But the Urban Ministries does not offer bread alone. The hungry can find other forms of sustenance there. Spiritual and artistic expression is encouraged and subsidized through the year-old visual art program. Art director Lawrence Cann and his volunteers direct a program that feeds both doers and viewers, but nothing is offered to the faint of heart. You gotta be bold just to get there.
You get there by driving north on College Street until the asphalt dives into a crumbly parking lot. Go straight until the street ends and you'll see the roof of the old train depot. Before you decide you've taken a wrong turn, keep driving along the chain link fence and razor wire, past the gate and the milling throng of loud men and women and into the old train station. This is the home of Urban Ministries, Charlotte's premier hotspot for the perennially disenfranchised. Art turns up in the most unlikely places.
This once abandoned train station turned soup kitchen has sprouted a new head. It's also an art gallery now. These old frame walls once ushered in and catered to the migrations of countless transient souls riding rails to, from and through Charlotte. Now the station welcomes the more permanently transient, those rough human elements of Charlotte routinely marginalized into invisibility.
The art gallery has no name. It is wide and long and shows work along each wall. The paintings are surprisingly good, unspeakably bad, garish, subtle, profane and sublime. They will wreck a finely tuned sensibility and steal breath from both the openhearted and judgmental. The paintings are missives from those lost to the world we know, from creatures as invisible and soundless as white noise. This place is their voice. It's a cry and a song in the night. It's a hard listen.
I was greeted at the door to the train station by Ken Smothers, a pony-tailed man of indeterminate middle age, who gripped my hand hard and welcomed me into the Gallery. Ken is a poet and four-dimensional artist ("I include the dimension of time") who humanizes the air of the Urban Ministries. I felt I was stepping onto a stage blistered by daily epiphanies tempered by common despair. This place might be too human to step up to, like being hugged by a leper.
Ken showed me around. High ceilings, terracotta floors, five-foot wainscoting and trim painted forest green. All the walls had been faux painted by the guests under the guidance of Lawrence Cann. They did a good job. The decision to abandon the universally accepted gallery look of neutral white for mustard yellow, lime green and aquamarine blue was a good one. The faux techniques are ones I've never seen before, nor am likely to see again. Here they work.
Lawrence is a 20-something Davidson grad. He's worked here since the art auction a year ago raised nearly 10 thousand dollars to keep the wandering residents in brushes and paints, canvas and plywood. Lawrence has the affable air of an athlete who's just wandered away from the game to investigate something a little more engaging. Resident loiterers routinely wander up to him to share a word, a touch or a laugh. He appeared at home and happy in the huddle.
Lawrence and Ken gave me the tour. Urban Ministries is a spare compound -- parking lot, train station and garden.
The garden is a raised plot of land in the wedge between the on ramp to Tryon Street and the asphalt parking lot. The garden is an odd tableau. Slabs of concrete and Tommy Toes tomatoes, chain link, asphalt, razor wire and six foot sunflowers share space. Raging rush hour traffic winds down the ramp 20 feet away. Retaining walls, bell peppers, jalapenos and wildly robust marigolds sprout alongside the concrete patio, tables and benches. Painted rocks outline the garden and granite stones line the planting beds.
Any surface that can hold paint is painted. Paintings on plywood hang on the surrounding chain link fence, the cinder block wall is a broken glass, mirror and tile mosaic; painted bottles adorn the cedar bottle tree in the garden. Jesus is everywhere -- in crosses, in painted name, in quotes and misspelled prayers.
The garden is a grand and humble effort, a show of what is possible with so little. Not many of us would call this garden pleasant, but anyone comfortable inside their own skin will find this garden comfortable.
The paintings are inside. There are a few I liked in particular.
Annie McClendon is a prolific painter. Her work is subtle, articulate, rendered with care and abandon at the same time. Like some of the best old-time American abstract expressionist painters, the work appears effortless, born fully realized from the hand of the productively unconscious artist.
"Landscape with House" is a quickly rendered landscape of fractured trees, hills and buildings across a milky ambiguous ground. Mark Tobey painted ethereal imprints of nearly evaporating objects; McClendon does the same with her fractured calligraphic strokes.
Kristen Smith is not nearly so subtle with her painting "How America Fucks Us." Smith's painting shows a figure on the left bound in white rope. Her captor holds the rope in his taloned hands. He smiles with bloody fangs. Uncle Sam is written across his chest.
In the pale green, stacked block background, signposts advertising FBI, DEA and CIA decorate the canvas. Small, mute, black silhouettes dot the surface and stand quiet. The anger is nearly comical, but the ferocity of the painting won't allow you to blithely dismiss the heavy-handed message.
When I wandered the garden I met Wanda Dubois, a tightly wound black woman who confessed a weakness for alcohol before I could smile at her. Homeless for five years now, she is a regular tender of the garden, pulling weeds and spreading mulch.
Wanda's paintings are an open wound. Two untitled paintings are swirls of chaotic color and mass, fitful wrestling matches with the materials at hand. Better than fighting people.
"Wanda has anger issues," Ken Smothers confides. "She's got somewhere positive to take them with her painting."
There is also a writing program here. Artistically, Smothers is first and foremost a writer, as he says, "A poet of rants and prayers." A bulletin board inside the train station displays written words from the workshops offered at the center. Smothers writes:
In my world all people are not created equal. There are distinct classes. Those on top rule those inferior to them. Those on the bottom have no rights. They live their lives teetering on the brink of disaster and extinction. They reluctantly, resentfully and fearfully beg, borrow and steal to survive at the mercy of those who have, those that prey on the have-nots... The rules insure they must resort to crime, deceit and lies to survive. This ensures they won't make waves for fear of drawing attention to themselves. When standing on your hind legs and trying to act like you're human can cost you what little you have, including your life, it makes sense to stay down on all fours like the rest of the animals.
Ken rolled me a cigarette from his pouch of tobacco. He bragged on the garden and pointed out the herb garden and we tasted the lemon mint.
I was packing up to leave when Ken told me he wished I could see his hand-carved walking canes.
"Where are they?"
"In my tent in the woods."
"Where's your tent?"
"North off I-77, too far."
I thought for a moment, not having figured this guy for homeless. "How do you get there?"
"The #73 bus. From my stop it's a 15-minute walk through the woods, about a mile." He shrugged, apparently still figuring it a shame I couldn't see the canes.
"Maybe another time," I say.
A 15-minute walk through the woods. I count my blessings on the drive home.