Artist Rodney Bell Inspires Homeless Seniors at St. Mary’s Center

Bell’s artworks grace the walls of St. Mary's and his music fills the air, brightening the day for homeless seniors who have lived unimaginably difficult lives.

Rodney Bell plays the piano for the community at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland, seated under his own painting, “St. Mary’s Rocks.” Susan Werner photo

by Terry Messman

When Rodney Bell, 57, came to St. Mary’s Center in Oakland seeking shelter from the winter storms in November 2011, social worker Susan Werner remembered him as “withdrawn, depressed, hunkered down, fearful, hurting and deflated.”

He seemed forlorn and drifting, and he often sat alone in a corner, without speaking to others or even making eye contact. “I saw him enshrouded in a cloak that often people wear who have felt shunned for their basic human existence,” Werner said.

Many homeless people in our society have been so ground down by constant rejection and mistreatment that they can no longer believe that anyone will ever again understand or accept them. When Rodney Bell finally came to St. Mary’s Center, he was distrustful about receiving any help at all because he had been emotionally scarred by past experiences of being dismissed and cast out.

“He had felt rejected when the prior shelter at which he stayed told him to leave for not having sufficient money,” Werner said. “He remained dubious and guarded, and did not initiate contact with others and would recoil when asked about himself.”

During his first five months at St. Mary’s, he remained aloof from nearly everyone, with one exception. Werner is the facilitator of St. Mary’s art programs, and she found that Bell would throw himself into the art-making projects and, in those moments, he would become enthusiastic and talkative.

The Transformation of an Artist

Flash forward to the present day, and the transformation is immediately apparent. During a recent visit to St. Mary’s Center for an interview with him, Rodney Bell is smiling broadly and talking animatedly with other seniors while he hurriedly puts the finishing touches on a painting entitled, “St. Mary’s Rocks.” His artworks are spread out all over the table and several more are displayed prominently on the walls of the center.

In the past year, Bell has created striking images of his experiences while homeless — artistic expressions of what it feels like to be exiled to walk the streets all day. His art has struck a common chord in many of the low-income and homeless members of St. Mary’s Center.

“Rhythm, Harmony and Melody.” A self-portrait of the musical spirit of the artist. Art by Rodney Bell

Just as his visual art graces the walls of the center, his music fills the air. Bell studied music and art at Laney College, and he began playing the piano and singing requests every Thursday at lunch at St. Mary’s. His music now brightens the day for many homeless seniors who have lived unimaginably difficult lives.

Werner said, “He delights in playing songs other seniors request to hear. He sings along, voicing an inner joy, and the fluid piano melodies he plays offer the balm of peacefulness.”

Asked what musicians he loves most, Bell immediately cited Nat King Cole, the renowned jazz pianist and singer with the smooth, immediately recognizable baritone who sang such popular classics as “Stardust,” “Unforgettable,” “A Blossom Fell,” “Mona Lisa” and “Nature Boy.”

Overcoming adversity to create beauty

Cole was the first African American to host a television program, “The Nat King Cole Show,” on NBC in 1956. He paid a price for breaking racial boundaries and had to fight racism throughout his life. In 1948, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the front lawn of his new home in Los Angeles. During a 1956 concert in Birmingham, Alabama, Cole was assaulted on stage by three members of the North Alabama Citizens Council. He later helped plan the March on Washington in 1963.

Bell is deeply drawn to Cole’s music, but he is also inspired by his personal example of creating beauty for the world even in the face of his own hardships.

“I love Nat King Cole because in spite of adversity in his time, he was still able to pass on to us such a richness in music and entertainment,” he said. “I just loved him because his spirit survived and shone through all the adversity of the times he went though and he still was able to give us such rich music.”

Those words are revealing, because if they’re read as a description of Rodney Bell himself, they shine a light on how his spirit has overcome adversity in order to create beautiful art and music for others.

Asked if he has tried to emulate Cole’s example, Bell said, “Rising above adversity is so important — still doing good things and giving 100 percent, still loving in spite of hate. Love is nurturing, and when you’re blessed with creative gifts, you need to have love for what you do, love for the people you perform for and love for yourself.”

Bell loves Cole’s music to such an extent that he strives to “channel” his voice. Cole had a simultaneously smooth and grainy voice, and when I asked Bell how anyone could impersonate such a distinctive and unusual vocal sound, he sang, rather than spoke, his explanation.

Without a moment of rehearsal, Bell sat down at the piano and — by memory, and with no sheet music — sang one song after another out of the Nat King Cole songbook, resurrecting the beautiful music of a man who died in 1965 when Bell was still a boy. He recaptured the spirit of these songs in a voice that was uncannily similar to Cole’s vocal phrasing: “Ramblin’ Rose,” “Too Young,” and “Route 66.”

