Art from the heart 

Howard Jackson is a survivor.

Jackson has suffered numerous tragedies and setbacks, including traumatic brain injury, coma, partial paralysis, vocal loss, a stroke, drug addiction, depression and homelessness. Yet he is a founding member of Union Mission’s Consumer Advisory Board.

In addition, Jackson is a Homelessness 101 Peer Educator who speaks to others, especially youth, about homelessness and the dangers of drugs and alcohol. He also has the heart of an artist.

Jackson combines a love of drawing with a passion for color when creating unique greeting cards. They depict vibrant butterflies, hummingbirds and flowers.

A member of the Growing Hope Artisans Cooperative of Union Mission, Inc., Jackson proudly promotes the work of his fellow members. This program was started to offer training, support and entrepreneurial experience to artists and crafters who are impacted by homelessness.

“The co-op gives us the ability to get beyond the stereotypes,” says Growing Hope Coordinator Michael Freeman. “Homeless people have talent and the desire for creative expression, just like everyone else.”

When a piece of art is sold, most of the money goes to the artist who created it. A portion goes to the Artisans Cooperative.

“This program was started to help the members express themselves artistically,” Freeman says. “We had three purposes in mind -- to help people on fixed incomes get supplemental income, to help coop members try entrepreneurial efforts in the arts and to work together to make art and also increase the members’ incomes.”

It’s all about quality of life, Freeman says. The co-op is not just a place to make art, it provides a social outlet for its members.

“When the members are homeless, they have a lot of contact with people here at Union Mission,” Freeman says. “When they get an apartment of their own, they are all alone. This is a way they can meet and have contact with each other.”

Some of the co-op members have had formal art training, while others are self-taught. “Some of our folks have Master of Fine Arts degrees and different levels of art ability,” Freeman says.

The co-op is selling paintings, hand-woven hammocks, greeting and note cards and horticultural crafts made with items from Union Mission’s Garden of Hope, including painted potpourri boxes, bookmarks, hand-poured candles and handmade stationery. “These are crafts people can learn and make money from,” Freeman says.

So far, co-op member Don Sheley has made five hammocks. “It takes a lot of concentration, but it keeps my mind clear,” he says. “Once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature.”

Sheley never had artistic experience before joining the cooperative. “But I always worked with my hands,” he says. “I was in construction and I made things.”

At first, the hammocks were produced only two days a week. “Now we make them whenever we can get over here,” Sheley says.

“It takes a day to make one hammock,” he says. “Eventually, we will be making two a day.”

Making hammocks gives Sheley a sense of peace and a whole lot of satisfaction. “It is a great way to make extra income,” he says.

“A lot of the Union Mission folks have medical problems and can’t do manual labor,” Sheley says. “But they can make decent money doing this, once they learn it.”

Co-op members work on their art whenever they can find the time. “Howard makes his cards in the office,” Freeman says. “We do things wherever we can find the space.”

So far, the co-op has eight members. Potential members must go through an interview process and several interviews have been scheduled.

“As this develops, we will add more members,” Freeman says. “Our target is to have 30 people in the co-op by the end of the year.”

Community Education Director Laura Webb says the cooperative is a model of self-sufficiency. “For us, it means that the decisions are made by the members of the co-op,” she says.

“When a member sells something, they get to keep most of the money, but a piece of it goes back into the co-op,” she says. “It is sustaining itself.”

The Artisans Cooperative is under the same umbrella as another successful Union Mission, Inc. project -- the Growing Hope Community Garden and Market. In that program, produce is grown at Union Mission’s community garden, then sold at the market.

“When the Greater Hope Community Market opened in April, we opened the co-op, as well,” Webb says. “We were one of the vendors at the market.”

“We sold paintings, walking sticks, greeting cards and a couple of hammocks,” Freeman says. “We also got several orders.

“Being able to work with a team helps the members learn about business,” he says. “They learn about making decisions and about profit and loss.”

The hammocks are made in a building that stands next to the J.C. Lewis Health Center on Fahm Street. A giant loom stands in the center of the room, surrounded by other tools of the trade.

Local artist Susan Patrice donated the loom to the program. “She also taught hammock weaving to the co-op,” Freeman says.

In addition to the loom, Patrice donated several spools of the rope that is used to make the hammocks. From this point on, profits from sales will be used to replenish the supplies.

Community volunteers have offered to teach papermaking and bird-house building. Other volunteers help set up and take down exhibitions of members’ work. “We are looking for a volunteer who can show us framing and matting,” Webb says.

“If someone can teach it, we have the means for people to do it,” Freeman says. “It would be a wonderful addition.”

The cooperative also has its own artistic review board, which is made up of local artists and other members of the art community. “They help with quality control,” Freeman says. “They also help us learn how to present and display the things that are made.”

Further developments are in the works. “Hopefully, in October, we will have a catalogue that will go out to folks so they can order from that,” Freeman says. “We also hope to have a Web site up by the end of the year.”

