"We take for granted that our parents bought us crayons and scissors and things like that when we were younger," says Fitzhugh, a 35-year-old Richmond native with 12 years of teaching experience. "But I find that a lot of kids in the homeless population are not developmentally where we were when we were younger, because they aren't cutting, they aren't gluing, they aren't painting ..."
So Fitzhugh teaches children's art classes in Richmond's homeless shelters and then shows their work at Polkadot. Since September, she has staged five such exhibits, the most recent of which is on display through December.
"Polkadot Arts" stands for "Preschoolers and Older Kids Artistically Displaying Original Thoughts And Revealing True Spirit," and the name reflects Fitzhugh's belief that art can provide a much-needed means of expression for children in the midst of upheaval, dislocation and dire poverty. And by showing their work in a gallery, Fitzhugh is able to educate a not always compassionate public about homelessness. "There's a very traditional view of what a homeless person here in Richmond is," she says, "and I want to dispel myths and educate the public as to who these people really are."
Who they really are would probably shock many Americans. According to Homeward, an agency that serves the local homeless population, there are approximately 1,600 homeless people in Richmond, and a startling 22 percent of them are children. Contrary to popular belief, nearly 75 percent of adult shelter residents are employed, but simply cannot earn enough money to pay rent and clear the financial hurdle of a two-month security deposit. As a result, any unexpected crisis illness, death of a spouse, loss of a job, eviction can force poor families onto the streets. Some are spared by financial or housing assistance from their extended family. "But a lot of these people don't have that safety net," says Fitzhugh, and the result is a large displaced population who are forced toseek refuge in the city's small, underfunded shelter system.
The pressures and anxieties of shelter life take a special toll on children, and Fitzhugh hopes her art classes can help. "It's tough living in a shelter with 10 other families," says Fitzhugh. "All of a sudden you have 10 other mothers telling you what to do, and all these new brothers and sisters crammed into your space. When my little darlings create something, they know that it's theirs and only theirs."
The bright, vivid drawings, paintings and collages that they create can be seen on the walls of Polkadot's main gallery. Many are colorful abstractions, but some contain touching narratives. "Home," a painting in autumnal colors by a 10-year-old, could be any child's crudely expressive rendering of a house, yard and stick figure if we didn't know that the house in this picture is either imaginary or a memory of a house now gone. "My Brother," a 9-year-old's oil-pastel drawing, shows a boy standing waist-deep in water beneath ominous clouds and an intense, orange sun. "He witnessed his brother almost drown," Fitzhugh explains, "and had never really spoken about it. I asked the kids to create a piece about something that really affected their lives, and that was what he did."
Fitzhugh, who also teaches disabled and Head Start kids, is thrilled by such breakthroughs. But her sweetest moment comes when her young artists arrive at Polkadot on the first Friday of each month and she sees "the smiles on their faces when they come in and realize that - 'oh my gosh, this is a place I walk by all the time and here's my stuff up on the wall!'" It's a curious image, these children on the lowest rung of Richmond's economic ladder mingling with First Friday art patrons on their monthly trek up and down Broad Street. But Fitzhugh fervently hopes that Polkadot will become a regular part of the First Friday ritual, partly because Polkadot needs help to survive.
The Broad Street gallery location is currently donated rent-free by a sympathetic landlord, but has not been secured yet for next year. Polkadot will convert to full nonprofit status in January, but until then is essentially a one-woman operation completely dependent for survival on grants and Fitzhugh's teaching income. "The biggest thing I want Richmonders to know," she says frankly, "is that I'm nervous about funding."
Provided she can keep the gallery's doors open, she hopes to involve other artists with Polkadot. "I would love to do a project where I pair an artist with a homeless person and have them create a piece together." She also hopes to extend the age range of her students and to conduct classes at the gallery instead of just in the shelters. "I'd like homeless people to have the opportunity to come here and take a class like you or I would at the Hand Workshop or at Shockoe Bottom," she says, her voice brimming with hope and enthusiasm. "And we're getting there." S
For more information about Polkadot Arts Center, visit the gallery at 817 W. Broad Street, or contact Karen Thompson Fitzhugh at 553-0877.
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