Homeless and Housed Populations Unified by Common Art

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Summertime on Newbury Street beckons tourists and locals to stroll the sidewalks and admire the bright patterns of the season. Propped up in front of historic Emmanuel Church is a display of art for sale, featuring paintings of a field of colorful poppies, a contemporary geometric design, a harrowing portrait of a man in despair, and many other images that passersby may purchase. One thing sets these works apart from the wares offered by the endless stretch of shops: all proceeds go directly to the homeless men and women that created them.

The sidewalk art sale is organized by Common Art, a program of Ecclesia Ministries in Boston that provides a safe space for homeless men and women to paint, draw, decorate stained glass, and complete other art projects. The program staff, which includes an experienced artist-in-residence, welcome participants each Wednesday from 9am to 3pm at Emmanuel Church Parish Hall on 15 Newbury Street. An abundance of art supplies is on hand and breakfast and lunch are provided.

The Common Art program offers a unique service to the chronically homeless, a community for which opportunities for self-expression are rare. Mary Eaton, Program Director for Common Art, explained that surviving many years on the street requires hiding vulnerability and developing a tough exterior. “While many programs seek to meet the physical needs of homeless individuals, few are able to provide emotional support or to nurture creativity,” Eaton said.

According to the Common Art website, the program began in 1999 and was envisioned by members of the homeless community. It is funded through grants from the Boston Foundation and other cultural foundations, as well as private donations. Typically, at any one time throughout the day, there are up to 25 artists in addition to volunteers and staff in attendance. Participants may come and go at any time during a session.

Eaton stated that most of the homeless individuals that come to Common Art are not youth, but rather chronically homeless adults who have been without housing for lengthy periods of time, some for up to 40 years. This is most likely because all advertising thus far has been through word of mouth, so the demographic reflects those who have been on the street interacting with other members of the homeless community. However, Common Art encourages new members to join regardless of age, race, religious affiliation, gender, and housing status. “You don’t need to belong to Ecclesia Ministries or any church or religious organization. You don’t need to feel like you are an artist. You don’t need to be homeless, or housed… basically, all are welcome” said Eaton.

In addition to the emotional benefits of composing artwork, the artists also benefit from selling their creations in the sidewalk art sale in front of the church. Each artist sets the price for the piece he or she has created, and earns the full profit if it is sold. While a few Common Art participants have been able to gain stability through the sale of their work, the goal of this practice is to empower homeless individuals to gain confidence and believe in the value of these creations. “Success in Common Art is not measured by how many of its members leave homelessness behind,” explained Eaton. “Success for us is an artist selling his painting for the first time rather than giving it away, because he believes he has created something worth purchasing. Success is the artist trusting a staff member enough to look her in the eye for the first time after 6 months of not doing so, because he feels he can finally open up to someone. We celebrate small successes and an improved sense of self-worth.”

Volunteers at Common Art are often members of visiting youth groups, and they also create their own works of art. This shared activity builds community and collaboration among the homeless and housed populations and reduces the unequal power dynamic that can occur when one group feels it is helping another. At Common Art, everyone has the chance to learn, teach, build community, and be expressive through art.

Supporting Common Art

If you would like to support the Common Art program by volunteering or donating other services, visit http://www.ecclesia-ministries.org/common_art.html for more information or email info@ecclesia-ministries.org. To contact a program staff member via phone, call 617-247-4927.

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