By Marilyn Tinnin
“Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Pablo Picasso
It’s something like Vacation Bible School Arts and Crafts on steroids! All over the room round tables are covered in white butcher paper, and blank canvases are spread awaiting the artists who will transform the plain into pretty. Tubes of paint, assorted brushes, and bins of ordinary objects that only an artist could appreciate are stacked neatly nearby. The chatter in the room is filled with affectionate greetings and the banter of old friends. It is Tuesday at Stewpot Community Services. This is Art Day, and the loosely organized happy chaos is the creation of one special young woman who let her heart lead her out of her comfort zone simply because God told her to do it!
Stacy Underwood, wearing her old t-shirt, brushing her tousled blonde hair out of her eyes and darting from one table to the next so fast she is hard to follow, is also talking non-stop. She can meet, greet, hug, give directions, demonstrate, and encourage without taking a breath. This is a sight to see.
Her students are Stewpot clients, adults of all ages, some homeless, some from nearby shelters. There are some who drift in and out of the weekly group and some regulars who have been coming ever since Stacy began this ministry in 2008. These fifteen or so unlikely artists are preparing works for the sixth annual HeARTworks Art Show to be held October 29 at The Cedars. Between now and then, Stacy and her volunteers will professionally frame and hang and tag all of the paintings, host a brunch for the artists, and put together a first-class evening event and art sale. The artists receive 80% of the proceeds and Stewpot gets the other 20%.
Attached to each framed piece is a silver-plated spoon—possibly tarnished and a visible reminder that we are not all fed with silver spoons. But the worn spoon represents more than the fact that circumstances of life do not determine the value and beauty in one’s soul. Those fortunate art lovers who go home with an original piece will likely find a message in that spoon that continues to feed a very significant space in their own soul. We all have worth. We all have something to give. We are all blessed with the ability to create and bring joy to others. That is no small message. It is God-sized.
How It Started
Stacy was the child who always loved to create. She could see art in everything. She did not mind getting dirty, and the more she could have her hands in the clay, the paint, the scissors, the glue—whatever it was—the happier she seemed to be.
“My dad was the kind of dad that when I was growing up if something needed to be fixed he’d say ‘Come out here and watch me do this. You need to know how to do this.’ And so, I learned to do lots of things with my hands. Then when Jay and I got married, we bought a ‘fixer upper, and we didn’t have any money, so I fixed things, painted things, replaced a toilet, laid tile. I would do anything once!” she laughs. (She tells me she has a tool collection that could hang with the best of them).
There was never a day when she didn’t find something fulfilling to do with her hands. And that energy of hers was just non-stop. Until it wasn’t.
Stacy describes an “artist’s block” that struck her around 2006. Her lifelong spontaneous and insatiable desire for artistic expression seemed to hit an impasse. She says she would go to the art supply and buy canvas, brushes and paint and plan her blocks of time when she could just let herself go in the freedom of doing what she loved. But time after time, she would sit and stare at the blank canvas and have not the first inkling of what to do. This was just not like her.
Being the very spiritual person that she is, Stacy began to ask God what this was all about. She had never experienced the restlessness and the lack of fulfillment she had always found in her art. The answer was not immediate.
A friend shared a book with her in 2008 that literally changed Stacy’s life. Same Kind of Different As Me, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore, chronicles the true story of a wealthy international art dealer and a homeless drifter, who meet while the art dealer is doing volunteer work at a community shelter. The friendship that developed transformed the lives of both men.
“It was a light-bulb moment,” Stacy says. “I sat straight up in bed one morning and knew exactly what I was meant to do! I want to get out of my bubble! I want to go down to the ugly places. I want to help other people! I want to teach art to the homeless!”
She could hardly wait to get to her computer and comb the Internet for art programs for the homeless.
To her surprise there were many already in existence everywhere! Hers was not an original idea. She chose the program that she liked best and sent an email to the director in Austin. He graciously replied and sent his entire outline. Stacy realized this was not rocket science, and she had the main ingredients already—a heart for the project and time to devote.
Now she just had to convince the staff at the Stewpot that they wanted what she had to offer. Stacy began calling. Weeks passed and nobody called her back, something she well understands now that she has been down there so regularly and has seen the enormity of the needs and the limits of the resources.
A perky little soccer mom who wanted to come down there to teach art was not at the top of the list for Stewpot! Stacy had been to Stewpot once when she was in high school years before, so she knew where it was. After several weeks without a callback, she loaded up her three little ones in her van and headed down there in the rain to plead her case for an art ministry she was willing to own. Who could have told her, “no?”
There were six participants that first day. Stacy recalls, “We painted flowers, and I quickly found out that this was not just about art. Art is not even the main thing. God knew that all along. That was all a way for Him to teach me something I needed to learn.”
One indelible lesson that struck Stacy early on was this. “We are all so much more alike than we are different,” and she adds, “I also came to realize that I am only about three or four decisions away from being exactly where they are.”
Art and then Some
You would think that supplies would be the biggest need in the beginning, but Stacy says she had a willing support in her husband and children. “Jay has never complained about a dime we’ve spent on that program. He understands that this is important and this is our family’s way of giving back.”
The Underwood children, Greer, Jimmy, and Ian, have grown up at Stewpot these last eight years. They have gone many a time with their mother to assist on Tuesdays, and it is not a surprise that their Stewpot friends are frequently mentioned in bedtime prayers.
“This has changed all our lives in such a good way,” Stacy says. Her big blue eyes can brim with tears in a New York minute when she starts to count the ways she has been blessed here.
The friendships between Stacy and her students run deep. Although she does not know the backstory on every person she has grown to love over the years, she counts it a precious privilege that they have let her into their lives. But connections can bring with them a certain vulnerability and potential for hurt. When her very first Stewpot friend, Mollison Holmes, died suddenly from a heart attack a few years ago, Stacy was devastated. Blind and mute and quite talented, Mollison’s simple sweetness and his gratitude to Stacy week after week for the attention she gave him, had, in Stacy’s words, changed something inside of her. Without knowing it, he had taught her greater things than she had ever taught him!
Stacy’s soul has been so nourished by those she came to help that she has recruited friends from her Bible study, her Sunday School class, and the Junior League to volunteer from time to time. She jokes that she has worn some of her friends out over the years and that there are some who “really don’t want to talk about it anymore, and I don’t blame them!” Still, she says, her great challenge has always been getting enough volunteers. If she could just bottle her passion and hand it out to others that would not ever be a problem! And there are a few faithful volunteers who do share her passion! Hope Bynum, Martha Hill, and B Ferguson are huge supporters who have been essential to Stacy’s stamina and inspiration.
Stacy’s original vision for the program was that she might discover some amazing painter among the homeless and introduce him to a life of fame and prosperity. She laughs at that now saying, “My motives in the beginning were not always pure! God impressed on me that He is in charge here.”
Reality has been that the group has remained small—as many as 25 in the winter and as few as 6 in the summer. “When I start to fret about numbers as though the numbers have to be great for the program to be meaningful, I know God is saying, ‘It’s not about numbers. If you are spending time in fellowship with one person, making a difference and encouraging one person, that needs to be enough for you.”
And then there was the morning she was thinking over the, “Let one be enough” message when God spoke to her heart saying, “Let me be that one. Let me see if you can keep going down there every week just for me. Let me be enough.”
Perhaps that has been the most profound lesson of all. Stacy has learned to measure the results of her labor by God’s yardstick. “God is not trying to teach me higher-institution-of-learning kinds of things, “ she says candidly. “He has had to get my attention to teach me simple things. He boils it down to relationships and love. He has called me to love these people, to build them up and to serve him. That’s it.”