In many ways, the evolution of the Hart Gallery on Main Street has mirrored the evolution of the lives of the artists whose work is for sale in the gallery.
With her children grown, Ellen Heavilon, owner and executive director, had been searching for more than two years for her purpose in the next stage of her life. The artists—primarily homeless individuals—had been on a much different journey, but one even more important. And when both journeys synchronized, beautiful things happened: acrylic, watercolor, and oil paintings, charcoal drawings, jewelry, woodwork creations, mixed media, and hand-crafted clothing and textiles. Most importantly, a new community and a new family were born.
“The gallery has evolved into more than I ever imagined,” says Heavilon. “When I first started, all I thought about was getting some art supplies together to offer classes. But now there is this sense of community, and our work is more about the whole person, not just the art. The artists have become family and friends and now have hope and validation.”
Heavilon’s inspiration for the gallery came when she least expected it. Walking down Main Street one summer evening in 2009, she and her husband, Jay, happened upon a public art installation by Frances McDonald of Mark Making, Julie Clark, and several other collaborators. Titled “Homes,” the work is a mosaic of tiles created by homeless individuals in Chattanooga who used drawings and words to describe their idea of home, commentary on homelessness, or expressions of gratitude. Heavilon was so moved by the power of the art and quality of the tiles that she knew she wanted to do something to expand upon the mission. She began taking art supplies to the Community Kitchen, and by the fall she and her husband, Jay, had purchased a building on Main Street where they could present art from the homeless and other nontraditional artists to the Chattanooga community.
“Art is special. It is something I never thought I’d be able to do,” says artist Tigress Isaac, whose work is showcased at the gallery. “The gallery has been a great impact on my life. Without their encouragement, I don’t think I would have ever tried.”
“Not only have they given me an opportunity to express myself artistically, but they’ve given me an opportunity to go into my own community and work with the children and give them a chance to express themselves artistically,” says Isaac. Along with his girlfriend and artist Erica Young, who also sells work at the gallery, Isaac volunteers to assist with art classes at Emma Wheeler Homes. Seija Ojanpera, assistant director and Artist in Residence at the Hart Gallery, organizes the weekly classes and finds local professional artists to volunteer to teach.
“The kids are so eager to learn, they come alive,” says Ojanpera. “Someone takes an interest in them, listens to them, and tells them what they are creating is beautiful. It has been a very positive experience for the kids.”
The Hart Gallery also facilitates art classes at the Community Kitchen each Friday and opens its gallery space for its artists to work on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Artist Jim McNeese was first connected to the Hart Gallery through classes at the Community Kitchen and can usually be found creating at the gallery.
“They give great encouragement,” says McNeese, whose gentle and caring demeanor comes through in his work. “I think homeless people need that kind of encouragement and validation. In my case, I was just trying to survive and stay away from people. And they brought me into a situation where I had to be around people, where I otherwise wouldn’t have done it…. It has given me a great opportunity to connect.”
Isaac and McNeese, along with nearly 20 other artists with work in the gallery, also benefit from the sale of their work, receiving 60 percent of the proceeds and an additional 10 percent to tithe to an organization of their choice that has helped them along the way. The remaining proceeds support art supplies and operations, but Heavilon does not take a salary because she feels it is critical the resources directly benefit the artists and their livelihood.
“It is a great lesson to learn to give back,” says McNeese. “Someone helps you and you get to help someone else.”
The gallery also partners with several other nonprofit organizations to facilitate art classes for nontraditional artists who might not otherwise have an opportunity to create, including low-income individuals with unstable housing, refugees, disabled or mentally ill individuals, and domestic violence victims. Partners have included the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, Bridge Refugee Services, the Aim Center, Jaycee Towers, Signal Centers, the Interfaith Homeless Network, and The Latino Project.
Approximately 60 adults and children are impacted each week through classes facilitated by the gallery, as well as through linkages with other resources to support their needs, such as housing and social services. This impact wouldn’t be possible without the support of numerous volunteers and artists, including Brother Bo Armstrong, Anne Davis, Brent Weston, and many other artists who give selflessly to the cause.
As the Hart Gallery approaches its one-year anniversary this September, Heavilon believes the future is wide open and continues to seek creative partnerships to support the gallery’s mission.
“It is already better than anything I thought it was going to be,” says Heavilon. “And the fact that it is having an impact on people, getting people off the street, giving them hope, giving them a sense that there is someone out there who cares about them—that has been amazing. I get inspired by the artists every day.”
The response from the community has been incredible,with sales in the gallery and online growing stronger every month. The gallery also offers gift items that feature images of the artists’ work, such as note cards and coasters, which helps to continue to benefit the artists. The price point for the art is under $200 to make art accessible to anyone interested in purchasing original art or starting a collection.
To further expand access to the gallery and to provide support for operations, the Hart Gallery also rents its space for events and will host its first wedding next spring. Ellen’s husband, Jay, oversaw the installation of a beautiful gourmet kitchen to support event rentals, and the gallery does not have any limitations on the use of caterers or other restrictions. At just $50 per hour, the space—like the art—is kept affordable.
Beyond the core mission, Heavilon also hopes the gallery inspires others to give back.
“Everybody may not be able to start their own nonprofit, their own gallery, but everybody can do something,” says Heavilon. “And if everybody would do something, I don’t think we’d be in near the mess we’re in now. It doesn’t have to be grand. Just smiling at someone, buying them a cup of coffee, just acknowledging that they are in this world. Everyone wants to feel that they matter.”
In many ways, the gallery has become an artistic hub on Main Street, with a community mural, “urban Heartbeat,” created through a partnership with Mark Making, that is showcased on the building for all to enjoy. One of the gallery’s newest creative partnerships is a community garden situated on the gallery’s property that is a collaboration of several Southside neighbors and organizations. In the center of the garden is “Homes,” the sculpture that originally inspired Heavilon. And at the top of the sculpture is a tile that reads “I Love My Mom Ellen,” another sign to Heavilon that she has found her home.
The Hart Gallery, located at 110 E. Main Street, is open Wednesday-Friday from 11AM to 6PM and Saturdays from 9AM-2PM. Learn more or shop for art online at www.hartgallerytn.com or call 423-521- 4707. The gallery also participates in downtown art events, including ArtStroll Southside (July 29, August 26, and September 30 from 5 to 8 PM) and the Gallery Hop on September 10.
This article was originally published in the 2011 August/September Issue.