HomeFront uses ArtSpace program to help those in need

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Megan S. is an artist, but she never took her artistic abilities seriously until she lost her apartment and landed at HomeFront.

Megan has always been creative, taking discarded materials and turning them into something new. She attended art school in Massachusetts, but ran out of money and had to drop out.

After leaving art school, Megan worked as a pharmacy technician, helped to run an off-the-electric-grid organic farm, created flower arrangements for a florist, and even owned a health food store.

When Megan and her son were evicted from their apartment, she turned to HomeFront. The Lawrence Township-based nonprofit group helps the homeless and the working poor.

At HomeFront, Megan discovered ArtSpace. It is one of many programs offered to HomeFront’s clients – from helping them to get a high school equivalency diploma to job training programs that are aimed at getting them back on their feet.

ArtSpace, however, is different. Being homeless is a traumatic experience, and the creative process – whether it is painting or sculpture – is therapeutic, said Ruthann Traylor, executive director of ArtSpace.

Megan, who is a painter, said ArtSpace was just what she needed as she tried to right herself. She spends her free time in the art studio at the HomeFront Family Campus next to the Mercer County Airport in Ewing Township.

“I have only been saying I am an artist lately,” Megan said. “I did this my whole life, but I never had the support [from other people]. I did not have the confidence in myself until I came here [to HomeFront and ArtSpace].

“ArtSpace has helped me. It’s the whole therapeutic aspect. It has given me a community that believes in me. I know they want me to succeed. I like to feel good and ArtSpace makes me feel good,” she added.

Making the clients feel good about themselves is exactly the point of ArtSpace, Traylor said. Homelessness is a “rough patch” in their lives, she said.

“They come into the studio to heal in a space that is creative, colorful and inspirational. It just makes you feel good,” Traylor said.

The clients, who are mostly single moms and a scattering of single dads, walk past the ArtSpace studio and look in, she said. They are curious, but most feel that they are not artistic. Nevertheless, she encourages them to come into the studio and try it out.

“I tell them, ‘We are all artists. Just say you will try it,'” Traylor said.

Some clients accept the invitation and are pleased and surprised when they discover that they are creative, Traylor said. They start to feel better about themselves. They have so much talent, but they don’t know it because they are too busy trying to survive, she said.

Sometimes, they respond to the pain in their lives on canvas. They may not want to talk about their pain, but they can paint about it, Traylor said.

“The recipe is, we believe in them and we encourage them. It also helps when I tell them I am not a teacher. We work together in a nonjudgmental, safe haven,” she said.

Traylor has worked in many homeless shelters, teaching the clients to express themselves through art. She learned about HomeFront, and has been directing its ArtSpace program for about 10 years.

“Art is so important. It teaches life skills – how to focus and how to solve problems. We encourage them to finish what they have started. That’s the magic. If you push harder, you will get to where you like it,” she said.

Getting to where they want to be could be anything from getting a high school diploma to learning a new skill, Traylor said. She challenges them to achieve their goals through art. The first or second time they try to paint, it’s practice. They get better each time until they master it.

“It’s about art, but it’s not about art. We urge them to feel good about themselves. I don’t think the homeless and the poor feel that they are valued,” Traylor said.

Some clients leave their artwork in the studio, and they are surprised when they find that it has been put in a frame. They recognize it and say it is their painting, and they are amazed that someone took the time to frame it, she said.

ArtSpace holds pop-up art shows in the area, where the clients/artists can offer their works for sale. Among the skills that it teaches is entrepreneurship, because they have a chance to sell their artwork and earn money, she said.

But there is another dimension to it, Traylor said.

At an art show, there is a reception where the artists are celebrated, she said. The reception connects the clients with the community.

“There is this perception of homelessness, and people in the community get to meet the artist and talk to the artist,” she said, adding that it can be an eye-opener for them.

“Art teaches you to be innovative. You have to be creative, no matter what you do in life. We show the clients a different way of life. When you can paint, it is something that nobody can take away from you,” Traylor said.