- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Eugene Talbert doesnt own a house with a lawn to mow. He has no property tax bills to pay or even a zip code. Hes like a lot of homeless people that way.

What he does have is the freedom to watch the world go by and paint the things that move him.

He´s not a graduate of the Sorbonne; he´s a graduate of Miriam´s Kitchen, a place where the homeless can eat a hearty breakfast. With just a charcoal pencil and sketch pad, he has managed to become a pro: In addition to the $150 he got for one of his sketches, he probably will make more money this week during the collaborative art exhibit "Different Strokes: Art From the Streets" at the Armour J. Blackburn University Center Gallery at Howard University, where several of his pieces hang.

There have been other cases where art has arisen from the most unlikely places. Longshoreman Eric Hoffer became a celebrity philosopher during the late 1960s using just what he picked up from working the docks to forge his view of the world. The result: television appearances and a best-selling book, "The True Believer," which is considered a classic on social philosophy.

That´s not to say that this will happen to Mr. Talbert, 50, but it does show what can happen when someone, through whatever circumstances, becomes a witness to life.

"I´ve been drawing since 1998. Before that I didn´t have an interest in either art or poetry. My interest was sparked when I was sitting in art class at Miriam´s Kitchen and everybody was drawing, but I wasn´t," Mr. Talbert says.

"But I kept coming to the classes, and one day I picked up a pencil and started to draw, and I kept at it. Now I´m doing something that I enjoy. It´s positive and creative. This is a big awakening for me."

A congenial and chatty fellow, Mr. Talbert has broadened his artistic scope, once confined to pencil. He now incorporates watercolors into his grand schemes or landscapes. He´s eager to see how far his newfound passion can take him. He says it´s not inconceivable that he might take a few formal art classes in the future. Besides, Mr. Talbert works when he can — cutting grass in Silver Spring or bringing coffee to District vendors in need of a jolt to start their days.

"I still live outside in the Foggy Bottom area, where it´s safe and we have the best park police, and the Metro is nearby. I have peace and quiet, and I can draw the whole world and write poetry," he says.

Mr. Talbert´s artwork is showcased at the Blackburn Center Gallery along with the work of 29 other artists from Miriam´s Kitchen. Also included in the exhibit is a five-panel mural created by District school students, by Public Allies — a nonprofit organization that develops leadership in youth — and by the artists from Miriam´s Kitchen. Some artists, like Mr. Talbert, are homeless; others were homeless. Three persons whose work is exhibited are now deceased, says Ruth Dickey, the executive director of Miriam´s Kitchen since 1998.

Ms. Dickey, 29, a former Vista volunteer, came to Miriam´s Kitchen in 1994. She loved writing and decided to establish a writers workshop for the breakfast bunch. (On any given day, 80 to 150 people get a good meal at Western Presbyterian Church, where Miriam´s Kitchen is located.) That same year, an artists workshop, moderated by volunteer and artist Sylvia Van Voorthuizen, took shape. Three years ago, Ms. Dickey added a second poetry and writers workshop with Caroline Ramsay Merriam.

"What´s so striking about the artwork in the exhibit is that many of them are portraits. In both the writing and artwork, there´s a wide diversity of themes that go far beyond homelessness. The pieces run the gamut, and that´s what most people find surprising," Ms. Dickey says.

"Homeless people are people first," she says.

Her sentiment is seconded by Roberta McLeod, curator and director of the Blackburn Center Gallery. When a venue to showcase the art was needed, Ms. McLeod didn´t think twice. The university is part of the community and here to serve the community, she says.

"I believe people should understand the face of homelessness because the faces of the homeless are no different from anyone else," the curator says.

Ms. Dickey says one of the participants in the writing group once remarked that people would walk by him all day and pretend not to see him. He told how dehumanized and isolated he felt. That´s why "Different Strokes," means so much, Ms. Dickey says.

"For that individual or for any of our artists to have a chance to display their artwork or share their poetry gives them a chance to be heard. One night, after a public reading, this particular man said, 'Tonight, I remembered I exist.´ It transformed the way he felt about himself," Ms. Dickey says.

The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, an umbrella organization in Southeast that oversees the range of care services for homeless people living in the District, estimates that on any given night 6,600 people in the District are homeless. That number includes people in shelters, in transitional houses and doubled up with friends and family.

"Out of that 6,600, 10 percent are actually sleeping on the streets. At Miriam´s, about 70 to 80 percent of our breakfast guests are sleeping on the streets. So we serve sort of a unique segment of people who are homeless in the District," Ms. Dickey says.

"We can measure how we are doing as a city by the way we treat our homeless, our poorest and our most vulnerable. I can´t begin to tell you how many fascinating, intelligent and competent people I´ve met who live on the streets. I believe they desire adequate resources — not just breakfast, but an adequate life," she says.

The artwork will hang at Howard´s Blackburn Center Gallery in the company of work by one of the great 20th-century painters and social commentators, Romare Bearden, through June 9. Ms. Dickey says that should a piece sell, 70 percent of the proceeds will go directly to the artist. The remaining 30 percent will go to Miriam´s Kitchen to pay for art supplies and framing. That´s the agreement the artists decided upon, she says. They want to give something back.

On Thursdays between 8 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., Ms. Merriam, known as "C.C.," gathers with 10 to 15 self-taught poets at Miriam´s Kitchen. It´s her avocation and one that she says gives her great pleasure.

"They all have promise, but some are extraordinarily gifted and write great poetry. …They write poems about how people feel about the homeless, and we touch on controversial subjects, which lead to lively discussion groups," Ms. Merriam says.

Ms. Merriam, who lives in Georgetown, has compiled anthologies of her students´ work since 1998. Other anthologies are published by Miriam´s Kitchen. This year´s, "167 Wednesdays/167 Thursdays," intersperses pictures of the artwork along with the poetry. The collective effort gives members of the poetry and writers workshops and the visual artists an extra boost of self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment. They´re no different from anyone else.

"They like to receive compliments and praise it affirms them. They talk about writing as a means of creativity. That creative spark makes them feel like they are worthy," Ms. Merriam says.

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