In a room that smells of acrid sweat and urine-soaked clothes, where wounded human spirits gather for a free lunch each weekend, painter Mary Lee Barker has found her calling.
Occasionally, she plays Bach on her cello and sings at Loaves and Fishes. Some days, she brings her camera, hoping one more person will trust her enough to allow her to take a picture. The best days: those when she sits beneath a window of this Mount Pleasant soup kitchen, a piece of cardboard-backed parchment propped on her left knee, her softly sunlit subject before her.
The 66-year-old Whirlpool heiress says it's easy to write a check and walk away. It's much harder to establish a relationship and stick around.
In this work--painting the portraits of the men and women who eat at the soup kitchen sponsored by St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church--she says she has finally found meaning in her privileged life.
"This lack of a wall between me and the poor was God's gift to me," Barker says. "This is what it's taken to separate myself from middle-class society."
Her paintings are on display through the end of August at Habitat Real Estate and Mount Pleasant Pharmacy, both in Mount Pleasant. There are pictures of grizzled men and couples who have found each other on the streets.
One portrait that hung until recently at the Potter's House in Adams-Morgan showed a woman from Loaves and Fishes, head tilted to the right, eyelids starting to droop. It's titled "Rene, with love." The exhibition brochure explains that when Rene saw her portrait, painted from a photograph Barker took, she yelled at the artist to throw it out. Within minutes, Rene came back to ask that the painting be saved: "I love it. It's just that I was high on drugs when you took the photo."
These aren't just portraits, they're reality.
"It's not for people who say, 'I'm going to put a rose garden on my wall,' " says Joanie Mageed, who with her husband, Tony, owns Mount Pleasant Pharmacy, where laminated copies of some of Barker's work hang above the shelves of Pepcid AC and ferrous sulfate.
"It represents a cause," says Mageed, a Barker collector. "She captures people's dignity."
Along with all their pain, confusion, hope and self-respect.
"It's the relationship I can see in many of her portraits: a relationship of such deep appreciation and respect," says another collector, Patricia Wudel, the director of Joseph's House, a hospice in Adams-Morgan for homeless men with AIDS.
It was Barker's uncle and great-uncle who in 1911 used the $100 from a life insurance policy to begin producing electric wringer washers in St. Joseph, Mich. Their company eventually became Whirlpool. In the late 1950s, some of the original stock issue was given to Barker's mother to help supplement her husband's modest income as a congregational minister.
In 1982, Barker's parents died within two months of each other, and she and her sister inherited substantial trust funds. She had the freedom to live as she chose.
Barker has cousins who spend their lives racing sailboats around the world, raising dogs and horses on a North Carolina farm and living along the shores of Lake Michigan.
She lives in a tiny '50s bungalow in Silver Spring that she bought in 1981 and has never remodeled. She drives a beat-up rusty two-tone 1983 Toyota with almost 100,000 miles on the odometer. Her furniture is '60s and '70s mismatch.
She is white-haired yet girlish in countenance and dress. Her usual weekend attire: denim cutoffs, lefty slogan T-shirt, sneakers, Southwestern-style turquoise earrings.
Barker says she was a painfully shy, almost inarticulate child who learned to express herself through her art. She studied cello and painting and dance. Over the years, she taught kindergarten in New York, studied at Union Theological Seminary, got a master's in music education, painted, performed and taught cello.
She always had a profound interest in her spiritual life. But she was floundering. "My life was so unformed," she says now. "I was looking for a disciplined Christian community."
She found it in 1964. At the age of 31, she moved to Washington, lured by the mission of the activist ecumenical Church of the Savior.
The church focuses on developing individual leadership and initiative within small communities and missions. It runs several programs to help the District's needy with housing, jobs and health care. To be a member requires a high level of commitment: two years of religion classes and an initial tithe of 10 percent of income, increased over time. Barker stayed with the church for 20 years.
Barker always wrote big checks to her church and to various anti-war and social action causes. But gradually she realized that, instead of just participating in protests or being seen as one more wealthy donor on a dozen lists, she wanted to make a deeper human connection. To feel Christ's presence in her life, she felt she needed to open herself to suffering.
In September 1988, Barker took her first trip to El Salvador with a humanitarian aid group. She met survivors of that country's civil war. They lived in hovels but were hopeful and had a deep faith. The trip left her "changed and vulnerable," she says. A friend at St. Stephen's, where she had become a member, urged her to couple that energy with her artistic talent and use it at Loaves and Fishes.
Since then, she has returned three times to El Salvador to paint portraits. She also helps some people there by paying for schooling, health care and the construction of a church.
At Loaves and Fishes, the people who sit for Barker are sometimes obviously drunk or high on drugs. Some make appointments, stand her up, then appear another day, ready to sit. Some are mentally ill, some slightly retarded. There are a few who sat for a portrait, then disappeared.
Some of her subjects die; some spiral down into despair. But others get into rehab, get on their feet, get a place to live and a job. She learns about all this gradually, as the relationships nurtured by her painting blossom.
Alphonzo LaBoard, one of her first subjects at the soup kitchen, cried when he looked at his portrait. "You are one of us," he told her.
Barker has overcome her youthful inarticulateness. But speaking about how seriously she takes the responsibility of her wealth, she talks and talks and eventually exhausts herself into a loss of words.
"The thing with the money is that everything now is so difficult. It's so . . . so . . . "
Such a burden?
"Yes," she says, closing her eyes and nodding her head. "It's such a burden."
Some of her church colleagues know about her inheritance, but few others do. Certainly, her subjects don't. She wants to be valued for who she is and not for what she has.
Barker is in the process of creating an irrevocable trust to fund a foundation that will support her causes: services for the homeless and the needy in the District and El Salvador and alternative health care, such as acupuncture.
The proceeds of the sale of her paintings and prints go to Loaves and Fishes, the Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean, and the people of Segundo Montes, El Salvador.
At a recent exhibit opening at the Potter's House, LeRoy Barnet sat silently by his portrait. A regular at Loaves and Fishes, he came to honor Barker's portraits and the people she paints. "I was dumbfounded," he says of the reception and the crowd--and of Barker. "I'm so blessed to have you know me."
Two other subjects showed up at openings. For a person who lives on the streets to attend a gallery party with a bunch of strangers "took a lot of courage," Barker says. "I was so moved and touched."
This was much better than any gilded thank-you note from any charity.
She says her relationships with her family, church colleagues and those helping her plan her trust have been difficult at times. But she is determined that others "share her vision," and when she feels she is misunderstood, she severs the relationship or leaves the organization. She has few close friends, but says the friendships she has formed with her subjects are invaluable.
Barker has painted one man, Anthony Vessels, six times, chronicling his gradual progress from self-imposed isolation to a full-time job for the federal government and a volunteer Special Olympics coach. She's painted another, Joseph Proctor, twice and regularly exchanges books with him.
Usually, she sees her subjects only during the lunch hours at Loaves and Fishes. But in May, she asked Vessels and Proctor to her house to celebrate her birthday.
"We had," she says, "a great time."
CAPTION: Mary Lee Barker, right, talks with LaWanda Carter, subject of a portrait.
CAPTION: Mary Lee Barker puts the final touches on her portrait of Larry Bishop during a painting session, top, at a Mount Pleasant soup kitchen. Paul Chang, 10, son of a soup kitchen volunteer, watches. Above, the portrait.