Transforming a Nicaraguan Experience
Into “The Faces of Haywood Street”
By: Marilyn McKay
As with any profound journey in life, Mandy Kjellstrom’s started with a questioning that ultimately grew into a lesson about release. “This experience taught me to risk turning corners, not knowing what was around the corner, rather than walking down a straight path toward my preconceived goal. In other words, following Spirit’s leading, not knowing where it would take me: relinquishing control.
Unlike most profound life journeys, Mandy’s required a round-trip of some 6,200 miles to Nicaragua.
Mandy is an artist based in the Cotton Mill Studios on Riverside Drive in Asheville’s River Arts District. In 2010 she traveled with members of her congregation, the First Congregational United Church of Christ (FCUCC) to Nicaragua. She expected the trip to be filled with good deeds. Little did she know that the trip would move her to create an art exhibit reflecting her personal transformation.
“I couldn’t understand that we weren’t going to build or make something. I thought it would be a mission trip, but we were missioned upon. Others who had taken the trip the previous year kept telling me that we were going to be in community and build relationships with the people. It wasn’t a doing trip.”
Mandy, who spoke little Spanish, stayed with a family that spoke no English. Her art work became the language through which she communicated. She recalls visiting a home-bound, elderly woman and asking, through a translator, if she would mind having her portrait drawn, “The elderly woman was honored that an artista wanted to sit and draw her picture, and I was very grateful for the opportunity. It was a good way to be with her and when she saw the finished drawing our relationship was cemented.”
Developing that level of acceptance led to more opportunities. Mandy was invited to teach an art class at a home for women with high-risk pregnancies in their final two weeks before delivery. Mandy remembers: “It was a hoot, trying to teach these women about color and weaving color together into patterns when I could not speak Spanish. Luckily, there was a translator, but she wanted to paint, too—not translate! We laughed a lot!”
The questioning and the impact of relationships had its most explosive impact on Mandy when she witnessed a mother with two young children foraging for food in a garbage pit. “It’s wrong. It shouldn’t happen. But, as a mother, I realized I could do it too, if I had to. As an American, I had not personally experienced this degree of poverty in my country, but I came to learn later in the week that there are ‘tent cities’ in Asheville. One of the men I drew at Haywood spent the bitter cold and snowy winters of 2009 and 2010 living in a tent on Beaucatcher Mountain with sterno as his only heat source. This is as morally wrong as the woman walking into the garbage pit with her children. Perhaps it is even more wrong given that this happening in America. The question that haunted me was what could I do? How could I make a difference utilizing my gifts as an artist?”
Fortunately, the Rev. Shannon Spencer had accompanied FCUCC members to Nicaragua and was astute about the need to assist with their debriefing and re-entry into their daily routines. She wisely pointed Mandy toward the Haywood Street Congregation of the Central United Methodist Church campus, a community-building effort for the housed and the homeless, the addict and the person in recovery, people who want church and people who just want to eat; basically: anyone in Asheville.
“Shannon invited me to come to Haywood and take a look. She told me that in the previous year over 20 people had died in Asheville, unnamed until an investigation was done. She said, ‘Come use your artwork to name these people and build community.’”
Mandy decided that she would draw portraits of as many members of the Haywood Street Congregation as were willing to model. She would be in relationship with them and through their own portraits, give them visibility.
“With fear and trepidation, I started going to Haywood every Wednesday to the Welcome Table, which includes a hot lunch, fellowship, and worship for almost 200 people,” Mandy explains. “ I must have asked 10 people before anybody said yes. Those were very difficult times. At one point, I thought I would abandon the whole project. I was tired of asking. Finally, in exasperation I just set up my easel and waited. They came. Now I have a waiting list.”
“What I didn’t understand is that trust is a tremendous issue for many of the folks there. They didn’t know who I was or what would be done with the pictures that I was drawing,” she recalls.
However, her persistence and belief in the gift she wanted to give trumped her doubt. The result is an exhibit of 19 charcoal drawings of her Haywood Street models: seven African-Americans, one Latino, 11 Caucasians; six are women. Her exhibit goes beyond traditional drawings and includes a biography of each subject.
“The Faces of Haywood Street,” produced by Mandy Kjellstrom’s studio, hung during the month of April at the FCUCC gallery. During June, the exhibit will hang in Mandy’s studio at the Cotton Mill Studios, 122 Riverside Drive, for the Studio Stroll, June 9-10. There is no admission fee for the exhibit, but contributions will be accepted and donated to the Haywood Street Congregation and Homeward Bound, an Asheville agency that focuses on finding housing solutions for people in need. Showings in other venues may be arranged through Mandy’s studio.
