Guest Blogger Tina Aguilar teaches Humanities and Cultural Studies at Brookhaven College School of the Arts.
If you don’t know the corner of Young Street and Park Avenue, it is part of the heartbeat of Downtown Dallas. That is where The Stewpot Art Program is located. The day I went to The Stewpot, it had been raining pretty ferociously. A few people were nearby and making their way down Park Avenue as I entered the front door. Once I arrived at the Second Floor Gallery, I felt the energy. My eyes found layers of paintings and drawings along the corridors, and I could see three times as many pieces hanging on the walls in the studio. The vibrancy of work matched the enthusiasm of the few artists finishing up their work that afternoon. I spoke with Cynthia Brannum, director of the The Stewpot Art Program, in the studio, where she and other volunteers work daily with homeless/at-risk adult artists:
Tina Aguilar: You have a remarkable place here, and these rooms vibrate with a powerful energy. Can you share some of the history of this place?
Cynthia Brannum: The Stewpot is an organization that was founded by Rev. Bruce Buchanan and has served our Dallas homeless and at-risk populations for about 35 years with comprehensive life strengthening programs. We share corners with the First Presbyterian Church, the Stewpot’s home residence when it first operated in the basement as a soup kitchen in the mid-70s. The community work evolved from an outreach event, where Rev. Buchanan created a talent show that included performance, poetry, essays and art. He noticed different needs for the neighborhood and saw what was here. There were a lot of talented individuals in the area, and he wanted them to be able to show the different parts of themselves. He recognized that creativity and art make a difference – what it means to a person. In the Dallas area, we have a lot of artistic people separated from homes.
T.A: How did you become part of the Stewpot family?
C.B: The Stewpot Art Program has been in existence for over 15 years and was originally started by artist Pamela Nelson, who used to bring her cart with a few art supplies and volunteer with the community. I have been here about nine years and then became director of the Art Program five years ago. When I started here I was looking for more meaning in my life, and this was a change from my previous corporate path. I started helping Pamela with the administrative details and then that role grew with the art program needs. After Pamela transitioned to concentrate more on her art, I accepted a full-time role with the artists. This gave me an opportunity to get back to art. My BFA is in Painting and Drawing from Southern Methodist University.
T.A: Can you tell me about some of your latest events and collaborations?
C.B: Yes, I really believe in and enjoy collaborating. We do about six shows or more a year. Partnerships include the Goodrich Gallery at the First United Methodist Church across the street from the Dallas Museum of Art, the Denton Arts and Jazz Festival, Art to the Rescue and La Reunion, but one of our longest supporters has been the Central Dallas Library Bradshaw Gallery. We do an annual exhibition there every December. Last month, we were part of The Stewpot Alliance’s Soup’s On luncheon fundraiser with a silent art auction.
T.A: Tell me about your philosophy with the art?
C.B: At first I try to see what people are interested in, and after a few weeks go by I can see dramatic improvement or a steady pace. This helps me determine when to buy the higher-grade materials. I want these artists to use the real supplies that will help them with their creative process. When I see the next level or have an artist that has a particular request, I purchase it if our budget allows. In fact, some artists might get a loaner pack to take with them if they have a place of their own. For the most part this space is for them and equipped with supplies from our funds. It is important to show the work in public and important the way they see themselves. I treat them as artists, and when you treat them with respect they meet it and progress. Through this work the community becomes larger. The circumstances they are dealing with may perpetuate isolation, and they can become cut off. We help create connections and community.
T.A: Yes, I was amazed with the work in December, and it led me to your studio. You noted a soulful understanding when you notice someone going with their own flow. There is a value and appreciation with self and place. Would you describe some of the art and artists?
C.B: One of our artists, Cornelious Brackens Jr., has a folk style. With someone like him, the challenge is not to detract from that pure expression. I tell him the expression coming out of you is joyful and right where you need to be. I tell him and other artists that I can teach certain styles and things, but it wouldn’t be the same as it’s coming out of you now. I can offer technique and criticism, but some of these artists do not need that. This is a wonderful place, because there are so many different skill sets and our artists want the experience of creating something.
T.A: This is an adult program, right? What is the process like to participate?
C.B: Yes, this is for adults. We have classes throughout the week, mostly the regular classes are on Tuesday mornings, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, some classes are on Mondays and Fridays, too. Typically, on Fridays we make an announcement to our guests in the main room here at The Stewpot. There are requirements that must be met to participate. You must be in homeless status, receiving Social Security, recently homeless or currently living in a shelter. Many of our participants usually hear about us on the street or from other artists. I have three rules with the Art Program: make good use of the materials, make good use of your time and do not disrupt the others’ creative experiences.
T.A: What about selling the artwork?
C.B: Sure, artists need to sell their work in order to make a living. We promote all aspects of the artistic process. This means they have this studio space to create their work and then they have opportunities to show their work and ultimately to sell it. We have a standard 10 percent fee that funnels back into the Art Program with all artist sales. These funds, along with any donations, are what help me buy the supplies.
Cynthia Brannum and the artists of The Stewpot Art Program invite you to visit the Second Floor Gallery by appointment. You can contact her at 214.746.2785 ext. 235. Next week, I will speak with a few of the artists from the Stewpot about their work and stories.