Reach Studio reaches artists homeless and in transition, treating them as artists first

Art therapy is a well-established practice that uses the creative process to help improve a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

RedLine Denver, an “urban laboratory” that fosters forms of social practice in the arts, uses arts as a method of therapeutic expression for the homeless and in-transition population through its Reach Studio, a free program that gives socially engaged artists the opportunity to collaborate, create, and share ideas in an inclusive community.

Reach Studio has been operating for about five years now, started by two students at the Metropolitan State University of Denver who wanted to do something in the community. They approached the St. Francis Center, a homeless center in Denver, and started a program there doing arts instruction. They were eventually connected to RedLine, an organization that emphasizes the convergence of art, education, and community.

It was at this point that Adam Buehler, Reach Studio Coordinator, got involved. “Initially I just saw a flyer out on the street somewhere that said something about an art show featuring homeless artists and said, ‘Wow, that sounds really interesting,'” Buehler says. “I went to the first exhibition at RedLine and got to meet some of the artists. I thought it was a really amazing concept and started volunteering with the group after that. I stuck around long enough that they eventually hired me to run it!”

One of the first lessons Buehler learned about working with the in-transition population is that the “homeless” label is often inaccurate, and it can be difficult for outsiders to navigate the waters of what it means to be “homeless” and what it means to be “in-transition” in a way that is sensitive to the prejudices against homelessness while also being mindful that most of the real human people in that population cannot be so easily labeled with a broad stroke.

“I still remember that first exhibition,” Buehler recalls. “PJ D’Amico [former Executive Director of RedLine] got up and said something like, ‘Thanks for coming out and supporting these homeless artists,” and one of the guys in the show named Gonzo, he got up there and said, “First things first, I’m not exactly homeless,” then he went into his personal specific living situation. To me that kind of questioning of labels is really kind of at the heart of what this program is about. It’s not just an art space and then everybody comes together and praises the work of the homeless artists. The folks in the program want to be seen as artists first and foremost. Maybe they’re homeless, maybe they’re not, but their living situation is kind of secondary to who they are and why they’re in this program.”

Buehler says he has really tried to let the program evolve per the direction of the participants. “In our original vision statement of the program, it said something about ‘this studio program is an open studio arts program for the homeless.’ Some of the participants took issue with that language and that label, [first] because for some people it didn’t make sense – maybe they were in transitional housing or were homeless before but they weren’t anymore, and [second] because they want to be seen for their art and their assets versus their deficits. We ended up changing the vision statement to fit what felt like was more appropriate to reflect how people experience Reach and what they get out of it.”

He also led a discussion with Reach participants about who was and was not to be allowed to participate in the program, asking whether a past experience with homelessness was a prerequisite for participation. “All of the artists said, ‘No, I love making art with whoever. You don’t have to have been through all of that.'” Since then they have opened the program up to anyone in the community. There is still a focus on reaching out to people who don’t have their own space to create or their own art supplies – Reach is still connected to homeless shelters and service agencies, and they still hold outreach workshops at shelters and nonprofits led by core Reach artists – but it’s not exclusive. Buehler believes this was the best course of action.

“I’m so glad we followed the lead of the artists here,” he says. “When talking about deeper issues of homelessness, the stigma and the disconnect between people that are and aren’t is one of the biggest barriers – the stigma and the distrust of that label. The more we get people together, especially around art, the less there is that stigma.”

Reach Studio is a standard weekly community studio program that happens every Tuesday inside RedLine from 1-4 p.m. The space is open to anyone who wants to come in, use free art supplies and create. Once a person has been active with Reach for a month, they have the opportunity to display their artwork on the walls of the community studio and sell it (75 percent of sales go to the artist and 25 percent go back to the program to buy more materials and supplies). After five to six months, a participant is allowed more studio time, opening up the studio Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. as long as nothing else is scheduled for the space, so artists can come in on their own time and “do their thing.”

Reach has an annual exhibition at RedLine that showcases the work the artists have been doing. This year’s exhibition opens February 6, and for the first time the exhibition is built around a theme, described thusly:

Unscripted is an improvisational survey of Reach Studio Artists exploration of RedLine’s 2015 theme of ‘Play.’ By need or want, many of the Reach Studio artists have at one time or another been in a position to improvise their positions in life. This exhibition celebrates the ability to make and remake the self in new and unique ways, by mavericks who have exercised that talent in uncommon ways. Reach Studio hopes to preserve the dignity of these acts, and present them with well-deserved consideration.”

The exhibition, which runs through March 1, was curated by RedLine resident artist Andy Rising.

Some of the other efforts spearheaded by Reach include an art mentorship program for established participants (who have been in the program for six months or longer), pairing them up with either a resident artist at RedLine or another artist in the community. “The idea is to get two artists together to set up this mentorship opportunity to set some goals in terms of artistic hopes and dreams and get some advice and guidance from folks a little farther along in their career,” Buehler explains. Reach also hosts an ongoing workshop series every month when they invite anyone from the community or Reach artists to lead a workshop on a new technique in a medium or speak about their own work to be inspiring to others.

Buehler says one highlight of the past year was working with the Rocky Mountain College of Art + Design, which gave three full four-year scholarships to three Reach artists. These artists started their classes this past fall, and at the end will all leave with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Buehler hopes to develop more partnerships like this with other schools.

For those who might be skeptical about whether or not art practice has any value in the lives of those in transition with perhaps more pressing subsistence needs, Buehler has this to say: “People in their situation get the bare bones of what’s needed. They can find a place to stay, they can find food, they can get clothes. But there’s really something that’s missing, so when they learn about the Reach program and they use this space, I feel like I see a difference in the look on their faces. The light in their eyes seems brighter when they take off at the end of the session. It speaks to the need in all of us as humans to express ourselves in some way. When there are limits to that, having an outlet where you can create, where you can make art, means a lot. It brings back a sense of fullness to life. I hear that a lot from people.”

Buehler talks about some of the people who come through Reach Studio – those who came for a while then moved on, a woman who got a job and an apartment and now has her own space to create, a man who does day labor and refuses to miss his weekly studio time because it’s so important to him. One guy describes coming to the studio as being like “coming home.”

“We have been lucky enough to develop a pretty strong culture in the program that is really positive and supportive,” Buehler says. He adds, “You never know who’s going to walk through the door. There are some amazingly talented artists out there that are just unknown. That’s one of the highlights for me – the variety and the sense of possibility.”