Art for the Soul

For families who have a loved one incarcerated in the Texas prison system, life can be full of confusion.

Scarce visitation and long distances traveled to see their mother, father, sister or brother can take a toll on even the strongest family unit. Hotels are immensely expensive and many simply cannot bear the weight alone.

Fortunately, for those families with an inmate housed in Huntsville, the Hospitality House welcomes all with open doors.

Over the last three decades, the Hospitality House has provided shelter, food, ministry and a warm embrace to those who need them the most. Located just a few blocks away from the Huntsville “Walls” Unit, the volunteers and staff of the house care for the needs of the entire family without any question, while providing walls of their own that are welcoming and safe.

One often overlooked aspect of prison visitation is the time the family spends waiting. For the children, idle time can make a difficult situation worse.

For the last four years, Sam Houston State art professor Edie Wells has spearheaded a program called Art Against the Odds, which provides exciting arts and crafts for the children of families staying at the Hospitality House. Children and parents alike have a chance to make work freely during the weekly program, using art as a method to relax, spend time together and enjoy something creative and fun.

“I had just moved to Huntsville and I didn’t know anything about the prison community and I had never lived near a prison before,” Wells said. “I found statistics from TDCJ and other prisons that said children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to end up in prison as well if they don’t have some sort of mentoring or intervention in their lives.”

“I found the Hospitality House and they were more than willing to let me come and do art with the kids on the weekends in hopes that it would give them some kind of outlet where they could express what they’re going through.”

What started out as an idea for a weekend program quickly turned into a full-blown community effort, with Sam Houston Students volunteering their time and energy to interact with the kids who frequent the house. Through Academic Community Engagement courses at SHSU, Wells has facilitated dozens of students’ involvement in the program, giving them the chance to mentor children at the house and become an integral part of their lives through art.

“My favorite part of working at the Hospitality House is seeing the kids faces after they’ve done something that they can claim as their own,” sophomore education major Carly Jordan said after volunteering all last year. “Just seeing the smiles on their faces after they finish an art piece is the best part.”

New volunteer and freshman interdisciplinary studies major Cody Noto noted that simply being there and becoming involved brought joy to the children of the house.

“The most rewarding part of it all is just seeing the happiness of the kids,” Noto said. ‘It is so rewarding to be a part of the reason that they were happy and having fun.”

“The students have such a big influence on the kids because they are closer to their age and they set such a good example,” Wells added. “It’s so great for the kids to see students who are making it and going to college.”

With limited room inside the Hospitality House, it was soon understood that a dedicated space needed to be created for the art program so the students could have a place to personalize and call their own.

Local artist and world-renowned art-space builder Dan Philips, along with an army of volunteers, stepped up to help realize plans for a Children’s Activity Building that could house the art program while maintaining a non-profit budget.

The free standing structure, which was completed just months ago, now offers the house a unique, dedicated space decorated from top to bottom with art the students make.

“Dan and the volunteers have just been amazing,” director of the Hospitality House Debra McCammon said. “His vision and his willingness to make this happen has just been wonderful for the families and the children that stay here. We would just get so slammed during the weekends and we’d have art spread all across the tables inside. Having this building is such a blessing.”

“The new studio looks amazing,” Jordan added. “It’s so great to see the art that the kids did hanging up on the ceiling. My hand prints are on the left wall when you walk in, it’s a really good feeling.”

With the new space, Art Against the Odds now has new opportunity to grow and include more activities and children into the now twice-a-week program. With a host of volunteers and donations from the Sam Houston State University Art Department and other agencies, the students have the supplies needed to continue their creative efforts.

“We’re so very fortunate that Edie, the professors and students give of their time,” McCammon added. “I’m not sure where else you’ll see masters level art teachers give their time for free and come and hang out with children who are in need. They’re just so gracious, it’s really amazing. Families call this place a home away from home. It’s just very relaxing for the children and with all the chaos and the struggles that they’re going through, it’s just such a place of healing.

