Brush with disaster: The art of being homeless

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AURORA | Joann Carillo keeps drawing the same house in bright crayon.

In one, the two-story Denver Square rendered in vivid browns, blues and reds takes up a central place in a simple nature scene. It stands on an unspoiled stretch of green grass; a stream full of black fish bubbles nearby and a line of trees stretches across the horizon. In another, the house dominates the white page, just as the concept dominates her life.

“It’s my dream house,” explains Joann, 33. “There’s peace and quiet. There’s nature and no concrete.”

There’s no house. Joann has no home. She was one of several homeless students who gathered May 5 at the Aurora Cultural Arts District headquarters for the first “Artists from the Streets” art class. Carillo had a specific assignment, as did the rest of the small group gathered in a studio at the back of the building. Teacher and local artist René Farkass told the class to focus on drawing animals, but Carillo kept veering from the formula. With her two sons, 5-year-old Matthew and 3-year-old Nicholas de Graaf, playing nearby, she sketched out a cursory cat and dog and returned to pictures of her dream home.

The artistic focus made sense. For several days, Carillo and her four children had been living in a homeless shelter off East Colfax Avenue. She had suddenly and unexpectedly lost her apartment on Clinton Street. As she worked on crayon drawing with her sons at the ACAD studio, she made regular calls to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless to try to find a new place to live.

But Carillo still found time to focus on her artwork. Along with Matthew and Nicholas, the single mother found a release in her simple work with crayon and paper. She hadn’t drawn since she was an elementary school student living in California, but it took mere minutes for Carillo to find a therapeutic peace in the lines and colors.

That sense of release summed up the whole purpose of the class that debuted this week, according to ACAD Managing Director Tracy Weil. Weil teamed up with Aurora Warms the Night, a nonprofit that gives motel vouchers to the city’s homeless on the coldest nights, for the class series slated to run every Monday morning for the next four weeks.

Since taking over as the ACAD managing director last year, Weil has looked for ways to reinvent the city’s arts district located in the 16-block stretch of Colfax between Florence and Dallas streets. Part of that push has been about drawing new patrons to the area, but the “Artists from the Streets” classes are more about making the community a part of the rebranding effort.

“We thought it would be an interesting way to engage the homeless around here and make them champions for the arts district,” Weil said. “They seem to be attending events like the Aurora Arts Festival. Rather than trying to hide them or try to cover them up, it’s better to engage them in a way that makes them feel like people care.”

ACAD and Aurora Warms the Night provides free art materials, as well as sack lunches. The classes may result in a gallery exhibition in the fall, depending on participation and output.

Less than 10 students reported for the first class, and they took to their projects with caution. Like Carillo, most of the class hadn’t dabbled in art since grade school. Kim Harmon, 51, came to the class only as a favor to a friend and fellow resident at a nearby homeless shelter.

But Harmon wasted no time in choosing a specific subject for the animal study.

She sketched a blue jay in light pencil lines and talked about feeding the same kind of bird when she lived in Aurora with her husband. Harmon had recently returned to Colorado after living for years in Oklahoma. Now a widow, Harmon hoped to find a new start in the state where she’d lived with her husband. 

“Now I’m back. I feel like I’m home,” she said. “I feel like my husband is here more than he was there. I don’t miss him as much.”

As she spoke, she worked on refining her second portrait of the blue jay. Her pencil strokes came more easily, and Farkass came by and encouraged her to combine the best parts of both drafts. Farkass, a professional artist and teacher who’s rented a studio at 1400 Dallas for the past five years, assessed every drawing with kindness and insight.

Encouragement and patience was the key to Farkass’ teaching style for this class. It was critical for these students whose last attempt at drawing came in elementary school. 

“I want to get them started where they left off. It’s rudimentary — a house, a sun in the corner, flowers in the yard,” Farkass said. “They have a childlike reference.”

As Carillo continued to focus on bringing her dream house to life with crayons, she kept referring to those elements. She talked about winning a coloring class in elementary school and took pride in the bright palette.

Then she took a break from her canvas to field a call from a Colorado Coalition for the Homeless counselor. She hoped to win a spot in the coalition’s lottery for a new place to live. In juggling her roles as art student and single mother of four, Carillo didn’t lose her smile or her hopeful attitude.

“My kids need this and deserve it,” Carillo said. “I try to take every bad experience and turn it into something good. I have to. I have to be strong.”

Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at 720-449-9707 or [email protected]