Although it’s a gray and dreary day, HomeFront’s Family Preservation Center, in a former dormitory of the Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf in West Trenton, is alive with color. Whiskey barrels painted yellow, purple, kiwi green and in polka dots overflow with fragrant flowers and herbs, and newly planted vegetables grow nearby. Young mothers stroll with their babies, and a painting of a large butterfly in the vestibule greets visitors.
Inside, the hallways are painted oranges, purples and other colors, and the walls are hung chockablock with framed art in a way that would make Dr. Albert Barnes jealous.
“We want it to be a happy place,” says Ruthann Traylor, founding director of HomeFront’s ArtSpace program, passing a community mural depicting a mother and daughter on a red bridge over a stream, surrounded by flowers and trees, birds, bees and butterflies.
Mother-child themes are common here. HomeFront’s Family Preservation Center provides services for women and children who are homeless or at risk of becoming so. Single mothers, families with histories of domestic violence, child abuse, drug abuse, welfare, and those who can’t make ends meet benefit from the program’s emergency shelter, education and job placement services to help them get back on their feet.
“ArtSpace uses art to help improve the physical, mental and emotional well being of our clients, encouraging creativity and self-expression in a safe and nurturing environment,” says Traylor. “Our goal is to rebuild the souls of people suffering from poverty, homelessness and abuse.”
Sandra, a FPC resident for the past five months, is statuesque with perfectly coiffed hair. She smells of freshly washed clothes, soap and shampoo, and takes me to see her room, a gallery for her jungle-animal paintings. Since she’s been here, she’s sold several paintings of lions and giraffes as well as a poem.
A grandmother of four, Sandra, 58, worked as a retention sales specialist at Advanta Bank Corp until 2008 when her job was outsourced. She couldn’t find another job and when her unemployment compensation ran out, she could no longer pay her bills and came to FPC.
Sandra plans to move to her own place soon, where “I can feel safe and secure.” A breast cancer survivor, she says the mastectomy, radiation and chemotherapy took their toll, leading to other diseases such as diabetes and heart failure. She had a pacemaker put in, but then a detached retina left her blind in one eye. Surgery restored 40 percent of her sight, and she can paint, she says, because “my spirit is great. When I’m creating, I feel happy and at peace.”
In the hallway, she created a mural of a lion. “I wanted to leave something behind for other women to give them strength and courage. Women come here with their own stories – we cry together, and uplift each other. This is a stepping stone – it will get better.”
Once she’s living on her own, Sandra plans to come back to help with fundraising.
Inside the door with a mosaic “ArtSpace” sign, where the walls are even brighter and the artwork hung more densely hung, Shanell, 28, is working on a painting of two girls on a swing.
“I like to watch the History Channel and make the scenes my own,” she says. “My favorite movie is ‘The Color Purple.’ I love to paint old scenes from the 1970s and 1980s.”
The two girls on the swing were inspired by Shanell’s relationship to her sister. “I am not close to her but would like to be, and I can relieve the pain from that by painting my fantasies,” she says. “I like to paint people because they are beautiful – I like to paint skin colors and tones.”
She painted a biracial grandparent couple on a porch swing, with biracial grandchildren peering out the window. “I wanted to learn to paint Caucasian skin because I didn’t know how to,” says the mother of three. “I tried mixing colors, and then someone pointed out I can just use this paint called flesh tone.”
Shanell first came to FPC in 2005, and now lives independently but returns to ArtSpace to paint and work as an intern while she tries to find a job, hopefully in the arts and working with small children.
Synetta, 40, paints on the other side of the table – she is Shanell’s fiancé and is working on “Autism Daycare Center.”
“My daughter has autism. She’s 15, and I have a 19-year-old in the Army,” says Synetta, whose head is shaved. The artwork continues in tattoos on her arms – one has “Hershey Kisses” and “Baby Diamond,” nicknames for her daughters, as well as a teddy bear for “Nells,” the nickname she gives to Shanell. Her other arm is decorated for the deceased – her nephew who lost his life at 3, a cousin killed at 16, her father and her daughter’s father.
She shows me a painting of a pretty room. “That’s how I’d want my 3-year-old stepdaughter’s room to look, if she had her own room.”
How is Traylor able to inspire work that evokes Gaugin, Matisse and Van Gogh from women with no prior art training?
“A big part is creating a nurturing environment that allows expression to flow,” she says. “We try not to have a lot of rules – the only rule is, don’t say ‘I can’t.’
Traylor, who earned a degree in art therapy at New Jersey City University, started the program in 2006. “Starting a painting and then wanting to tear it up is similar to facing rejection – you’re at that pivotal point where you must continue, whether taking a test or getting a job. If you go further, you break through. We teach clients to break barriers to building skills, problem solving and following through.”
ArtSpace will exhibit work at Art All Night, Trenton, June 16 and 17.