Art Saves Lives

An Essay by Dallas Artist Pamela Nelson and Video Interview with Stewpot Artists

To the artists of the Stewpot, their work is more than a hobby or an escape: It is a place of belonging, a outlet for expression, and even a potential source of income.

Artists at the Stewpot paint in January 2019. (Scott Robertson / George W. Bush Presidential Center)

The Stewpot, a homeless ministry of the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas, operates an art studio in downtown Dallas for clients who lack housing or are at-risk of losing a place to live. Dallas artist Pamela Nelson launched the studio more than two decades ago. Since then, the work has led to some artists selling their paintings and a number of pieces being shown elsewhere, including one by Cornelius Brackens Jr. that hung in the White House during the Bush administration.

The Catalyst asked Nelson to explain how the focus on art came about, why art resonates with people who are homeless, and what opportunities the classes create for Stewpot artists.

The Stewpot’s art program began when Dallas philanthropist Louise Kahn asked me to start it.  She funded the supplies, and I started volunteering once a week in the dining room. I used a rolling cart and one of the tables while clients waited for lunch. Some people started making art and some enjoyed watching art being made.

Art is for anyone and everyone, and it has given these clients a feeling of belonging, a spark of originality, and a purpose for their lives. Some projects can take several sessions to complete, so the artists return to complete them. The work belongs totally to them. They can take the project and show people or store it safely at The Stewpot.

The approach in the art class is that each person is respected as an individual. Each artist pursues a separate path, and materials and encouragement are provided for different expressions and mediums. There are no group lessons. It is a workshop that caters to each unique vision. Homeless residents are so often treated as a category, but the art is a product of their own vision.

Stewpot artists are as varied as artists everywhere. Many artists feel slightly separate from society, so they can be observers. But here, they are part of a community of artists throughout history.

The art program has been sustained for 25 years and grown into a full-time studio with expanded space. Many volunteers have helped with opportunities for field trips, exhibits, and sales. The art group fosters potential and the satisfaction of work. Visual art expresses feelings that are not possible to put into words.

 Art saves lives.

Video production by Scott Robertson / George W. Bush Presidential Center