‘Leeway Artists At The Clark’ Travels Memory Lane
When Candice S. turns her paint-tipped brush into flowers, climbing vines, and azure water, she isn’t in a small rec room at a nursing home, feeling cramped and closed in. She back in the kitchen of her childhood, helping her mother keep their plants alive.
Candice is a resident at Leeway, Inc., a skilled nursing facility and residential care program for people living with HIV/AIDS located in New Haven’s Cedar Hill neighborhood. The center was founded by Catherine Kennedy, and opened in 1995. Heather Aaron, the current Executive Director has expanded Leeway’s initial footprint, adding the Community Living Model, the newest program serving people in the community.
Tuesday afternoon, Candice arrived at the Clark Memorial Library with seven other resident-artists for Leeway Artists At The Clark, a small exhibition of work from Leeway’s arts and crafts classes.
The show runs through Friday, May 4, 2018. It's the brainchild of Leeway Therapeutic Recreation Coordinator Jeanne Lovrin, who worked directly with Clark Executive Director Melissa Canham-Clyne and Board Member Liz Scott to produce the show.
Spread between a sunlit side room and glass display cases on the Clark’s first floor, the exhibition is diverse in its scope, criss-crossing continents, levels of abstraction, and the animal kingdom in its subject matter. But for most of the artists featured, it is drenched in memory, filling the room with stories that knock and orbit each other like excited electrons.
There are artists like Candice, a plant and seascape enthusiast born and raised to a Bahamian immigrant in Stamford. Even from a young age, Candice recalled, she loved plants: she watched them grow in the city and reveled in their lush presence and perfume each summer, when she traveled back to the Bahamas with her mother.
Traveling around the islands, she learned to pick out scents: jasmine, like “walking through a perfume factory,” salt in the sea air, shells that had just washed up, and were still briny and wet.
But she had a problem—back in Stamford, her mother couldn’t keep plants alive. She tried: the family always had an array in the house. But she seemed to have an un-green thumb; Candice “used to sit at the table and watch our cactus die.”
So when Candice grew up and began her own household, “I had mad plants.” As she raised seven kids—four boys and three girls—she taught them the merits of composting, filling her home with potted plants as she tended a fleet of strawberries for her aging mom.
Until last year, when an infection saddled her with a need for greater care. When she came to Leeway in February of 2017, she wasn’t able to have lots of plants anymore. It made the place feel lonely, she said—the center was immediately welcoming, but it still wasn’t home.
Then two months into her time there, one of the center’s aides encouraged her to try painting during a weekly arts and crafts class.
“I didn’t think I could draw,” Candice recalled. But she joined the class, delighted as wavy green vines, vibrant petals, and foamy seascapes sprang from her fingertips.
“In my mind, I visualized where they’re naturally grown,” she said. “It puts me mentally at ease, and opens me up.”
So too for Patricia “Pat” R. (pictured above), a hobbyist whose work looks out benevolently from the far corner of the room. Among animal drawings (her favorite is a fat-cheeked squirrel named “Mr. Nutty”) and homages to her Southern and Cherokee roots, three faces stand out, mummified and unmistakably Egyptian in their style.
They’re not directly from Pat’s imagination, so much as from her childhood. When she was six or seven, her aunt began taking her to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where she got her first look at pieces in the Egyptian art wing. There with her young cousins, she would stare longingly at the mummies, wondering if they might ever break free from their frozen frames and stare back.
Back at home in East Windsor, they inspired her to dive into the drawing herself. “I loved to take a sketchpad, walk into the woods and just draw,” she recalled. For a few years, she attended art classes, but discontinued them as she got older.
She put the habit on the back burner. For a while. When Leeway offered an art class, she said she jumped at the opportunity.
“It inspires me to look at things from different perspectives,” she said.
For a few artists in the show, the chance to make work—and to exhibit it—is as much about the future as it is about the past. In a display case outside the main room, a suite of pieces from the artist Jermaine (first name only) is arranged in three tiers, objects stopping the viewer in their tracks.
There is a delicate, rainbow-colored quill titled Fly Free, rendered for a close friend of his who is bisexual. Or dripping, bright white paper skulls, transferred onto wood. And the pièce de résistance—a black-and-red painted pirate ship, its sail emblazoned with the red ribbon that had become synonymous with AIDS advocacy.
The last, he said, “symbolizes the start of a new journey” that art is making a little easier.
It’s a journey that began suddenly three years ago, when a headache turned out to be meningitis, and landed him first in the hospital, and then in a coma, and then at Leeway for the care that the center could provide. A barber and tattoo artist from Bridgeport, he had spent years of his life relying on his legs and hands to do his trade. Now their full range of motion was gone.
Jermaine turned to art, a lifelong comfort that his mother began to teach him years ago. It was, he said, like taking a beak from everything overwhelming happening around him.
“For me, art is like a getaway from working or stress or something like that,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll walk again.”
As he creates, he said he can feel himself physically recovering. Recently, he has started gaining movement back in his left side. This year, he did his nephews’ hair for the first time since 2015, styling it on one of their latest visits to Leeway. And he’s made friends at the center, fashioning art pieces in their honor.
As artists mingled with Leeway employees, a few friends and library staff, Canham-Clyne made a beeline to Jermaine, letting him know that the ship had been one of the show’s most popular items with bibliophiles passing through on their way to a book or program.
“It shows that we are more than who we are,” she later said of the show, dressed for the occasion in a vibrant red sweater. “We are the only rural town in New Haven county. I think sometimes we forget that we’re part of a larger world.”
Leeway is looking for volunteers. To learn more, contact Lorrie Wesoly at firstname.lastname@example.org.