This profile was published as part of Gandhi’s Be Magazine’s #ProfilesofChangemakers series, uplifting the stories, lives, and work of Changemakers who are being the change they wish to see in the world.
Ellen Heavilon is the Founder and Executive Director of Hart Gallery in Chattanooga, Tennessee, an art gallery for homeless and non-traditional artists. Hart Gallery recently celebrated the grand opening of a second location in Memphis.
1. How did you become involved in this type of work and advocacy/activism?
Most of my adult life was spent being a Mom, wife (domestic manager) and professional volunteer. When the children were getting married and were out on their own I was looking for what was next for me. That is when I had the idea for H*Art.
One evening, while walking down Main Street and enjoying the public art that has become prevalent in Chattanooga, I happened upon Homes, a public work by Frances McDonald, Julie Clark and Mark Making. Homes is a sculptural pillar of mosaic tiles that were individually created by homeless persons in the Chattanooga area. I was so moved by the power of the art and the quality of the pieces that I was inspired to build upon the concept of ‘Home’. I had originally thought this would simply involve getting some art supplies together and taking them to the Community Kitchen. After talking with Brother Ron Fender, the Outreach Manager, I realized there was much talent in the population and expanded the idea to what is now the H♥Art Gallery. With the help of my husband, Jay, we purchased an abandoned building on the Southside of Chattanooga and renovations began in January of 2010.
2. Who were your biggest role model(s)? Who was your biggest inspiration?
I’ve always been drawn to Mother Teresa and other figures that are “mom-like”.
3. How has your work impacted others? Please share some of the successes that have truly touched those involved…
Of the twenty-three artists with prior convictions who have participated in H*Art Gallery classes, twenty-one have stayed out of jail. Of the thirty-four homeless artists participating in classes, seventeen have moved into permanent housing.
One woman, Amy, who struggles with mental illness said, “Even when I am not here, it makes me feel good to know here is here.”
A recently housed Navy Veteran, Ron, said, “In a world where I hear ‘No!’ all of the time, this is the one place I can hear ‘Yes, you can do it!'”
I met Jim, a homeless Navy Veteran at Chattanooga Community Kitchen in 2009. He began coming to classes when they first started in January of 2010. Through the years we have seen Jim find and reconnect with family, get therapy for the demons that haunted him from an experience during the Vietnam war, and give back to the gallery ($500 when he received back benefits from his time in the Navy).
Jasen was homeless and began coming to classes at Chattanooga Community Kitchen in November 2013. We recognized his talents immediately and he became a regular during gallery times. Getting to know Jasen we discovered he someday wanted to become a pastry chef. We were able to help him get a partial scholarship to Virginia College Culinary Institute. To pay for the remainder of the fees Jasen taught four classes a week at Chattanooga Community Kitchen and Salvation Army. He graduated July 18th and is now employed full-time at The Chattanoogan. As of August 1st, Jasen is married and will continue to be a mentor artist at the gallery.
Java is another homeless client I met in 2010 after we started classes at Chattanooga Community Kitchen. She liked to make jewelry and I would take her to Hobby Lobby to get beads and supplies. Java would work on making products and I would collect what was ready each week. After some back and forth about what had to come to the gallery for sale and what she would sell on her own, she realized H*Art wasn’t going anywhere and trusted us to be on her side thus allowing us to sell her jewelry. After selling at H*Art she was able to show low income, instead of no income, and was accepted into Dogwood Manor. We helped her move in, did a housewarming for her, and in turn she became a “Den Mom” at St. Catherine’s where she used to stay. Java died in November 2013 and in that last year or so Java was happy and shared her talents with other women.
Isela was a victim of domestic violence who came to us through Partnership for Families, Children, and Adults where we teach classes. Isela loved making jewelry and since coming to H*Art has blossomed. She is a hard worker and has given back by teaching some of our Partnership for Families, Children, and Adults classes and is saving to go back to school to get her nursing degree. She has a 6-year-old daughter and seeing her Mommy as a teacher and artist, is life changing for that child. Isela’s jewelry line is named “Marysol” after her daughter.
4. What have you learned from the journey and experience along the way so far? Any unexpected challenges or surprises?
A simple act of kindness can change a life.
Trust is a two-way street.
Two steps forward and one step back is better than not moving at all.
We usually get what we expect from others.
Leading with your heart can hurt but it’s worth it.
All gifts are not accepted.
Balance is something I have yet to master.
Looking another in the eye is still the best way to communicate.
Each of us matters but for what is up to us.
I am glad God didn’t give me all the details when He gave me this idea.
Loving someone in a supportive way is a gift I truly cherish.
5. How has your experience changed your life, your outlook, your interactions with others and with regard to your advocacy/activism?
I am beyond Blessed to know I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing.
6. Where do you see yourself 5 years, 10 years from now?
In five years I hope that the galleries in Chattanooga and Memphis are thriving and I have “retired,” meaning I will be on the board but no longer involved in the day-to-day activities of H*Art Gallery.
7. What will your legacy be and what will others glean from your experience?
I have no idea. I hope I am remembered for doing good and inspiring others to follow their passion.
8. Do you have anything else you would like to share with Gandhi’s Be Magazine readers?
Being the best “Ellen” I can be is the best way to serve my fellow human beings and honor our Maker.