Artists Living with Disability and Homelessness Find Success with ArtLifting

By Olivia O'Mahony 6 Min Read

Art is a lot of things to a lot of people. To the team behind online art dealer, it’s a chance to recognize invisible talent across the U.S., and change lives in the process.

In the words of John F. Kennedy, “Art is the great democrat, calling forth creative genius from every sector of society, disregarding race or religion or wealth or color.” He was right. Creative pursuits transcend social and economic boundaries.

They simultaneously comfort and displace us, beckoning for us to celebrate that which both defines our individuality and cements our communities. One Boston-based startup is taking this concept to new heights – and making a tangible daily difference in the lives of thousands in the process.

ArtLifting is the brainchild of Liz Powers, who, after securing a grant from Harvard University to run art group programs in homeless shelters around Boston, was stunned by the level of artistic talent she encountered on a daily basis. Incredible works of art were produced by attendees of her classes, only to be abandoned afterwards in dusty corners of the shelters.

As Liz began to expand the reach of her art groups, she saw that the problem existed all around the United States. “Individuals {would say}, ‘Liz, we don’t need more handouts. I don’t need someone to hand me another sandwich. I want opportunity, and I want the ability to have a job.’”

Knowing that something had to be done, Liz committed to helping share the creative works of America’s underprivileged with the world, and in doing so, aid them in their fight to attain financial stability. With the help of an online buying and selling platform for their artwork, a light could finally be shone on the talented who worked in shadow.

In November 2013, with support from Liz’s brother, Spencer, and four Boston artists, ArtLifting was born. During their first 7 days of publicized work, each of the creatives earned thousands of dollars and nationwide media exposure. Their lives were changed. And now that ArtLifting has a presence in 19 separate cities around the U.S., its team are determined to do the same for others.

Encouraging opportunity, empowerment and validation in the people living with homelessness and disability that it represents, ArtLifting has given many the confidence to stand up, stand out, and call themselves what they are – innovators in their own right.

“I started drawing again when I was in the shelter, mainly to escape,” says artist Scott Brenner. “So I reached out to ArtLifting. I sent them an email and I said, ‘I’m 57 years old. I’m homeless and I’m broke. And I’ve got this artwork that people have told me all my life I should be selling.’ Now I’m living up in Maine, and I’m drawing for the first time in my life while looking at it as a career.”

To apply to become an artist operating under the ArtLifting umbrella, applicants must meet a set of criteria set out by the company. An individual must be over the age of 18, have legal permission to work within the United States, and, in addition, must meet at least one of the following requirements: be homeless or recovering from past homelessness, currently live with a diagnosed physical or mental illness, be a veteran of the United States Army with disability determination, or be a refugee or asylum seeker living in the United States.

Artists who meet above standards are then recommended to submit samples of finished work that is original, signed, and saleable, with the only restrictions being that they may not offer work that is offensive, copyrighted, or against company values – such as scenes depicting graphic violence, references to illegal drug use, or sexually explicit images.

The ArtLifting website is more than a marketplace. It is a community space, a platform on which artists and those who wish to purchase pieces for their homes or businesses can interact and recognize the person on the other end of what often risks being a faceless transaction.

And for artists such as Kitty Zen, a self-taught multimedia artist who has experienced PTSD, this makes a world of difference. “It is a very touching moment to actually meet the person who wants to have a piece of your artwork be a part of their home,” she says in her website bio. “It’s such a good feeling. Artists are always our own hardest critics. Being appreciated that way is truly uplifting.”

“I’ve seen a lot of other organizations that help people with handicaps of one form or another,” Kitty also said in a promotional interview. “But it’s always about the handicap and never about the talent.” ArtLifting – the title of which comes from the words “art” and “uplifting” – is, at its core, about recognizing the value of people as people, and with each passing day, it’s raising both artists and customers to a new level of appreciation for the great things that a little creative flair can achieve.

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