The Art of Self-Sufficiency

March 30th, 2006

A few nights ago a couple of girls painted my arm purple. In fairness, I guess you could say I was asking for it. I mean, their hands were slathered in purple paint, and I was standing right there ...

I was visiting the Children's Learning Center at the Ursula Sherman Village in West Berkeley, where kids from homeless families can go for art lessons, get help with their homework, and enjoy being part of a community. The center is a project of a 35-year-old organization called Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), which provides housing, health services, and counseling to homeless people in Alameda County.

My wife, a public schoolteacher who has had many homeless children in her classroom, has been telling me for years how hard it is for them to do well in school. They're dealing with instability on so many levels -- where they live, where they go to school (often missing lots of school), receiving inadequate nutrition and health care -- that they need the kind of support that the Children's Learning Center provides. Not to mention the relief this gives their parents: Knowing their kids are in a safe, nurturing after-school environment, the grownups can focus on rebuilding their lives and making themselves better caregivers.

Tonight I'll be appearing at a benefit for the Center put together by Artists with Heart. There will be food from some extremely fancy East Bay restaurants, live music by the Lee Waterman/Ian Wilson Duo, and a sale of fine art by local artists. It's happening from 7-9 p.m. at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley (2345 Channing Way). For tix and info, you can call 510-649-1930, or go to BOSS's website.

And about that purple arm ... I was visiting the Center with Artists with Heart founder Tansy Mattingly and her shockingly mature-seeming teenage daughter, Mira. Both had been there many times before, and immediately started working and chatting with everyone. But as a newcomer, I was feeling a bit shy -- possibly, in part, reflecting back the shyness of two girls who were painting at the nearest table: when I entered the converted trailer, they glanced up at me with sweet, furtive smiles, then went back to their art-making. Jill Squire, the art teacher, was moving around with surprising grace, considering that a recent fall had left her with a brace on one leg; she questioned, encouraged, and cajoled as she kept track of a dozen or so children who painted, worked with clay, read from a small library of books, and -- after the first hour -- did their homework.

A boy -- older than the rest, perhaps in his early teens -- told Jill that he was bored. "At your age," she cheerfully responded, "all kids are bored." A short time later I found him at a whiteboard, skillfully leading some younger children in a game of "celebrity hangman." (For the record, I knew none -- none -- of the celebrities; I think I may be slightly out of touch with the youth culture of today.) He was funny, respectful, in control -- a natural teacher.

Boona Cheema, BOSS's executive director, stopped by. Once homeless herself, she emanates a sense of self-assurance that must serve as an inspiration to her clients and staff. With her encouragement, I began chatting a bit with the children as they worked on various projects.

"What are you making?" I asked a stocky boy who was working with clay.

"A teapot."

"Looks really complicated," I noted.

"Not really."

Hmm -- I realized I had a long way to go as a drawer-out of children.

Back at the hangman game, a girl was cheering on her friend with a cool handclap-and-chant: "Don't ... Give ... Up ..." Clap-clap. "Don't ... Give ... Up ..." Clap-clap. ... Over at the painting table, Jill was assuring a budding artist, "It's the process that matters here!" I noticed that a girl who seemed particularly shy -- like me, she had been drifting around the trailer, tentatively looking in on other kids' doings -- finally settled down and painted a lovely still-life. ...

And then there were those two girls with the purple paint. The paint didn't start out as purple -- it started out as pretty much every color that was available. But when they smooshed it all together with their hands, delighting in the refreshing gloppiness of the texture, the hue became something of which Prince would approve. But what to do with all this purpleness? I felt two pairs of eyes on me, and then I felt two pairs of little hands on my arm, which was soon completely purpleized.

To be sure, the trauma was mitigated by the delighted smiles of my attackers, as well as by their kind offering of a clean towel after I had washed off the water-based paint. And anyhow, as it turns out, I had gotten off easy. As we were leaving, Mira whispered to me, "On my first visit, I got both of my arms painted."

Entry Filed under: let's digress

1 Comment

  • 1. Crafty Artist  |  February 10th, 2008 at 7:43 pm

    heehee – you know, Josh, maybe painted arms could catch on.

    Kind of like a total tattoo, but it comes off at night.

    More importantly, allowing your arms to be used as a canvas works well ias a ‘drawer-out of children’ skill :)

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