A Photo Essay: St. Mary’s Center Showcases the Artworks of Homeless Seniors

In an art class developed by Susan Werner at St. Mary’s Center, formerly homeless seniors create artistic works to reflect on the trials and hardships of homelessness — and to create new, hope-filled visions of a better tomorrow where all people have access to housing, food, health care, and justice.

Photo-Essay by Ariel Messman-Rucker


Elizabeth Teal, 61, stands next to a pastel drawing she created titled "Red Sails in the Sunset" which depicts her life after she leaves St. Mary's Center for permanent housing. Elizabeth said, "I always think a safe place for me is in a sail boat. When you’re in a boat you’re like rocked to sleep. You’re in the hands of Jesus. When I’m here at St. Mary’s, I rock to sleep on my little cot.”


Shane has been surviving on the streets for the past 18 years, but now he is creating moving art and poetry in Susan Werner's art class while living at St. Mary's winter shelter.


Opetski stands next to his sculpture of a rocket ship he made in art class. His sculpture is a reflection on the enormous commitment the United States made in developing space travel. If the U.S. government had devoted a comparable investment to building affordable housing, homelessness could have been abolished.


Keith Arivnwine’s art depicts both homelessness and hope. The drawing (top) portrays his life as a squatter and the collage (bottom) imagines his hope-filled future.


This highly meaningful collage was created by placing heartfelt words of hope and justice — words such as love, peace, joy, healing, happiness, living and spirit — next to images of homelessness and desolation from the pages of Street Spirit.


"Our Breath of Life in Clay!" Residents of St. Mary's winter shelter created sculptures and accompanying poems as part of Susan Werner's art class.


A display of collages created by seniors using images and text cut from past issues of Street Spirit.


To read the main feature article on Susan Werner’s art class and the artistic creativity of homeless seniors at St. Mary’s Center click here.



Susan Werner (left) and Angela Gill of St. Mary’s Center. Angela holds the flower sculpture she made as part of Susan’s art class.


Joseph Williams, 66, points to a collage he created in Susan Werner's art class depicting his hopes and dreams for the future. Williams says he wants to live someplace with a lot of open space and to finally own a nice watch.


"Should housing that's affordable be a gamble?" Lloyd Sandstrom calls his collage not simply a piece of art, but a "political statement." Sandstrom used pictures from past issues of Street Spirit to help illustrate his point that "no one should live in poverty, no one should not have a safe, affordable place to live."


Bruce, 63, found that creating art was personally liberating. Participating in Susan Werner's art class gave him new energy to work on his vision. "I've been able to get up and get dressed and go out back into the world and feel alive again," Bruce said.


A display of art work created by seniors in the winter shelter program displayed at St. Mary's Center in Oakland.


Seniors who have experienced homelessness created their own artistic visions of life on the streets by creatively choosing and combining colorful images from Street Spirit to tell the story of urban poverty with pictorial images.


This stark image of being lost on the city streets was achieved by placing images of a safe home and a soft bed right next to the photograph of a mother and her small children exiled onto the dangerous streets. In the very middle of the collage, a single word is placed: "LOST." That profoundly expressive word sums up the anguish experienced by countless people condemned to live on the streets in the East Bay.


“Tree of Life: Breaking down my walls. I let go and give all to God.” For Angela Gill what started out as a sculpture of a red flower became a reminder that with care and support she too can grow and flourish.


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