WASHINGTON — When Geraldine Pitts lies awake at night in her public housing apartment above troubled city streets, it isn't herself she worries about--it's the safety of her paintings.
The paintings, dozens of works that she created over the last two years, crowd her apartment, reminding her that after a long fall down, she is headed back up. Pitts' work has been exhibited at a city library and was shown at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in February.
"The tears that have been shed in this apartment. . . . I just pray," said Pitts, 62, as she stared out the window of her sixth-floor unit. "But if it brings it out onto canvas, it's all good."
Before she discovered art two years ago, life was not very good. The once-successful working woman saw her marriage end and her health and business fail. Pitts, too proud to ask relatives for help, ended up in a homeless shelter.
There, to escape her despair, she found her lifeline. She found art.
At first, Pitts painted on scraps of wood and broken glass she collected on the street. Now she uses fine paper and canvas for her charcoal drawings and acrylic paintings.
Her works border on abstract Expressionism, with fragmented faces, sharp geometric shapes and bold colors in the style of Pablo Picasso. But Pitts claims no mentor; she says she just pours out what is bottled up in her head.
"It's not the painting; it's the story," she said.
In one work, a green hand extends toward a man, luring him. This is her husband's greed for money, which she says destroyed their prosperity and eventually their marriage.
"Mutual Abandon" shows a man and woman in love, but the woman's eyes are wide and round. This comes from the lessons learned when her husband left her. "I have to keep my eyes opened this time around," Pitts says.
A tattered pair of gym shoes, which resurface in a number of works, stands for Pitts herself. Sometimes they are at the bottom. In others, the shoes climb back up.
"I want the world to know you do not have to stay down," she says.
In an old photo album, she keeps pictures of the home for the elderly she owned in Pittsburgh, her nice house, friends and family. But then she lost her money, and her health failed her. She felt unwanted by her children.
She moved to a homeless shelter for women in Washington in the spring of 1995 and began sketching.
When she moved into the public housing development a few months later, she transformed her journal sketches to paintings. Her works were displayed at a library last spring.
Now the woman with a slight tinge of purple in her hair and a girlish laugh says she hopes to open another home for the elderly, replete with a studio for herself, and maybe even sell her art. She wants to tell others that they, too, can rise above their circumstances.
She recently took part in an unconventional reunion, displaying her paintings to a group of women living at the shelter she once called home. She laughed with them about the bad food and strict curfews. But she also encouraged them to use their time there wisely.
"I was painting day and night to show that there's hope out there," she said. "Don't let me go through all that for nothing."