Since the west elm LOCAL program began, we’ve worked with hundreds of talented artists, artisans, designers, and makers, helping small businesses grow and meeting some pretty amazing people along the way. In our most recent LOCAL partnership, we’ve combined our love of working with local artists with our goal of helping to give back to our communities. Enter ArtLifting, an organization that aims to empower artists living with homelessness or disabilities through the celebration and sale of their artwork.
Founded in 2013 by siblings Liz and Spencer Powers, ArtLifting is all about creating opportunity where there is none. Liz worked previously with art programs in shelters around the country and was in awe of the amazing works that were being largely forgotten in basements and storage closets. She wanted to create a pathway for underserved individuals to pave the way to financial stability and independence. Today, ArtLifting does just that, by allowing their artists to secure their own income through the sale of original works. By showcasing and selling their artwork on ArtLifting’s website, and now through west elm, these artists gain a sense of self-confidence that permeates all other aspects of their lives and can be a permanent force for change. Each artist in their program earns 55% of the profit of each individual sale, and 1% of each sale that goes towards strengthening art services in their community, such as art programming at social service agencies, shelters, and disability centers. ArtLifting now has 145 artists in their network across 20 states.
“The joyful process of creating artwork has been a healing practice in anxious times, a surrender to peace in challenging times. Being immersed in the beauty of color is life-affirming and feels like the truth… As Dostoevsky writes, ‘Beauty will save the world.’”
While ArtLifting is making huge strides to improve the lives of those living with mental disabilities, it’s still an uphill battle to fight for a community with a largely stigmatized past. One of the ways that they are accomplishing this is through a partnership with Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. Founded in 1912 in Queens Village, NY, Creedmoor is the largest inpatient, outpatient, and residential treatment center in the state. The center has a long and difficult past, and has now been trying to change the stigma towards mental illness through their many community outreach programs including The Living Museum. The museum, founded in 1983 in an old kitchen mess hall, dedicates itself to celebrating art as a healing mechanism and a healthy outlet for patients. With an always open-door policy, anyone at the center can come practice their art, with a chance to showcase and sell their work at regular art shows open to the public. The Living Museum has become home to a treasure trove of unfiltered, raw contemporary artworks, compellingly disrupting our preconceived notions about mental illness.
We got a chance to visit The Living Museum and spend the afternoon with Christina Constantine, our new LOCAL artist partner through ArtLifting. A long time New York City-based artist for over 50 years, Christina explores different materials and mediums including (but not limited to) watercolors, makeup, berries, foil, and thread. Christina has been an artist-in-residence at The Living Museum for the past 14 years, and she describes her art as an integral component to her personal healing process. She has her own studio space on the top floor that is delightfully calming & serene with its original cottage windows that face a canopy of trees, overlooking a community garden.
Read on below for a full interview with Christina along with the folks from ArtLifting, and tour her studio + The Living Museum!
Please tell us a little about yourself and your work.
Christina: I was born from parents of Greek descent and raised in New York City. [I] moved to California, living in San Francisco for 8 years and San Diego for 13, and returned to New York 19 years ago.Sunshine 1 is from a series of watercolors done in San Diego living near the beach. For the past 15 years, I’ve been fortunate to have access to a beautiful studio space at The Living Museum. Working with many media, I use watercolor, tempera, acrylic, or oil paint on various papers and canvas. Many pieces are made from fabric, ribbons, beads, sequins, foil, and image transfers. In a series of paintings influenced by Byzantine mosaics, I embellished squares with gold paint which, later employing yarn and thread, evolved to thread drawings using thread alone.
What is your background in art?
I admired the kids who made art in grade school but was more interested in academic pursuits. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I began making pictures using makeup on paper. I studied art at Hunter College and spent a lot of time in museums and galleries being greatly influenced by lyrical abstraction and color field paintings. As much as I love art from many eras and cultures, I’m now mostly drawn to folk art: spiritual, self-taught, naive, and raw.
What do you think art is able to give to those who are struggling and what does it mean to you personally?
It’s surprising how one’s thoughts and feelings come to the surface when creating. In this privacy, it becomes easier to comprehend confusion or stresses and enter a peaceful zone. One’s sense of identity as an artist develops and is strengthened. I hope to communicate that to others, as well as enjoy a sense of accomplishment and giving to the community.
