Kimberly Williams says that art has already saved her life.
She was an alcoholic, living on the streets and sometimes using other drugs.
Seeking breakfast one morning, she came to Miriam’s Kitchen. And after the meal, the staff spread out the art supplies.
Soon, Williams was a regular. Conversations about her artwork with a therapist on the staff led to conversations about other things she needed — an ID, clothing, a job.
“The people here, they helped me to realize that my art, the things I do, were being hindered by being addicted and stuff like that, drinking and using drugs,” Williams said. “This place is a savior.”
After 11 years of addiction, Williams, 41, said she has been clean for more than six months. She has moved in with her mother in Oxon Hill, Md., and reunited with her 3-year-old son. And she has a new platform for raising her art to a higher level — or letting art elevate her a little higher once again.
It’s called ArtLifting, a Web site founded in Boston that sells high-quality art by homeless and disabled people. Williams was selected as one of the first two artists to participate in Washington as the growing Web site expands its reach to the District.
Her works on the Web site — abstract canvases full of swirls and slashes in radiant color — sell for $75 to $1,000 per print.
For each piece that sells, she will receive 55 percent of the cost. The rest goes to ArtLifting, which has sold about 550 pieces since launching last September, according to Liz Powers, 26, who co-founded the Web site with her brother Spencer, 29.
Powers said that art therapy programs sometimes cannot sell participants’ work because therapists avoid blending a clinical role and a commercial one. Other programs that help homeless or disabled people create art just don’t have the time to help them sell it, too. That’s where the siblings’ Web site comes in.
Powers said her goal, eventually, is to find corporate clients who will buy these homeless artists’ work in bulk — to decorate the rooms of a new hotel, say, or an office building. For now, the Web site is taking on artists in more and more cities.
Divya Prabhakaran, the other D.C. artist picked by ArtLifting, has already sold a painting on the site.
Many a morning, Prabhakaran and Williams can be found painting at Miriam’s Kitchen, located in the basement of Western Presbyterian Church in Foggy Bottom.
Every morning and afternoon, 30 to 65 homeless people participate in the art sessions. But these two are standouts.
When a new visitor introduced herself last week to Prabhakaran, 49, who goes by Joseph, a frequent guest watched them shake hands and called out: “You’ll never wash that hand again! This is Joseph Leonardo da Vinci.”
ArtLifting’s curator, one of four employees at the site, has a trained eye — she is a Stanford art history alumna who used to work for Christie’s. She looked at the wide array of artwork created at Miriam’s Kitchen, and she selected Prabhakaran and Williams for ArtLifting.
Both have modest commercial experience as artists already. Williams has sold her work in Dupont Circle and Chinatown. Prabhakaran said his pieces hang in a cafeteria at George Washington University and an office of a legal clinic — both institutions came to Miriam’s Kitchen looking for art, and he made about $75 each time.
The two both have paintings in an exhibit called “Outsider Art” sponsored by Art Enables, an organization for artists with disabilities. The show, at 2204 Rhode Island Ave. NE, runs until Nov. 21.
One morning last week, Prabhakaran was painting a richly layered image of fall foliage, his page laden with colors that might soon appear as autumn transforms the trees in the area. But many of his canvases show beach scenes, tropical paradises that look very far away. He paints from memory, he said.
He held up a painting of a sun-soaked inlet, a sailboat bobbing in the water with his middle name on it. The title was “Take Me Back.”
That was a vacation to Aruba he took with a relative, he said. Before he moved from New York to Washington about 10 years ago, before his wife died at around the same time, before a decade of homelessness in the nation’s capital.
He will say little more about his past, about just what memories the gorgeous landscapes hold or what path took him from those tranquil scenes to Adam’s Place Shelter, where he said he has lived for about a year.
But he will quietly state his goal: to find a program with the money to put him in housing of his own, he said.
Art therapist and case manager Lindsey Vance said that in the four years she has seen Prabhakaran nearly every weekday, she had never before heard him say he wanted to be housed. She credited his growing success as an artist with expanding his aspirations.
“He is definitely a way different person than he was four years ago,” Vance said. “He didn’t even speak to anyone before.”
Case managers found it challenging to work with him when he first arrived, she said. So Vance talked to him about art. When she saw that his normally serene landscapes sometimes took on a darker edge, she would ask him about it — and though he would be surprised that she could see his mood spilling out of his brush, he would acknowledge that he was having a bad day. Slowly, they built a rapport.
Sitting next to Prabhakaran last week, Williams was the gregarious half of the pair. An unnoticed dab of yellow paint beneath her eyebrow, she narrated her search for a color that would “pop.” When she found it, she drawled in a singsong voice, “This painting is awe-some.”
Springing up to appraise her work from a distance, she nodded her approval. “I got to spend four or five more hours, and then I’ll really be cised.”
Vance said that the bubbly, confident Williams she sees now has also changed dramatically.
“Art was the one thing that kind of kept her, when everything else seemed to be going in the wrong direction for her. I’ve seen her make a whole 180 in terms of when I met her and how she is today,” Vance said.
Williams agreed. “This might sound crazy. I needed the therapy,” she said. “For that single moment that I’m looking at something I created, it takes my mind off the pain.”
The blend of art and counseling and case management was in full swing last week. While she painted, Williams asked Vance to print out a packet of West African symbols that she wanted to include in her upcoming paintings, as well as information on where she can get free clothes for job interviews.
They talked about her search for a job with her newly restored nail technician’s license, her dream of opening her own salon someday and her hope that ArtLifting will be another gateway to stability and success.
“If I asked Lindsey for something, if she didn’t have it, she’ll get it for me. The step-by-step, little, small steps that we took, they got me to bigger things,” Williams said. “Now, hopefully, I have very big goals. And I want to get there.”
Her eyes filled with tears. She stopped talking and furiously picked up her paintbrush. Once more, she added vibrant color to the blank space on the canvas.