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A photo featuring text bubbles in various colors like orange, purple, and green surrounded by leaves. Examples of text include 'he loves me not.

How painting your life story can promote healing

on October 20, 2023

Every Sunday for the last six weeks, Craig Morris has walked through Oakland streets populated by drug users to St. Mary’s Center, the shelter, soup kitchen and transitional housing provider that pulled him from the brink.

There, Morris, who is 60 years old, painted a canvas as part of the Sacred Storytelling Art Project, a program created by St. Mary’s and the Center for ArtEsteem to uplift older Oaklanders. Morris and 11 others worked on self-portraits depicting some difficult aspect of their life journey. The portraits were unveiled at a celebration on Sunday at St. Mary’s and are still showcased in the center.

For years, Morris worked 70 hours a week at two jobs, struggling to pay rent. Even with daytime work as a high school ESL teacher and evening work as a grocery store clerk, it wasn’t enough. He wound up living in his car in November 2021. A year later, returning from a trip to Target, he found his car had been towed. He had no place to go and became homeless. He now lives in transitional housing supplied by St. Mary’s.

St. Mary’s has been collaborating with the Center for ArtEsteem in Oakland for the last four years. The center focuses on breaking cycles of violence in communities through art and education.

Morris said that in his self-portrait he tried to illustrate stages in his recent life — from depression and suicidal thoughts to the fear of being homeless to actually being homeless.

“It’s taken me so many years to come to a place where I actually feel love for myself,” he said, eyes watering as he pointed to his portrait.

Morris juxtaposes words with colors and shapes, showing the phrases: “He loves me” and “He loves me not” and “Then something shifted the fear of homelessness that had followed me like a shadow, always a paycheck away.” At the bottom of  the portrait is the phrase “he loves me,” to show the journey’s positive conclusion.

Craig, dressed in a black T-shirt, stands next to a self-portrait of himself framed in orange and surrounded by textual elements resembling clouds, all while smiling.
Craig Morris next to his self-portrait (Denis Akbari)

“I have realized that if I don’t have self-love then I can’t really love others either.”

“Self growth is such a long process, I feel like I need another 150 years to figure it all out,” Morris said. “I wish I could go backwards and know all this much earlier but then again this is just part of life.”

Jack Leamy, Center for ArtEsteem art teacher for the project, said that when you put your life story into a portrait, you are able to empathize with the person you are looking at, which can be healing.

“In a traditional portrait there is still separation but in these portraits we incorporated images with words which create an unifying experience. This bridges the gap between one person and another,” he said. 

Keith Arvinwine, 68, contrasted soft colors with intense colors in his portrait.

“That is just who I am,” he said. “Calm and collected, but I am also demanding and stern in my beliefs.”

Arvinwine’s piece includes five paragraphs in darker shades that describe his crack addiction and passion for helping others. They appear on a light background that depicts the hope that was always present, even during his struggles.

Keith stands in front of two paintings, holding a photo of himself with one of his artworks. He wears a red sweater over a black T-shirt, black glasses, and smiles at the camera.
Keith Arvinwine next to his self-portrait (Denis Akbari)

Arvinwine was in and out of prison from 1992 to 2012. Upon his release, he went to St. Mary’s winter shelter. He participated in classes and services at the center and after four months, he was able to get his own apartment.

“Every time I was out of prison I would stay in an abandoned house and start my drug activities, and at one point, I was just tired of that life,” Arvinwine said. “I love being an example for a lot of my friends that are still out there going through the same things. And a lot of them told me, ‘I won’t listen to a lot of people, but I’ll listen to you because you were there with me and you changed your life.'”

In the middle of the portrait, he included the words: “After so many years I thought there was no way out.” Now he no longer feels that way: “I have accepted myself,” he said.

A photo featuring text bubbles in various colors like orange, purple, and green surrounded by leaves. Examples of text include 'he loves me not.

Sacred Storytelling Art Project

When: 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday to Friday; and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays, for the next nine months

Where: 925 Brockhurst St. in Oakland

Cost: free


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