Whether it be through painting, drawing or even the act of decorating cookies, the Art Against the Odds program has shown that a unique, creative space can bring out a child’s passion and usher in a sense of openness and trust through the simple act of creation.

Wells harkened back to a story that stuck with her, when she knew that the program had the capacity to open a line of communication that may not have been realized without art.

“There was one girl who was 16-years old at the time and she was one of the first ones to have a break through,” Wells remembered. “She did an art piece that had two hands that were not able to touch. They we’re really close, but they never touched. During the painting, she started talking about how hard it was for her to not have contact visits with her dad and how she could only visit with him through the glass. After two years of her father being incarcerated, that was the first time her mother said she’d ever been able to talk about it.

“It was just a very simple thing, but it offered her a safe place to open up.”

The Hospitality House will be holding the official grand opening for the new Children’s Activity Building on Oct. 27 from 3 to 6 p.m. The public is invited to attend the event to see the art made by the children and meet Dan Phillips who will be in attendance from 3 to 4 p.m.

Art Against the Odds program has also been featured over the past week in the the Lowman Student Center Gallery on the Sam Houston campus in an exhibition curated by Wells entitled “Interplay.”  The show will remain open until Saturday afternoon and is also open to the public.

For more information on the Hospitality House, or to donate, visit www.thehospitalityhouse.org.

A life in stitches

Most every family has a piece of history unknowingly thrown over their living-room couch.

It may be boxed up and protected in a closet or delicately hung on a wall, but ownership of the family quilt is a rite of passage for most folks in the South.

For Helen Belcher, who has been putting needle to thread in Huntsville for two decades, quilting is a way of life and a way for her to connect with her family’s heritage.

Belcher’s colorful handiwork is currently on display in a retrospective exhibition entitled “Stories and Stitches” at the Katy & E. Don Walker Sr. Education Center in Huntsville. The exhibit will remain open for public viewing until Oct. 11.

“Quilts are made all over the world, but what we do in piecing and quilting is so uniquely American,” Belcher said as she weaved her way Wednesday through the dozens of quilts on display. “Our grandmothers did it, especially here in the South. When things were not as plentiful, they used every piece they could.”

The resourcefulness and creativity Belcher learned from her grandmother and her sisters is evident in the patchwork tapestries she has spent countless hours piecing together. The rich colors and intricate patterns change as the viewer approaches to see the line work and embroidery with each scrap or fragmented piece adding to the whole.

“I know my grandmother used feed sacks and flower sacks to make her quilts and included scraps from her girls’ clothes, too,” Belcher added. “You used up every single scrap of fabric you had and you did something with it.”

Belcher joined the Tall Pines Quilt Guild in 1995 and served as the group’s president three separate times. As with any artist’s practice, the benefit of having a like-minded community group helped her form a style and practice that now shows through in her work.

“Quilters are the best people in the world,” Belcher said with a smile. “We learn from each other and we trade ideas at every meeting. If you come in with a piece and you’re having trouble fitting something in, all you have to do is bring it in and you’ll have 10 new opinions.”

With hundreds of hours of labor going into some of the larger quilts, Belcher’s artistic medium is by no means an immediate process. After spending up to a year on a quilt, putting that final seam in and seeing the finished product is easily worth all the effort.

“After you’ve got stacks of stuff all around you and you sew the binding and put that last stitch in, you look at it and go, ‘I don’t have to look at this anymore. It’s done!'” Belcher said with a laugh. “After a while, you take it out and lay it on a bed or take it to show-and-tell and then you get really happy about it.

“When someone gives you a quilt, even if it’s not elegantly done, it is a treasure because it takes so long.”

“Stories in Stitches” will be on display through Oct. 11 with a reception taking place in the Exhibit Gallery on Sept. 28 from 5 to 6:30 p.m.

For more information, visit the Sam Houston Memorial Museum website at www.samhoustonmemorialmuseum.com or call (936) 294-1832.

