BOSTON - In 2009, Stacey Williams was laid off after a 10-year stint at Harvard University. Despite her best efforts, the former Air Force veteran was not having any luck finding a new position.
“It was basically 40 hours a week looking for a job and just going in circles, attending every networking event, job fair,” said Williams. She needed a creative outlet. It came in the form of a beginner’s painting class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.
“We painted cucumbers and lemons, wine bottles and apples,” said Williams, laughing at the memory. The class provided much needed stress relief for the artistically inclined Williams. “When I’m painting, I’m totally in. I don’t think about anything else - bills, what I’m gonna have for dinner . . . I’m just all in,” said Williams. The class ultimately ignited her passion for painting portraits.
“Her pieces are so bright and full of life, and really inspiring to not just me, but also customers,” said Liz Powers, co-founder of Boston-based ArtLifting, an online startup that sells Williams’ works. Perhaps even more inspiring than the artwork is the artist herself, as Williams is currently homeless.
A housing dispute had saddled Williams with legal bills. When plans to stay with a friend fell through, she eventually found herself moving into a homeless shelter, even as she had found work at another university. Just a few months prior, Williams had been diagnosed with a hip condition that in the end became so painful it prevented her from working altogether. Mounting medical bills, along with college tuition payments for her daughter, ultimately proved to be too much.
“One of my biggest frustrations is when someone says . . . ‘Well, homeless equals lazy,’ and that’s completely untrue,” said Powers, “The vast majority of the time, being homeless is something that someone experiences because of extremely bad luck.”
Powers co-founded ArtLifting three years ago with her brother, after spending time with homeless individuals as a case worker. An artist herself, she started organizing art groups in local shelters to combat the loneliness many of her clients had expressed feeling. Powers soon realized there were many similar groups already in existence across the country, along with artwork that was not being seen. “I thought, well, the big missing piece is a marketplace to share this amazing artwork that’s already being produced,” said Powers.
ArtLifting works exclusively with art groups in homeless shelters and social service agencies, curating the top artwork and selling it. Besides original artwork, ArtLifting sells prints and printed art products such as tote bags and smartphone cases. More than 100 artists are represented across 19 U.S. cities, each receiving 55 percent of profits from purchases.
In addition to selling directly to consumers, ArtLifting sells bulk art to corporations such as Google and Microsoft. The startup recently secured $1.3 million in investments, including investment from Tom’s Shoes, a similarly socially conscious company.
In empowering homeless and disabled individuals, the startup’s goals are twofold - to not only provide income, but a sense of worth and purpose.
“Our clients are so used to people focusing on the negative in them, ‘You don’t have housing, you’re in a wheelchair . . . ‘” said Powers, “Let’s focus on the positive instead, and then see that domino effect of all of a sudden, ‘I’m being recognized as a human with talent, and now I have the energy to do lots of housing applications or get a side job at a nail salon’ or whatever it might be,” she added.
Williams remembers recovering from her second hip replacement surgery when she received her very first commission from a sale. “I had tears in the back of my eyes for a check for, like, $35,” she recalled, laughing. Painting had been her therapy, but she never imagined it also could be her living.
Despite everything that has happened to her, Williams’ creative spirit is still intact, “I read a quote that has stayed with me, and it said, “A broken crayon can still color.”