The Gathering Place and Art Students League collaborate to help people who have experienced homelessness pursue creative careers

5 min. read
Kylee Wellons speaks to a reporter about her work hanging in “Shifting Outlines,” a show featuring artists from The Gathering Place who are being trained by teachers from the Art Students League of Denver, at the Leon Gallery, June 14, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Artist Kylee Wellons was talking about one of her paintings in a group show that opened this week at a City Park West gallery. It sounded like she was sharing a hard-won life lesson.

"You kind of have to choose whether you want to fight with the canvas and yourself. Or work with the canvas."

Wellons was among 11 artists exhibiting in "Shifting Outlines." The show up through June 22 at the Leon nonprofit arts organization's gallery is put on by the Art Students League of Denver and The Gathering Place, which serves women, children and transgender individuals experiencing poverty or homelessness.

The Gathering Place offers the kinds of services Denver is hoping more people living in homelessness can access as it makes plans to expand day shelters across the city. Help that can be found at The Gathering Place includes meals; clothing for a job interview; a place for children to nap; shower and laundry facilities; GED and work training; and connections to other service providers.

Opportunities to make art have been part of the support The Gathering Place lends almost since it opened in 1986. In 2014 The Gathering Place launched a social enterprise, Art Restart,   selling cards, tote bags and other products bearing the work of its artists. Art Restart proceeds are shared between the artists and The Gathering Place, as are proceeds from the sale of work in the Leon show.

Wellons, who is studying graphic art at the Community College of Denver, grew up performing dance, music and gymnastics. She didn't think of herself as a visual artist until she lost her housing.

"I just walked into an art resource room at a time of need," she said of discovering the arts program at The Gathering Place.

Work by Sevilla Stinnett. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

She had been pregnant and sleeping on a friend's couch when she first came to The Gathering Place in 2016. She said she found it hard to ask for help, but that just seeing information posted at The Gathering Place about housing and other resources gave her hope. She returned after the birth of her son, finding activities for him and the art room for her.

"I went to the art room. And, you know, I never left."

That first day, Wellons drew a woman in a black dress holding roses.

"She was bleeding from holding the thorns," Wellons said. "That first day was therapeutic for me. Actually, this whole process has been therapeutic."

Wellons, who recently left a Warren Village transitional apartment for her own home, still considers herself part of The Gathering Place.

Steve Hartbauer said the arts programs he directs at The Gathering Place allow people to think of themselves not as homeless, but as painters, musicians, writers. The new partnership with the Art Students League takes that tactic a step further.

Steve Hartbauer, arts program manager with The Gathering Place, poses for a portrait. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Gathering Place and the league pooled grants to create a 36-week course in which professional artists help The Gathering Place students improve their skills and prepare for careers. The Leon show marks the end of the first nine weeks. A second show is planned later in the course. Hartbauer said he hopes the program can be repeated -- that depends on getting more grants.

Wellons said Hartbauer encouraged her to take the league classes, but she initially thought her college courses would keep her from participating. She rearranged her schedule. And for two hours every Tuesday at The Gathering Place she has set herself the task of embracing techniques and media beyond the pen-and-ink she had preferred and adding color to what had been a primarily black-and-white palette.

"I challenged myself that every day I was going to go into that class and not do black and white," she said. "If I'm going to do this, I'm going to break out of my shell. This is about growth."

For one of her three pieces in "Shifting Outlines," she blocked out strips of canvas with masking tape and then used paper towels sodden with paint and water to daub on patterns in a rainbow of pastels. She removed the tape and found shadows of color had bled onto areas she had expected to remain blank.

"It didn't turn out the way I expected it," she said. "It actually turned out better."

Sevilla Stinnett poses for a portrait. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Sevilla Stinnett looks with confidence at her work in "Shifting Outlines" and sees what she's learned over the last nine weeks. For the show, Stinnett did three small works depicting people walking in the rain, using acrylic and, for a three-D effect, a splash of plaster.

"The umbrella gives me a sense of protection, the feeling that you're safe," she said, pointing to red plaster crescent moons that sheltered the people in her postcard-sized paintings.

Stinnett said she was looking forward to classes planned later on the business side of art.

"My end result is to be a professional artist and to make a living at it," Stinnett said. "I was homeless at one point in my life, through domestic violence. Art helped me cope."

The Leon gallery is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 12 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Rochelle Mills poses with her work. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Robin Hill. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Artist Cynthia Buchanan poses for a portrait. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)
Marlo Olivas checks out the installation. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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