CLEVELAND - Charlotte Vance, homeless and unable to work because of health problems, can relate to a turtle.
"Turtles are slow-moving animals that carry their homes on their backs like the homeless carry the things they need with them," she said in a message accompanying the green ceramic turtle she made for a church-sponsored exhibit of art by homeless women.
Sitting in the cramped art room of the Community Women's Shelter, the 38-year-old Vance said she got involved in art to escape the boredom of sitting downstairs in the shelter's day room. "The first time I came up it was boring down there," she said.
Then she discovered the colors that brightened her life. "With colors, you can do whatever you want. It's happiness. Bright colors make me happy," she said.
The work of 11 homeless women -- 40 pieces of art, including quilts, drawings, paintings and ceramics -- will be displayed through the end of March at the Pilgrim Congregational United Church of Christ. The exhibit, "Out of the Box," is meant to make people rethink stereotypes about the homeless.
Pilgrim and other churches collaborate to help the city's estimated 25,000 people who are homeless at some point each year, perhaps 40 percent of whom are single women or women with children, according to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group.
The shelter has about 115 women nightly, most chronically homeless. Some have health problems and nearly half have mental problems that make them unemployable.
The low-key exhibit in the church basement might deflect the perception that homeless people are drug addicts, alcoholics or prostitutes, says Teaona Payne, 23. She said she has been homeless since she was a teen and her crack-addicted mother threw her out.
"I do it because it keeps me sane," said Payne, who prefers writing poetry but gravitated to the art class because "I had nothing to do."
Her art includes the drawing of a cup that represents "life in a shelter. Some days you can see the glass half full and other days it's half empty." Other art themes include hope, obstacles to normal living, confusion and the desire for a better life.
"I do have bad days," said Carlotta Perkins, 47, allowing just a moment for the thought before recharging her upbeat tone. "I feel if I work through the pain it won't be as bad."
Perkins, homeless since last summer after she sold her house to pay for her husband's funeral, thinks she can make a future in design: she earns money sewing and embroidering and dreams of going into business creating fashion wear from other clothing items. "Designs by Carlotta, from old to new," she will call it.
Until that happens, Perkins is trying her hand at abstract painting and bright colors. "I love Picasso and I love abstract. Anything outside the box is fine for me," she said, displaying a pair of white jeans that she is upgrading with an embroidered look.
The women seem amused by the attention their art work attracted, including a smiling Perkins on the front page of
The Plain Dealer.
Other women at the shelter took note and got excited.
Brian Davis, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, said the church exhibit and similar ones are useful, as Payne said, in addressing homeless stereotypes.
"The biggest is that that homeless people are not all single males with alcohol and drug problems," he said. "To the general population, all homeless people are the same."
Sister of St. Joseph Carrie Vall, who works with the artists at the shelter, said the women occasionally need to start all over with a project as they learn. "It's kind of a metaphor for their life -- starting over and over again," she said.
Another nun who works with the women, Ursuline Sister Diane Pinchot, said they get her same Ursuline College lessons but she doesn't grade the homeless. "It's more powerful than a grade. It's a grade of self-esteem and self-empowerment," she said.
Perkins said the art experience has helped her during her homeless ordeal. "It's not a perfect place, but it's a blessing," she said.
"Homeless to me is not a place. To me, it's a feeling. I feel if I have God, I'll never be homeless."