Chattanooga resident Ron Johnson was a professional sign builder in Florida for years, "making very good money."
"I had everything a man could want. But I contracted pancreatitis and about died. I had to pay medical bills and lost my job, and things got worse and worse," Johnson said.
Johnson moved to Chattanooga, but he was homeless. It was there that he found art classes for the homeless. These days, he's one of the featured artists in Chattanooga's Hart Gallery, which sells work for homeless artists. In June, Hart founder and executive director Ellen Heavilon will open a second location in Memphis' Edge District.
Memphis' Hart Gallery, located at 645 Marshall in the St. Blues Guitar Workshop building, will have an opening reception on Saturday, June 4th from 2 to 8 p.m.
"I knew what we had in Chattanooga was a replicable model, and Memphis seemed like a good choice," said Heavilon, who opened the original Hart after a bit of an empty-nester mid-life crisis. "Nobody is doing anything like this in Memphis. I didn't want to reinvent the wheel."
The Hart Gallery began offering art classes for Memphis' homeless community in September of last year. Weekly classes are offered at Door of Hope, St. Mary's Episcopal Church, and Outreach Housing and Community. They've also partnered with the local Veterans Administration's art therapy program.
The gallery will sell their artwork, and the artist keeps 60 percent. Thirty percent goes to the gallery, and the artist must give 10 percent to a charity of choice.
"I believe it has to be give and take," Heavilon said. "If you're constantly giving to a person who is in need, they're always feeling like they're lesser than. They don't feel like they have anything to give back, and that keeps them down. That's what the 10 percent is all about."
While the Chattanooga Hart Gallery's focus began with the homeless population, Heavilon said they eventually branched out to other marginalized populations, such as veterans, people suffering from mental illnesses and physical disabilities, low-income seniors, and political refugees. She says she'd eventually like to see Memphis' gallery branch out as well.
"That could be at-risk youth, seniors, whatever population Memphis needs it to be," Heavilon said.
Heavilon will stay in Chattanooga most of the time to run her gallery there, and the Memphis gallery will be run by Katie Whitfield, who teaches weekly art classes at Door of Hope.
To help pay for the gallery, Heavilon will be renting out artist studio space in the back. She said those studios should be ready by July, and they're looking for artists to sign up for space now.
Since Heavilon opened the Chattanooga gallery in 2009, she's seen Hart's mission impact many lives. Johnson credits Hart with turning his life around.
"Over the past year and a half that I've been coming here, they've given me food and art and good spirits. They supported me in finding a home and getting back on my feet," Johnson said. "Without the support of the Hart Gallery, I don't know what I'd be doing right now."