How did you get involved in ArtLifting and becoming an artist in residence at The Living Museum?
ArtLifting’s curator and artist program manager visited the Museum and chose to represent my work: a wonderful opportunity for me! With regard to The Living Museum, I had seen a catalogue of the artists and their work and was inspired to make an appointment to visit. After a self-guided tour, I met with Dr. Marton and he invited me to come work there. I never would have had the audacity to say that I was an artist but when people want to buy my work, I feel I can say that I am an artist.
Tell us about your studio space.
When I first started, I was working in an area that wasn’t conducive for large paintings so I moved to an area and set up on the floor. Alas, people started to walk on the paintings so I moved to the second floor and began to build tables and other work surfaces. I love this space with its high ceiling and many French windows facing south and west. It’s not the perfect northern light, but I appreciate seeing the trees change with the seasons and squirrels nest in the space between the screen and glass. It feels like being in the corner of a large 19th century home. I’m sure this has influenced my interest in thread work and the homage to domestic art.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
I get up, feed the cats, 1 male and 1 female, then go to the Museum. A major renovation has begun so some of us are rearranging art work and work spaces, painting walls and other housekeeping tasks. I like to speak with the women since we encourage one another and then get onto creating images.
What do you love most about your community in NYC?
The Living Museum is a home away from home and the community is like a second family.In New York City I can see the world’s art. Every culture is represented which makes for an atmosphere of inclusion, hope, and a myriad of possibilities.
How did ArtLifting first start?
ArtLifting: Liz Powers ran art groups in homeless shelters and was struck by the incredible talent that she saw. Amazing works of art were being produced only to end up forgotten in the closets and basements of shelters. After observing that the same problem existed at thousands of art programs across the country, Liz became committed to helping share their creations with the world. She realized that art could be a transformational path to financial stability for these artists and countless others nationwide; they just needed a marketplace to connect with a larger audience.
In November of 2013, Liz and her brother Spencer Powers founded ArtLifting with four Boston artists. ArtLifting has now grown to a community of 145 artists in 20 states and hundreds of clients and supporters nationwide.
What are some of the key accomplishments you’ve been able to make since launching in 2013?
We are incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished as an early stage company. In just under five years we have developed a collection of approximately 600 original artworks and 2,500 artworks available for print reproduction – all created by artists impacted by homelessness and disability. Our artists collectively have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars over this period of time and this impact is increasing year over year. To date, four artists have gone from homelessness to housing with the help of ArtLifting and other social service organizations. Through the sale and celebration of our artists work they have been able to afford housing, healthcare, provide for their families and continue their creative journey. Countless artists have expressed a greater feeling of pride and self-confidence that is created by being recognized for their talents and not their situation.
Hundreds of corporations have purchased ArtLifting artwork for their spaces and shared the positive impact it has made on their employees. Clients include LinkedIn, PayPal, Google, Freddie Mac, NBC, and Bain Capital. FedEx Chairman and CEO, and ArtLifting Customer, Fred Smith recently shared, “ArtLifting has brilliant business strategy that betters the lives of underserved people.”
How do you source and connect with your network of artists across the country?
We look for community service organizations with strong art programs to connect with talented artists, but there are also cases when artists come to us! We choose artists based on two criteria: their artistic talent and alignment with our mission. Throughout the selection and onboarding process and over the period of our relationship we learn the details of their background, inspirations, and artistic process. Some of our favorite moments are when we get to share with our artists that they have been selected for a new partnership – like West Elm! It’s extremely meaningful to everyone involved.
What are your goals for the organization, looking toward the future?
- 1. We want to increase awareness and recognition of our artists and their talents
2. Reduce the stigma around homelessness and disabilities
3. Provide an access point for people to engage in a dialogue about diversity and inclusion
4. Develop new initiatives with companies that realize the value of supporting socially conscious artwork
5. Expand our community of artists
6. Continue to innovate and develop our products, services, and how we can help our artists succeed
7. Sell more artwork to create greater financial security for our artists!
Photography by Lindsey Swedick.