Home is where the art is

Homeless Artists Benefit, Ethnic Art Gallery, July21-August 21, 1997

The best thing that ever happened to Everett Spruill, the artist, was when Everett Spruill, the Hyatt hotel manager, was given an ultimatum: "Either the beard goes or you do."

"I took my 10-year retirement and severance pay and opened an art gallery," says Spruill.

The son of an Alabama carpenter and a seamstress had begun collecting art during his years with Hyatt, buying the likes of Chagal and Picasso, so his segue into gallery ownership was a natural.

One day, a homeless artist, picture in hand, appeared at the door of Spruill's west-side gallery.

"I invited him in," he says. "Once that word got out, they just kept coming. Eventually, I decided to have a show for them."

The pieces usually come to him unmatted, unframed, some on boards, others on plywood, and Spruill readies them for hanging. But not just any art.

"Somebody will come in and say, 'Oh, I can draw,' and I say prove it."

Leo Hudson and Henry Simmons did just that.

"This is what I call my 1940-50s series," Hudson says huskily of a kitchen supper scene displayed on a wall in Orlando's Coalition for the Homeless. "It comes from my childhood days."

Hudson is a Lake County native who graduated from Florida A&M and "somehow got into social service working with every kind of trouble and raising my own son -- until my bad luck, when I had a complexity of problems and fell into substance abuse -- something I'd worked against so much of my life."

Now three years drug-free, he spends his days before an easel in the Coalition's classroom.

"I've had friends and finances, was even once Florida's counselor of the year, but what I always wanted to do -- and never did -- was to paint and draw. It took my dissipation..."

Henry Simmons sold his first picture at 17 for $100. "I know now how bad it was," he says. "I didn't know anything about dimensions or color."

Eventually he landed in New Orleans and worked its restaurants for 20 years until a family break-up. Substance abuse dragged his life down hill, and in 1991, he rode the rails to Orlando, looking for a lifestyle change.

It was a long time coming. Now, 18 months straight, he studies computer graphics, works toward a GED and, in a clean, well-lighted Coalition corner, paints life.


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