Nature Boy

When I told him my favorite Cole song was “Nature Boy,” and began explaining that the song was written by a “premature hippie” who somehow wrote an anthem for the Summer of Love way back in 1947, Bell nodded knowingly and said, “Yes, Eden Ahbez. He even had sandals and a robe and a message from above.”

Ahbez was a long-haired songwriter who wrote about “a very wise and gentle boy” who wandered “very far, very far, over land and sea.” “Nature Boy” revealed the secret at the very heart of human existence.

In his Cole-influenced vocal style, Bell brought the song beautifully to life with a mesmerizing performance of the subtle, memorable melody. The song concludes by expressing life’s ultimate lesson:

“While we talked of many things

Fools and kings,

This he said to me:

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn

Is just to love, and be loved in return.”

Bell captured Nat King Cole’s vocal inflections and phrasing so well, I broke out in spontaneous applause. Then he kept playing “Ramblin’ Rose,” “The Very Thought of You,” and other selections from his hero’s songbook.

“Waiting.” An image of the endless waiting that consumes the lives of homeless people — waiting for years for housing, waiting for hours in a meal line, waiting for medical care and job interviews. Art by Rodney Bell

An Indestructible Spirit

Susan Werner described how Rodney Bell’s thoughtful artworks and peace-filled music somehow were born out of his soul-scarring experiences on the street.

“In spite of enduring life’s hardships, heartbreaks and feeling utterly hopeless at times about the injustices, Rodney is not defined by his circumstances,” Werner said. “He shows in his art tremendous passion that lets the indestructible spirit through. It’s the place that he creates from — the indestructible spirit.”

In the same way, the brilliant artistry of the greatest blues musicians grew out of the worst oppression, racial discrimination and poverty. Blues master John Lee Hooker once said that the greatest music grew out of Mississippi “because it’s the worst state.” Homelessness may now be the worst “state” in the land. Just as blues musicians found a way to rise above the hardships of the Mississippi Delta, people that end up in a shelter in Oakland after suffering the most traumatic blows sometimes overcome all the odds and create art of great beauty.

There is a mystery at the heart of homelessness and poverty that defies our expectations, and seems to fly in the face of all logic. Suddenly, inexplicably, beauty arises out of the ugliest circumstances, and kindness and humanity are found in abundance in the very people forced to endure the worst kinds of persecution and hostility.

It is a mistake to ever romanticize the horrible social calamity of homelessness, of course. Too often, the mean streets take their toll and brutalize their victims, forcing human beings to live in a subhuman environment where they must sometimes do whatever it takes to survive in a world bereft of help and hope.

Yet, the mystery of beauty persists in emerging from these same dead-end streets that should destroy people and shut down their dreams permanently. At unpredictable moments, in the most unlikely places, wings are unfurled. In the very midst of overcrowded shelters and savage streets and jail cells and slum hotels — wings. Someone finds their wings and rises above it all.

Amazing Grapes

I mentioned to Bell that just as his art had grown out of homeless shelters, one of the most important and lasting art forms in the world — the blues — had arisen out of the same conditions of injustice and oppression. He replied (or so I thought): “It’s like grace.”

“Yes, it’s like grace!” I said, excited to hear that this artist who had overcome homelessness to create beauty for others, would confirm my own spiritual outlook about the mysterious workings of grace.

But I had misheard him, at perhaps the most important moment of the interview. My lousy hearing strikes again.

“Not grace,” he corrected. “I said it’s like grapes.”

Somewhat deflated, I involuntarily thought how the classic spiritual would sound with this revision: “Amazing grapes, how sweet the sound.”

But, even though I’d been misled by my faulty hearing, Bell went on to describe the same dynamic that the song “Amazing Grace” reveals.

“It’s like grapes,” he repeated. “You have to squeeze grapes, trample them down, to get the wine. It’s being in oppression or hard situations that sort of wrung art out of me. It’s just this condition of homelessness that gets me to produce art, which is what I’m doing.”

“The Conference Center.” Homeless people sit on these stumps in a small Oakland park, the only "conference center" available to them. Art by Rodney Bell

Music is like Medicine

It can be a very weighty responsibility to try to lift spirits by playing music for seniors at St. Mary’s, because many have been left destitute and stranded on the streets for years on end, and have suffered hunger, loneliness, abandonment, illness and anguish.

