Katrina Sather starts with a big empty canvas, black paints, and the hands of homeless people, social workers, and volunteers. At first, they just make circles.
“Most of us can trace a circle,” said Sather, a Bothell artist. “It can be easy to step in and just participate.”
Then they add color.
For the past six years, Sather has gone to shelters, day centers, transitional-housing complexes and other places where homeless people congregate and asked them to help paint, starting with black concentric circles, and then bringing in bright colors, hearts and other shapes, and words.
Now, for the first time, the paintings will be on display in a Seattle gallery. “Collaboration on Canvas,” a free show at CORE Gallery in Pioneer Square, will be showcased from noon to 6 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 11, to Saturday, Dec. 14. The works were created by more than 250 homeless people, staff and volunteers at Mary’s Place, Street Youth Ministries, Solid Ground and Seattle Union Gospel Mission, among others.
The idea came to Sather in 2013 when she was helping to organize an art show at a youth shelter in South King County of mostly youth living in the country illegally. She wanted something more than the average art show, so she grabbed a white canvas, had the young people create the black circles, and invited the caseworkers, the cook, the shelter’s director, and even the landscapers to add the color together alongside the youth.
“So instead of walking around looking at Joe’s picture of his home back in Guatemala, and saying, ‘That’s nice,’ they stood elbow to elbow” creating a painting together, Sather said. “We were all kind of uncomfortable, we were all trying to be creative, we were all judging ourselves.”
As King County’s homeless crisis worsened and the debate around it got hotter and hotter, Sather felt that this was one little way she could bring people together. She got a public grant in 2018 for $2,500 from 4Culture, a King County fund for the arts. For the last two years, all the paint has been donated by Royal Talons, an international artist supply company.
“I’m not solving any big issues,” Sather said. “I just needed walls to come down … There needed to be more connection, instead of us and them, instead of art on the wall.”
Karen Giller, a resident of transitional housing for homeless women, came Thursday night to help paint a new canvas at CORE Gallery. She has participated in the project before at her housing program.
“It was community, and a bunch of women sharing space and time, and doing something together,” Giller said. “It was different every time, but it was always a good feeling.”
Several times a week, Sather drags a canvas into shelters, day centers and transitional housing, sits down and starts painting for an hour or an hour and a half. Sometimes, she sits for a while before anyone joins her — and once in a while, no one does, but Sather will still sit and paint alone. She keeps returning once or twice a week for six to eight weeks until the painting is done.
She’s noticed paintings often take on the character of their surroundings: The paintings that have come out of day centers, for instance, feel more frenzied than the ones that come out of transitional housing, where people stay for a little longer than a shelter.
“They know where they’re sleeping each night,” Sather said. “They take their time a little bit more … And I don’t know if that is ‘I know where I’m sleeping tonight’ versus ‘I may not know and I’m in here because it’s warm for another couple hours.’”
Staff photographer Erika Schultz contributed to this report.