YMCA residents uncover artistic skills, which will be on display in new art show

Don't mistake the “A Sense of Home” art show and auction at the Downtown YMCA for an exhibition of resident art. This is a genuine art show, with work made by artists who just happen to be residents at the Downtown YMCA.

The work shown in “A Sense of Home” was made as part of a 12-week art program held at the YMCA, although not all of it was made during the weekly 90-minute sessions. Artist/facilitator Julieta Manrique said many of the 20-plus participants continued to make work on their own time.

“I told the guys that I'm an artist and I'm treating them like artists,” Manrique said in an interview at the Downtown YMCA. “I provided the tools and the techniques and the [prompts]. They didn't always follow the subjects, but I never judged. I just let them explore and guided them through the process. There was so much talent, I couldn't help but see these guys as artists.”

More than art therapy, the 12-week program was an effort by the YMCA to provide a platform for these men to share their stories, to provide them with a voice they might not have apart from art-making, or apart from each other.

“We have 400 rooms, and all the men here are either homeless or at risk for homelessness. In order to qualify to live here you have to live way under the federal poverty guidelines, and so most of our men come with those things that homelessness brings: addiction issues, mental health issues, traumatic brain injury. All our men in the housing program are here because they're chronically homeless,” Clinical Director Bela Koe-Krompecher said. “The idea [for the art classes] was to give them ... a chance to express themselves and … to bring them together to have them tell their own stories, because people don't listen.

“I've worked with the homeless for 10 years, and what I think people don't understand is that, for the residents to do this is a big risk … because they're very private.”

“I never saw [their] problems, only the possibilities,” Manrique said, adding that, in some instances, perhaps because of their problems, the residents of the YMCA have a profoundly different perspective and means of expression than they might have otherwise.

“Art to me right now is the ultimate sense of love and peace. It's extremely powerful to me,” said Rich Green, one of the residents who participated in the program. “I've spent my life around chaos. I don't want to go into the glass-is-half-empty thing, but the environment I grew up in was profoundly dysfunctional.

“At first I wasn't going to [go to the class]. I thought, ‘I don't know anything about this stuff.' I only really ever did art when I was maybe 12 or 13, but I can remember looking at things in a different way than I think other people would. Thank God somebody thought to try [offering this class]. I see this as an opportunity to just do it and get better and better, and then what I want to do is to use it as a tool to introduce to other people the fact that if you void yourself of fear and let go of anxiety and keep trying, it's never too late.”

“I don't really have any talent, [but] I was there thinking maybe it would be therapeutic. Julieta asked me to concentrate on putting some of my [Native American] background in there, so I tried to do that,” said Joe Robinson, who everyone calls “Chief.”

“He is a real artist,” Manrique said of Robinson.

With help from Kayla Gardner, a graduate student in art therapy, and the staff of Open Door Studio & Gallery in Grandview supplementing Manrique's leadership, the residents not only worked on their original art pieces for 12 weeks, but will exhibit them throughout the first floor of the Downtown YMCA in an art show and auction open to the public from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 19. A similar event was held in 2016, but the focus was fundamentally altered for this year.

“This is the first year to really truly make it what we wanted it to be, which is resident art,” said Jean Fry, Director of Member Impact at the YMCA. “Every one of these residents has a story.”