Phil von Bruchem is one of CUPS’ most prolific artists.
Jon Roe/the Gauntlet

CUPS helps homeless with art

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Creating a piece of art is often akin to undergoing a self-renewal. It can be an outlet for frustration, a way to articulately convey ideas and sometimes can redefine who a person is.

The Calgary Urban Project Society is taking on this belief in full-force, providing the opportunity for Calgary homeless, who are clients of the not-for-profit community health centre, with a program where they create art and reap the various benefits.

The art program--which started as an all-ages paint to music class on Monday afternoons--is part of several CUPS initiatives including anger management and current event classes, legal guidance and church service to provide clients with useful skills. Unlike the other activities, the painting sessions are not guided, leaving the artists to their own creative devices.

"We talk to the clients and ask what supplies they need and then we go into the community and collect these things," says art teacher Linda Shaikh. "We supply the studio space so they have a place to work and we get donations of supplies and then we set up the art shows."

Prior to the program picking up popularity with continued interest from several of the artists, CUPS workers saw many possible niches for the clients' talents to fill.

"Kevin [Brown, CUPS program manager,] picked up on these guys being good and originally thought that they could maybe end up being tattoo artists or something," Shaikh recalls. "I don't know anything about tattoo artists, but I do know about art. I thought I could get them into some different venues or something to give them exposure."

A collection of works of five artists from the program--Phil von Bruchem, Rosie Weaver, Norm Stoby, Sheralyn Paulus and Andrew Stimson--will be showcased at an upcoming exhibition at the University of Calgary administration atrium. While providing some much-needed exposure, the paintings are also offered for sale with proceeds going to the artists themselves. Though under tight financial constraints, CUPS found promotional help from Dave Parker, who offered to design posters, and Scott Johnson and Harry Yeung of the Design Centre of Canada, who printed 200 copies free of charge. Long-time gallery curator Paul Koon offered to come in and price the art prior to the show to ensure that the prices were reasonable for buyers, while still sufficiently recognizing the artists' talent and work. The profits for Stimson, who passed away a few weeks ago, will go to his 19-year-old son.

Von Bruchem, one of the most prolific of the program's participants, is excited at the prospect of getting his name out in the art world. While the allure of a certain amount of fame appeals to him, he says he would keep creating art regardless of who was looking at it. He started creating intricate pen and pencil drawings at a young age and while he still considers that his favourite medium, he has embraced the new opportunities the vivid colours of paint have provided him.

"When I draw with a pen, I really take my time about it," he says. "You can't undo it once you've done it, so you have to imagine something different if you make a mistake."

As the show approaches, organizers and artists alike are excited about the work getting exposure, but are cautious due to past roadblocks.

"Last year, we tried to have an exhibition, but it turned out to be really shoddy," Shaikh recalls. "Someone had actually sent around a notice from the Drop-In Centre that they wanted to do an art show for people from all these different agencies and apparently, they dropped it because they didn't have any response except from CUPS. I said, 'We have people who are producing art and expecting to be able to show it,' so we got into it and they put us in the back of a tent."

While the exhibition acts as a good goal with tangible rewards for the artists, organizers say that the program has helped their clients in many other ways.

"A lot of our clients are barred from every other agency, so they're allowed to come in here, where they don't get hassled, grab some paint and go," says Brown. "They're left alone and they go on their own. It's what an artist needs. It's also a sober time for them too, which is very therapeutic."

Shaikh agrees, adding that the program has given a lot of clients new-found confidence.

"Many of them have gotten encouragement from other clients," she says. "All of the artists have a lot of integrity and ideas. It's definitely not empty work."