Art creates pathways to new homes, human connections

By Kevin Cummings

What makes a house a home? One answer: a touch of beauty on the walls, especially if the new resident was formerly homeless.

That’s the goal of the Art-n-Soul program at Church of the Holy Cross in Dunn Loring, Va., in the Washington, D.C., area, where paintings also are helping to mend lives and reinvigorate creativity.

Founded by the Rev. Jamie Samilio in 2013, the program gathers people once a month at the parish hall for a painting party. Those paintings are donated to Pathways to Housing DC, an organization that provides apartments and support for homeless people. At Pathways, clients can select one of the paintings for free to hang in their new apartment.

“We give them the furniture, the utensils and the sheets, but what truly helps an apartment become a home is the art that we get from Art-n-Soul,” said Christy Respress, Pathways’ executive director. “Each person moving into their new apartment is able to choose a piece that speaks to them.”

Pathways reports it has helped more than 700 people move into new apartments and  supports them with education, employment and professional treatment for mental- and physical-health issues.

An unintended consequence of the art program may be the most important. Many clients have undergone intense trauma and have serious medical and physical challenges, said Jeremy Weatherly, Pathways’ development manager. The art that hangs at Pathways’ office acts as a tool to generate dialogue between clinical professionals and clients, he said.

Some of the art is worth talking about for beauty or tone, another piece for its strangeness, while other paintings could depict a touchstone in someone’s life. For example, a painting of a beach scene reminded one troubled man of the place he grew up in Puerto Rico, which led to a dialogue with social workers and eventually a reconnection with family.

“Art is universal. It can open up a conversation about something other than a person’s homelessness or mental illness or their next doctor’s visit,” Respress said. “Art connects people — human to human, which is often critical for people recovering their lives after years living on the street.”

The other side of the project is the social opportunities and creativity it generates for the artists, who have ranged in age from 6 to 80. Samilio, associate rector at Church of the Holy Cross, teaches people how to paint, but most importantly she teaches them to enjoy the process.

“If it’s not fun, I don’t do it,” she said. “Everybody wins here. We have good food and we listen to good music, and people get a housewarming gift that they know was painted for them specifically to have something beautiful in their home.”

Here’s how it works: Parishioners and community members pay $25 to be a part of the painting party one Saturday each month, which includes people who have never painted before and others who rediscover their talents.

Painters create what speaks to their own heart and minds, while thinking of the future owner of the piece, said Samilio, who has an art degree from Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa.

“I tell people, ‘This may be the only piece of art in this person’s house, so the most important thing we can do is paint something that sets a tone and mood,” she said. ‘If you were in your house, think about what colors say safety and security and joy and peace. Now let’s put those colors together and paint something beautiful.’”

Samilio believes God has given everyone the ability to create art, said Parishioner Marjy Jones, who asked Samilio to help her learn to paint before Art-n-Soul started.

“As she introduced the program, a memory of the clear fuchsia color of fireweed in Alaska took over my consciousness, and, through her guidance and encouragement, the image came to fruition on the canvas in front of me,” Jones recalled.

Jones said she discovered “a long dormant creative spark.”

“My hope is that the person who chose my painting will experience the same joy and wonder of God’s creativity that I felt while painting the canvas,” she said. “Art is meant to be shared.”

Each painting is on an 18- by 24-inch canvas, big enough to make an impact but manageable enough to take home on a bicycle or bus, Samilio said.

Clients at Pathways always “light up” when they learn they can choose a painting just like at a store or gallery, Weatherly said. “The art is a really important part of the process of somebody being able to take ownership of their home and personalize it and use it as an expression of themselves.”

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Kevin Cummings is a freelance writer for the Sewanee School of Theology in Tennessee.