Earlier on the day of our interview, Susan Werner observed Rodney Bell play a Sam Cooke song for Jerry Curry, a senior at the center. “Usually, this person has very downcast eyes,” Werner said. But when Bell played his song request, she said, “all of a sudden he was singing and he just said, ‘I just feel so full and so real and it feels good.’ Rodney offers sunshine and love to St. Mary’s community and lights up the room and everyone assembled whenever he plays music.”

In Werner’s view, born of years of experience in working with homeless seniors, Bell’s ability to uplift people and “bring joy to our hearts” through his music comes from a paradoxical source — his experience of life’s worst moments. “I actually don’t think you can serve people the way that he does unless you’ve experienced the heartbreak, the unutterable helplessness,” she said.

“When you know it in your soul, when you know how incredibly painful and demeaning life has been, I feel like you can bring the spirit that uplifts people through the music because you know how down people are.”

“Father If It Be Thy Will.” In a portrait of his own moment of conversion, the homeless artist sits in a solitary vigil and is bathed in spiritual light. Art by Rodney Bell

Music is like medicine, Bell believes. “It’s meaningful for me to play the piano here,” he said, “because it’s like a medicine. Physician heal thyself. I’ve always used music as a therapy to calm me down, comfort me, soothe me and I’ve found it works for others. It’s very therapeutic.”

Beyond the beauty of the melodies, the lyrics of the songs he sings give voice to the community’s shared values. “The seniors here love the old way of living when people were more respectful of each other,” he explained.

“And the music speaks to and nurtures those themes — respect yourself and others, keep your head up and smile, even in hard times. So I would gravitate to the message in the lyrical content, and when I play these songs at St. Mary’s, the seniors here can really relate to them.”

The Art of Exile

Over the past year, Bell has created several artworks that depict the struggles of homeless people to survive, to last through just one more night, to endure one more winter on the streets. The art of exile.

When Bell was homeless last year, he began living at St. Mary’s winter shelter, and through working with art facilitator Susan Werner, another door was opened — the door to his own artistic potential.

“Under Susan Werner’s tutelage, as therapy, instead of stressing about my homeless condition, I decided to draw and express what I was feeling about how homeless persons are rejected in the community,” Bell said.

“Everyone is one paycheck or one single footstep away from being homeless. No one is exempt. I never envisioned that I would ever end up homeless. I wasn’t prepared for it, and then one day I looked up, and I was homeless.”

When he looked with the perspective of an artist at his own experience in living on the streets, he realized how important it was to use his art to make the public aware of the terrible hardships faced by people without homes.

“I decided to create art about what I’m experiencing in my condition of being homeless,” he said. “Instead of drawing affluent people eating a fine meal, I’d draw someone eating out of a garbage can in the park. Instead of drawing someone in a nice car, I’d draw someone with a shopping cart. My focus changed because I saw another world here. It’s what happened to those who used to have, but now they don’t have. You go from have to have-not.”

“Shopping Cart: Homeless Man’s Wheels”

Asked why he chose a shopping cart as the very first image of homelessness he created, Bell replied: “The thing that struck me about that image is the fact that these carts were created for you to carry food and things when you go shopping, and have now become a symbol of homeless people who don’t have any of these things. I think that’s powerful.”

Ironically, the very emblem of consumerism has now become a stark image of poverty. Yet homeless people are not deemed worthy to even have a shopping cart to carry their meager belongings.

“They have no places to stay, no places to sleep, no place to relieve themselves, no place to sit and get out of the elements and the weather,” he said. “I began to experience all of that for myself just last year. After going through all that, I thought, ‘Now I know what homeless people feel like. I’m going to start drawing what I see.’ So I saw a man pushing a shopping cart. I drew the cart, and that led to all my other pictures.”

“Homelessness Has Faces.” An artistic statement that homeless people are not faceless and anonymous, but have faces, worth and human dignity. Art by Rodney Bell

“Homelessness Has Faces”

Bell’s next artwork, “Homelessness Has Faces,” was so well-received that St. Mary’s Center used his image on the cover of their 2011-12 annual report. His painting is an attempt to humanize an entire invisible nation of destitute people who are cast out of society and ignored as nameless and faceless.

This artwork grew out of his dehumanizing experiences prior to coming to Oakland, when he lived in a Salvation Army night shelter in Tennessee.

“In Tennessee, they were more concerned about your income than about you as a person,” Bell said. “If you didn’t have enough money, you were not referred to certain agencies, and if you didn’t have $50 a week, then after a week or two or three, they got rid of you — whether it was summer or winter. But I said, even if a person doesn’t have the money, they have a face.”

St. Mary’s Center believed in his artistic statement that homeless people are not anonymous, but have faces, worth and human dignity, Bell said.

