Sometimes, seeing a work of art will make you feel a certain way. Creating a work of art can make you feel a certain way, too, said Ruth C. Mohamed Nur.
We were in the art studio at N Street Village, a charity for homeless women that is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. Spread out on a table was some of Ruth’s art: pen-and-ink portraits embellished with colorful coronas of flowers, butterflies, ankhs, African masks and other symbols.
“I put a lot of flowery stuff in because that’s how I really want to feel sometimes,” said Ruth, 57. “And a lot of times, I’m not feeling that way.”
Ruth became homeless about a year ago. Art had always been a part of her life. She started drawing at 4. When she was little, her parents took her to galleries in Washington.
“The African Art Museum was on Capitol Hill then,” Ruth said. “We’d go down to the Smithsonian and just walk about.”
When she was old enough, Ruth would catch the bus and go by herself.
She was an art major at the University of Maryland, studying with such figures as David Driskell, Sam Gilliam and Anne Truitt, and becoming enamored with Romare Bearden’s work.
Ruth developed her own style, creating large collages and art quilts. She was an art teacher in public schools in the District and taught art to senior citizens in Prince George’s County.
Ruth did some graduate work at Howard University, but when her marriage fell apart, she dropped out of school to care for her two sons. And when her father started showing signs of dementia, she moved into the family home in Northeast Washington to care for him.
Ruth said that after her father died, she had a falling out with the rest of her family. With no place to live, she wound up at N Street Village’s Patricia Handy Place, a building on Fifth Street NW that provides emergency shelter and transitional housing for women experiencing homelessness.
She hadn’t been there long when another resident told her about the offerings at N Street Village’s flagship location near Logan Circle, such things as yoga, meditation, dance exercise and — three times a week — art classes.
“I hop on the shelter bus,” Ruth said. “It brings me here. I find out they have art. They have art supplies. They have sketchbooks and pens.”
When Ruth became homeless, she lost her large portfolio of work, the quilts and collage-bedecked canvases she had spent years creating.
“I have very little space now, so I’m doing drawings,” she said. “I’m coming up with a lot of stuff I didn’t know I had in me at all. I’m working on a series of homeless women.”
She showed me a stark piece. A short-haired woman stares at the viewer. She’s standing against a brick wall but is also embedded in a spider’s web.
Ruth first thought she had created the woman from her own imagination but then realized it’s another resident of Patricia Handy Place.
Ruth works a part-time job as a substitute teacher at charter schools. Her goals include finding a full-time job teaching art. She’ll never stop creating it.
“If you’re working with your hands in an artistic or crafty way, you don’t have time to cry,” Ruth said. “You don’t have time to have the blues. You’ve got to think about something else. When I’m drawing, I can’t think about all this chatter in my head.”
Ruth’s sons are grown now. She thinks they’re doing well. She hopes they are. But she’s lost contact with them. It’s hard to stay in touch when you’ve lost everything and for months didn’t even have a phone, she said.
But in nearly every work that Ruth draws, she inks “Bakri” and “Anwar” in tiny letters among the flowers and the butterflies.
“Now if they ever see it, they may be able to see their names,” she said.
Besides providing housing for nearly 800 women and 51 families, N Street Village helps its clients feel whole again through classes and counseling. On any given day, its main location is a hub of activity.
By supporting N Street Village, you can help women such as Ruth put their lives back together. To donate online, visit posthelpinghand.com and click where it says “Donate.” To give by mail, make a check payable to N Street Village and send it to N Street Village, Attn: Helping Hand, 1333 N St. NW, Washington, DC 20005.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.