Backstreet Community Arts is located on the backstreet behind the food pantry, next to the railroad tracks in a commercial district of Newnan, Georgia, in a space that has a lively history including being the backroom of a bar. In the summertime, when the pollinator garden is full of flowers and flying things, the Backstreet Community Arts building is revealed by a jolt of color set amidst the old brick buildings and shipping containers; you will spot our purple awning and the “Art Saves Lives” flag flapping in the breeze.
Our building had been used as storage for many years and back when I originally signed the lease, it had no windows or plumbing. It was a dark space with a large crevice in the cement floor that greeted you at the front door. The space immediately held “good juju,” combined with the rent being right! With a lot of help from family and friends, we knocked down walls, ripped up carpet, poured cement, painted the entire place from ceiling to floor white, added windows and installed a washout sink. It took seven months and if I knew what I was getting into, I may have been too afraid to start. With much work, the place was transformed into the bright cheerful studio it is today.
If you get to the railroad tracks, you’ve gone too far.
I was born in Detroit and had a pretty normal childhood full of normal childhood stuff. My home regularly had music playing, and my sister and I looked forward to library visits, as well as, experimenting with all kinds of art. Our parents could often be found busy with building projects (their regular beloved adage was, “Don’t buy it, MAKE it!”). Our family ultimately moved to Orlando, Florida, where I fell in love with a Florida boy. He and I moved to South Florida in the ‘80s, where we were fortunate enough to have two wonderful boys. We dragged them around the South for many years and finally settled in Newnan, Georgia.
In 2008, I experienced an intensely dark period of my life. I spent hours a day painting dark paintings full of sorrow, and I soon realized if I didn’t do something, I may spiral so far down the rabbit hole I’d never find my way out. Volunteering had helped me in the past, so I found a food bank in the next city over and started volunteering 30 hours a week. They had a “dump all the donations into one pile” system so I started straightening and sorting…putting beans with beans and corn with corn. Then I started sub-categorizing…kidney beans separated from black beans, kernel corn separated from creamed corn, etc. Somehow, this sorting of cans made me feel like I was gaining control of the chaos in my mind—canned vegetables still hold a warm spot in my heart.
At the same time, I found an open art studio to attend one day a week. I paid $125 a month to work on my own art with other creatives and brought all my own supplies. I was surrounded by sensitive artists who ran the art studio and recognized my fragility. Their encouragement of my art, combined with my involvement with the food bank, slowly brought me back to the light.
I firmly believe that we are all creators. Most of us created as children and then “adulting” happened.
The Picasso quote is so true, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one once we grow up.”
Over the years, I have come to grasp that we all have superpowers. I wish mine was flying, but it isn’t. Mine is that people tell me their stories, usually within minutes of my meeting them. For instance, when traveling, I get back in the car after stopping to get gas and a coffee, and I can tell you how many times the cashier has been married and why the barista got a tattoo of a banana on his forearm. A big reason for my quick connection with strangers is that I want to learn more about them. Some people haven’t felt listened to or valued for a long time. I want to help. Being empathetic, I also deeply feel people’s sorrows.
In my numerous past discussions with others, I had found myself asking about their involvement with art. “Are you creating? Do you journal? Paint? Play the ukulele?” The answer was often, “No”. This led me to wonder just how can people get through this life without art? I suddenly had this explosion of realization. The people I was meeting every day at the food bank and beyond had sorrows just as strong as mine but had no art in their life. I had to do something…
While the first sparks of opening a free community art studio were smoldering inside my mind, one of my biggest fears was that I would not be able to teach. I started by opening up my home on Wednesday evenings to anyone who wanted to create and use my art supplies, and fortunately, these first Wednesday night artists were very forgiving guinea pigs. Eventually, I stumbled upon Art from the Streets in Austin, Texas, a volunteer-run program that provides a safe and nurturing artistic environment for homeless people (artfromthestreets.org), and they graciously invited my sister and me to fly out and see how they operated. Simply put, they provide a space and the art supplies, the people come and art is made. I was encouraged and realized that art has its own magical powers, and I didn’t have to be a great teacher to get this going.
Over the next two years, I met with artists, business people and visionaries I respected to sound out this idea of a free art studio. My initial idea was to have an art studio just for those who were homeless. Eventually, I came to realize that this free open art studio needed to be for EVERYONE. Grief is not discretionary. Depression doesn’t care how much money you have. Sorrow is not a respecter of persons. Illness treats all people equally. We all have broken places that art can help heal.
“Art is when a human tells another human what it is to be human.”
— Adrian Elmer
In the beginning, I had my doubts that this place was going to work, especially during the first couple of months we were open when it was only me and another volunteer in the studio. I finally knew we were onto something unique and special when one day, several months after we opened, I looked around and saw the wide array of participants—a young homeless man who slept in a storage shed the next block over, a man in recovery who had just gotten out of jail who worked at the local pizza place, a middle-aged successful businesswoman out on medical leave for depression, an elderly woman who fled her home in Jamaica because her husband was shot and killed over a land dispute, a hotel manager scheduled for neck surgery and a lawyer—all sitting together with varying stories but with the similar desire to learn how to oil paint. Art is a great equalizer. It is a beautiful thing to see people from very different backgrounds and life situations talking and making art together.
Fast forward to February 7, 2019, and Backstreet Community Arts just celebrated its 2nd birthday. Last year, over 2,900 people signed in at the front door—some come just for a season, though many participants come on a regular basis. We are now able to offer many different types of art: writing, leather craft, metalworking, resin art, beaded embroidery, knitting, crocheting, wool felting, sewing, acrylic and oil painting, art journaling, mixed media, hand formed pottery, and we just added yoga and ukulele! We would not be functioning without our team of volunteers who give their time and talents freely to the participants. We have been able to pay the bills for our great cause thanks to the many donors who believe in our mission. I am proud of myself for standing firm for what Backstreet Arts is and saying no to those things that may sound good but would change who we are. Keeping the place open for two years and not crumbling under the weight of other people’s sorrows has been a huge accomplishment.
Practicing what I preach and balancing the running of Backstreet with scheduling time in my studio, however, has been a real challenge. Every day, I learn another thing that I don’t know about running a nonprofit, and there is so much that needs to be done behind the scenes. When I feel the darkness approaching me like a stalker in the parking lot of the grocery store, I know I haven’t been painting enough, so I continuously work to create and maintain a healthy balance in my life.
While our hands are busy, our stories come out.
Art gets me through every day. Art helps me sort out my emotions. Art helps me process the injustice I see in the world. Art helps relieve me of the sorrows I absorb. Art saves my life. I cannot imagine where I would be without it, and I want to do my best to make sure everyone gets the same chance to create as I have had. I think there should be a place like Backstreet in every city! A free place to create and have a community—what could be better than that?
BELOVED STUDIO COMPANION
Tobold Hornblower of the South Farthing (aka Toby) is a big, white, shaggy superhero disguised as a 7-year old Goldendoodle. He rarely leaves my side except to do his job of greeting everyone at the door. Not everyone who walks through the door is used to feeling welcomed, though getting leaned on or nudged in the leg by a large nose in the center of a fluffy face with two soulful brown eyes can bring a smile to the grumpiest of us.