During her first session of teaching an acrylic painting class at the Community Crisis Center, Samantha Harris’ two students didn’t much like the first few ideas she had for what they might paint.
After a little searching on the Internet, they found a subject more to their liking, and Harris, who works at In Good Glazes, was soon teaching them the basics of painting a night sky and some mountains.
“As they got further into it,” Harris said, “they got really into it.”
One of the men used a walker and his hands shook noticeably, but he worked steadily and patiently on his painting.
“He was a little slower, but he was so proud of how it was turning out,” Harris said. His painting and other artwork produced at the crisis center will be exhibited during the December ArtWalk. Some of the art will also be sold, but the man with the walker seemed more interested in showing the painting to his friends.
“I don’t think he’s going to be getting rid of his picture,” Harris said.
The class taught by Harris is part of the Canvas Project, organized and run by three AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America, commonly known as Vistas, who wanted to do something to help the Community Crisis Center.
Liz Brennan, Daniel Stephenson and Cahrissa Dasso all came here in January as part of the Billings Metro VISTA Project, Stephenson to work on promoting citywide volunteerism and Brennan and Dasso to work on the Illuminate Homelessness project.
But as Brennan explained it, Vistas are also encouraged to take on “passion projects,” and the three of them decided to focus on the crisis center, a 24-hour drop-in center for people with mental illnesses and addictions or dealing with some other crisis.
They organized a project to build a privacy fence behind the center, and another project to enlist photographers to document homelessness in Billings. Then, based on a suggestion from center Director MarCee Neary, they came up with the Canvas Project.
The six-week educational program has been bringing volunteers to the center to teach painting, expressive journaling, ceramics and creative writing. A selection of works from the classes, plus the photographs of homelessness, will be displayed at the Art House Cinema & Pub, 109 N. 30th St., during the Dec. 4 ArtWalk.
Stephenson said the ideas behind the project were to do something that would raise community awareness of the crisis center, give the center’s clients a chance to express themselves and give people an opening to see those clients as individuals.
“It can be kind of dehumanizing,” Stephenson said of homelessness. “We hope people will look at the art and see the personality.”
Dasso said the projects definitely brought out the artists’ personalities.
“They all produced really different works of art, which is awesome,” she said.
It will be up to the individuals to decide whether they want their art to be shown during the ArtWalk and whether to sell or keep their work, Brennan said. Pieces that are sold will be in a silent auction, with a base bid. That initial sum will go to the artist; anything over will be donated to the Community Crisis Center.
Chris Waite, the volunteer coordinator for the city Parks and Recreation Department, is an enthusiastic potter and volunteered to lead the ceramics class. One of the best things about it has been all the interaction that goes on during class, partly, he said, because ceramics “is a very social art.”
At a creative writing workshop earlier this week, led by Denise Blike and Kaitlyn Nicholas, all three Vistas sat in on the class and also took part in the writing exercises. They all picked hand-written “prompts” from a jar, consisting of single words—“ocean” and “unicorn” among them—or more elaborate prompts like “What was your most vivid dream that you remember?”
There were two crisis center clients at this workshop, a man and a woman, both of whom chatted with the instructors and the Vistas almost as much as they wrote, clearly enjoying themselves.
Stephenson happened to pick the “unicorn” prompt and wrote a short, fanciful account of not only unicorns but also other imaginary creatures, at which the female client let out a laugh and said, “Dude, I have to say it: Get out of the game world. Gamer!”
The male client, for his part, read not only his contribution based on a prompt, but something he had written the night before on his own, a collection of things for which he was thankful.
“I’m thankful to be alive,” was one, and “I’m thankful for my sanity was another.” Also, he read, “I’m thankful I’m off the streets and don’t have to sleep on the streets or in the forest.”