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Art exhibit by once-homeless men traces their journey back to stability

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 22, 2009 - Every Thursday night at the parish hall across from Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Soulard, men moving from homelessness to independent living meet with local artists to draw, paint, write and record their stories. It's now a tradition that during these bursts of creativity, the group chomps on Dove chocolates.

All of this helps explain the centerpiece of an exhibition that begins Friday at the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission: scattered cocoa shells and chocolate figurines holding up a house made of candy wrappers.

"Finding Grace: Ten Years in Retrospect," a show that commemorates a decade of the community collaborARTive, has an aspirational quality about it.

Many pieces tell of people longing for stability -- a permanent home, a steady income, a positive relationship with family. Inspirational words -- "Dreams," "Somewhere happiness," "Leave no stone unturned" -- covering an entire wall convey a buoyant tone.

But the exhibition isn't merely a celebration of people on an upward trajectory. The 40-some men who each year write the poetry and create the murals and collages are working through their feelings about what caused them to lose everything, and they are grappling with the challenges that still lie ahead.

Nowhere is that bumpy path better illustrated than by a 16-by-20-foot board game that lays out the roadblocks and routes to independence.

Players in this game, which is mounted as a work of art, have to pass through bureaucratic agencies and attend rehabilitation meetings to move forward. Paying rent and buying furniture are the final steps before a player reaches the winner's circle, which in this case means being in their own home.

The men who take part in the community collaborARTive program are in the transitional housing program run through Peter & Paul Community Services, a nonprofit that provides emergency shelter, transitional housing and support services to dozens of otherwise homeless men, some of whom have a mental illness and are dealing with substance abuse.

A case manager identifies the men ready to move into permanent housing and employment. They are required, among other things, to take part in the art program. Area artists funded by the Missouri Arts Council and the Regional Arts Commission work with the men on short- and long-term projects meant to encourage self-expression.

In the first year of the program, the men hand bound a book of essays, poems and images that they had created. Some of those projects, as well as other writing exercises and photo montages, are on display in the exhibition.

Con Christeson, co-founder along with Tom Burnham of community collabARTive and currently the program's managing artist, said she's struck by the relationships forged through the program and the openness of the men who take part each week. In one memorable case, a creative writing teacher gave the men a prompt to write about their grandmother's kitchen. Christeson said an otherwise reserved participant began to cry, explaining to the group that his downward spiral began when his grandmother who raised him died.

"That story would never have come out by someone asking whether you are saving your money and going to rehabilitation meetings," Christeson said. "It's interesting how stories really connect people, and art brings out these stories."

Each week, the group starts the session by sitting in a circle and reviewing what happened -- both positive and negative -- during the past week. William Lee, who is now living on his own, said he appreciated the chance to have that conversation and work on the art projects that followed.

"It was something to look forward to outside the normal routine," Lee said. "When I started the program I was more closed off, but the art helped me be more outspoken. I went in thinking I couldn't draw or paint, but the artists said everything is art. After a while I started believing it."

Lee worked on murals and writing projects, and helped develop the board game. "My signature is all through [the exhibition]," he said.

The program has motivated Lee to write extensively about his life, including what brought him to the transitional housing program, how he lived independently but then came back to Peter & Paul before again finding his own home. Lee works part-time as a hospitality and safety host at a church. He still comes to many Thursday events, as do other program alums, Christeson said.

Based on writing done from the first eight years of community colaborARTive, men in the program put together a performance piece about their shared experiences. The exhibition includes a CD version of the men speaking about getting jobs, raising kids, avoiding alcohol and overcoming setbacks. Some men who took part in the project will perform a 15-minute clip at Friday's opening reception.

Another focal point of the show is a two-sided display board that shows writing from both the men and students at St. Louis Community College at Meramec. A while back, the students spent time at the church, and the men at the college. Everyone kept a journal about the experience, including any stereotypes about people who had been homeless. The groups finally met each other at the end of the academic term. What's displayed are the reactions of everyone involved. "They will see me and think, now is this man really homeless because he doesn't look like it," one man in the program writes. "Now what is a homeless person supposed to look like?"

Christeson, who is one of three curators of the show, along with professional artists Keith Buchholz and Michele Ryker-Owens, said this isn't the first time the program has put artwork done by the men on display. But it is the most comprehensive collection that spans the entire decade.

"We wanted to celebrate the work we've done," Christeson said.