By Lindsay Peyton

Pitched in the parking lot at St. Paul’s UMC in Houston are Art Tents – creative spaces for those experiencing homelessness. Guests, who are waiting for meals and donations from the Emergency Aid Coalition (EAC) on campus, are invited to step inside and pick up a paint brush or drawing materials. The result has been transformative for both participants and the volunteers who run the ministry. An exhibit of the works created will celebrate the healing power of artistic expression. 

The Art Walk, free and open to the public, is scheduled for noon to 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 24 at St. Paul’s, 5501 Main Street. Visitors can view the work, enjoy a picnic lunch and try their own hands at drawing and painting.

The Art Tent is the brainchild of Helen Spaw, Associate Director of Faith Formation at St. Paul’s UMC Houston. An art therapist, she joined the church staff about 10 years ago. She also serves as Director of the church’s Fine Arts Academy and Special Needs Coordinator.

Last year, Spaw explained, a conversation arose with missions about building a greater relationship with the EAC, a nonprofit, interfaith organization that provides food, clothing and assistance to the working poor housed on St. Paul’s campus. Staff and volunteers wanted to have space to support those waiting for assistance.

Spaw recalled her own experience in graduate school in Brooklyn. “There is a way,” she told church members.

As an intern, Spaw began working at neighborhood centers that provided a place for mentally ill individuals to make art. She saw healing happen firsthand – and ended up taking a job to continue helping with the effort.

Spaw visualized a similar program at St. Paul’s. “We have an open studio format, and we invite everyone into the space,” she proposed. “Art is a way to bridge relationships.”

In addition, no power dynamic forms, regarding who is giving and who is receiving, she added. Everyone simply gets creative together.

The pastor of missions and other church members jumped in. “They really understood how this could come about,” Spaw recalled. “They all wanted to follow through. They took it and ran with it.”

The Art Tent was born. To preserve safety in the pandemic, keeping the space outdoors was important, Spaw said.

“A lot of people weren’t comfortable coming inside for a lot of reasons,” she said. “We started talking about how do we keep this open? It would be best to begin with a table and tent – and we did.”

The response immediately validated the concept. “Everybody just came and stayed,” Spaw said. “People still come early and stay late.”

Every Wednesday, since then, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the Art Tent is in session – and over time, it even grew. Now there are three tents. Spaw said that if more volunteers signed up, she could accommodate even more individuals.

Inside the tents, places are set, awaiting artists. At each station, watercolors and drawing supplies are at the ready, as are large sheets of high quality paper.

There are also canvases, acrylic paints and collage materials. If an artist has a specific need, Spaw and the volunteers do their best to keep that supply stocked. “If someone requests something, we’ll have it ready the following week,” she said.

There are also snacks and water for the artists. Some participants are silent as they paint, while others chat. “At the end, something happens,” Spaw said. “They’ve processed something. They show you their art and share their stories.”

She will ask to display their finished pieces on the fence and spend time talking with the artists about their work. “So much can happen in that moment,” she said.

Volunteers are trained to listen with compassion and curiosity, treat others with kindness and respect, hold conversations in confidence and honor the healing that can take place. “Every Wednesday, the Art Tent becomes this sacred space,” Spaw said. “Everyone does their art and it’s very peaceful. You can witness transformation from beginning to end.”

She explained that the EAC assists with physical needs, while the Art Tent allows expression of internal emotions and experiences on paper or canvas. “This is the church outside,” she said. “When you’re there, you feel it.”

Often, Spaw added, the artists do not have many other experiences where they are seen, heard or appreciated in their daily lives. At the Art Tent, they feel Jesus’ love in action. “And they feel such relief and peace,” she said.

All pieces displayed at the Art Walk were created by participants at the Art Tent. The artists have been invited to attend. “This is a celebration of everything that has happened,” Spaw said.

She encourages other churches to try a similar program. In the meantime, she is grateful for the joy, and inspiration provided by the Art Tent. “It’s been spiritual for me,” she said. “It’s a way to slow down and be in the moment with the person you are talking to, to really be present. I really love it.” 

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