This Wednesday, lunch guests at the St. Thomas More Church soup kitchen arrived expecting a meal but left also having made art and new friends.
Wednesday’s event marked the beginning of a weekly project in which undergraduate art majors and graduate students at the School of Art will draw with soup kitchen guests at St. Thomas More, a Catholic church located on Park Street. The new initiative, organized by Associate Dean of the School of Art Sam Messer, both allows art students to use their talents outside of the studio and provides soup kitchen guests with a venue for self-expression, Messer said.
The soup kitchen, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, serves lunch every Wednesday to approximately 300 guests, said Katie Byrnes, assistant chaplain at St. Thomas More. Volunteers from the St. Thomas More, Yale and New Haven communities serve guests meals donated by Yale dining halls and local food stores, and volunteers can also prepare meals at the church.
Art plays a significant role in creating a hospitable atmosphere at the soup kitchen, Byrnes said, explaining that the space houses a rotating gallery that showcases seasonal art displays.
“We haven’t fixed the problem of hunger in New Haven, but we can give the experience of being welcomed into a beautiful space,” Byrnes said.
Ana Maria Gomez Lopez ART ’14, who talked and drew with soup kitchen guests, said most of them spoke to her about their families, childhoods and places of origin. Two guests at the arts table realized they were both from Sicily, Lopez said. Messer added that another two guests discovered while drawing that they grew up near each other in South Carolina and had mutual acquaintances.
A soup kitchen guest who said she goes by the name of Miracle sketched two portraits at the arts table before taking her place in line for lunch. Miracle said that she often drew pictures as a child and added that, as a lover of music, she particularly enjoyed replicating album covers. After being encouraged by other guests, Miracle put down her work to sing verses of “Amazing Grace” and “I Believe I Can Fly.”
“This is great because you can feel everyone’s good energies around you,” she said.
Messer said he learned about the soup kitchen earlier this year when he helped organize an exhibit of undergraduate art in the soup kitchen’s gallery space. He consulted Isaac Canady, a local artist and longtime member of the soup kitchen’s community, about what art-related activities guests might respond to best. It was difficult to predict the success of certain types of activities because of the guests’ wide range of attention spans, Canady said, so the two decided to provide guests with crayons, pencils and paper and see what happens.
Canady said that he hopes the art project will give homeless members of the St. Thomas More community something positive to focus on, adding that making art has helped him overcome past hardships.
“A lot of people in this situation are angry and resentful, and art can give them something they can grab a hold on,” he said.
A number of soup kitchen guests asked visitors from the School of Art to sketch portraits of them. Next week, Messer said, art students may ask the guests to create drawings before agreeing to draw their portraits. Messer added that he and the art students will also offer coaching to help guests who may question their artistic ability overcome such insecurities.
“You can meet anyone by drawing them — even the most difficult, cold person will talk to you if you draw them,” Messer said, adding that he spent his sabbatical drawing portraits of strangers in Myanmar, Thailand and India.
Messer and Byrnes are planning to organize a joint exhibition of students’ and guests’ work at the end of the year in the soup kitchen’s gallery space.
Messer said that he hopes more arts students will participate in the weekly project. Only a handful of artists attended this week.
The St. Thomas More soup kitchen serves lunch every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.