An art gallery in the up-and-coming Edge District is filled with art created by Memphians experiencing poverty and homelessness.
At St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Downtown Memphis, Marcus Mitchell draws a foreboding black storm.
“It’s called the Dark World,” he says.
Mitchell was born in Memphis. When he was 17, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Without proper care for his illness, he lost his job and his fledgling shoe shine business.
“I couldn’t make any money to buy supplies to shine shoes,” he said.
Until very recently, Mitchell experienced fluctuating periods of homelessness. He turned 35 this year and found a new outlet to work through his decades-long struggles.
He is one of several artists who participate in weekly art classes St. Mary’s hosts specifically for people experiencing homelessness. The classes are sponsored by Memphis-based Outreach Housing & Community with materials provided by the H*Art Gallery, an art gallery featuring pieces created by the homeless, poor, and other marginalized artists.
The H*Art Gallery is based in Chattanooga and recently opened a space in Memphis. Mitchell is a featured artist in the gallery.
While he doesn’t have any formal art education, Mitchell has been sketching, drawing and painting for as long as he can remember. “I mainly taught myself,” he said. During the particularly tough times, he used art as therapy.
“It’s a relaxing mechanism for the heart and soul,” he said. “God showed me a way to escape.”
Mitchell’s story is the reason that Ellen Heavilon, executive director and founder of the H*Art Gallery, started her unconventional gallery.
In 2009, Heavilon had no experience in operating or participating in community outreach programs. The inspiration for the original H*art Gallery came from a public art installation in Chattanooga titled Homes
The giant obelisk covered in mosaic tile had a profound impact on Heavilon. Each tile was contributed by people experiencing homelessness in Chattanooga. The tiles range from frenzied, abstract drawings to poems surrounded by little hearts.
An untitled painting by Marcus Mitchell. He described it as "many different cities trapped inside of one."
In January of 2010, Heavilon and her husband Jay started renovations on an abandoned building in Chattanooga’s Southside. The H*art Gallery opened later that year.
As interest in the gallery increased, visitors expressed their desires to see something similar in their hometowns.
“I began to feel like the concept was replicable. Chattanooga was beginning to take root,” Heavilon said.
In the summer of 2014, Heavilon saw a presentation on Artspace, a national non-profit organization that uses real estate development to create affordable arts districts in communities.
Artspace purchased the United Warehouse building in the South Main Arts District in Memphis and is currently in the process of transforming the building into the South Main Artspace Lofts. The revitalization of the area spurred Heavilon into action.
“I decided Memphis was the place to test my concept,”she said.
“The original thought was to be in the retail space of the Artspace building, but after further exploration I decided that it would not work,” Heavilon said. “Our timeline and Artspace’s weren’t the same.”
The Memphis branch of the H*art Gallery eventually found a home on 645 Marshall Avenue in the Edge District. The building is a 9,000 square foot warehouse which includes the gallery, retail space and eleven studio spaces that Heavilon rents out to area artists.
“We explored many other areas in Memphis and ultimately decided on the Edge District because it felt like the Southside in Chattanooga where we opened over six years ago,” she said. “Raw, but with potential.”
It’s no doubt that potential lies in the millions of dollars the Memphis Medical District Collaborative has pledged to the area. “We hope that translates into more residents and businesses coming to the area,” she added.
It’s important to Heavilon and all the artists featured that the H*Art Gallery functions as a traditional art gallery. “We offer a chance to express feelings, and for those with talent we offer an opportunity to exhibit and sell in the gallery,” she said.
Except, there’s one key difference: when a piece sells, the H*Art Gallery keeps only 30 percent of the sale, which is well below the standard commission for most art galleries. The artist keeps 60 percent and must donate 10 percent to a charity of their choosing.
However, because most of the artists lack permanent addresses and contact information, the payment process can be a little tricky.
“We write them a check and drop it off at a shelter that we know they frequent, or here at St. Mary’s,” said Ashley Walker, art facilitator at the H*Art Gallery and a community arts education professional.
Because of Mitchell’s prominence in the gallery, a Texan couple commissioned him to create a painting. The piece he painted for them was “a woman who is hanging clothes on a clothesline, and her face is the sun. She’s drying the clothes that way,” he described.
For him, it’s not just about the money.
“It feels like I’m leaving a legacy,” he said.