I occasionally teach watercolor classes at the local shelter. I’m not a trained artist, but I love to paint and love to teach. So, I’ve taught art at museums and mental institutions. Now I’m teaching homeless women.
The shelter’s near the Chinatown subway stop, which has gentrified into a touristy sort of place since the Verizon Center moved into town. I know I’m in the right place, when I see the Friendship Archway on welcoming me to the neighborhood. There’s a man in storefront window, hand-rolling noodles with amazing skill. Across the street, there’s the famous Mongolian Barbecue restaurant that frequented by all the important politicians. Then I walk past the usual mall stores, with their names displayed in English and Chinese.
Beyond the bustling street, I come to a couple of city blocks, where men sit out on their front steps, sipping on something cold, talking to each other, and greeting me as I pass by. There’s also a small crowd in front of the shelter, which is behind an unmarked door. I would say that they’re waiting for a bus, but they’ve brought their lawn chairs.
I push the buzzer and walk up the stairs and someone lets me in. This place is an amazing, supportive environment. We gather for the class in the dining room. Most of the women haven’t picked up a brush since they were children. We always begin the class with a woman looking down at the intimidating blank paper, with a brush in hand, asking, “Now what?”
I usually try to take them someplace in their minds. Today it’s the beach. We look at shells and talk about the times that they’ve been to the shore. I get to know the women. I learn where they grew up, whether they like the heat, and how they ended up in D.C.
Then, I show them a couple of techniques, and we begin to put the brush to paper. This is my favorite part, because I love to see what emerges. Most of the women follow my instructions carefully, but we all come out with completely different images. And the pictures are beautiful.
I walk around the room, and realize that some of the women see the ocean with bold colors, with intensity I never imagined. Other women portray the landscape as soft and subtle. One woman asks me if she can add a boat. “Of course,” I say. “That would be perfect.” And it is. It completes the picture beautifully. I visit all the tables, admiring each painting, and each woman who created it.
As they peel off the masking tape border, they’re also amazed at what they’ve done. I hear them revering each other’s work, “Wow. I didn’t know you were an artist!”
Then, comes my least favorite part. The women sit with their proud paintings, and they don’t know what to do with them. They don’t have a place to put their post-card sized art.
We’re suddenly back from the beach.
One woman gives hers to me and a couple others throw their work away when I’m not looking. The program director quickly salvages the paintings from the trash and says, “We’ll find a space for them. Don’t worry. We’ll hang them up.”
After the class, I travel back to my home, which is filled from ceiling to floor with paintings. And there I grieve for my new friends who don’t have a permanent place to put their art.