The October 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

The Aristocracy and the Disaster

In Katrina's Wake, Oakland Batters Homeless

A Perfect Storm of Racism

Katrina: Ongoing Human Disaster

FCNL Speaks Out on Katrina

Kerry's Kids: Health Care for Poor Children

Fresh Start Gives Kindness Awards

The Dying Gift of Sharon Ostman

A 500-Year-Old War on the Poor

37 Million Live in Poverty in US

Julia Vinograd: Poet Laureate of Berkeley Streets

Innovative Plans for Homeless Housing

Disabled Woman on a Long Road Back Home

Photographer's Eye for the Dignity of People

Poor Leonard On Prejudice

The Flower Lady

October Poetry of the Streets


September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

An Eye for Capturing the Dignity of People

Tom Lowe's images convey the humanness of moments in life that are often over-looked and under-awed.

by Maureen Hartmann

Tom Lowe, a community member of St. Mary's Center in Oakland, looks at the photographs on display in his recent one-man exhibit. Susan Werner photo

Tom Lowe, a senior and a community member of St. Mary's Center, recently assented to a daring escapade in his life. He began displaying his photography and unveiling images which had been kept in the dark up until now. Tom has brought light to many images -- moments of his life stretching back nearly 30 years -- and showcased them in a recent exhibit in the dining hall at St. Mary's Center in Oakland.

For Tom, contemplating the display has been "a chance to look again at my creative work and what it means to me. I was a little nervous, What if no one even notices?"

Willing to risk the unknown and follow through with displaying his photographs, Tom has opened up a new chapter in his life. "The response has been very positive, lots of warm and perceptive comments," he says. "I underestimated my audience, which I won't do in the future."

Tom's talent as a photographer can be traced back to age seven, when his adopted parents gave him a Box Brownie camera. With adult eyes, he describes these early photographs. "Though they lacked in technical precision, they showed coherency in perceiving an image." Blushing, he adds, "Hey, the kid's got talent."

Tom Lowe's creative flow has been a lifeline for him, a constant current in the midst of life circumstances that have not met some of his actual needs for nurturance and appreciation of his originality.

Raised since the age of six months by adoptive parents, Tom appreciates that "they were educators and encouraged my mind and curiosity. Pencils, paper and books were out in the house where I could use them. From age five to ten, I was fortunate to live in Mendocino County. I was stimulated by my environment and explored the wide spaces outside. Drawing and taking photos came out of a desire to communicate my fascination with nature and people."

When Tom later learned about renowned photographers Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, he discovered similarities with their early photographic experiences.

Tom also had a knack for writing which he is embarrassed to admit that he took for granted. In high school, Tom felt recognized by teachers for his writing ability. "I never thought writing was difficult. I never worked on writing. I always just did it. I discovered that I was an above-average writer."

Making art and reading widely became a way of life for Tom, one that he initiated after school, on weekends, and throughout the summer. "Like George Bernard Shaw, I never let school interfere with my education. I needed to follow my muse."

In his second art class in high school, Tom received an F-plus, and was barred from the following year's class. Tom reflects, "The teacher, not a working artist, approached art with a small-town social grace outlook. She had certain rules and procedures for art making. I drew what interested me, which she felt was insubordinate. She did not provide me necessary inspiration."

Tom recalls an assignment in that art class to speak about an artist. Most students presented traditional artists recognized in the early 1960s, such as Rembrandt and Norman Rockwell. Tom presented Jackson Pollack, and recalls, with a satisfied glint in his eyes, "I remember the faces in front of me appearing blank, as if saying, 'What the heck is he talking about?' I just felt -- look."

Tom, undaunted, continued to follow his muse, and to study art, photography and journalism in high school. He discovered that he wasn't interested in conventional careers, such as business or teaching. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1970 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and later studied photojournalism in a master's program at Fresno State College.

He kept in touch with friends dating back to junior high school, noting that some dared to make careers as poets, architects, or cartoonists, while others confined their art to a hobby.
Tom supported himself financially through his school years by working as a photographic lab technician, a clerk in bookstores, and a designer/artist for the underground press. Over the years, he received encouragement from friends and a former teacher, Mo Knudsen, to take his talent for writing seriously.

In his late 30s, he worked for McGraw Hill and the Defense ManPower Data Center and wrote questions for vocational and school tests. In his 40s, he "fell on hard times" and "had trouble maintaining a job." He sold much of his photographic equipment in order to pay his rent. He saved a few photos from this time of his life, and fondly recalls an image of Rev. Cecil Williams at a demonstration in support of PATCO, the air traffic controller's union whose members were fired by President Reagan for striking.

Tom lived in Santa Cruz in his 40s and created art in his home. He experimented with tie-dying liquid acrylic, treated as watercolors, onto canvas up to six feet wide. He laid the artwork out on the deck to dry. Tom's landlord "got very huffy about potential damage to the property," and threatened to charge him for replacing the deck. The resultant fear of being evicted diminished Tom's exploration of this form of painting.