Adds Webb, “That will reach an even larger audience for the co-op.”

The program has been quite successful, and the cooperative made $1,000 in its first two months. “And our biggest sellers are just getting started -- the hammocks,” Freeman says.

Some of the artists already are establishing reputations for having their own unique styles, including co-op member Peter Crawford. “His work is very symbolic, but whimsical,” Webb says. “It has a wide appeal.”

Carl E. Brown has become known for his floral paintings. “They are so beautiful,” says Webb. “They look like Savannah’s flowers to me.”

Webb says the co-op is always looking for ways to display the work. Recently, an exhibition of work was set up at the United Way.

Also, work is displayed in a permanent display area in the Artisans Center at the (I Can’t Believe It’s Not) Bread & Butter Cafe, home to Union Mission’s culinary arts program. “We have a whole wall of paintings at the cafe, and it keeps expanding,” Freeman says.

Customers at the cafe can buy as well as browse, and often do. “As we sell pieces, we have spaces on the wall to fill, which is a good problem to have,” Webb says.

Paintings are priced from $40 to $200. Webb says the co-op hopes to make prints or stationery with images of the paintings available at some point.

“They would be for people who like something but don’t have the space available,” she says. “It also would be a way for them to have something really beautiful that has already sold.”

The hammocks come in three colors choices -- green, tan or white -- and cost $120. “They are 5 feet by 6 feet and weather resistant,” Webb says. “They stand up to the humidity here in Savannah.”

Freeman says some of the rope used to weave the hammocks is made of recycled plastic, while recycled rug fibers are used to make the others. “It is softer than cotton,” he says.

The hammocks are tough enough to last a long time in all kinds of weather. “Because they use recycled materials, they are very earth-friendly,” Freeman says.

Sheley estimates that 800 feet of rope go into each hammock. “The more you use it, the tighter it becomes,” he says.

In addition to art pieces, the cooperative sponsors free art classes at the (I Can’t Believe It’s Not) Bread & Butter Cafe that are taught by local artists. The four-week classes are based around a featured topic.

“The classes are open to the public, as well as our folks,” Freeman says. “We hope to expand the offerings and get more people to come.”

The (I Can’t Believe It’s Not) Bread & Butter Cafe is open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., or by appointment. “People can view the art any time the cafe is open,” Webb says.

The Growing Hope Community Market has closed for the season, but when it is open, the Artisans Gallery is open, too.

People interested in volunteering or purchasing a piece of art from the cooperative can call Webb at 236-7423 or send e-mail to lwebb@unionmission.org.

The co-op is seeking other venues in the community to display the work. “The JEA allowed us to put hammocks up to let people see them and place orders,” Webb says, adding that other locations are being sought. “We are open to all offers.”

The artists themselves actively promote the co-op and the Artisans Gallery. “Some of the artists, in particular Howard, are peer educators who speak to youth in the community about the homeless and recovery from drugs and alcohol,” Webb says. “Because he is so well known as a speaker, he has helped promote the coop.”

The only regret Webb has so far about the co-op is that no pictures were taken of early pieces that were sold so that they can be remembered. “One of the paintings went with a lady to North Carolina,” she says. “We do know who bought it, but she’s a little far away.”

The success of the program has surprised some of the co-op’s members. “This is the last thing in the world I thought I’d be doing,” says Sheley of his hammocks. “I enjoy it very much, especially when it’s finished and everyone can see it.” w

Members of the Growing Hope Artisans Cooperative

* Dominici Pannazzo is a 2003 graduate of the (I Can’t Believe It’s Not) Bread and Butter Cafe Culinary Arts Program. He is employed in the culinary field, but paints prolifically in his spare time. He recently had a solo exhibition entitled Putting the Pieces Back Together, a series of reflections on recovery. Currently, he is working on a series of paintings about happiness.

* David DeVaul was educated at the University of Cincinnati and has worked as a fine artist and in sales. Although alcoholism took a heavy toll on his life and health, he is in recovery and is employed. He is a member of Union Mission’s Consumer Advisory Board and an advocate for the healing powers of the creative arts.

* Carl Brown is self-taught and creates glowing paintings that depict nature. He is in recovery and is a member of the Union Mission community.

* Peter Crawford worked as a chef, a career he loved, until health problems forced him to stop. A shaman suggested that he try woodcarving as an outlet for his creativity, so Crawford uses found sticks of wood to create his art. He also paints and has taught at Union Mission, Inc. as a peer educator in the arts.

* Andrew Collier is a self-taught artist whose specialty is landscapes created in pastels. He also enjoys playing chess and learning to use computers, and leads creative arts classes at the J.C. Lewis Health Center of Union Mission, Inc.

* Howard Jackson has survived traumatic brain injury, coma, partial paralysis, vocal loss, stroke, drug addiction, depression and homelessness. He paints and creates his own greeting and note cards. He is a founding member of Union Mission’s Consumer Advisory Board and is a Homeless 101 Peer Educator.

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Linda Sickler

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