A Home For Bruce And His Art

By Phillip Martin

Jan. 21, 2011

Communities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island are dealing with a rise in homelessness, which had been on the decline until 2007. In its recent annual report, the U.S. Conference of Mayors warned of a permanent homeless population in urban areas, including Boston, unless urgent steps were taken. For families, unemployment was the leading cause of homelessness in the surveyed cities; for individuals it was the lack of affordable housing. Regardless of the cause, homelessness has a deep impact on self-esteem.

Bruce Stuart knows this first hand.  Stuart  is a homeless U.S. army veteran, whom we have been profiling this week in a special series titled “Recognizing Bruce”.  But now, his life is changing.

CAMBRIDGE — For the past ten years or so, Bruce Stuart has lived his life traveling between three places, all within a one-mile radius of each other.  His day begins on a wooden bench outside of Darwin’s café on Cambridge Street, where he sleeps, then continues on a busy sidewalk in Harvard Square, where he asks strangers for money. And, finally, at Peet’s Coffee shop in the Square, he draws and etches abstract images, inspired by the people around him and events long ago. 

“Maybe (it’s) the strongest way I have of keeping memory alive,” Bruce said.
In an early morning drizzle, memory is indeed alive. Bruce is recalling the high points of his life. Hanging out with his army buddies in Vietnam, washing dishes at the Comedy Connection where he sometimes joined the comedians on stage.
“An elevator operator’s job at Steinert Piano Hall in Boston. And I could wait until midnight when everybody left and we could just go to the most seasoned Steinways.   And just go there and boogie on G Major. Just slow blues and boogie-woogie,” Bruce remembered, laughing.

Ink on paper, 8.5 x 11 inches. Courtesy Pierre Menard Gallery.

But what could well be the highlight of Bruce’s 63 years is the news the Pierre Menard Gallery in Harvard Square has offered to exhibit his drawings in a special one-person show.  The owner, John Wronoski, saw Bruce drawing one day at his usual spot at Peet’s Coffee.
“This guy is an extremely talented, obviously technically trained artist, and if he’s not, he’s all the more interesting,” Wronoski said.
But Bruce was surprised by this invitation and is not sure how to react. “I have never wanted to do that until he came along,” he said. He’s still not sure if he wants to do it.
By mid December, at about 7 a.m., the counter at Peets is bathed in a reddish winter glow.   But Bruce – usually here with pencil in hand by this time is nowhere to be seen. 
Days go by, and then weeks, and Bruce doesn’t show up at any of his three spots. 
One night at Darwin’s, an employee named Kate looks out the window at the empty wooden bench. “I think at first I thought he was kind of crazy—when he first gave us his drawings and limericks—but he’s just really nice and I miss him,” Kate said.
Bruce’s friend, Mark Blumberg, misses him too. He usually greets Bruce at the same spot as he passes through Harvard Yard in the early morning on his way to work at the Harvard Business School Library.
“The last couple of weeks I haven’t seen him there. I was a little concerned because I haven’t seen him and I hope its all for the best,” Blumberg said.             
Each year society loses track of thousands of adults and children, who, because they’re living on the streets, are not always noticed when they go missing. Often when the homeless are noticed, it’s because they stand out -- like Ted Williams, whose now-familiar voice has resonated across the country. 
“When you’re listening to nothing but the best of oldies, you’re listening to Magic 98.9.  Thank you so much.  God bless you.”

Ink on paper, 8.5 x 11 inches. Courtesy Pierre Menard Gallery.

 Williams was panhandling on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, until a reporter with a video camera taped this encounter and it became a media phenomenon.
Across the country, and across history, there have been various examples of stand out talent among the homeless.  There was Jean-Michel Basquiat — the New York graffiti artist discovered by Andy Warhol.  And more recently, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, a former classical music prodigy, who was discovered playing his cello on the streets of L.A., and became the subject of the movie, “The Soloist.”  
But homeless advocates argue that by paying attention only to the exceptional is to miss the larger picture.
“It gets me angry, frankly,” said James Shearer, a formerly homeless man who is the chair of the Homeless Empowerment Project in Cambridge, which publishes the Spare Change newspaper.
“We wanted to have our own voices in there, because we wanted to destroy a lot of the myths about homelessness,” Shearer said. “A lot of the things you hear about homelessness ‘oh they’re all crazy. They’re all drunk.  They’re there because they want to be there’ and we wanted to dispel all that.”
Shearer says that stories like that of Ted Williams, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, and Bruce himself can be helpful if they can inspire the nation to look at the homeless in an entirely different way. 
And, especially if it can lead to finding homes, for those without them.
In mid-January, one month after Bruce Stuart disappeared, I received a call from the Cambridge Housing Authority.  Not only had they found Bruce, they had moved him into his own apartment, thanks to collaboration between the Housing Authority and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. 
And last Sunday, Bruce gave me a tour of his one-bedroom home.

Bruce says after a decade of sleeping outdoors, he was ready to come in from the cold. 

Ink on paper, 8.5 x 11 inches. Courtesy Pierre Menard Gallery.

“One winter, without wind chill, it was five degrees. With chill, God knows what it would have been. So I had to just wrap both my two sleeping bags around me at night and  I’d have my thick winter coat and I’d still be shivering.” 
Bruce says he never wants to go back to living on park benches again.   Here, at his home, he can draw anytime he wants.  The opening of The Bruce Stuart Exhibition at the Pierre Menard gallery is now just days away. Bruce is ambivalent about the public recognition, but he’s excited.
Still, he adds, there is nothing that compares to having a roof over his head;  a place to call home.
“I’ve been largely an atheist. But I pray to Jesus, just about every night.  A lot of it has to do with having been homeless. I tell you, I think about it every night.  In fact, the most luxurious feeling I get is having the lights off,  with the TV off, everything off,  and just sitting on the edge of my bed, and ready to go to sleep, with the comfortable warmth in the air.”
The Bruce Stuart exhibition opened this week at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Harvard Square. It is open for viewing until February 10th.

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