CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Public art abounds downtown following this city’s renaissance that began with a riverside aquarium in 1992. Art forms vary as widely as the levels of appreciation.
Rarely does public art, however, have such an impact as one called “Homes” did on Ellen Heavilon.
A few years ago, while walking to dinner, she and her husband Jay came upon an obelisk covered with tiles. They stopped for closer examination.
Each small tile had the creative expression of someone living in a local homeless shelter. Ellen was impressed by the artistic skills and moved to action.
“Something magical happened,” she said. “I was compelled to get some art supplies together for the Community Kitchen. It just moved me.”
Ellen moved quickly, forming a charitable organization that she would lead without a salary. Her entrepreneurial husband provided the startup funds.
Two months from the moment of inspiration, a dilapidated building on resurrecting East Main Street was purchased and renovation began.
“I had always been a stay-at-home mom and a community volunteer,” said Ellen. “This became the empty-nest answer.”
The HART Gallery, or Helping Hands Art Gallery, opened in October 2010.
But, of course, a gallery needs artists and art. And Ellen was convinced the talent was out there and the results would be more than good art.
“There was talent on that obelisk,” she recalled. “I’d buy that!”
She began providing art supplies to those in homeless shelters — and then to victims of domestic violence, persons with mental and physical challenges, disabled military veterans and political refugees.
Local artists provided classes for these groups. The resulting artistic expression varied greatly in talent, but was seemingly therapeutic for all.
Most importantly, said Ellen, it provided fresh creativity, needed affirmation and the basis for new relationships.
“It was a way to give opportunities to those who might not have opportunities,” she said. “Handouts don’t work; there’s no relationship.”
Homeless persons feel invisible, said Ellen. That reality hit her when clients at a local shelter were given cameras and sent out to take photographs.
“None came back with pictures of people in them,” she noted. “One had just pictures of cars whizzing by.”
Relationships, she added, are the key to success for the gallery’s ongoing mission.
Early on, Ellen gave paper and colored pencils to a homeless man named Jim. But he soon disappeared from the shelter.
One day Ellen heard someone on the street calling her name. It was Jim, a Vietnam veteran whose life had been filled with trauma.
He helped Ellen get the gallery open and even reconnected with an estranged daughter. Things were going so well that Ellen and her husband moved Jim into a cottage of theirs.
“Then he disappeared and left everything in the cottage,” said Ellen.
Ten months later Jim reappeared. He had gotten his benefits from service in the Navy and the medications he needed.
“I’ve got something for you,” he said to Ellen. He handed her a cashier’s check for $500 payable to the gallery.
“Thank God for all the people who bought the refrigerator art,” said Ellen smilingly of the earliest pieces sold to keep the gallery going. “… But now the art stands on its own.”
Though mostly paintings, the gallery also offers photography and jewelry as well as wood carvings and glass art by a couple of veterans.
Those aspiring artists “whose work doesn’t sell,” as Ellen puts it, can work at the gallery through a program called “HARTWORKS.” One used his earnings to buy a bicycle to get to needed appointments.
“We’re just here to be the community — the support group,” she added.
That sense of community is seen outside the gallery’s doors, too, where an artistically enhanced garden grows vegetables and hope. Pathway bricks honor homeless persons from the city who have died.
And rising high above the vines, stalks and stems is the towering pillar of tiles — titled “Homes” — that started the dream-turned-reality. It was acquired from local artist Frances McDonald.
“HART Housewarming” is a program that encourages supporters to buy art and donate it back. For example, this allows new Habitat for Humanity homeowners to come into the gallery and choose an original art piece as a gift.
“It helps sales for artists too,” said Ellen.
The artist is always the primary focus of the gallery. When art sells, the artist gets 60 percent with 30 percent going to the gallery for overhead. The remaining 10 percent goes to the place of the artist’s choosing.
“That’s so empowering to them,” said Ellen. “They are always on the receiving end of generosity. Now they have the power to give. It is huge to artists.”
One artist, she said, asked to take the 10-percent check from his sales to an AA group that had helped him.
Does the gallery make a real difference? Ellen said all she knows is that only one of the many artists related to the gallery has been incarcerated — far, far below the average.
FEEDING THE SOUL
Ellen expressed gratitude for the faithful agencies that provide food, housing, clothing and other essentials for those who struggle with homelessness, abuse and other issues. Her mission is to address additional needs.
“I’m going to feed the soul,” she said.
Indeed, good can arise from negative life experiences, she added. “And no tragedy should be wasted.”
Ellen recalled the lessons learned in her own life when her husband started a business in Atlanta years ago that took their family through some hard times. Now she enjoys seeing and helping others move through their own struggles.
Some of the gallery’s artists now have found jobs but continue their creative expressions. Others have gained self-esteem and needed resources through their art gallery connection.
For Ellen, it has been and remains a gratifying experience.
“I have no doubt that I’m doing exactly what I should be doing,” she said emotionally. “I feel blessed.”
Ellen is also pleased that the gallery’s success means that many more budding artists will have the opportunity to discover their talents and more.
“It has a life of its own now,” she said of the gallery’s wide support. “It gives me great joy to know that this is going to last longer than me.”
Her efforts, she said, were only a starting place — with a clear purpose.
“I just want to tip the balance a little toward good.” BT
Time to Share
“Good art doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars,” said Ellen Heavilon of the affordable prices in the HART Gallery. And some really talented artists are yet to be discovered.
So she is eager to assist those interested in a similar opportunity in their own community.
“This can work in any city in America,” she said. “And I’ll be glad to share anything I know.”
Those interested in supporting the mission of the HART Gallery can do so in several ways including online giving — or by collecting and sending art supplies (especially 9×12 acrylic paper and acrylic paints).
Or, visit the gallery that is open Wednesday-Friday 11:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. and Saturday 9:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. to buy some art for oneself or others.
110 E. Main St.
Chattanooga, TN 37408
Story and Photos by John Pierce