Brushes are not an option for 57-year-old Cathy Haynes. Her fingers, each marked with a different paint color, are the only tools she needs to finish the details on the canvas. A painted cat takes form while she reminisces a bright spot, back when she did not live on the streets.
“I think the happiest day of my life was a long time ago when my cat had babies, but I don’t really think I’ve had that very happy of a life,” Cathy, a homeless woman in Austin, said.
Throughout her years, Cathy has been a victim of robbery and childhood abuse, had a house burn to the ground and two babies die at birth.
“I really didn’t have parents or anyone to help me. It’s been difficult,” she added.
She was born in Missouri but became a nomad throughout Texas. Four years ago, Kathy heard about a particular art program while wandering through the streets of Dallas. She was intrigued. She packed her bags and took a one-way trip to Austin.
Kathy and several others perform at Art From the Streets, a volunteer-run program at St. David’s Episcopal Church that fights the hopelessness of being homeless through artistic expression. Volunteers welcome homeless people to studio sessions every Tuesday and Thursday, where they produce a work of art in an attempt to make an honorable profit.
The studio, located at the church’s basement, creates a space where people with mental illness, alcoholism, or with no support system can leave the streets to find peace and, for a couple of hours, become artists.
“I’m very passionate about art as a way to connect to people and feelings,” said 70-year-old volunteer Katrina Meredith, while she walked around the room encouraging everyone’s progress. “I believe in art very strongly as what connects us all as humans no matter what our backgrounds are.”
In front of Kathy’s workspace sits an introvert 57-year-old man with long hair and a hat who preferred to keep his identity as Eric U. Though shy, his table is full of abstract paintings that manage to express more than his own words can.
“For me, it’s all about art therapy,” he said. “I guess more than anything it builds ego. I’m the kind of person that’s got no self-esteem and especially when people start to get money for something they’ve created it’s a real boost to the ego.”
Eric U said he was behind in school, had no friends, and developed an inferiority complex. His mom, troubled by her father’s suicide, was emotionally unavailable. The lack of support system growing up is one of the reasons he is passionate for art.
“I turn inward with my art,” he said. “It’s a form of meditation for me. I find that I have something to say and people look at it and they like it, which means they are listening. It keeps me motivated. I feel like I’m growing.”
Kelley Worden, the executive director of Art From the Streets, said the program has evolved from a simple afternoon experiment with pencils and papers to a studio with 75 to 100 artists participating.
An annual art show is held every December where artists get 95 percent of the profit. Last year, the program sold over $100,000 in paintings.
“Art and creation helps them to get off from being outside,” the executive director said. “It gives them a quiet time and some release of what the stigma is of being out on the streets. It gives them some sustenance to help them survive with money and helps their minds focus on something else rather than where they are living.”
Sabian Alexander, a 43-year-old woman born in Austin, works on the table beside Eric U. She ended living on the streets after three years of being in prison. Her ex-wife allegedly implanted false evidence on her house, which got her arrested.
“It’s very dangerous being on the streets,” Sabian said. “If you’re a girl, you’re under the blanket of rape all day long. I’ve had a couple of guys attacking me, and it’s very dangerous. They’re like vultures; when they see you by yourself, it’s terrible. But it’s part of life, unfortunately.”
Sabian said she has 14 children scattered around Texas, but has almost no contact with any of them. She suffers from panic and social attacks, but something about art soothes her anxiety.
“I look for peace. Peace and quiet, if that’s possible,” she said. “My inspiration is sporadic. It just jumps back and forth like a UFO!”
By the end of the studio session, Cathy Haynes keeps working intently on her paintings of cats and dogs. She giggles as she explains how each painting has a different character and personality. Her main goal is to have her art included in children’s books one day.
After the program finishes, she always goes back to her camp and continues to paint.
“Art just gives you hope,” she said. “That’s just the feeling and it’s kind of godly, too. I mean, God creates everything and we get to create, too.”