Street Life's Challenges Endured Through Art

By Phillip Martin

Jan. 20, 2011

Last month, a vigil was held at the Church on the Hill on Beacon Hill to honor the more than 200 homeless individuals in the Boston area who died last year; some in the midst of winter. Many had fought losing battles with addiction and mental illness. Some found themselves without a place to live after losing jobs and affordable housing. Most died alone. 
This is the second part of our profile of a U.S. army veteran who has survived on the streets of Cambridge for the past ten years. He says he could not have done it without the help of strangers, or without his art, which gets him through the day.

CAMBRIDGE — Bruce Stuart has been an artist for years.  He even briefly went to school for it. His easels include a table at Peet’s Coffee in Harvard Square and this wooden bench where he and I are sitting outside of Darwin’s Café on Cambridge Street.   Over the three years I’ve known Bruce, it’s been clear that art is not just Bruce’s hobby. It’s his life’s mission. 
“I’m not a pure artist, but by God, the act of doing the drawing is what its all about,” Bruce says.

Micro-Macro, Bruce Stuart. 8.5 x 11 in, ink and marker on paper. (Courtesy Pierre Menard Gallery.)

 But he has paid a price for choosing to draw most of the day.  
“Homelessness is what I’ve always called a grudgingly lived-with consequence of action taken so that I didn’t  have to do things that I didn’t want to do,” Bruce explains.
At times, his homelessness makes this Vietnam veteran question his self-worth. “I haven’t helped society.  I haven’t contributed taxes to the very lights we’re using right now on the streets.  Sidewalks we’re sitting on,” Bruce said.
The vast majority of the more than one million people without homes in this country find shelter—somewhere.  But about four our of ten people live on the street, or in cars, or beneath highway underpasses. 

For a long time, in every season, this wooden bench has been Bruce’s home.   It has an overhang that protects him a little from the rain and snow.   But more importantly, Bruce says this area of mid-Cambridge is safe.  
“This is the particular sort of area that it is, which is to say higher rents, literally, as opposed to spots that homeless people would come to in the Square,” Bruce said.
That means it’s the type of spot where homeless people would not be targeted.   Over the past decade, the National Coalition for the Homeless has documented nearly 1,000 attacks on homeless people across the country, including 244 fatalities. 
Even in this area, there have been times when Bruce has feared for his life.  Like the time last summer when a stranger woke him in the middle of the night, screaming at the top of his lungs.

Bruce asks for money in Harvard Square. (Phillip Martin/WGBH)

“I could smell Listerine. He’s what some people would call a listo-bum. And I was scared.  I said please don’t do this whatever it is you’re thinking of. And it turned out he just wanted a cigarette and bum some change, wasn’t there to stab me or anything else.”

 But physical violence is not Bruce’s only concern as he makes his way everyday between here and Harvard Square.  It’s also the aggressive things people say.
“People will walk by and say things that they mean for me to hear, which is supposed to have some kind of a brutalizing, group therapy effect on me,” Bruce said.
That’s how paranoia starts, Bruce said. A few bad things happen and you get scared. A loss of self-esteem is another by-product of homelessness.  He fortifies himself with his art and writing.  . 
“The only clear-cut activities I said are worth any one’s attention that I can do are two things, limericks and the drawings,” Bruce said.
Most of those limericks are a little too risqué to publish here. But Bruce is able to share hi art, which he sustains with the help of strangers – who have become friends. There’s one friend in particular who Bruce runs into almost every weekday as the sun is coming up over Harvard Square.
“Right at 6:30, and he’s on his way to the library at the (Harvard Business) School, and gives me at least five bucks and its every weekday,” Bruce explains.
His name is Mark Blumberg, and he’s an assistant librarian at the Harvard Business School library. “I would stop off and give him some money and we would talk and our discussions, brief as they were, broadened and eventually we developed sort of a nice rapport,” Blumberg said.   

Mark Blumberg stands near Harvard Square by the bench where he used to meet Bruce. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

“There was also something about him, something about his energy that spoke to me,” Blumberg said. As they got to know each other, Blumberg was surprised by Bruce’s knowledge of art history.
“We developed a little game between us.   He would write down the name of an obscure impresario from the early part of the American 20th century, and then I would find them on Wikipedia and they would be these extraordinary, interesting figures in the history of the arts,” Blumberg said. He would print out those articles so Bruce could learn more about the artists.
Over the years, Mark has collected four or five of Bruce’s drawings.
Tonight, Bruce says he has some hopeful news.  A Harvard Square gallery owner has seen his work and likes it. 
“He owns a gallery called Pierre Menard, and he’s bought five of my drawings and says he’ll use them eventually, probably in an exhibit,” Bruce said.
But for now, it’s about 11 pm and Bruce is trying to get some sleep outside of Darwin’s. There’s no room for tossing and turning on this narrow wooden bench where he's laid his 6 foot 3, 250-pound frame.
“I can’t sleep but on my right side because of the arthritis in my hip and knee,” Bruce said.           
It’s cold outside.  Bruce lifts himself from the wooden bench, places his artwork neatly into the plastic wrapping that he keeps close to his body.  And then he lies down again, and tries to fall asleep as cars pass by on Cambridge Street.    

8.5 x 11 Ink on paper. (Courtesy of Pierre Menard Gallery)

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