“ People here began to realize that service agencies were becoming more concerned about dollars instead of persons. So when St. Mary’s opened their shelter they sought to change all that — to be more concerned about the person, the well-being of the person. That’s what grabbed me about St. Mary’s.”

“Mentally Ill Is Homelessness. Believe it!” Art by Rodney Bell

“Mentally Ill is Homelessness: Believe It”

His next major image was entitled “Mentally Ill Is Homelessness: Believe It.” He created this piece to expose society’s shameful mistreatment of homeless people with mental health issues. In his caption, he wrote: “In most metropolitan cities, veterans and mentally stressed persons are not able to afford housing or to obtain a home due to mental challenges.”

Werner saw this work as a breakthrough for the artist. “What I remember is the breakthrough for Rodney about making visible the anguish of being homeless and what it’s like to feel like an outsider to society and life itself,” she said. “And the way he broke through and shared it in the group, accepting himself that he’d had this experience, I felt this incredible joy for Rodney as a human being, knowing how art allowed him to show this experience for the first time that could free him.”

“Waiting”

Bell drew a timeless image of the endless waiting that consumes the lives of many homeless people — waiting in line for hours for the next meal, waiting for housing in an endless line, waiting for medical care, waiting for a job interview, waiting for justice and deliverance.

“I was at the Greyhound bus station in Oakland,” Bell said, “and those particular tables are across the street from the bus station in a little park. The man took a nap at the park, so I took the liberty of sketching him while he was there in between his appointments as he was waiting.”

Werner said, “I like ‘Waiting’ because I feel it really shows the feelings Rodney held about his situation of being left in limbo, just suspended. I could really feel how the body feels crumpled by life, until it’s hard to hold oneself up. It’s Rodney’s direct understanding of the conditions that people face when they’re at work and they feel so tired and exhausted. So many people who are homeless are incessantly thinking, ‘I have to do this, I have to do that.’ They keep running and racing after this thing and the futility and the hopelessness of just waiting is exhausting.”

“Father If It Be Thy Will”

At the same park where he drew “Waiting,” Bell created a self-portrait of his conversion — a turning point when he was thinking about all his homeless episodes.

“I was wondering what to do next, and it felt like a conversion experience,” he said. His art depicts a homeless man waiting in the park, his shopping cart nearby, when he is bathed and transformed in spiritual light.

“It’s such a depressing time in the world we live in today,” he explained. “With the problems that are out there, you’re going to have to tap something within, some creative juices, to where you won’t be a slave to what’s created by the media, but be a creator yourself, literally in your heavenly Father’s image. Those who believe in a Creator, we are his creations. We are made in His image and likeness, so we have the ability to produce and create as well.”

Bell’s moving caption to this image is the prayer of a homeless everyman:

In a predicament

praying for a change . . .

Knowing there’s gotta be a brighter day.

Asking, when is it gonna be

the light brighter than me?

And suddenly, this brilliant light,

exactly timed.  Bam!

“St. Mary’s Rocks.” Art by Rodney Bell

“St. Mary’s Rocks”

Being at St. Mary’s has given him more than shelter and food. It has meant being part of a community and getting more deeply involved in his art and music.

“St. Mary’s has been very good for me,” he said. “So I wanted to show my gratitude for them having the veteran’s program, helping me get housing, and talking to me like a human being. So for all those things, they rock!”

People are entering a gate called “the wellness gate” that leads into St. Mary’s Center. Bell said, “I wanted to symbolically show that St. Mary’s is the place, and I depicted it as a mountain where all roads lead to St. Mary’s.”

“The Conference Center”

This stark drawing of stumps where homeless people have a streetside “conference center” was done at the mini-park in Oakland on 34th Street between Telegraph and Martin Luther King. Werner had suggested to Bell that he use his art to make statements about where people sleep, eat and sit on the streets.

“I decided I would make that a picture of the conference center, the meeting place in the park, where the only place you have to sit on is stumps,” he said.

“Rhythm, Harmony and Melody”

This is a self-portrait of Bell’s musical spirit. He wrote: “The music of the ancestors speaks to me to restore music to its purity. The color blue represents Rhythm, the color purple represents Harmony, and the color red represents Melody: the three-fold structure of music.”

Werner said that this image shows that, “Rodney absolutely knows his purpose to bring forth his gift, his talent. No matter how he has been feeling rejected or unrecognized, he knows who he is through the music and he knows what his gifts are. His purpose is to just hone his talents as a human being for the good for all. So when God looks at his life circumstance, it just shows us that blazing spirit of being just who he is, alive and well and special.”

“Shopping Cart: Homeless Man’s Wheels.” Art by Rodney Bell

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