Becki Spangler and ArtBreak Studio: A Treasure to Homeless Ann Arbor Citizens

By Laurie Wechter / WLAA

(Due to the Covid-19 crisis, all volunteer activities at Ann Arbor’s Delonis Center are suspended. This makes it a prescient time to highlight and appreciate a program that provides a unique and life-enhancing opportunity to our hometown.)

On Sept. 4, 2019, The Michigan Community Service Commission awarded ArtBreak Studio the 2019 Governor’s Service Award for Outstanding Volunteer Program of the Year. A number of the program’s volunteers and Delonis Center client/artists drove together to the award ceremony at the Detroit Opera House. It was a special evening for a special program.

Becki Spangler, founder of ArtBreak Studio, along with 24 artists and assistant volunteers, have invested well over 2,000 volunteer hours at the Delonis Center shelter providing the homeless and disadvantaged population of our community an opportunity for creative self-expression in a safe, supportive, and educational environment.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, in presenting the award, pronounced that “Through their (ArtBreak’s) program, they have been able to give the homeless a new voice through art expression and have added a new dimension of emotional care at the Shelter. They have transformed lives in the process.”

Letterpress Class.

According to Spangler, the concept for ArtBreak was inspired by a happenstance visit to the Hart Gallery in Chattanooga, Tenn. She explained that “Hart is a retail gallery of artwork done by homeless and other disadvantaged people in the area. The artists receive 80% of the proceeds from the sale of their art. Of the remaining 20%, 10% goes to the gallery owner for operating costs, and the other 10% goes to go to a local non-profit chosen by the artists.”

After returning to Michigan, Spangler explored the possibility of starting something similar in Ann Arbor.

“As serendipity would have it, I mentioned it to friends Pam Taylor (who had volunteered at a similar project, Art and Soul at the Central United Methodist Church in Detroit) and Marsha Chamberlin (who was director of the Ann Arbor Art Center for nearly 30 years) and they both enthusiastically said ‘I’m in!’”

Hart Gallery’s Ellen Heavilon gave them in-depth help with development of a vision and business plan and they also viewed operations at Art and Soul. “From seeing these operations, we saw the need and the benefits of serving this population, and in checking around it seemed that there was not anything else like this … so we saw it as a need to be fulfilled,” said Spangler.

Based on the belief that art is inside everyone, ArtBreak’s mission is to create the opportunity for creative self expression which is a significant factor in enhancing self-esteem and improving mental health.

Gyotaku (fish print) class.

With business plan, location and mission in place, Mary Murphy of Ann Arbor Women Artists (AAWA) found several AAWA artists who were willing to be volunteer instructors for the program and Artbreak was a go!

AAWA has generously provided talented volunteers for weekly classes for the past three years. Classes have included such projects as painting hubcaps, holiday window painting, drawing mixed media portraits and doing Letterpress printing.

When the program first took shape, Spangler recalled how “the residents wouldn’t even make eye contact with one another and sat very far apart.” She said, “Now there’s a real shared sense of community among us. People share the art supplies and encourage one another.”

ArtBreak window painting.

Spangler mats and frames the majority of the artwork created in ArtBreak’s weekly two and ½ hour sessions, which is then hung all over the building. “Not only is it a positive affirmation of the client/artist’s creative endeavor,” she said, “but it has transformed the building! Staff and residents alike comment often on how much they enjoy seeing the weekly exhibits.”

In regard to how ArtBreak is handling and addressing the Covid-19 crisis, Spangler explained that in order to protect the health and well-being of volunteers, residents, and staff at Delonis, all volunteer activities have been suspended. She added that the Center has been asking that no volunteers come to the building “as they are trying to keep as many people as possible from coming and going.”

In lieu of classes, ArtBreak has provided art supplies to each residential floor for use “during these challenging days.” The group has also rented a portable-potty for all residents “who are forced to remain outside the building a good part of the day,” according to Spangler.

Mixed media color portrait class.

In addition, the organization has taken on the delivery of daily meals from the breakfast program at St. Andrew’s Church over to the Delonis Center for residents who are too sick to go there themselves. “We’ve gotten very positive and enthusiastic feedback,” said Spangler.

Asked what makes Ann Arbor special to her, Spangler responded that “We are so fortunate to have (the University of Michigan) influence the many cultural opportunities that abound here and the rich diversity of people who have both academic and proactive interests in various social justice issues.”

ArtBreak members now look forward to a show at the Ann Arbor Art Center, with a date to be announced. Watch for it on the ArtBreak website! ArtBreak is a non-profit organization and is dependent on local resources for volunteers, materials and cash donors.