Sometimes, the uniquely human ability to create art announces itself in the most unexpected places.
At the Rebuild Center, a Catholic collaborative nestled next to St. Joseph Church in New Orleans, courtyard walls are decked with drawings and paintings made by the homeless and hungry who come seeking the center’s vital daytime services.
Hand-decorated birdhouses, mobiles and wooden crosses dangle from wires strung between columns – one cross painted with the message “Risen,” another with the greeting “
I love you.”
Together, the expressive pieces form a life-affirming gallery created by – and for – center guests as they await the daily lunch, a shower, a medical exam or a consultation with someone who can help them acquire essentials such as their certified ID, stable housing or their personal mail.
“Art time is kind of a getaway for them from what they’re dealing with on the streets. It’s just a release for them,” said Becky Brocato, who facilitates art projects for center guests three mornings a week with her fellow volunteer Gaylyn Lambert.
“Some of them will sit there for 30 or 40 minutes and then all of a sudden they’re going, ‘Gee, I’m really enjoying myself! What time is it?’” Brocato said. “They have forgotten about everything, and they’re just focused on that little picture.”
Tables beckon artists
A U-shaped cluster of tables, stocked with paper, canvases, paints, crayons and other supplies, serves as an open invitation for guests to participate in the day’s project or simply doodle for a few minutes.
Sometimes the artists number one or two; at other times as many as a dozen guests rotate in and out of the art area as they seek the center’s varied services.
“Some just want to color every time. Some want to do acrylics every time. They like working on the little canvases,” said Brocato, who brings in picture books to inspire her students and bowls of fruit so they can paint their own still-life. One of her regulars, a middle-aged man named José, likes to make religious art.
“He’ll put in a certain psalm that he’s trying to portray,” Brocato marveled. “He’ll find pieces on the street – a platter or a leg of a chair – and he’ll paint it. He paints anything. Some people really amaze me because they sit down and they end up with something that they could sell in a gallery!”
A ‘Lantern Light’ is lit
The art program was the brainchild of Presentation Sister Dolores Cooney, whose religious community established “Lantern Light” ministry for the hungry and homeless in 2005 in a small trailer outside St. Joseph Church. As fate would have it, Lantern Light’s first challenge was to share food – and hope – with an unexpected population of hungry and homeless individuals: workers and residents returning to the Katrina-devastated Tulane Avenue corridor.
The sisters’ modest trailer, equipped with a refrigerator, food pantry and storage area for clothing and toiletries, morphed into the much larger facility that has graced the site since 2007 – the Rebuild Center. The architecturally recognized structure, with its network of offices spilling off a lush, decked courtyard, provides an array of services each weekday via four collaborators: Lantern Light, the Father Harry Tompson Center, DePaul USA and St. Joseph Church.
When Sister Dolores had to relinquish her art ministry for an assignment overseas, three volunteers stepped up to continue the creative outlet operated by Lantern Light: Brocato, Lambert and Girlie Geary, the latter who left the program after relocating to the northshore.
“The guests here are so inspiring – I never have to ask for help putting things out or picking them up. For the most part they are happy, and that’s incredible when you think of some of the challenges that they face,” said Lambert, a St. Benilde parishioner and retired federal caseworker who began volunteering at the Rebuild Center in 2012, initially as a kitchen helper.
Every time Lambert sits down with her art students, she remembers something Lantern Light’s founder, Presentation Sister Vera Butler, would say: While guests are at the mercy of others’ schedules when they come to the Rebuild Center seeking a doctor, a case worker or a meal, the art program offers them something all their own.
“When you sit down at the art tables you are the creator. It’s uniquely you. It comes from you. You are in charge,” Lambert said. “I think I get more out of (my volunteer time) than they do, because I always leave here a little bit happier than when I arrived.”
Gifts from the heart
Brocato’s skills as a fine arts major have led her to bring a more painterly bent to the program. Lambert brings an arts and crafts dimension to it, scouring craft stores for little wooden items to paint and adult coloring books for her students.
Lambert also oversees the summertime push to make Christmas ornaments to give as gifts at the Rebuild Center’s volunteer appreciation party in December. For the last two years, center guests made mini-Christmas trees by decorating pinecones with beads, glitter and paint.
“It is all their own ideas – each one is different. They made Mardi Gras trees, LSU trees, Valentine’s trees,” said Lambert, noting that the ornaments are given to volunteers at no charge, but a jar collecting freewill donations at last year’s event netted $600 toward the purchase of art supplies.
There but for the grace of God
Brocato, a retired elementary school teacher, began volunteering at the Rebuild Center five years ago as part of the group from Good Shepherd Parish that prepares and serves lunch twice a month.
When the parish’s feeding ministry began drawing more helpers than it could use, Brocato turned her attention to the art program. Backed by radio station WWOZ, she draws in her own sketchbook as her students create and keeps the children of guests occupied with art while their parents are at different locations within the center procuring services.
“They deal with so many pressures out there on the street, but I’m just a ‘regular person’ that’s coming to be with them,” Brocato notes. “They talk to me and they ask me questions. I try to make the time as pleasant for them as possible. I encourage them to just play with the materials.”
Some of Brocato’s students have become dear friends. When a guest named Percy finally found an apartment, Brocato framed a piece of his art to give him as a housewarming gift.
Other guests have a tougher time overcoming their challenges, she said. One man who used to visit the art tables, once a successful pharmacist working in Boston, spiraled into homelessness after a divorce and job loss.
“He was the kind of person where you wondered, ‘How did you end up here?’” Brocato said. “He ended up dying in a room here. It’s very sad sometimes.”
Brocato said working shoulder to shoulder with the marginalized has taught her much about humility, patience and unconditional kindness – “because you never know what someone is going through.”
“We have to love our neighbor, no matter what – and it doesn’t have to be your next-door neighbor. It might be about just taking a minute for that person,” Brocato said.
Empathy is something society desperately needs more of, she added.
“I feel like people, especially in our world today, are not thinking of the other person, not putting themselves in the other person’s place,” Brocato said. “That’s what my Catholic faith means: to love everybody, no matter what religion, what race, what situation.”
The volunteers, who provide their own art supplies, welcome donations. For information, contact Brocato at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beth Donze can be reached at email@example.com.