Issues of housing and homelessness can be very complex. A group called Humans of Morgantown is using art created by unhoused citizens to bring a humanizing perspective to the discussion.
Chris Schulz spoke with Corbin Mills and Jordan Stosic about the group’s “Neighbors Beyond Neighborhoods” exhibit.
Schulz: What is the Humans of Morgantown Project?
Mills: Humans of Morgantown is a partnership between Morton Hall Agency, the WVU College of Media and the Morgantown City committee on unsheltered homelessness. We have a bunch of backers and fantastic partners we’re working with.
What we’re doing with Humans of Morgantown is really just trying to tell the story of our unsheltered neighbors, and then maybe shed light and create a conversation.
We have an exhibit set up in Morgantown Art Party on Walnut Street. It is every Saturday and Sunday until April 21, which is our closing exhibit on Thursday night.
One thing that’s a pretty common misconception is that people don’t sometimes look at their unsheltered neighbors, like people who have passions and hobbies and goals and dreams. A lot of our unsheltered neighbors are fantastic artists. This is a place where we could really show off the talent, what they have, and what they bring to the community.
Schulz: Jordan, do you have anything to add to that?
Stosic: Humans of Morgantown is a space and it’s a way for our community members to meet each other, learn about who our neighbors are, and sort of work to understand the experiences of our neighbors experiencing homelessness and create some sort of a destigmatizing notion.
Schulz: Jordan, can you explain to me how this project came to be?
Stosic: Over the last four months, our Humans of Morgantown team has been developing this concept for an exhibit where we really settled on creating a space where our community can meet, learn, and understand the experiences of our neighbors
Mills: I think our favorite thing has just been getting to know everyone in the community that we wouldn’t have had otherwise the chance to meet. Whether that’s the unsheltered artists that we’re featuring in our exhibit, whether that’s the people at Friendship House, who are doing fantastic social work, like recovery coaches, and peer support specialists.
It’s been really great to see it all come together, and to really create those connections and build those relationships with people that we may have otherwise not been able to do.
Stosic: Definitely. And that’s something he mentioned, the Friendship House. That connection was absolutely huge for us. With the help of everyone at the Friendship House, we were able to feature a lot of great work.
On our opening day we had a couple of musicians come by and play on the keyboard, play some guitar. We had so many artists produce paintings, mixed media work, we had sculptures. There’s a whole plethora of things
Schulz: So Jordan, can you tell me a little bit about the focus on the unhoused population? Why choose art as the way to communicate your message?
Stosic: Housing status is not expressive of morality, value, humanity. So creating a space that’s fun and creative was sort of our idea where we can show the value and the fun and the life and humanity through art, and their own forms of expression.
Schulz: Corbin, what can you add to that?
Mills: A person is so much more than their housing situation. And I think there might be a misconception that some people have that a person’s housing situation kind of defines who they are. And what we discovered is that that’s just absolutely not true.
Art is a great way for us to tell these stories, because it’s kind of a universal medium, right? Everybody understands photos, everybody understands paintings, everybody gets their own little take away from it. So being able to use something as universal as art to tell those stories that people may not have otherwise been hearing has been successful. For us, it’s been a really rewarding part of the process.
Schulz: What do you think is the importance of this type of project right now?
Mills: I think what a lot of people realized over COVID is that community is everything, especially when you may not have the chance to see people in person or spend time with people socially, like you may have before.
Your relationships, whether it’s with friends or family or even people that you live next to where you see them every day in your daily life, all that stuff is really, really important. It’s crucial to having a happy and successful life. And we wanted to just remind people that that level of community can be extended to everybody, and everybody benefits from that level of community. Everybody benefits from those like, you know, good vibes and positive friendships and relationships.
Stosic: Which is why we did choose to title the exhibit “Neighbors Beyond Neighborhoods,” because we really wanted to challenge people’s idea of what it means to be a neighbor.
Is that someone you just see at the store or constantly see at the park down the street? Is it someone that sends their kids off on the same school bus? You know, what really does constitute a neighbor?
Schulz: Corbin what’s been the biggest standout to you?
Mills: At the end of our exhibit, after walking through, you get a chance to write your thoughts down and your reflections on a post it note. So by the end of Saturday at like 4 p.m., when everyone had left and the exhibit was kind of winding down, we as a team went over and had the chance to take a look at what people were saying after they’d gone to the exhibit.
It was really powerful to see what people had written down. You had people saying, “Wow, you know, I never knew that the people around me that I see every day were this talented. I’ve never considered the circumstances of the things that I saw today, in today’s exhibit.”
Schulz: Jordan, what was the standout for you?
Stosic: The standout for me I think would have to be getting to see how this exhibit was sort of intended to do meet my neighbors. Actually getting to now walk down the street and be like, “I know Doug, I know Dana, I know April.” It’s honestly so nice as well, because that is a friendly face, someone you can wave to.
The exhibit featuring their stories is something that I hope gives everyone else that same sort of feeling of, “Wow, I now know a couple more people in my community and have some friendly faces to smile at.”
Mills: Yeah, I actually have something to add now that I was thinking about as Jordan was talking.
The standout moment for me was seeing the people whose art we featured coming to the exhibit and see themselves and their work being celebrated by everyone in a way that they really had not been able to experience before. And to see them see other people appreciating and loving what they were creating was really, really rewarding.
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