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Art Class at Soup Kitchen Feeds Souls of the Hungry

August 16, 1987|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

PASADENA — The smile that broke up the bored, restless look on Gary Gene's face lasted for two full hours, something of a record at a soup kitchen where 100 hungry people gather every day.

The 14-year-old had gone to Union Station with his mother for breakfast, then insisted on staying all morning for an art class.

He left after proudly showing off his two paintings and hasn't been seen since. But during that Thursday morning session, Gary was all that art teacher Lee Hill had ever hoped for when she originated the classes.

"This is to give people beauty, a chance to express themselves and to complete something," Hill, a Monterey Park resident, said of the weekly session that seems out of character in an agency for the destitute. "It's a boost to self-esteem."

An artist and teacher who 30 years ago was in danger of going blind and faced an operation for glaucoma, Hill vowed to use her talents to the fullest if her sight could be restored.

The surgery was successful. Hill began teaching art classes for mentally disabled children and adults in several schools and agencies in the Monterey Park area. After a second operation five years ago, she continued to look for ways to fulfill her promise.

"The minute I walked into Union Station" two years ago, Hill said, "I knew I was supposed to be here." She volunteered to teach art there, hoping to satisfy the needs of people who hunger not just for food but for an opportunity to create.

The little building at Euclid Avenue and Walnut Street barely contains all who come for breakfast, lunch, counseling and social services. Sponsored by several Pasadena churches, the soup kitchen serves more people than any other in the county outside of Los Angeles' Skid Row. After long legal battles, construction of a new, larger facility has been approved in another neighborhood.

Those who line up daily for food are men, women and children without enough money to buy it. Some are transients, some are homeless and some live on meager incomes that barely cover the rent.

Yet they have produced artworks that are being exhibited and sold. Hill saves the best from each session and has them professionally matted. She has arranged six exhibits in area churches. Twenty-seven paintings have been sold so far, boosting the morale of the amateur artists.

Hill insists on using high-quality materials. The artists get half the money from the sale; the rest goes to Union Station to pay for supplies.

Helped by another volunteer, Alice Tooker of Pasadena, Hill begins the classes each Thursday soon after Union Station opens at 9 a.m. for breakfast. They spread art supplies on two tables in the small patio. Then, smudging paint on paper with a palette knife to illustrate her purpose, Hill smilingly asks each person to join the class.

Different Responses

Sometimes more than a dozen respond, sometimes just one or two. Some work for only a few minutes, some for the full two hours. Some say they have been professional artists; others have never held a brush. Many never return, but a few become regulars, at least for a while.

"That's part of the game: to work with them the way they are," Hill said. "For some people it takes courage just to sit down. Whatever they do, it has to be completed that morning, because tomorrow they may be in San Francisco."

David Patterson, Union Station's associate director, believes the art classes fill an important need for people who want to express themselves creatively.

"No matter how ill or how poor a person is, creative urges still need to be released," he said. "We try here to provide more than the basics of food. One of the great problems of the homeless and unemployed is boredom. This (class) allows people to bloom in ways they couldn't otherwise."

On the day Gary painted his two pictures, Hill had more than a dozen people in her class, ranging from 2 years old through middle age. The day's theme was "Peace."

Hill began with a demonstration of acrylic paint on wet paper, explaining: "We'll be able to work and live together better if we do things with art."

A young man who called himself alternately "Edgar Allan Gogh" and "Edgar Allan Van Poe" painted an upside-down peace symbol that reflected right-side-up in a pond at the bottom of his painting.

Mike Broadwater, a student at a business college, completed a professional-looking mountain scene. "I'm too much of a rebel for art school," he said. "It's too structured. I just work in a style I feel like at the time."

Mike McCabe and John Rathmussen, both of whom have sold paintings through the Union Station exhibits, worked silently and skillfully.

Everyone that day produced some representation of nature--flowers, sunsets, mountains, lakes. Each work was an individual interpretation of peace, yet no two were similar. None reflected homelessness or hunger, as if each artist wanted to depict his dream of a better life.

The artists offered little information about themselves or their pictures. Hill and Tooker, although generous with praise and encouragement, asked few questions. The scene was as quiet as the day's theme.

Tooker, an amateur artist, said: "What impresses me is the things that hold these people together. They seemingly have reached the bottom, but they have faith, concern about each other, and they maintain a certain self-worth and dignity. This holds on even when other things go."

"One doesn't have to have a doctorate in psychology to see what is happening," Hill said. "Just give these people beauty, a chance to express themselves and complete something, and that one small task boosts them up the ladder.

"God often amazes me. He puts creativity in there and it just needs a facilitator. That's what this is all about."

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