Former homeless woman creates masterpieces from unlikely materials

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

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Alvira Sweeten's colorful artwork is now on exhibit at the Middletown Arts Center.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

The paintings hanging in the lobby of the Middletown Arts Center don’t look out of place as the colors grab your attention and curiosity.

But since they’re unframed — unprotected by museum-quality glass — your first instinct is to touch them, then look on the back.

That’s when it hits you: These paintings, called “amazing” by the executive director of the center, are on cardboard, former pizza and cake boxes, that were torn and sometimes folded.

They went from trash to treasure in the stroke of a brush.

It’s fitting the latest exhibit at the center was completed on discharged cardboard because that pretty much describes the woman holding the brush. She is a former homeless woman who has lived out of her car, who was raped twice, who tried to commit suicide with a knife in a bar bathroom and who has spent half of her life babysitting some of her grandchildren who were abandoned by their parents.

If you sit and talk with Alvira Sweeten for a few minutes you notice her flashy clothing, the matching scarf that hides her thinning gray hair and you come away inspired by her triumph over tragedy. Then you look at her paintings and you’re blown away. You can’t believe that someone whose life has been filled with heartbreak and depression can transform those feelings into artwork that’s vibrant, raw and emotive.

The Middletown Arts Center, 130 N. Verity Parkway, is showcasing Sweeten in her first solo art exhibition that runs through March 29. Hilary Nauman, executive director of the center, said Sweeten’s work was brought to her attention by Sharon Bogan of Family Promises in Hamilton, a homeless shelter. Sweeten was staying in the shelter and had shared with Bogan her love of art.

After seeing the work that Sweeten had saved though all of her struggles and transition, Bogan knew it should be shared.

Sweeten, 68, a native of Bessemer, Ala., has been painting since the early 1960’s and her work reflects the changes in her life and situation over the years growing more complex in trying times. Many of those paintings are done on cardboard and that shows her “drive to create,” Nauman said.

She still is surprised her art — which has sometimes been stuffed in a trunk or backpack — is being displayed and sold in the arts center.

“I’m really amazed to see something done with my own hands actually hanging in a public place and other people have seen it and been blown away by it,” Sweeten said last week. “I said, ‘What are they looking at?’ It was nothing. I felt it was nothing and at the same time, it was something. I’m just amazed to find myself in this position.”

It’s amazing Sweeten is anywhere except the nearest cemetery.

She has been married and divorced twice, had eight children — four sons and four daughters — and has raised many of her 32 grandchildren. One of her sons is serving a 40-year prison sentence and another has been charged with drug possession. She has lived many nights alone in the back seat of a car hidden under blankets and clothes not sure if she would be alive in the morning.

While living in Hamilton, she watched two of her grandchildren while her son worked during the day. The three of them had a routine: Pick up her grandchildren and spend the rest of the day finding things to occupy their time, and trying to locate food. They have been kicked out of Hamilton fast-food restaurants and fed at others, though they had no money. If you’re homeless in Hamilton, you probably recognize Sweeten and her grandchildren.

They also have lived in a Hamilton home that was so dilapidated, it was “run over by rats,” she said. They now live in a different home with her son. During those difficult and dark days, she said, she still painted, though the “faces grew sadder and sadder, the patterns grew more and more complex.”

For much of her life, Sweeten’s artwork so much resembled her grandchildren, they were named after them. Painting also serves as her escape. Some people read or listen to music. She picks up a brush, grabs a canvas out of the nearest trash can, and gets creative. She said it is a talent given to her by God since she has no formal training.

“I’m inside of the painting, I’m zoned out,” she said. “Painting takes me somewhere.”

She also realizes there are people who don’t understand the woman behind the flashy fashion and brightly-colored paintings. What people thought of her used to be a concern. Not now.

“I had to develop the thought that people are going to think what they want to think about you regardless,” said Sweeten, who still has a southern accent. “So since I’m the one who has to live in this body, I’m the one who has to determine if I’m happy or if I’m going to live up to peoples’ expectations. I had to delete that. Now it’s what I think of me that counts. Everybody has an opinion but mine is the only one that has value.”

The conversation turned back to her artwork and her cardboard canvasses. The two seem connected.

“Cardboard can be beautiful,” she said. “People throw cardboard away. They grind it up and do everything with it. But cardboard actually is beautiful.”

Her attention was distracted by two visitors to the center and they stopped and looked at Sweeten’s work. That brought a smile to her face. She continued.

“Something that has been trampled down and has no meaning to it can be given a beautiful meaning,” she said. “It can be reversed. I felt the only meaning to me was to babysit and the most valuable thing I had for the myself, I have the ability to paint.”

And that ability opened the doors to a new world and maybe will inspire others.

“I have lived so much depression,” she said. “I have lived so much hurt and pain, especially the pain. I have found an escape from the pain.”

And for that, she’s thankful.

For cardboard.

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