How art gives a voice to the voiceless.
From her ever-changing hairstyles and edgy fashion to her thought-provoking tattoos, Jacqueline Moulton looks the part of an artist. In addition to teaching college art classes, Moulton spends her mornings as the Art Program Director at Aurora Commons. The Commons, a community space at 89th and Aurora Avenue in Seattle, seeks to meet the needs of people in the neighborhood who are unhoused, drug dependent, or involved in street-based sex work. I recently had the chance to interview Jacqueline about her work and was convinced that while people in these demographics have obvious physical needs, they also have a deep need to be affirmed as human beings by being given a voice and a right to speak. Through her art program, Moulton makes space for these voices, seeing each person as a creator and a contributor in the world.
“Art is not just for the rich and the privileged. It’s for every single one of us.”
The Commons was created to be a neighborhood living room. Art classes have been part of it from the beginning. The Commons offers eight to ten evening session art classes a few times each year. Most who come to these sessions are “regulars” to The Commons. For instance, women working the street often stop in during the art sessions when they see the light on. Moulton leaves the door open so that people can come and go if they are in the neighborhood. The sessions draw graduate students and other folks in the neighborhood as well.
The Commons art courses include numerous media: creative writing, poetry, found objects, painting, clay, and photography. During one session, Jacqueline gave each person a disposable camera and then took the class to a park where she challenged everyone to take pictures that expressed “Fear.”
Many of the multi-week sessions are based on a theme. Past themes include “Fear,” “Hope,” “Shame,” and “Self-Portraits.” The “Self-Portraits” theme stretched the participants. It made them uncomfortable when Moulton had them spend 10 weeks making self-portraits. At the end they hosted a gallery night and each of the artists invited people to come and view their portraits. To Moulton this showed that despite (and maybe because of) the struggle to create an expression of the self, many of those who participated found it to be a meaningful activity. Over time they became comfortable enough to share it with others.
Right now, The Commons uses one of its walls as the “Common Art Gallery.” One reason they created this space was that the budget for The Commons was dramatically cut, which included cutting the “program fund,” the main financial resource for the arts program. Since Moulton believed that having the arts as a part of The Commons’ life was important, they created this gallery to bring in professional artists’ work.
For the artists selected, sharing their work in The Commons includes a commitment to offer art classes during the period that their work is on display. Moulton invited a friend to be the first artist-in-residence just to “see how it goes”—and it proved a great success. The artist-in-residence offered an evening art class with found objects called “That forgotten life/A life enlivened.” The second gallery display invited individuals in the neighborhood to display art that represented the beginning place for artists, called “Again – The art of beginning.”
“Art is how we process trauma. It provides space for our pain and agony to be transformed.”
I asked Moulton what needs were met for those coming to the classes. This is what she told me.
[The Commons is] a good space to process trauma. Trauma can strip you of words and words can also trigger reliving the trauma. People open up while making art. It’s disarming—a childlike space—and walls break down. They often open up as they work things out through their body in the art. It’s amazing what comes out.
Moulton talked about how the process of making art uses different pathways in the brain that can help people process trauma in healing ways. She explained, “When you are marginalized, there is often no space for you to be an autonomous creative being. People assume that you give up this right because you are an addict.” But Jacqueline is convinced that all people have a right to have a voice.
This creative space gives people an opportunity to get unstuck. Making art “teaches you how to struggle and trust yourself.” Often this is what’s needed to gain the necessary strength to heal and move on.
“Art expresses our deepest humanity, and creative expression is a human right.”
We discussed the tendency of ministries serving the unhoused to require attendance at a Bible study or chapel service in order sleep on a cot or receive a meal. We both agreed that this felt like religious bribery.
Moulton likes to challenge those making art in a lot of ways, but not through “God talk.” “God talk” is not a requirement during The Commons art classes. We discussed the tendency of ministries serving the unhoused to require attendance at a Bible study or chapel service in order sleep on a cot or receive a meal. We both agreed that this felt like religious bribery. She questioned what people might think about Christians once they were in a home or clean again. How would they look back on those who were supposedly “caring” for them?
Moulton said that some classes lean more towards art therapy while others are simply art. Deep issues tend to arise regardless of whether the “therapy” tag is on the class. While leading these classes, she tries to be mindful of where people are. Most people who come to The Commons do not have a place to go home to—a space to decompress. She explained that “Self-care is a privilege” that the unhoused often live without.
Moulton recently led a writing and painting workshop for the Awake Church, the congregation that birthed The Commons. “I let them have it,” she told me with a grin. She challenged them deeply, knowing that they were in a stable place where challenges and questions were not going to send anyone into a state of crisis. Many who come to The Commons, however, live in a state of crisis. For some, making art is comforting and enjoyable—and making space for that comfort and joy is enough.
“We create in the face of death, injustice, and the cold night spent outside”
Those who come to art classes at The Commons enter in much easier than the graduate students Moulton teaches. “These people live in places that most of us are afraid of—and they live there all the time. They are able to step in and wrestle and be unsure.”
Moulton gave her graduate students the assignment to “write a letter to your body.” Some students were paralyzed by the assignment, unable to begin the work. But at The Commons people had no barriers to enter into the experience. She once asked a class to make a portrait of shame. One man sat down, worked for 40 minutes straight, then looked up and said, “I finished my painting and it’s the best work I have ever done.” Moulton says she never hears this from her graduate students or other artists.
At The Commons, art classes offer something far deeper than the development of skills or art appreciation. They offer dignity, healing, and a voice to people living under the weight of labels like “prostitute,” “addict,” and “homeless.” Moulton’s program declares:
“You are a human. You have a voice. You matter.”
Quotes in bold come from the art page on the Aurora Commons website. auroracommonsart.org