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

BOSTON – Street artist Dennis Boylet hasn’t had an easy winter. Since mid-December, he’s slept every night at a Boston shelter and spent days walking the streets, often with nowhere to hunker down and ply his craft as a painter.

Danita Clark

Even so, “Sidewalk Dennis” has had a place to paint, pray and enjoy two meals in a group every Wednesday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in the upscale Back Bay neighborhood. That means he also has somewhere to share personal successes, as he did at 9:00 on a brisk February morning.

“Yesterday was a good day for me,” Boylet says in a prayer circle comprised of unhoused artists, pastors, and friends seated around a cloth-draped piano bench with a lit candle in the center. A massive blue tarp covers the floor beneath them in preparation for all the paints and pallets that he and others would be slinging in the hours to come.

“My painting got sold,” Boylet explains. The buyer had said “she’ll say a prayer for me every time she looks at it. How much sweeter can it get than that?”

This weekly ritual of faith, food, fellowship, and creativity is known as common art. For 21 years, the gathering has drawn homeless and housed artists of varying skill levels, as well as volunteers who help everything go smoothly. Most of the 80 who fill the room at peak times either have no home or have been homeless in the past. They are part of a ministry built on the premise that art-making helps restore a sense of dignity, and everyone can do it.

“Sometimes people just need to come in, charge their cell phones or get a cup of coffee and just sit at the edges of the room,” says Mary Jane Eaton, associate pastor at common cathedral, an outdoor church that worships on Boston Common every Sunday and runs common art among other programs for homeless and housed congregants during the week.

Rector Pam Werntz

“But I’ve seen this happen over and over again,” she adds. “That person just coming in for coffee — just for coffee, just for coffee — will get up and start to paint. It might take two months or it might take two years. But that person will get up to paint and believe that they are worthy of beauty.”

By 9:45, the prayer space is dismantled and something more akin to a studio or salon is going up. Soon 15 round tables beckon with materials laid out. One offers paints and brushes; others have beads, yarn, or wire available for all to use. As all the weaving, coloring, and writing goes on, soft music plays almost unnoticeably in the background.

Pragmatic concerns get addressed along the way. Those carrying their torn clothes drop them off at a sewing table where a team of three uses needles and a sewing machine to mend as many as they can before the space is closed at 2 pm. Art projects that don’t get finished that day are stored in the basement for retrieval the following week.

Though the scene feels like a freewheeling art-making party, common art is carefully choreographed by staffers who give participants room to create — and to find reprieve from any number of personal traumas that landed them on the streets. Two common cathedral clergy, a director, and volunteers quietly provide predictable structure that keeps the atmosphere calm, using practices like reading Scripture and ringing a bell every hour to create a room-wide pause.

Life skills get developed as a byproduct. As homeless participants gain confidence, they take responsibility for helping run elements of the program — setting up,  breaking down, and keeping activities on track. That too is by design,  to help build up leadership and responsibility among all who seem ready and willing to try.

All this attention to structure allows artists to relax and create, setting aide, for a moment, the many troubles afflicting Boston’s homeless community. In 2014, a bridge closure meant the city abruptly shuttered its largest homeless shelter and detox center, which together had housed more than 500 people.

“It was like a flood of bodies — there were people sleeping in doorways everywhere,” says the Rev. Pamela Werntz, rector of Emmanuel Church. “The city has technically replaced the beds by now, which took a couple of years. But it did not replace the places where people can go to socialize and be together … So where do they go? It was a crisis. I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Emmanuel Church contributes to the solution in part by allowing common art to use the fellowship hall free of charge. Some who come simply play around with wire or beads. Others find much-needed outlets for their artistic talents and ideas.

“If you’re an artist, you know, a painter’s gotta paint,” says Tim Hickey between strokes on a canvas. He paints as rapidly as he speaks, constantly dipping his brush into a watery pallet of blacks, grays, and whites. The image, which he calls “The Profit Mongers,” reveals how he sees decision-makers in corporate America. He pauses for a moment to explain the dancing figures and horrified faces on an industrial landscape.

“These are profit mongers doing their little song and dance while they poison us,” Hickey says. “They say, ‘The water’s safe.’ Yeah. They don’t care about us. They care about their profits. They fill us with poisons, with lead. ‘Echinacea? No. The lead will make you feel better!’ It’s horrible.”

For some, common art has awakened talents — and income streams — that participants didn’t know they had. Danita Clark has been moving around, staying on friends’ couches since September, she says. She discovered her artistic ability at common art, where Artist-in-Residence Allie Mattison tries to help all participants be creative. She gave it a try after people she’d met at worship on Boston Common encouraged her.

“The church brought it out of me,” says Clark, who sold a painting in January for $260. “I have a bachelor’s of architecture, but I was the worst architecture student. I couldn’t draw. They told me to come here. They made me an artist.”

What happens on Wednesdays reflects behind-the-scenes commitments of a network extending far beyond Emmanuel and common cathedral. Area congregations, individual donors and grant makers provide funding for materials, common cathedral staff salaries and for the outdoor church’s rented office space in the basement at Emmanuel. Operating common art cost $64,000 in 2018.

Tim Hickey paints the Profit Mongers

The ministry also builds on shoulders of other Episcopal communities. The program’s roots stretch to 1999 and the church of St. John the Evangelist, which has since closed. At the time, St. John’s congregants and brothers from the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge teamed up to begin offering space for art-making by a cohort whom others regarded as a nuisance.

The initiative marked a leading edge of a movement among churches to host homeless art-making projects. Now such programs happen at dozens of congregations around the country, according to Lawan Glasscock, executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts and a collector of works by homeless artists.

“There’s been a robust birth of art therapy and churches understanding that art offers a path to healing where cognitive speaking and dialogue does not,” Glasscock says. For people who’ve experienced language largely as yelling or demeaning, she said, visual expression offers a positive alternative.

Works created at common art don’t make it into the high-end galleries that line Newbury Street just a few blocks from Emmanuel Church, but area churches make sure these artists nevertheless get a chance to sell what they’ve made. Once a month, a congregation opens its doors for a common art show during coffee hour after Sunday worship. Episcopal parishes in Boston and its suburbs rank among the most frequent hosts including St. John’s in Beverly Farms, Christ Church in Needham, All Saints in Brookline, St. Peter’s in Weston, and Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill. Artists keep 100 percent of sale proceeds. Frequently they donate those sums to common cathedral, according to its staffers.

Selling a piece of art might enable a homeless person to make a payment on a storage unit, Eaton says, or to spend a cold night in a hotel. And while the money helps, the payoff from artmaking goes beyond dollars and cents.

“What you find a lot is donors wanting to give and saying: ‘Well, let’s feed them, clothe them, house them’,” Glasscock says. “But if you just talk to [homeless people], those things are not always the most important things for them. That’s not the life source. It’s something deeper and less tangible… Setting the space is opening your doors, giving them a space, giving them encouragement and giving them permission to just create.”




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