Community Arts in the Tenderloin: Relationships Built with Paint

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Over the years, YBCA’s civic engagement work has primarily focused  on the neighborhoods surrounding two San Francisco Unified School District schools, Bessie Carmichael Elementary School – Filipino Education Center in the Tenderloin and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Academic Middle School between the Portola and Bayview neighborhoods.

As a result of the pandemic, we are working closely with neighborhood thought partners, a collective of community-centered organizations to collaborate on creative community initiatives and pivot our resources to support our arts ecosystem in ongoing neighborhood work. Through this work, we are exploring the questions, “What does sustainability look like?” and “What does it mean to support artists and our communities?”

In April 2020 we partnered with Hospitality Houses’s Community Arts Program (CAP) to launch an open call for Tenderloin-based artists to produce artwork addressing the 2020 Census. Participating artists, many of whom are longtime CAP program participants, received art packs with materials and supplies. Their work is now featured in CAP’s Peace, Love, & Hand Sanitizer online newsletter and printed zine, distributed throughout Hospitality House’s programs including Hospitality House’s Shelter, Employment Resource Center, Tenderloin Self Help Center, and 6th St Self Help Center, all of which are currently open to the public during San Francisco’s Shelter in Place Public Health Order. Janet Williams, Community Arts Program Manager at Hospitality House sat down with participating artists to discuss their connection to the Tenderloin and how their art practices have shifted due to COVID-19. These CAP artists will be participating in Hospitality Houses’s upcoming benefit auction, where 100% of the sales proceeds will go directly to the artists.

Janet Williams: How has COVID-19 affected your day-to-day life?

Lewis: COVID-19 has brought me from being active to being sedentary. It used to be my phobias and voices that kept me trapped in my room, now it is COVID-19. My days are running together again, like before I found art. Through my art I was able to go outside and be among people. I could go to the Community Arts Program. I was able to take a volunteer job, and do well there. I even became a team lead, then a manager. But here I am again alone in my room, not able to go to the studio or my volunteer job, and everything is closed. I miss everyone. I miss Thursdays, when I would come to the painting workshops at the Community Arts Program, and I miss bringing everyone there snacks. 

It is a struggle to hold on to myself, because my routine is on hold till further notice. I miss my life. It has caused me to suffer depression again. I’ve gained 15lbs. I couldn’t do laundry for a month due to my depression, it was pathetic. During this time I found out how much I love everyone at the Community Arts Program and The Downtown Streets Team and missing everyone hurts a lot. Part of my soul was ripped out of me.

JW: How has COVID-19 affected your art-making?

L: COVID-19 has actually improved my art making. Unfortunately, my talent is connected to the deterioration of my mental health. Psychosis brings out good art but I don’t like feeling that way. Unfortunately, this is the case for many artists. 

Making art helps better than anything else though. It centers me. It brings me back. I can’t sleep unless I’ve made some art.

JW: What has supported you through these times?

L: What has been supporting me is emails with Emma (a Community Arts Program Studio Assistant) and being in touch with the Downtown Streets team. Just being in touch with the people I love and want to spend time with helps. That’s part of my depression now, I simply want to be around the people I love.

Also what’s got me through has been seeing the whole world rise in solidarity with George Floyd. It feels like we can change. COVID-19 has made everyone sit down and watch.

I saw segregation in the south when I was young and we thought we were here in 1967, but now we are really here. We’ve all seen the videos and now we have to really think about it. We should have realized this years ago, but it seems now people are waking up.

JW: What role do you see art taking in current social justice movements?

L: I don’t think of art in relation to Social Justice. I know people can stencil signs and things, but for me art is there to get the voices out of my head and to quiet down my mind.

JW: What do you wish for your community and how do you believe your art can help to achieve it?

L: I wish there was less capitalism and more social democracy. I wish religion and white privilege would come to an end. I wish people would stop tripping over the color of each other’s skin and see each other as one.

About the Auction

Hospitality House’s Auction Online is an exciting 5-day virtual art auction, with online bidding starting on Wednesday, July 15th at noon and closing on Sunday, July 19th at 9 PM. The online event will feature selected artworks from Hospitality House’s Community Arts Program (CAP) artists and acclaimed local artists. This year’s online fundraising event has an added feature: 100% of the proceeds of sales from CAP artists’ works will go to the artists – to provide additional support for struggling community artists during the COVID-19 crisis.

About the Community Arts Program

Since 1969, Hospitality House’s Community Arts Program (CAP) is the only free-of-charge fine arts studio and gallery space for artists and neighborhood residents whose socioeconomic struggles would otherwise prevent them from accessing the powerful artistic and cultural landscape of this community. Each year, more than 3,500 artists benefit from the free materials and space to create, house, exhibit and sell their artwork.

About Hospitality House

Founded in 1967 in response to the large influx of homeless LGBT youth in the Tenderloin, Hospitality House has a long history developing peer-based and culturally appropriate programs for the communities they serve. Their  programs create a positive impact, raising the quality of life for all residents and making our neighborhoods healthy and rich with diversity and culture.

Their mission is to build community strength by advocating for policies and rendering services which foster self-sufficiency and cultural enrichment. Hospitality House encourages self-help, mutual respect, and increased self-esteem. The goal of these efforts is to make the heart of San Francisco a better place for us all.