ART AS A COMMON LANGUAGE
Two years ago in Austin, Tex., Paulina Sosa and a group of painters wondered how they could use their art to bring attention to the issue of urban poverty. Their aim was to bring together allies and inspire action against homelessness and hunger, rather than depress people and make them feel hopeless. They formed a collective called Painting Out Poverty to work on this problem.
But last fall, Sosa moved to Washington, DC to start her Master of Public Health at George Washington University. End of the group, right?
Wrong. Just the beginning.
As if a five-class courseload, three jobs and a health internship at the World Health Organization weren’t enough to keep her busy, Sosa launched POP in Washington, DC. The group landed a Knapp Fellowship for Entrepreneurial Service-Learning, a grant established by GWU to support social entrepreneurs who want to have an impact on the DC community.
“The arts are a common language that can have a healing effect, both on the people who are creating it and those who are receiving it,” said Sosa. The group capitalizes on the unifying effect of the arts to bring people together in a positive setting to advocate for anti-poverty policies. The artists benefit as well, says Sosa. “It gives them a platform to work with the community on socially conscious initiatives.”
Now, just a year after Sosa touched down, POP’s network of visual artists has expanded to include writers, musicians and an impressive array of community arts organizations. Its first event was a March fundraiser and book drive in conjunction with Reading Partners. And that was just the beginning.
THE HEALING POWER OF ART
On Aug. 15, Painting Out Poverty hosted a day-long kick-off at the Westminster Presbyterian Church around the theme “The Healing Power of Art.” The work of local artists adorned the walls, and representatives of organizations such as Street Sense, Fuerza Contra Alzheimer’s and the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop sat ready at tables to discuss how their organizations use the arts to combat poverty and illness.
One of the attendees was too big to fit inside the venue: A bus, painted white with gold dollar accents, sat in the parking lot outside. I Have a Home Here is a mobile, community-based art installation meant to illustrate the realities of poverty in the city. In a previous installation the bus was rendered invisible, representing the invisibility of the homeless. Future plans include creating a temple to homelessness in the interior of the bus, and making it a base for an interactive game of Homelessopoly, where players move around the board with backpacks, cardboard boxes and shopping carts, and give donations to Street Sense to get out of jail.
Back in the church, the day’s program began with an all-star panel, moderated by Juanita Hardy, Executive Director of Cultural DC, in which representatives from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, Will Rap 4 Food and Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Campus (THEARC) joined CHAW, Fuerza Contra Alzheimer’s and the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian to discuss how artists and arts organizations can empower people, develop communities and transform lives.
THE FUTURE OF POP
“Art has a role to play in addressing poverty, alienation and marginalization,” said Pastor Brian Hamilton. “For arts to be transformative, we have to get to the places where people don’t see themselves as being part of the arts.”
Navada Taylor of Will Rap 4 Food agreed. “Everyone on this panel knows that the arts community really sets the tone of what happens in society. If we intentionalize that, we can change society.”
Hardy provided the business case for the arts by detailing how arts centers have created jobs and led to economic development in communities like H Street and Columbia Heights.
The panel members were not alone in testifying to the healing power of art. James, a writer and vendor at the Street Sense table, described the arts as therapeutic. They relieve stress and helped him work through depression. “I could tune out the rest of the world and just concentrate on writing that poetry and creating that art.”
In his eyes, the art workshops Street Sense offers are essential. “For our vendors it really makes a difference in their lives. Dealing with homelessness and poverty, it really helps to give them somewhere to go and give them an outlet.”
So what’s next for Painting Out Poverty?
Sosa says POP will partner with local organizations on painting and writing workshops in schools to empower students to tell their stories. She envisions a journal of short stories and poems about poverty, hunger and homelessness to raise awareness of how these issues affect children.
Another project Sosa has in store is to enlist graffiti artists to create a mural as a joint effort with community members, who would not only help design the work, but would also participate in the painting process.
About the Author: Tara Campbell is a DC-based writer of crossover science fiction. Formerly a painter, she’s now content to stand back and write about people who can really wield a brush.