Living in the land of the free

Few experiences in life elicit a more visceral response than dealing with the horrors of war. Whether seen firsthand through the eyes a soldier or experienced as a civilian, the chaos of battle can forever shape the way a person views the rest of the world.

For former Sam Houston State professor Dr. Witold Jerzy Lukaszewski — who personally witnessed the German invasion of Poland in 1939 — war impressed upon him the necessity of studying and preserving history to pass it on to future generations.

The Mary Martin Elmore Scott Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution National Society honored Lukaszewski by presenting him with the Americanism Medal on Tuesday.

The society’s charter states that recipients must have shown extraordinary qualities of leadership, trustworthiness, service and patriotism and must have actively assisted other immigrants to become American citizens, or displayed outstanding ability in community affairs.

A few minutes spent with the lifelong scholar and professor and it’s easy to understand his deservedness of such an honor.

During an emotional speech at the award ceremony inside the Elkins Lake clubhouse, Lukaszewski described his journey through life and began by detailing the harrowing scene from his childhood as warplanes flew over the roof of his family’s home in Poland.

“Our picket gate on our fence swings open and a solider rushes in and whispers something to my father,” Lukaszewski told the silent crowd. “I remember seeing my father’s face darken. He looked toward my mother and said, ‘The Russians have just invaded Poland, I have to report to my unit.’”

With his father in the midst of a conflicted occupation of their home country, the Lukaszewski family was cast into a tragic series of events and a fate that was all too common for Polish families. The combined Nazi and Soviet invasion marked the beginning of the World War II and Lukaszewski and his family were in the midst of the chaos.

“On April 13, 1940, we hear a very loud knock on the door,” Lukaszewski continued. “Three Red Army soldiers burst inside of the house with rifles and fixed bayonets, followed by their officer. The officer looks at my family and tells us we are going away. We knew what that meant.”

Lukaszewski’s family were among the thousands of those arrested by Soviet secret police and deported, taken by rail cars during an exhausting three-week ride to an unknown destination.

“We were taken to northeastern Kazakhstan and dropped in the middle of a marketplace,” Lukaszewski said solemnly. “We were told, ‘Here is where you are going to stay for the rest of your life.’”

While his sister and grandmother were allowed to stay in Poland, Lukaszewski and his parents were bounced between Polish camps in Siberia, Persia, India and across several other countries after his father’s service in the Polish army.

After the mass deportation of citizens from their war-torn home, thousands of Polish refugees, including the Lukaszewskis, were stranded in civilian camps adjacent to army bases. While they enjoyed basic freedom, the living conditions and constant movement were less than ideal.

“The camp life was a special kind of experience,” Lukaszewski said. “We were free in camps. We had churches, we had organizations, but living in camp in the midst of a different culture, something was missing. Especially as a child, it was impossible to plan for our futures.”

“After 10 years and 20,000 miles, we arrived in New York in 1950,” Lukaszewski said with a smile. “The land of the free, as I would find out, guaranteed us certain liberties that we had not had, those being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Lukaszewski took full advantage of his newfound home and continued his education while in America and abroad in England. His lifelong love of reading — specifically about the second World War — quickly sparked future plans when he wasn’t expecting it.

“One day I was reading in my bunk and two colleagues were across the room arguing political points about World War II. They called over to me and said, ‘Vic, you’ve read all these things, explain this war to us.’ After I did, I went back to my bunk and realized that this was where my interests lay. Even so early in my life, someone had recognized a competence in me.”

Lukaszewski went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Seton Hall University while majoring in history and political science. He got a doctoral degree from Columbia University in international relations in 1973. He completed a dissertation entitled “A Communist Experiment in Limited Democracy” for his adviser, professor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as U.S. national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter. He also served in military intelligence in the United States Army and graduated with honors from the U.S. Army Advanced Leadership School.

