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Lamp Art Project Brings Healing Power of Creation to Skid Row

March 20, 2011

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci and Mona Lisa painted by Skid Row resident

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in the notorious Skid Row area of Los Angeles, and Jerome Robertson, a hulking figure with a bald head and graying moustache, is deciding where to add his signature to the painting he just completed. It’s a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci propped next to Mona Lisa’s bust, painted in a palette of browns and whites, with the exception of a bright red blindfold covering Mona Lisa’s typically penetrating eyes.

“People’s faces are so interesting,” Robertson says of his choice of subject. “Their constitution speaks from the soul.”

Robertson is one of a handful of regulars working on various forms of visual art at the Lamp Art Project’s artists’ studio, part of the services offered by Lamp Community –a non-profit that provides housing and other resources to Los Angeles-area homeless and formerly homeless that are suffering from mental illness.

Lamp art studio

“It’s an art program, not an art therapy program, but I believe the process of making art is inherently therapeutic,” explains Hayk Makhmuryan, who has served as the project manager for the past three years.

The Art Project allows all members of Lamp to have access to a professional-level studio, open three days a week, as well as offering instruction and support to participants from professional artists both in the studio and at outside workshops.

“There is a full range of artists here in terms of their backgrounds and their art-making,” said Makhmuryan, who himself is a professional illustrator.  “Here we focus on visual art –painting and drawing – but within that we have the entire range, from artists who draw in pencil on a small scale to 36×16 oil paintings.”

He believes providing an atmosphere where people are free to create is vital, particularly in Skid Row.

“Art-making is an outlet to individuality and expression,” says Makhmuryan. “That’s important everywhere, and in the Skid Row community it’s especially important because there are very few other outlets for creative expression.

“These people have real problems –housing problems, addictions –which can lead to depression, so in this community it’s especially important to have a program that encourages a person to focus on what they have to share with the world. That process is productive and inspiring.”

Makhmuryan has seen firsthand how involvement in the Lamp Art Project can affect life outlooks for participants, citing Robertson as a prime example of this. For Robertson, access to this art studio has been what he referred to as a lifesaver. “I stopped doing drugs and smoking and picked up a brush instead,” he unabashedly states.

Robertson with his portrait

Although Robertson considers himself a life-long artist, explaining how he never finished school because he would spend his time in class doodling and drawing instead, he has only been painting for the past year. Now it’s a regular part of his life, and he comes to the studio nearly every day it’s open.

“You know how you see people going into the office every day with their suits and ties?,” asks Robertson. “That’s this for me. I know what I’m here for now; I’m on this planet to create.”

For him, art is an essential part of his life, and he brings canvases from the studio home to continue working on them when the studio isn’t open. “I have to work in my spare time because otherwise I get in trouble,” he says. “I need to keep busy.”

Robertson is planning on undertaking a portrait of Einstein next, and hopes to master painting faces soon. “It’s been very challenging, but I love a challenge.”

Kim with his model of the Sears Tower

While Robertson is one of a handful of artists who come to the studio about three times a week, there are approximately 40 artists that regularly participate in the Art Project in some manner. One of these artists is Robert Kim, a fast-talker with a long, shiny black ponytail, who has been involved with Lamp since 1998.

“Art teaches me to broaden my horizons,” says Kim, who is currently working on creating a model city composed of the tallest buildings from cities around the world. “I’m used to drawing pictures of skylines and suspension bridges; I wanted to build a skyline that no one had seen before.”

Kim, who has been an artist “ever since I could pick up a pencil,” envisions his project will take one to two years to complete, and has hopes to include one to three thousand models in total. On this afternoon he has stopped by to show Makhmuryan his model of the Sears Tower, a 3-D puzzle he found on the Internet.

“I don’t typically work in this studio, but I come as often as I can,” said Kim, who now lives in Burbank and takes the bus all the way to Skid Row.

Kim has been able to sell some of his art, most recently having sold a drawing he did of the San Francisco skyline, which he created using graphite and markers over the course of a year. Robertson has also been able to sell some of his works, including a cartoon and a painting he entitled “Celestial Eve.”

Artists at work at the Lamp studio

While Makhmuryan emphasizes the fact that the importance is the creation of the art, rather than what happens to the end result, he feels that art shows are also an essential part of the artist’s experience.

“There are shows that happen periodically, and we have a monthly open studio event that coincides with the Downtown LA Art Walk,” he explains. “Art shows are important because they bring the artist to the end of their journey: sharing their work.”

The Lamp Art Project also collaborates with the community at large, various art galleries and other art entities, and with other organizations that deal with homelessness and mental health. Although the studio space is intended for members of Lamp, there is an open-door policy and anyone in is welcome to come in, and to receive guidance on other ways to get involved in the local art community.

Photos by me

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