"As a man is," said William Blake, "so he sees. As the eye is formed, such are its powers."
As children, we do not perceive ourselves as different because we cannot imagine anything outside the small scope of our own existence. Poverty. Privilege. Safety. Danger. What we know is what is natural to us. It is not until we matriculate in the larger arena beyond the borders of home and family that we begin to appreciate that the culture we've collected and the perspective by which we measure all things -- truth, beauty, ugliness and despair -- are unique to an education over which we had no control. Ultimately, it is how we learn to see that sets us apart and gives voice to the language by which we make ourselves known in the world. Those who live outside the lines and under the radar -- the artists, the rebels, the dreamers -- whose experiences have taught them to view life through a more kaleidoscopic lens find themselves labeled "strange" or "weird" or "other" -- and none perhaps more so, than the homeless.
From earliest memory, artist Annie McClendon Gurley was faced with a landscape of devastation white girls like me read about in books but can never wholly comprehend. Sitting in the Gastonia home she shares with her second husband, Gurley recounts the details of her Alabama upbringing. The swirling, jazz-like phrases that weave the warp and woof of her life float on cosmic riffs often punctuated by stunning, heart-stopping blue notes: Gurley left school at the age most of us were learning our A-B-C's to work in the cotton fields alongside her mother and her many siblings -- some of whom survived and some whom did not. Her baby sister, "my heart," she says, had the life choked out of her by an infestation of hookworms. Her daddy "accidentally" killed one of her brothers while cleaning his rifle. Beaten and often hungry, Gurley started drawing pictures "when I was knee to a tot," she says. "I used to do it on the ground in the dirt. Painting meant more to me than food. I'd rather paint than eat. I put it on paper, tissue -- anything I could get."
As her life continued its brutal trajectory, art offered Gurley solace, but not escape. Like her father before him, Gurley's first husband beat and tormented her. "I tried writing short stories," she says, "but [he] used to take all my stuff and burn it up," she recalls, "He couldn't stand for me to do anything that make me happy, so he just destroy it."
Although she eventually broke free, Gurley found herself living on the streets. When fate brought her to Charlotte's Urban Ministry Center, Gurley's passion for art was re-ignited. Though she paints as well as sculpts, the medium in which Gurley has been most prolific is pen and ink. Her complex drawings are frequently accompanied by playful prose poems that speak to the artist's trademark message of transformation and hope. "Her landscapes [may look like] squiggly, scratchy lines, but she can tell you everything that is in them," notes Lawrence Cann, director of the center's Art Works 945 program.
Gurley recently suffered a stroke that has left her unable to work except in the most rudimentary fashion, and Cann frets over her health. Behind her eyelids, Gurley's eyes flutter like baby birds beating against a translucent shell as she speaks. "When I work," she says, "I feel relaxation and inspirement. Things that have been bothering me, been on my mind ... I can release the anger or the sadness. I try not to put any sadness in my paintings. I try to make [them] into happiness. Some things will get you frustrated more than others, but anything you want to do, you can do. You got to set your mind to it. You got to stay focused. If you don't, then something be missing, and you don't know what it is. Sometimes, you might not be able to do everything you set out to, but if you keep trying, you'll do what you need to do. Sometimes things get done, even though you don't see them. You have to look with the star behind the eyesight, to see what you have done ... I feel real good after I do a piece. I'm in heaven. Grace. It brings something. It touch the heart. It just shines."
To learn more about the Annie Gurley and the other artists of the Urban Ministry Center's Art Works 954 program, visit www.artworks945.org.
Urban Explorer's Handbook