Evan James says making art helped him survive five years living on the street.
"I think that's the only thing that kept me going when I was homeless," he said. "It kind of kept me in a positive spirit."
Now 33, the recovering alcoholic is one of 12 formerly homeless artists whose work will be displayed at Island Blue Art Store this month. Each of the participants is a tenant of one of Pacifica Housing's four supported complexes for individuals who are chronically homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
The exhibit marks a full circle for James, who used to spend a portion of his panhandling money on canvases and art supplies from Island Blue.
"That's where I was getting my supplies," he said.
"If I made like eight dollars, that would be enough to get a canvas."
James grew up in Duncan, where he says he had a troubled youth that included several run-ins with police. He was kicked out of high school for fighting with another student.
"It got pretty violent," he said. "There was a lot of racism at that school."
He started drinking at 17 - first only on weekends, but it devolved from there.
"I was struggling with my addictions and that kind of led me to being homeless, my alcoholism," he said.
But at 17, he also began creating art. And despite the challenges, he received strong encouragement to nurture his talent, especially from his English and life-skills teachers at Malaspina University-College (now called Vancouver Island University).
It's something he carried with him, though it hasn't been a smooth road. After landing on the streets of Victoria at 26, James panhandled and sold art with Coast Salish designs in front of St. Andrew's Cathedral.
About two years ago, he began transitioning into public housing and rehabilitation programs.
James says he continues to struggle with alcohol addiction, which affects his art. When he's hung over, the shakes prevent him from painting.
But he has also met with some success. One of his painting hangs on the wall of NDP MP Denise Savoie's office. Her constituency assistant, Hilary Stead, purchased it and the exposure has led to other sales.
James also donated a piece to the Streetlink Centre, a shelter where he spent many nights.
The painting he's presenting at Island Blue depicts a double-headed serpent, a symbol with personal significance to James.
"It's a mystical creature in my culture," said James, whose mother is Coast Salish. "There's two serpents - one that's good and one that's bad. The face on the painting is for guidance and the hands are for balance.
That is kind of a struggle I'm going through, feeding my addiction and doing artwork while I'm sober."
Kristy Colpron, communications and fund development manager for Pacifica Housing, said staff decided to organize the art show after noticing more and more tenants getting involved in art, either through the weekly organized art program or on their own.
A special after-hours exhibition and art sale will take place at Island Blue Thursday from 5: 30 to 7: 30 p.m. Tickets are $10 and all proceeds will support Pacific Housing's art program.
For information and to purchase tickets, contact Colpron at 250-385-2131 ext. 103 or email kristyc@ pacificahousing.ca. Tickets are limited and will not be sold at the door.
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