If you pick up this week's Best of Phoenix issue (trust us, you won't be disappointed), you'll notice something different this year as you read raptly through our awards for anything and everything notable in the Valley. This year, we asked artists and other creative types we know to come up with something that reflected their idea of Phoenix as their own personal Wonderland, this year's theme.
The very first piece to arrive was by a guy named Mark Anderson. None of us had heard of him. He came via Jeff Miller, a local attorney, musician, and closet painter who has taught art classes through a program for the homeless called the Rhythm of Life.
To say that I was blown away by Anderson's dark, brooding drawing, expertly executed in minute detail with colored pencils and markers, is an understatement. Though I was completely enthralled by the piece, it hadn't been created in response to our theme. My editor convinced Miller to get Anderson to commit to doing another drawing. I thought it was much too risky to ask for a second piece — this guy was homeless and might never finish his Wonderland-themed artwork before he disappeared into the ether. Needless to say, I was ecstatic — overwhelmed, actually — the day his final drawing hit my mailbox.
Rhythm of Life
"Wonderland: Art from New Times Best of Phoenix 2009" will open Friday, October 2, with free public receptions on First and Third Friday, at [merz] project, 1437 N. 1st St., and by appointment (contact Steve Jansen).
On Third Friday, Jeff Miller's band, psych 101, will perform, as will The Coitus and Phoenix Chorale, two other contributors to the show. All work will be for sale. Half the proceeds will go to the artist, the other half to the Rhythm of Life program.
Jeff Miller personally had provided Anderson with requested art supplies, with which the artist produced the remarkable image you see on page 60 of our Best of Phoenix 2009 issue.
I guess old Winston Churchill was on the money when he said that kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.
Who would have thought to look to a homeless-services center for artists, and really good ones at that? I had to check the program out.
The Rhythm of Life is an unlikely arts program operating out of Lodestar Day Resource Center (LDRC), the county's homeless complex in downtown Phoenix. A joint public and private non-profit venture, the center provides critical, life-sustaining services for the homeless at its one-stop-serves-all-needs location. And art classes.
Essentially, the LDRC campus, as it's known, is equipped to provide a homeless person over 18 with a safe place to sleep and socialize, an official post office address to receive mail from family and prospective employers, food, books to read, mental health services, 12-step programs, free dental care (many employers can't get past potential employees who are missing teeth), and job training and placement.
The campus even runs a cheerfully decorated used-clothing boutique where clients can borrow suitable attire for job interviews. Men outnumber women here and women with children are taken in elsewhere — that's why you won't see any kids running around LDRC. At the Lodestar day room, the social heart of the campus, clients can also feed their souls and nurture their minds by participating in creative programs and workshops organized under the rubric of the Rhythm of Life.
The only way you usually end up even finding LDRC is if you get lost and fortuitously stumble upon it. Located on an 11-acre parcel in a relatively deserted area near 11th Avenue and Jackson Street, it's part of a completely gated complex of large, industrial-looking buildings that could easily be mistaken for a computer chip company. The only clue that it's not is the sizable crowd of people milling around the grassy yard. Some are talking, some are reading or sprawled on the ground, some are in wheelchairs, and others are playing volleyball. The yard sometimes acts as open-air sleeping quarters when CASS — Central Arizona Shelter Services — runs short of indoor floor mats and physical space for sleepers, who are required to clear the room of their personal belongings every morning, at least until they can be assigned more semi-private quarters at a later time.
It's a recent Saturday, and Laura DiTroia, program coordinator and day-room supervisor, leads Jeff Miller and me through LDRC's beehive-like day room, a cavernous open space that sports a library, cafe, art room, LDRC's post office, plenty of tables and chairs for socializing, reading, or working, and offices for other service providers. At one point, a noisy row breaks out when a middle-aged woman berates another woman, who bursts into tears and seeks out DiTroia for reassurance, telling her she wouldn't do anything to jeopardize her being able to stay on the campus.
