‘Trenton Visionaries’

Trenton Area Soup Kitchen’s A-Team artists use resources from the heart.

By: Kristin Boyd
   Past the homeless men lying on worn benches, beyond the line of residents waiting for a warm meal at lunchtime, there’s a tiny room in the back of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen that breeds creativity.
   A stark contrast to the sometimes-bleak city outside, this makeshift art studio is stacked with colored pencils and craft-store baubles. Rows of paintings and photos are stored in plastic bins. Faux flowers are affixed to the ceiling.
   The A-Team artists of Trenton who flow in and out of the cramped space on Tuesdays come here, they say, for solace, artistic inspiration and a few good laughs. In turn, they give back with a brush stroke or camera click, crafting artwork that reflects their struggles, their dreams and their daily lives.
   "When people look at my drawings, I want them to see a future, a brighter future than what we got. All we see is killing and darkness. I want them to see beauty," says Michelle, or Miss M., a new member of the A-Team, which is comprised of nearly 30 artists who regularly use services at the soup kitchen.
   The A-Team artwork is featured in Trenton Visionaries, an exhibit on view through Dec. 31 at Artworks in Trenton. Money raised from the exhibit, including the sale of artwork, will benefit the A-Team and the soup kitchen. Thirty pieces have sold since the exhibit opened in mid-November, according to Artworks curator Elise Mannella.
   "The artwork is very interesting, especially since a lot of the people, if not all, are self-taught," she says, adding the exhibit spans several themes, including landscape, still life, narrative and photography. "I love the diversity and some of the ideas. Some of the work is innovative, with artistic angles and narratives."
   A-Team members rarely get bogged down in the logistics of art. The best kind of art, they say, comes from the heart. "If I see something, and I feel it, I take a picture. It has to have feeling and a connection," says Dennis, pointing to the photo he snapped of light snowfall on a winter afternoon.
   At the soup kitchen on a recent Tuesday, Dennis and other artists vie for the six seats at a wooden table. Their stories spill onto their blank canvases — a piece of construction paper, a picture frame, a sketchpad.
   Tex rubs his graying beard and tells how he started drawing at a truck stop at Exit 15 off the New Jersey Turnpike. His first drawing, he remembers, was of a nearby bridge with a "crabbing guy" and tugboats. "I would take go-go girls to work, and I saw the bridge. I went to the store, got a sheet of paper and got some pencils. I still sit in the car and draw."
   Across the table, Miss M. holds up her scribble scrabbles. She looks as nervous as a kindergartner preparing for her first Show and Tell. Susan Darley, the group’s coordinator, tells her the elaborate pencil drawings, with mosaic-like shapes in vivid colors, resemble impressionist art. Miss M. exhales.
   "I learned something new about myself," she says. "It feels good. I want to reach higher than I thought I could go."
   Roger Long, a retired art teacher who now helps out with the program, scans the room, patting Miss M. on the shoulder for encouragement and offering advice to Walter Roberts Jr., the artist the others say has "true talent."
   "It’s more fun than the museum," Mr. Long says, glancing at Mr. Walters’ portrait of a woman’s face. "Everyone has something different to add to the mix, and that changes because people change. People come and go here, but they leave a trace of their coming. We celebrate that work."
   Brook Beatty and her husband, Shorty Rose, chat on the other side of the table. Bundled in a sweatshirt, Ms. Beatty spends the morning making a birthday card for her favorite bus driver, though she usually hand sews dolls and builds houses with painted Popsicle sticks. "He is the nicest man," she says of the bus driver.
   Mr. Rose wrinkles his face at her comment. He changes the subject by showing off the picture frames he weaves with leftover or discarded items, including scrap cloths, plastic bags, newspapers and empty cigarette packs. By his count, he has been an artist for 26 years.
   "I use everything," he says. "I’m always looking on the ground for items. There’s lots of good stuff on the street that most people don’t even see."
   Williemae McCarroll, Mr. Rose’s sister, bounces into the room, waiting for someone to notice the plastic eye she had glued to the middle of her forehead.
   "That’s art, you know, like the third eye," Ms. Darley says, pausing to chuckle. The room erupts in laughter. "Well, we are nothing if not entertaining."
Trenton Visionaries is on view at Artworks, 19 Everett Alley, Trenton, through
Dec. 31. Gallery hours: Sat. noon-5 p.m. and by appointment. For information,
call (609) 394-9436. On the Web: www.trentonsoupkitchen.org/A-Team/index.htm.
For information about A-Team, call (609) 695-5456.