Nicole Brandt, 24, grew up in a small Southern Baptist town called Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.
Growing up the narratives about homelessness were always the same – that individuals were lazy, drug addicts, and didn’t deserve money from the government.
“At the time I didn’t know any homeless people other than serving at soup kitchens through my church,” she said. “In my senior year in high school, I was connected with a guy who would go to homeless camps and tents in Louisville. He would sometimes bring coffee, socks or food but ultimately went just to spend time with people.”
Nicole began reading books that opened her mind up about the issue poverty and homelessness. She had the opportunity to experience some of the things she was reading when she starting attending those homeless camps in Louisville with her friend.
“It was cool because it was a chance to see that I was a guest in their space,” she said. “I had been to so many shelters and soup kitchens where the homelessness felt us versus them.”
Nicole remembers going to a soup kitchen for her birthday one year. All she wanted to do was sit down and have a meal with the homeless, but the staff kept berating her because she needed to be in the kitchen working.
“I understood that was something that needed to be done, but I felt like we were missing a bigger component,” she said.
the NASHVILLE CHAPTER
In 2010, Nicole moved to Nashville to attend Belmont University.
“I got an on-campus work-study job through the department of service learning,” she said. “I was supposed to plan three community service projects a semester for Belmont students.”
Nicole knew she wanted to recreate that experience she had in the homeless camps in Kentucky, but she didn’t think she could take a bunch of college students to go to homeless camps.
“I started playing with this idea of art being the place where we all met, and instead of serving you a meal we’re painting or playing or writing a poem together.”
Nicole began by going to Church Street Park across the street from the downtown public library where she would bring coffee and get to know people. She said one of the places that kept coming up was Room in the Inn.
In the fall of 2011, she reached out to Room in the Inn.
“It was a place that everyone seemed to like and respect, so I reached out to them and found out they had an art studio with instruments,” she said. “I told them about this idea I had for college students to come and create art with our homeless participants, and they loved it. At first, we had visual art, music, creative writing, and later added improv theater.”
Nicole said the whole experience was incredible. She said the student volunteers had an amazing experience because they hadn’t typical had experiences with homeless people outside of panhandling and such. Weeks following, the Room in the Inn staff kept saying the homeless participants wanted to know when more students would come back.
After a few events, she began to get questions from participants about how they can sell their art or get in a coffee shop. So in November 2011, she took on the initiative and formed what is now an artist collective called Poverty and the Arts (POVA).
POVA is a nonprofit organization that supplies art equipment, studio space, exhibition opportunities, professional development, and business cards for homeless artists. The artists involved sell their artwork and learn navigating tools and social skills for networking with community members.
POVA filed for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in March of 2014 and received it in July of the same year.
the BEGINNING of a DREAM
Nicole said the last few years have been challenging, but rewarding.
She said word of mouth, both of POVA’s artists and from community members, is the biggest way the organization recruits their artists. POVA also works with other homeless organizations around town who identify artists and send them her way.
Once the artists learn about the program, they fill out an application that collects general background information about them. POVA then gathers a social security number and runs a background check. Nicole said nothing prohibits an individual from joining the organization and that all of that information is collected for record keeping. After that, the artists fill out a sales contract, review the handbook and create a profile that becomes their bio.
“Once the artist signs the contracts and go through the procedures, they’re able to start creating immediately,” she said. “We’re a part of the First Saturday Art Crawl so the next art crawl they can be exhibiting and selling art.”
Nicole explained that part of the reason starting this artist collective has been difficult for her is because she started in college and at the time wasn’t familiar with Nashville.
“I knew a lot of people with the passion but no one with a disposable income and no one that had the funding and the donations to help us operate at our dreaming capacity,” she said.
Metro Nashville and state grants aren’t usually available until an organization is three years old. She said one of the most important things she has realized is how vital it is to find studio space.
In their first year, POVA operated out of Turnip Green Creative Reuse in East Nashville with two artists. Since then the organization has moved to 3rd Ave South and has grown to 15 artists.
the POWER of RELATIONSHIPS
“Some of the problems begin because it’s easy to hate poor people if you don’t know poor people. It becomes easy to hate anyone if you don’t know him or her. Relationships are the foundations for where we can start the conversation.”
Nicole said the relationship between people who are homeless and those who are not is critical in every aspect.
She said many of the artists in POVA come from burnt bridges and relationships and no security nets. She said most of the time that’s what separates someone who is a drug addict from being homeless or not.
“A lot of homeless people also struggle with mental illness and come out of prison. Many of whom are not at high functioning levels of society, so how can they gain those security nets, social skills, and relationships that encourage them to move forward?”
“Our biggest goal is to create an environment where our artists can gain the tools they need to be able to be successful on their own outside of this.”
For her, Nicole said a meaningful part of her experience with POVA has been seeing the artists evolve.
“My favorite part and an important part, because I’ve had to set boundaries for myself, is that the artists don’t depend on me for anything but that they rely on this self-sustaining organization and they come to it to draw life.”
NASHVILLE NOW and COMMUNITY
“Obviously as affordable housing decreases, that affects our population immensely,” she said. “Recognizing that we’re also going to be directly impacted, we have to be able to plan around what’s going on outside of our control.”
Nicole said watching the city grow as it has over the last few years has been interesting.
“Being a homeless arts organization our customers are the people moving into Nashville making the rent more expensive for our artists. It’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “As the art scene continues to flourish, which we hope it does, the problem for local artists is how do we not price ourselves out while making this an area where people can come?”
Eventually, POVA wants to run a capital campaign in the hopes of purchasing their next space. She said their biggest need is to be close to downtown and where their population can reach them.
Nicole defined a community as a group of people in a relationship with each other.
“Our community here is made up of our staff, our artists, our board members, our volunteers, and our customers. It’s our top priority to keep that space safe for everyone,” she said. “Part of this whole process is about how to build relationships with people and how to trust. What I’m trying to keep pushing now is how do we continue to creative a more inclusive but diverse community?”
Nicole hopes what she does helps break down the stereotypes of the homeless community and gives people a better perspective when voting or doing things that might affect their artists and the rest of the homeless population.
“Personally, the biggest thing for me is how much their experiences have impacted and shaped my life. Their experiences make my life more full, and learning about who they are has shaped my worldview,” she said.
POVA has open studio hours every week and throughout that time artists are allowed to come in and use any of the art supplies possible.
Eleven out of the fifteen artists now are no longer homeless, most of them having transitioned to homes through getting jobs, receiving disability or through Section 8 public housing.
In the future, Nicole said there’s a lot of potential for operational funding from grants as the organization nears their three-year anniversary. She said they’d like to pay out staff and want to build a strategic plan for expanding and selling more art.
In the long term, POVA would love to have their own studio and gallery space and have residential housing for artists are they transition through the program.
“We always want to push the entrepreneurial side of that as much as possible and how to give them the necessary business skills they need to be successful as artists and as individuals,” she said.
To find out more about Poverty and the Arts and Nicole visit their website, here.
Thanks for reading Nashville!