Mandy drew all the portraits except for one by Caleb Clark, a student at The Fine Arts League of the Carolinas. Name plates and captions for the portraits were lettered by Elizabeth Simmonds, Nancy Thrash, Catherine Langsdorf and Sally Gooze, members of the Mountain Scribes, an Asheville calligraphy group.
“I chose charcoal because I am confident of my ability to work quickly with charcoal and it is very forgiving. I was working with significant time constraints. The people were there to have lunch. They could give me about 45 minutes of modeling time and then they needed to get in line for lunch and to visit with their friends. There was no guarantee after the first sitting that I would have a second opportunity to see them,” according to Mandy.
Art is a “second half of life career” for Mandy. She began taking lessons as a hobby in 2002 and then moved into more formal training at the Fine Arts League of the Carolinas studying with Asheville artists Michael Smith, Mark Henry, John Dempsey, Ben Long, Roger Nelson, and her mentor John Mac Kah. As her art skills and interests developed, Mandy realized that portraiture, her least favorite art genre, might be where she had talent and she wondered if she might use that in a significant way. What she did not know was the significance that would be based in relationships and community-building.
The friendships developed during and after the drawing when she interviewed the person for their biography. Some of the questions were of a superficial nature, but others were deeper. “One man told me about his life on the streets selling drugs and landing in prison. A year ago, I would have avoided this man but now I call him friend. He has turned his life around. Although he is homeless, he is working on his GED and was recently approved for housing. Another person, when asked what was the coolest thing she had ever done, replied, ‘I am a ballroom dancer and I danced with Arthur Murray and at the Crystal Ballroom at Disneyworld.’”
Mandy continues, “It is clear that we are all so much alike. There’s an inner beauty in each person that I’ve drawn at Haywood Street, even though some, not all, have been marginalized or badly treated. Each person knows he or she has been looked at deeply. That’s where community comes from.”
Rev. Shannon Spencer beams with an I-knew-it-all-along smile at Mandy’s discoveries. “Mandy has broadened her sights in recognizing that friendship can come from many walks of life and can be expressed in ways other than going out to dinner and talking on the phone,” she says. “She has received an extraordinary gift and it surprised her. She knew intellectually that she can give to folks. But in the humility of sharing her gift of art, she has received a gift of enormity: the gift of friendship. And that’s what the Haywood Congregation is about: being in community with each other to share the gift of relationships.”
The biographies from the interviews will accompany each portrait. Repeatedly, in these interviews, the participants mentioned Homeward Bound as an agency that provided them with important support services during the time they were homeless and helped them transition into apartments and subsidized housing.
Emily Ball, the agency’s Director of Community Engagement, explains that Homeward Bound provides a place where people can shower, use storage lockers, receive and make phone calls, and receive mail. However, she emphasizes that the agency’s real focus is finding solutions to housing needs. “As a community, we need to keep investing in housing because it really is the solution to homelessness. And it has to be paired with support; that’s been the key to our success at Homeward Bound and the reason 89% of the people we’ve housed are still in housing.”
She cites the example of Hope To Home, a program that linked members of faith groups in “intentional community” with a client who is studying for his GED. It is an interfaith group that stays in touch with the client and offers support and problem-solving during the GED process and, of course, will be there to celebrate with the client when the tests are over.
“As Mandy found out, it’s not just doing or giving money, it’s about being. It’s relational based,” said Emily.
Mandy’s excitement about the exhibit is surpassed only by her excitement about the new friends she found at Haywood Street. She has even introduced her new and old friends.
As a member of Mountain Scribes, Mandy invited the Scribes to Haywood Street for Valentine’s Day. “We were swamped! Haywood participants stopped by our tables and selected Valentines the Scribes had handmade and then Elizabeth Simmonds and Catherine Langsdorf scribed personal messages onto the cards. As I watched my old friends meet my new friends, I felt the transforming power of just being in community,” she explains.
Mandy Kjellstrom’s journey logged many miles, many sketches, and sticks of charcoal. It took her far away, so she could come back to herself transformed by her understanding of community and friendship
With tears in her eyes, she says simply, “The people at Haywood Street are my friends. When I go on Wednesday, and some aren’t there, I really miss them. They’re my friends.”
Marilyn McKay is a member of Mountain Scribes and a writer living in Candler, North Carolina. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.