New Day Project fosters community through art

Pacific Art League, Downtown Streets Team collaborate to offer free classes

Just inside the Pacific Art League's (PAL) gallery and studio space in downtown Palo Alto this summer, artwork from one of its classes brightens the walls. Some pieces seem to tell a story, others vividly convey feelings through splashes of color and lines.

The work is the result of The New Day Project, an eight-week, tuition-free art class for previously homeless and recently housed individuals in the region. The project is a collaboration between PAL and Downtown Streets Team, a local nonprofit organization with a mission to end homelessness by restoring dignity to and helping to rebuild the lives of homeless men and women.

After two rounds of classes, The New Day Project will continue thanks to a recent $8,500 grant from the Palo Alto Community Fund and a matching grant of $2,500 from Oliver and Company.

The grants were awarded during a month that marked the first anniversary of Shannon McDonnell's hiring as PAL's executive director. The New Day Project is one of her community-engagement initiatives.

McDonnell, who before assuming her position as executive director lived in India for five years, said that growing an arts-for-social-justice program has been one of the goals since the start of her work with PAL. As part of this initiative, she envisioned moving away from an old model of outreach, which she defined as going to spaces in other communities, and instead inviting people to participate directly in the spaces Palo Alto itself has to offer.

"My feeling is, we have this beautiful home. It makes it possible to engage with people," McDonnell said.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, an expansive art studio with floor-to-ceiling windows was flooded with natural light. A small group of women (one with a pet dog by her side) sat drawing, coloring and talking around rectangular tables that were clustered together. Occasionally, the teacher gently guided her students, making observations and drawing attention to the world and the people seated in the room. They were working on portraits.

Cathy Zander, a veteran teacher with a master's degree in arts education, has taught the past two courses and plans to continue staying involved with The New Day Project. Even with all of her years of experience, she counts this group as the most interesting.

"I would say this is one of the more exceptional classes I have taught. It's not only rewarding for them -- it's rewarding for me," Zander said, adding that for these students, it's especially important to feel like they've accomplished something.

Zander, whom McDonnell described as calm, encouraging and nurturing, approaches the class as she would any other adult-education class. She includes the same fundamentals of art and each week she focuses on different themes. The students exhibit their work and some will take further classes.

"Doing art classes at PAL has inspired me to look forward to showing up. I'm now doing art at home. I bought oil paint, acrylic, and crayons. Instead of going out and getting in trouble or being depressed, I'm doing something therapeutic ... It's bringing out something in me that was hidden for years," participant Triza Aurora stated in a press release announcing the grants.

McDonnell said that when formerly homeless people transition into housing, they sometimes lose their sense of community. This class is meant to help foster and rebuild those crucial social connections as well.

"The secret lies in a communal experience through making art," she said.

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