Investing in a Culture of Radical Acceptance

IMAGINE. CREATE. SHARE. REPEAT.” – Art Spaces and Opportunity

On the last Friday of every month, four walls dangling with paintings, photographs, and mounted 3-D art pieces surround a community gathering of artists. An open mic draws spoken word, passionate anthems, comedic rants, and raw musical talent. This is the Arts Jam at Studio 526, a genuine celebration of radical acceptance, love, art and community. According to me, anyway.

Studio 526 is a studio platform built by and for one of the most creative neighborhoods in the world: Skid Row, Los Angeles. Established in 1999, the Studio offers arts services to people who are homeless, live in extreme poverty, or live with the challenges of mental illness and addiction. The space operates on the conviction that “equitable access to arts and cultural spaces is a fundamental human right, essential for everyone.”

When I moved back to Los Angeles in 2015, I started volunteering at Studio 526. My first opportunity to help out was at Gladys Park at the 5th annual Festival for All Skid Row Artists put on by Los Angeles Poverty Department. The two-day music and arts festival turns the park into a living, breathing platform where the community proudly and loudly claims its existence. It is exciting, eccentric and, most importantly, free and accessible. It’s a chance to witness and celebrate the incredible resilience and artistic talent of a community – thriving – against all odds.

 

Artist working on a collaborative art piece in Gladys Park at the 2016 Festival for All Skid Row Artists.

 

As an artist, an archivist, and a community event producer, I’m most interested in the forces at work behind radical story telling and history making — stories that wouldn’t otherwise get told; the ones made up of voices that wouldn’t otherwise be heard. The immense dedication that folks downtown put into to changing the narrative that surrounds Skid Row and homelessness in Los Angeles drew me in. I’m inspired by how this is expressed again and again, in real time, through inclusive and accessible arts programming.

I grew up in West Los Angeles, in Venice and Brentwood. Prior to 2015 my visits downtown were infrequent to say the least. Skid Row in particular is a place everyone hears about but doesn’t actually dare to visit. I never imagined that one day Skid Row would be one of the only places where I want to hangout in Los Angeles.

On that first day of volunteering I drove to Gladys Ave and 6th Street thinking, “Is this ok? It must be fine to get out of my car…I’m a volunteer after all…”

I parked and walked into the park, with hesitation. A woman called over to me, “Wow! You are so beautiful! Are you a volunteer? What’s your name? I’m Suzette.”

 

Suzette Shaw Performing spoken word poetry at the Festival for All Skid Row Artists, 2015

 

Suzette Shaw would become my first introduction to Skid Row and, to this day, a dear friend of mine. As we set up chairs and folded t-shirts for the artists, she told me the story of how she became homeless. Suzette, an advocate and an artist, describes her work as “Skid Row from a Woman’s Perspective.” She uses her voice to amplify those that are silenced — silenced by the daily traumas of the streets: police brutality, sexism, and racism. This is only the beginning of the list.

After meeting Suzette I thought about safety and safe spaces. How I felt when I first visited Skid Row. How women feel no matter what neighborhood they are in. How the violence of our society is magnified in various environments.

Safety is freedom— not just physically feeling safe, but symbolically, feeling safe to think and speak your truth. And not just for women, for everyone.

 

Community Photo after the 2015 Festival for All Skid Row Artists

 

Words like “safe,” “community”, “art”, “recovery”, and “healing” might not come to mind when one thinks of Skid Row. After a visit to Studio 526, though, those are the only words that come to mind. It’s a space that plays a real role in changing the dominant narrative that surrounds the place.

 

Art, Activism and Social Change

The most innovative paths to housing and recovery are not born from top-down policy changes, but from artistic and collaborative grassroots efforts. No matter what your housing status, the opportunity for creative expression and community participation improves quality of life. In Skid Row, I see this first hand.

For Keith Jackson, a long time studio member, making art is not only his livelihood but also an essential part of his well-being and routine. When Keith became homeless, the question of where he was going to make art was just as important as where he would sleep or find his next meal. When he gained access to the art studio three things happened: He found a place he could continue to make art; he had a safe place to go; and he learned how to use his talents to deal with his new environment. More than a table and supplies, the studio was a place of refuge. It was somewhere to go, if only for a few hours, so as to not to deal with the “chaos and the temptation of drugs of alcohol.”

Access to a safe space in the middle of Skid Row means finding a moment to breathe — a moment where the struggle of survival all of the sudden isn’t everything. Access to a safe art space means finding the opportunity to explore creativity, to explore parts of your mind and dreams previously ignored because there was no room for them.

We live in a society that feeds off our self-doubt — where success is measured by achievements and accomplishments in proportion to the level of celebrity or status achieved. Where lives are built in competition and isolation rather than in collaboration and support. Against this backdrop, it is essential to have access to supportive spaces built on non-judgment that value individual creativity.

Keith is now housed. In addition to pursing his career as an illustrator and completing a graphic novel, he dedicates hours every week to volunteer at Studio 526. He says, “Art is genius because when someone is given the opportunity to create with the support of a community, you believe in your own capacities, and a change begins.”

When I think of the word “space,” I think of opportunity. A physical art space in Skid Row is an opportunity to support the existing population of artists experiencing homelessness. The opening of mental space free from the incessant challenges of life on the street creates opportunity for creative thinking, self-expression, and self-value.

Art enriches lives. Period. This conversation is not new, but it is essential to keep having. And having again.

 

Lorraine after a performance at Studio 526, 2018

It’s not putting pen to paper or brush to canvas, it’s investing in a culture of radical acceptance where folks can be heard and seen. This is why art, in many cases, is the first step to a house, the first step to mental health, and the first step to recovery. If we can first acknowledge this, and then take action to support those who have dedicated their lives to realizing it, we are one step on the right track.

Support the growth of Skid Row Artists by BUYING art here: https://www.imagekind.com/MemberProfile.aspx?MID=12f22e2f-4e12-4edd-81ef-b6a4608f6cb2.

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