Kitty Zen used to sell her art on a blanket in a Boston public park. Now, her art has been displayed at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts and has sold for $1,000.
Zen, a 25-year-old self-taught artist, has been homeless for most of her life. But through ArtLifting, she’s created an income for herself.
“When I got that first check, it was amazing,” says Zen. “I didn’t want to cash it. I wanted to frame it.”
ArtLifting is an online platform where individuals impacted by homelessness or disabilities can sell artwork. There’s an application process where the artists and their work are assessed for mission alignment and curatorial standards.
Liz Powers, one of ArtLifting’s founders, started working in homeless shelters when she was 18. After graduating from Harvard, she received a grant to create art groups within shelters. But she noticed the art produced in these groups ended up in closets and trash cans.
“I realized there were already existing art groups all across the country, about a thousand of them, and that quality, salable art was being produced every day in these groups. The issue was that the art wasn’t going anywhere after. Instead, it would just collect dust or be thrown out. This is where I realized the need for something like ArtLifting,” Powers says.
So Powers and her brother Spencer pooled together $4,000 and founded the public benefit corporation in 2013. Originally, it functioned solely as an online gallery for original works of art. Now it’s expanded to a marketplace for curated art, business partnerships, prints and merchandise.
ArtLifting started in Boston with just four artists. Six years later, there’s about 150 artists and customers in 46 states. Staff curators choose the art they then represent on their website.
“After the last decade of working with homeless individuals, I’ve heard over and over, ‘Liz, I don’t want another handout. I don’t want someone to hand me another sandwich. I just want opportunity. I want an ability to change my own life.’ And that’s really gotten to me,” Powers says.
While the income artists make is essential, empowerment is a key element of ArtLifting.
“My ultimate goal is to create a movement celebrating strengths. There are countless hidden talents out there, and our goal is to inspire people to notice them,” says Powers.
On its website, each artist has a story. Aron Washington, whose acrylic paintings are influenced by physics and designs, uses art to fight stigmas. Washington, who has synesthesia triggered by a bicycle accident, paints to bring awareness to humanity, he says.
Jackie Calabrese uses art as a release for PTSD and depression. Using colorful acrylics, she paints calming landscapes from memory that remind her of safe and happy places.
“[Painting] helps me to be more motivated in life, to feel less depressed or more peaceful. My past has been full of trauma,” she says. Art is a way to release a lot of that and find more peace within myself. It gives a place to think of that is beautiful instead of all the horror from the past.”
ArtLifting works with small businesses and Fortune 500 companies, like Staples and Microsoft, to provide artwork for offices. Prints sell for about $300 and original artwork has sold for as much as $25,000.
Eric Lewis Basher sold two artworks to Microsoft that now hang in Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters.
Basher currently paints at Hospitality House, a shelter and art studio in San Francisco.
“I am thrilled at the potential this means for me,” Basher says. “If anyone at that level likes my work then the world opens up.”
When a piece of art is sold, each artist makes 55 percent of the profit. One percent goes towards a fund that provides support to art groups, and the remainder keeps the business afloat.
Powers stresses that this isn’t a charity. These are talented artists looking to sell their work and spread their talent to a larger audience.
“It is a very touching moment to actually meet the person who wants to have a piece of your artwork be a part of their homes,” Zen says. “Artists are always our own hardest critics. Being appreciated that way is truly uplifting.”