How ArtLifting empowers homeless and disabled artists

It was impossible to stay seated, and impossible not to. Stacey Williams worked in accounting, after all: Being desk-bound was part of the job. But her condition was worsening. The bone tissue in her hips was slowly dying, the result of an incurable disease called avascular necrosis. The mere act of sitting was pure agony.

It was the summer of 2014, and already, a dispute with her landlord had left Williams homeless. Now she faced a fight to keep her job. She remembers her supervisor being unsympathetic to her condition, painful as it was. Her anti-inflammatory drugs gave her little relief.

“I was always at a computer. I tried to do the whole, ‘Oh, you take breaks’ thing, and all that,” the Air Force veteran recalls. “But for that condition, that just wasn’t working. I could be sitting for ten minutes and then get up for the copier or the printer, and be in excruciating pain.”

Painting was one of her few sources of solace. It was that passion, and undeniable talent, that would eventually land Williams a much-needed gig with ArtLifting, a company that connects disabled and homeless artists with buyers for their work. She is part of a select group of about 80 artists, from 11 cities, participating in the venture.

Liz Powers, one half of the sibling duo that founded ArtLifting, has spent a decade working with the homeless community. What she noticed is that many homeless people really want to work, but they face barriers to entering the job market. Mental illness and disability disqualify many of them from filling open positions.

Liz and Spencer Powers
Liz and Spencer Powers

Part of the solution, Powers says, is to reframe what society considers employment. “I feel really strongly that we need to broaden the definition of what a job is, so that we can help many, many more people contribute to the economy,” she told ivoh in a recent telephone interview.

Art is one way to do just that. While attending Harvard University, Powers did casework on behalf of LIFT, a nonprofit devoted to tackling poverty. Her clients reported feeling lonely and isolated, so she set off to start her own art group in a local shelter. She figured it’d be more appealing than a traditional support group. There would be none of the stale awkwardness, no “fluorescent room with seats in a circle.”

But as she worked to build her art group in Cambridge, it dawned on Powers just how many art groups already existed in the Boston area. She met with art therapists and group leaders, catching glimpses of the canvasses their clients produced.

“I saw closets chock full of art,” Powers said. “That made me realize, ‘Okay, there needs to be a marketplace to share this work, because I’ve been in this field for years, and I didn’t know about this.'”

The stress of being laid off during the Great Recession, in 2009, was what first inspired Williams to join a community art course. “I needed an outlet basically,” she remembers. She searched online for “something artsy to do,” like dancing or poetry. Her eyes landed on a listing for an acrylic painting class in Harvard Square.

“It was a really good match,” Williams said. She was taught to capture the nuance of light and shadows, by painting bottles and lemons and shapes. “Having to focus like that was good for me. With me, you can’t paint and worry about all those other things. The focus is so intense that it blocks everything out. So you get a break from all your stress.”

That sense of escape was desperately needed once 2014 rolled around. Williams had two pairs of crutches: one she kept at the homeless shelter, and the other at her accounting job. “Sometimes I would go to work without crutches, and then I would have to leave on crutches. That’s how bad it got.”

Juggling homelessness with job pressures and a deteriorating medical condition — it was all getting to be too much to handle. “I just couldn’t do it anymore,” Williams said. In August 2014, she stopped working.

"Credit" by Jeff Powers
“Credit” by Jeff Powers

The most common misconception about the homeless is that they’re lazy, Powers says. But more often than not, Powers observed, most just had a streak of bad luck. “It’s important to understand the full context, and not just say: ‘Oh, that person chose to drink a ton of alcohol for example, so it’s their fault they’re homeless,'” Powers said. “There are a lot of other factors that contribute.”

Since the causes of homelessness aren’t simple, neither are the solutions. “You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to give you housing and food, and you’re all set,” Powers said. “Just like with any human, there needs to be a sense of healing.”

When Powers and her brother launched ArtLifting, they made a bold choice: Rather than structuring their organization as a nonprofit, they designed it as a for-profit company. ArtLifting keeps 44 percent of the profit from each sale, and 55 percent goes to the artists themselves. The rest gets sent to a fund to buy art supplies for therapy groups.

The business model ensures ArtLifting’s sustainability, as well as bringing its artists some much-needed cash. But it does more than that: Powers says the platform helps homeless and disabled artists “feel validated and seen.”

Her top-selling tote bag last holiday season featured an abstract work by painter Nick Morse. His form of autism is considered “nonverbal,” meaning he doesn’t use spoken language the way most people do. Instead, he speaks through the expressive waves of color he paints.

“With the quote-unquote normal definition of a job, he obviously couldn’t work,” Powers said. But she believes that, by seeing art like Morse’s, the public will shift their expectations of what he and others can do.

“You will be shocked. And I think the reason why people are shocked is because of the stereotypes. Because they’re used to focusing on the weaknesses of individuals in these situations,” she said.

Stacey Williams at Work
Stacey Williams at Work

The program even forced Williams, the homeless Air Force vet, to reevaluate her own self-image. She had always seen herself as an amateur artist, exhibiting her work only for her kids or the occasional maintenance man. But when she signed an ArtLifting contract in December 2014, she was startled by something Powers told her.

“Liz said to me, ‘Well, you’re about to be a professional artist now,” Williams said with a laugh. “I never forgot that moment, when she said that. I thought it was so cool and so encouraging.”

Since then, she has contributed a series of bright, bold portraits to ArtLifting, depicting African-American pop culture icons like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Angela Davis. She remains homeless, but she estimates her sales have netted her over $2,000 so far.

Hip replacement surgery prevented Williams from attending her biggest showcase to date, at ArtLifting’s gallery launch in New York City this past April. But something “crazy” happened to her nevertheless: Eric Decker, a football player for the New York Jets, and his wife decided to purchase one of her pieces.

“To be able to have this positive thing drop right into your lap and come into your life, you feel like: Here’s a ray of hope you didn’t know existed,” Williams said. “It’s a blessing.”

Powers is quick to admit her company isn’t a solution to homelessness. She’s content to change one life at a time, picture by picture. But she hopes to see ArtLifting spark something greater than itself: “a movement of celebrating strengths and creating more opportunities for individuals who are otherwise unemployed.”

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