On Saturdays, DiTroia, a receptionist, and a security guard are the only ones supervising the hundreds of people seeking relief from the heat. An old soul in a very young body, DiTroia, who's in her mid-20s, quietly settles everyone down.
We enter a closed room filled with long tables used for making art. People come and go at will, while others draw or paint or just watch the action. There's plenty of paper, paint, pencils, and canvas for those interested in trying their hand at creating art, but there's no pressure to do so.
At the front of the room, Juan Bert, a good-looking guy with numerous tattoos who appears to be in his early 30s, works on a new painting he's begun and politely answers my questions about his work with "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am." Nearby, Bert's finished portrait of a dignified Native American elder in a hat is propped on an easel. It's no paint-by-numbers piece, ably demonstrating the artist's self-taught command of composition, spatial relations, and lighting.
Along another wall, Dennis C. Sine Jr. (he whips out his driver's license so that I can get his full name correctly) concentrates through a tangle of long black hair on fine detail in a series of dream catchers he's sketched out on a long canvas. Nearby, Chad Clark, head swathed in a blue bandanna on which sunglasses are perched, provides soft background music on his guitar, seemingly oblivious to the activity around him.
Miller tells me that the art class can get pretty rowdy at times, with people talking to themselves, and that the guitar music is a touch of organizational genius that sets a mellow atmosphere in the room. Both he and DiTroia have seen very talented, sometimes troubled, people (what's that old saw about art being on the edge of sanity?) come through LDRC's doors, including a man who was either an architectural draftsman or an architect who toted a complete portfolio with him. Just as quickly as they arrive, they can disappear without notice.
The Rhythm of Life is the conceptual love child of DiTroia and Dawn Shires, another Lodestar day room supervisor, who enthusiastically believe in a holistic approach, includes the healing power of creative activity, to helping the homeless. So far, their program offers their homeless clientele the chance to participate in art, music, theater, yoga, open mic poetry, writing workshops, book groups, and volleyball games.
DiTroia has taken charge of the visual arts segment of the program, while Shires heads up its musical end. While Lodestar ponies up $1,000 a year for art supplies, they usually come from generous artists DiTroia and Shires come into contact with through LDRC, who become excited about the project.
You may have already learned about the program during a First Friday art walk. The initial planning for outreach was pretty seat-of-their-pants — DiTroia says she and Shires sat down one Friday about three hours before the monthly event was starting, and came up with a theme.
"In that short time, we created fliers, postcards, created everything right then and there," she laughs.
"The first time I had a makeshift gallery and went down with a couple of client artists and just showed work," says DiTroia. "Had no idea where we were going to show work. Then we got a big, fancy canopy tarp — we had a toe reader, we had a drum circle, we showed art. But that really didn't tell people what the Rhythm of Life is — it just gets people to come to our booth.
"The next time we tried to show a homeless type of situation. We had the cardboard box [classic homeless digs] and I built this grocery cart that tells you every single thing about why people become homeless and had that full.''
DiTroia and Shires have gone so far as to dress up as pirates to engage people in dialogue about homelessness. Like homeless people, pirates have a bad rep and don't have permanent homes, she explains, and being dressed as a pirate does draw attention.
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The indefatigable DiTroia is especially proud of her artist clients who have turned their lives around and are no longer homeless. One former client, with whom she has worked on a number of mural projects, just appeared at First Friday doing caricatures for the LDRC booth.
As for artist Mark Anderson, when we tried to photograph him for the "Best of" issue, we found that the folks at LDRC hadn't seen him since mid-July.
All we really know about our mystery contributor, besides the fact that he's 25 and from Colorado, is that he likes to read and research all day at Phoenix's central library. Laura DiTroia noticed him — and his work — when he kept asking for paper, pens and pencils, with which he would doodle impressive images.
Though not very communicative, Anderson told DiTroia that after 21, "nothing is fun." We just hope he's wrong on that count, that he's using his considerable talent right now and is homeless no more.