If art comes from pain, then James Webster is Michelangelo.

He's suffered from depression, alcoholism, and stroke. He's been arrested for assault, divorced by two women, and beaten with bats by gangs, and he lived homeless in North Philadelphia for a year.

Through it all, he's painted, taken photographs, and created collages, always understanding that making art was an answer to smoothing out an unruly life.

Troubles "have been fuel for art," said Webster, 63, sounding like a blues musician who is alchemist enough to turn misery into music. "And art's something I have to do."

These days, Webster helps teach art to homeless people at Project HOME, the nationally known Philadelphia nonprofit.

In a basement studio at Project HOME offices in Fairmount, Webster addressed a small clutch of homeless people: "What are we doing today?"

In fluid movements, the group painted shapes on paper while the radio played oldies. Maybe their art wasn't important, but their being there was - a step away from isolation and toward community.

"Who are homeless people?" asked Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME. "They are us - not a different species.

"It's poverty that marginalizes people from the broader community, and art is a way of bringing them back in."

Art, experts say, can help heal people from traumas that brought them to homelessness.

In the basement, Webster and art program coordinator Rachel Ehrgood tried to coax creativity, as homeless would-be artists mined their suffering under fluorescent lights, while a mellow hit from 1967 played: "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)."

Often, people experiencing trauma have a hard time using words, said Ehrgood, a trained artist. "But they can have a lot to say and use art to say it."

A homeless person's art reveals "the shadow side of human experience," Ehrgood said.

It's insight into life's "troubled places," she added, knowledge of the perilous terrain of minds tormented by addiction, or illness, or a thousand other things.

Indeed, Webster said, Randal Sykes, a Philadelphia graffiti artist, painter, and former homeless person, communicates that shadow side in a deceptively lovely painting of colorful flowers in a vase that hangs in a Project HOME conference room.

"It's beautiful to look at," Webster said, "but it also makes you uneasy with tension."

The vase is black with a black shadow, surrounded by purple paint. "Purple and black are depression," Webster said. "And the shadow makes the piece sinister.

"I see mental problems, and I see homelessness in that painting."

Not every piece looks that way. In Webster's own work, one can see whimsy and humor, as well as the shadow world, noted Ehrgood, who called Webster "a master painter with a social conscience."

Webster's art - especially his photography - has been displayed in galleries here and in New York. He's known for a collage based on Picasso's Self-Portrait With Palette.

In Webster's piece, Picasso wears an American flag headscarf, and holds a large can of Olympic premium house paint.

Webster used such paint - not fancy art colors - when he began painting as a teenager, growing up poor in the former Tasker Homes projects in Grays Ferry.

His most prolific period was when he was 30, a year in which he created 500 pieces while gripped by "super depression and alcohol, the more pain the better. I remember vomiting from all the drinking and saying to myself, 'I should get good paintings tonight.' "

After being treated for alcoholism and getting help via Project HOME, Webster now lives below the poverty line of $11,670 for a single person in a subsidized apartment.

He seems content, and driven to share not only his art but his insights with homeless people.

"After artistic people who find their way to Project HOME get the help they need - the shelter, food, and medicine - there's still something else they need. And that's the art."

Some people, Webster knows, simply can't live without it.


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