Hunterdon Art Museum and HomeFront Partner to Create Workshop, Exhibition That Aims to Empower the Homeless

Tucked away, inside a rather nondescript building in Lawrenceville, some truly beautiful and empowering art is being created.

Small groups of adults comb through fabrics, searching for just the right swatch to capture their feelings. Others are hunched over whirring sewing machines, stitching together pillows or wall hangings. This mix of homeless women and volunteers are exploring what home means to them on a very personal level through a sewing workshop, part of a series of programs created by the Hunterdon Art Museum and HomeFront’s ArtSpace.

Surrounded by this buzz of activity, Hunterdon Art Museum teacher Wendy Hallstrom and Ruthann Traylor, the director of ArtSpace, discuss the power of art.

“There are so many negatives one has to deal with when experiencing poverty and homelessness,” Traylor said. “There’s not a lot of time for joy. But that’s what ArtSpace allows others to do – to experience that joy, to heal and to feel good about themselves.”

About 100 children and adults participated in the series of workshops that covered a variety of media: painting, sculpting, poetry, sewing and more. Art created from this healing program will be featured in an exhibition at the Museum that runs from June 11 until Sept. 4.

“Everyone communicates differently,” Hallstrom, who is managing the workshops for the Museum, said. “Some people are good with words so we had a poetry session. Others are better at expressing themselves by working with their hands; others maybe by talking. So, the program offers a variety of avenues for adults and children to deal with their emotions at a difficult point in their lives.”

“HomeFront and the Hunterdon Art Museum firmly believe that art plays a vital role in increasing confidence and a positive sense of identity,” said Jennifer Brazel, education director of the Museum. “It teaches simple, age-appropriate skills and nurtures creative thinking and problem solving. And the program also teaches entrepreneurial skills and opportunities for the clients/artists who can sell what they create through ArtSpace’s resources.”

Sometimes those struggling to escape poverty fail to see the value in the work they do. A woman recently visited SewingSpace and for the first time made a drawing and then painted it. The painting was a simple, yet stunning, vase with flowers. When finished, she left it on a table, apparently indifferent to her work.

Traylor found a gorgeous gold frame and placed the painting on an easel. When the woman later returned, she walked past the work, and at first didn’t recognize it as her own. She was astonished when Traylor asked if it could be included in an upcoming art sale.

“I think sometimes when you have so little money you can’t make ends meet feel like you’re valued less,” Traylor said. “And this woman didn’t value the painting she did. . . This program helps break down the barriers of class and race. So someone will see themselves not as a homeless person, but as an artist.”

The exhibition, Meanings of Home, includes paintings, ceramics and photography. Students created a booth that resembled a home and took family portraits. The photos will be displayed and the booth will be installed as part of the exhibition; anyone visiting the show can also take photos in it.

The workshops and exhibitions are funded through a generous grant by the Bunbury Foundation.

For the past decade, ArtSpace has encouraged creativity and self-expression through art therapy in a safe and nurturing environment with the goal of rebuilding the souls of those suffering from poverty, homelessness and family abuse. ArtSpace is run by HomeFront, a Mercer County-based organization that seeks to both lessen the immediate pain of homelessness and to help families become more self-sufficient by giving them the skills and opportunities to ensure adequate income.

In addition to the Lawrenceville location, HomeFront has a Family Campus in Ewing that houses up to 40 families. Through HomeFront’s Resource Network, donations of clothing, furniture and small household itemsare accepted; its FoodPantry provides a week’s worth of free groceries to low-income families who need them. Learn more by visiting www.homefrontnj.org.

The show’s opening reception is Saturday, June 11 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Museum, 7 Lower Center St. in Clinton. You can learn more about the nonprofit Museum and this exhibition by visiting www.hunterdonartmuseum.org.