Given the insuppressible nature of his creativity, Tom reshaped his creative flow to drawing with watercolor inks and colored pens on 15" by 20" paper, a size that fit on tabletops. Meanwhile, Tom continued to develop his photography, using darkroom equipment in his bedroom. He transformed the deck into a garden, to his and his cat's delight.

In 1980, Tom studied video production at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and produced two videos set to music by Handel and Santana. One concerned a mural of Hispanic history in the Merrill College dorms; another featured the Koi in the fountain at Porter College at UCSC. Both videos aired on a local cable channel. Tom also completed a second bachelor's degree in Asian History.

In his late 40s, Tom spent two years in Montana focusing on family matters, and his artistic expression slackened, which caused suffering. Tom continued to pursue a way of expressing himself and applying his curiosity and imagination. He explored graduate studies in public administration and computer sciences, though neither were fulfilling pursuits.

In an unbidden, yet conceivably prophetic moment of feeling lost in life, Tom became homeless at age 59. He had never lived on the street before. In a shattered state, he harbored himself, and his life dreams, at the Berkeley YMCA.

Tom followed up on a referral to St. Mary's Center, where he met Sister Mary Nolan, who came to be his case manager. He credits Sister Mary with saving him from many mistakes by using her "street smarts and experience with making a decrepit social service system work."
Tom became housed three months later at Oakland's Alice Arts Center, now renamed the Malonga Casquelord Center, where he continues to reside among its rich diversity of musicians, dancers, writers and visual artists.

Tom also obtained employment through ASSETS Senior Employment Opportunities Program, a federally funded program. He currently works as assistant to Wayne Haught, the director of outreach, which translates to doing whatever is needed, ranging from organizing personnel files, to maintaining computers, to helping clients attain computer literacy. "All the little things that keep the system working," as Tom describes it.

Tom was cautious about revealing his passion for creative expression to people at St. Mary's Center. Several months after meeting with Sister Mary, he took a daring step; he presented Sister Mary with a painting of a vivid burst of yellow, red and orange, colors and light as crisp as sunrise, and ablaze as summer heat.

Tom drew inspiration for the colors of this image, "Jose's Sun," from the bright colors of an image by Jose Querdo called "Amends." "I used to sit and look at the drawing by Jose while waiting to meet with Sister Mary," Tom says. "Sister Mary suggested that I frame 'Jose's Sun' in a way to support the expansive energy."

Tom's growing openness to sharing his art led to his acceptance of an invitation to display his photographs. With the assistance of Susan Werner, creative arts facilitator, he framed and displayed 11 photographs in St. Mary's Center's dining hall.

One of the portraitures on display is of Ken Minor, a community member of St. Mary's. The facial expression and emphatic finger gesture of this image capture the essence of Ken's vociferous passion for speaking out for the needs of poor people.

Another photograph, "Bicentennial Moment," 1976, is a relic of a more feminist time; a sticker on a station wagon window reads, "Two Hundred Years of Inequality is Nothing to Celebrate." Shifting our vision from this sociopolitical image to a more personal realm, other photographs on display are of pets of friends: "Daisy in the Weeds" and "Laurie's Duck."

Tom considers this display of his photography as a possible time of transition in his life: potentially marking a resurgence of creative expression. How this will unfold is uncertain. He wonders if, like Moses in Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, he is fated to see the promise, yet never reach it.

Tom has dreams of obtaining equipment to further apply his skill as a photographer. Tom has an eye for portraying community and the uniqueness of individuals. He highlights the persistence of dignity in people. Tom conveys the humanness of moments in life that are often over-looked and under-awed. For Tom, it takes courage to portray the poignancy of living; yet, in turn, he finds fulfillment in opening to a rich depth of life.

At the reception for this exhibit, Tom Lowe found himself standing upon new ground of acceptance and appreciation. He was recognized by exhibit viewers and peers as a leader, an inspiration for bringing forth one's beauty and love.

Tom's supervisor at ASSETS, Wayne Haught, commented about his first impression of Tom: "I immediately recognized Tom as compassionate; I felt his genuineness in relating to and caring for people. I wanted him to work for me."

Tom expressed gratitude before all assembled for the event, and for daring to stand in public with his art and images. "I have been able to achieve this because I stand with the community at St. Mary's Center -- in the company of giants."

St. Mary's Center is a nonprofit agency serving extremely low-income seniors, families and preschoolers, and is located at 635 22nd St., Oakland. For information, contact Susan Werner at (510) 893-4723. ext. 223.

1515 Webster St,#303
Oakland, CA 94612Phone: (510) 238-8080, ext. 303

E-mail: Spirit

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