Lukaszewski began teaching international politics and history at Sam Houston State University in 1970 and taught for nearly four decades at a host of American and international colleges. Over the course of his tenure, he had the ability to shape minds of younger generations and pass on his personal story in lieu of just textbooks and standard course work.

“I taught them not only what I learned from books,” Lukaszewski said, “I taught them what I learned from my own personal experiences in combination. I gave them the best that I had.”

Lukaszewski’s career in education led him far beyond the walls of a university. Aside from lecturing in America and Europe, he was awarded a postdoctoral research fellowship from the Hoover Institution of Stanford University in 1990, earned a designation as a Piper Professor (excellence in teaching award) from the Mini Stevens Foundation and was honored with the designation of professor emeritus status at Sam Houston State University in 2010.

Later in his career, Lukaszewski was elected as the national vice president of the Polish American Congress and represented the PAC in meetings in Uruguay, Argentina, Poland and Hungary. He also organized Polish President Lech Walesa’s visits to Houston and Sam Houston State University on two occasions in 1996 and 2009 and arranged and organized President George H.W. Bush’s visit to to the campus in 1998, while serving as the main translator for both parties.

By taking his chaotic experiences in a war-torn country into a profession where they could be used as teaching tools, Lukaszewski shows that no matter what life brings, there is a way to achieve great things. He has since worked tirelessly as an advocate for democracy and used his experience as a testament to the necessity of education and the freedom to pursue it.

“American freedom is a hard freedom. It is not easy, it is not angelic,” Lukaszewski said in closing. “You have to find out what is asked of you, you have to have the ability to do it and you have to put in the hard work and overcome all the obstacles to get there. It is a hard freedom, but believe me, based on my own experiences, it is a beautiful freedom.”

Color & Creativity

For many artists, the process of simply making work exists as their primary passion. Few get into the arts with guarantees of money, fame or fortune. Their goal is simply to make work that speaks and hope that someone hears it.

For local artist Semone Robinson, her hard work has translated into an opportunity that every artist dreams about — a chance to show in New York.

Robinson began drawing in 1995 and her bold and colorful works show the fruits of her experimentation in a variety of mediums. Without any formal training, Robinson honed her craft through trial and error and a process she call “automatic writing.”

“I never know what I’m going to draw until I sit down to draw it,” Robinson said. “It’s just something that comes natural and I consider a gift from God.”

Without a set plan in place for her abstractions, Robinson lets the work flow naturally, selecting the colors, forms and elements from her current mood at the time.

“All of these works are done by feeling, I feel a color and I put it in,” Robinson added.

After two decades of creating, Robinson’s perseverance landed her a massive opportunity to show her work in the prestigious Cavin-Morris Gallery in New York.

In October, the gallery will feature a large sampling of her work from her current exhibition “20 Years,” which has been on display at Huntsville’s Crazywood Gallery for a full year.

“I’m very excited about showing in New York, it really is like a dream to sign with a gallery and I’m really looking forward to that,” Robinson said. “I’ve spoken with galleries in California and Chicago, and I really hope to carry my exhibit to different cities.”

As with any creative practice, it often takes the support and encouragement of friends and family to truly realize one’s full potential. Robinson found that support in longtime Huntsville resident John Smither, who hosted her initial exhibition at his Crazywood Gallery and has been a champion of her work for quite sometime.

“It’s been an honor to know Semone,” Smither said. “I’ve known her 21 years now and this show is a perfect retrospective of her work. We worked together on a catalog and during this show, we were able to connect her with the Cavin-Morris Gallery. We’re so excited that she’s going to have her show in New York.

“I don’t think people understand how rare it is to have a self-taught visionary artist,” Smither added. “In her work, you can see that feral influence that you get in the outsider, self-taught art group. It’s so wonderful that she has been inspired living in Huntsville and has a chance to have her work understood and collected by a broader audience.”

A catalog of Robinson’s work is available at www.bookemon.com.