Art From the Streets: Bringing Hope to the Homeless

Art From the Streets is a volunteer-run program that hosts open studio sessions throughout the year for homeless and formerly homeless individuals to create artwork. The program culminates in their Annual Show and Sale. 

By Frances Bello, Kari Counter, Skylar Isdale and Rebecca Wright

A line of shoppers waited eagerly to enter the Austin Convention Center to scan the pieces of the 21st annual Art From the Streets Show and Sale. Paintings and drawings lined mounted boards throughout the center while the artists hoped one of their artworks would catch the eye of a passing shopper. Those artists, whose creative works were being displayed and bought in a professional art show, are also homeless or formerly homeless.

Art From the Streets is a volunteer-run program in Austin that allows homeless the opportunity to create artwork in two sessions weekly and culminates with a show every year where the artists can sell their pieces. This year’s show took place on November 9 and 10 from 12 to 5 pm at the Austin Convention Center.

According to Bill Jeffers, President of the Board of Directors, the show is much more than just a simple art show and holds a serious significance for the artists.

“The homeless spend most of their days waiting in line to be given something, tested for something or to prove something,” Jeffers said. “The best part of the show is a line of people wait to see them. The show is the opposite of every other day of their life. It turns the whole thing on its head.”

Art From the Streets started 21 years ago out of a simple idea for a group of friends to volunteer at the local homeless shelter. Jeffers said a group of his friends started taking art supplies to the shelter and after lunch asked people if they wanted to draw with them.

When the shelter moved, Jeffers and his friends were given the opportunity to use the shelter’s board room to hold designated times for the artists to come in and draw. This is how weekly sessions began, and the surprising results from those sessions resulted in the first show.

“It was a giant room with 10 to 12 people drawing and painting. The art was so good, we were surprised,” Jeffers said. “Most of these people have no art background so we were really excited and decided to have a show to sell the pieces.”

From the start it was clear the sessions were making a positive impact on the artists’ lives. Jeffers said his group of friends felt art was a positive influence on the artists because everyone can make art and enjoy it. The sessions now take place every Tuesday and Thursday at the Trinity Center where the artists have two and a half hours to work on their pieces.

Hugh Miles, who has been an artist with Art From the Streets since the beginning, agrees with Jeffers, explaining how the program was so influential in his life.

“I was already an artist to begin with, but what inspired me was it gave me something to do during difficult, hard times. It was my escape to where I could go and just have a little me time and be creative,” Miles said.

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After artists create their work for an entire year, the event takes roughly three weeks of preparation, according to Kelley Worden, a volunteer in charge of art preparation.

This year’s show was the result of 100 artists’ pieces. Jeffers said approximately 80 artists sold pieces. Worden says most of the profits from each piece goes directly to the artist.

“We do collect a small percentage from only sold items, so if they sell something, we collect a little something for the mounted work,” Worden said. “It’s like 10 dollars for the bigger pieces and four dollars for the smaller pieces because the mounting is an outrageous cost.”

A look at art prep and the annual show and sale:

The cost for the mounting totals roughly $20,000 a year, Worden said. The program would not be able to afford this aspect of the show without funding from the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin.

Jeffers says this funding is instrumental in the program’s success.

“I can’t stress how valuable the support from the city is. They support these programs and allow us to continue to do this every year,” Jeffers said.

The program has received this funding every year except the first year, which has allowed for the practice of mounting a few key pieces from each artist. The mounted and un-mounted pieces sold resulted in an extremely successful show for Art From the Streets, Jeffers said.

“One of our best years yet. We made around $83,000 from the sold art in 10 hours,” Jeffers said.

While that is a great success for the program, it is not the best result in the history of the show. Jeffers said the record was $87,000 in 2006. Both those numbers are a far cry from the results of the first show which sold $1,600 worth of art in a one-day four-hour show. From that first show Jeffers knew the idea would be a success.

For the 2,000 artists who have come through the program over the years, art has become a cathartic experience, even for those with no experience.

Artist Larry Williams’ experience with Art From the Streets 

“The overwhelming response when we ask people to come draw is, ‘I cant even draw a straight line,’ but the act of creating something and sitting with yourself and making something you created helps everyone,” Jeffers said.

He is not the only one who feels this way. Cindy Dollar Brown, who went to an Art From the Streets show about 10 years ago and has been volunteering in various capacities since, believes the program offers the homeless something they could not experience without it and also helps those volunteering.

“It gives a sense of industry and a sense of purpose to people who might not otherwise have that,” Brown said.

Jeffers says the program is growing and in constant need of more help for the continued success and growth of the program.

The program is hoping to get higher involvement from younger people including those in college but says they struggle with that demographic because of the times of the sessions.

“We are looking for volunteers. We have a hard time recruiting students because the sessions are during prime class time,” Jeffers said. “We are always looking for more help though.”

Those who volunteer with the program cannot stress enough the rewards of being involved and the positive impact on those who volunteer and attend the show as well.

According to Worden, the program benefits more than just the artists.

“I think giving back and helping these people have a hand up is some of the best work you can do. And just to be around them and be excited for them and to give them a purpose, I think it is a wonderful organization to work for,” Worden said.

Of course the artists themselves greatly benefit from the program and show, as well. Miles credits Art From the Street for playing a large role in no longer being homeless.  He continues to play a role in the program and shares his experience to remind himself of where he came from and hopes that the program will have the same effect on others.

“I am truly blessed. I am not out on the streets anymore, but I am still partaking because I never want to forget. I want to continue being that light for others,” Miles said.

He is an exception though, as there are still many homeless in the city of Austin looking to change their lives with the help of programs like Art From the Streets and get to where Miles is today.

“I was one of the lucky crabs that got out of the bucket,” Miles said.


A Journalist’s experience with Art From the Streets:

To read more about my experience with Art From the Streets, click here.

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