Transforming Lives Through the Creative Process

Saul Pempe with teaching artist, Jen Dixon.

Path with Art is a Seattle-based nonprofit dedicated to providing adults recovering from homelessness and those "on the margins" the opportunity to engage in the creative process as a unique means to improve and rebuild their lives.

By bringing together arts organizations, social service providers, and artists, we strive to enhance the lives of our community's most vulnerable citizens. Currently, Path with Art produces 20 classes, facilitates 12 local Access Art outings, and hosts four events celebrating their students' work each year.

Path with Art classes engage students "where they're at."  Literally speaking, classes are held in places where prospective students reside or where many already receive services, as well as with arts organizations that provide a welcoming environment. And figuratively, students of all skill levels, abilities, and interests will find success and challenge. Led by professional teaching artists from throughout the northwest, their process-focused classes are presented in a manner that encourages individual and group participation, creative risk-taking, reflection, respect, and communication.

Saul Pempe has taken classes with Path with Art for the past three years as part of his rehabilitation therapy from a severe stroke. He is a fiery, energetic man with a sharp tongue and a quick wit who enlivens every classroom he steps into. He agreed to talk to us about art and aging at a café near our offices.

How old are you, Saul?
"Mid-60s."

What were you like as a child?
"Curious. As a child I was fascinated with oddities and botanicals. I enjoyed looking at the preserved cats at the nearby university. I collected butterflies."

That sounds lovely! How did you end up in Seattle?
"I came to Seattle in the ‘60s from a small town in Idaho. My childhood was idyllic.  I grew up in a good place … the kind of place where a child could run around off-leash and come home for a warm dinner."

Tell me a little bit about your work history?
"Before I had a stroke, I worked as a rock and roll photographer, shooting bands for their promotional materials. Everyone I shot wanted to be something they were not. They wanted me to erase years of hard living with my camera. Guess who looked good at these shoots? ME! For years, I have been using anti-aging night cream, manufactured in Switzerland with organic botanicals. Guess what? It works!

"The most memorable experience during my time as a rock and roll photographer was when an associate said to me, 'Saul, I want to work with you.' It was thrilling that someone wanted to experience a contact high from being around me?! I never thought I’d be one of those artists that had a following. You know, the kind you see at First Thursday and think they are the coolest person in the room. It was a huge ego boost."

Saul shows off the first watercolor he
made in a Path with Art class.

Thanks for the beauty tip! When did you have a stroke?
"I had a stroke on Christmas Eve in 1991 at my mother's house. A silent stroke. It happened in my sleep. I couldn't move or get out of bed. My left side was instantly and completely affected. My mother came into the room and I told her that she better find a big emergency van for my big corpse. Can you believe that? I mean, that was where my head was at—death. I was taken to Virginia Mason for treatment and examination. I was told that I'd never walk again. It took three years for me to walk again. I had to reprogram my brain and body.

"The medical treatments and therapy associated with the stroke caused me to go broke. I lost everything. All my money. My photo studio. Thankfully, a hospital caseworker helped me find affordable housing. I live at Vincent House in the market."

Tell me about the aftermath of the stroke.
"In retrospect, the stroke was not such a bad thing. It made me take stock of my priorities. I self-willed a positive outcome from this negative life event. The stroke forced me to create a new life for myself and re-examine my interests. I had to reassess who I was and where I came from, and I had to figure out what the hell was going on!

"I enjoy taking full advantage of all the programs that are offered to people with disabilities. I have been able to take all kinds of creative classes and go sailing with the Footloose Sailing Association for disabled sailors. I go to a stroke group at Northwest Hospital once a month. I have been going to it since my stroke in '91. The social intercourse is really important to me. There is a huge life benefit of shared consciousness with people who have lived though a similar experience. I have made great friends in this group." 

How did you discover your artistic side?
"I've always had creative tendencies but I had to reprogram myself after the stroke.
Art can be therapeutic. If you take a deranged mind and give it the opportunity to express itself, you will hear a voice that hasn't been heard or expressed since childhood."

How did you find Path with Art?
"I discovered Path with Art when you hosted a watercolor class at Vincent House. I had taken a watercolor class at the hospital before but I really liked how Path with Art encourages a peer support system. I like that Path with Art only has behavioral expectations and demands. They don't tell you how to make your art. It's about self-exploration. In Path with Art classes, my guard is lowered and I can be myself, working with a professional teaching artist."

How does art-making combat damage from your stroke?
"Art-making keeps me sharp. Path with Art classes are like having a pop quiz every week. Art expands your vocabulary. The Path with Art process is consciousness rising."

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
"I will continue to see where unbridled intuition and a lack of fear lead me. I practice the Law of Desire. Do what you want. Let intuition rule."

For more information about Path with Art, call 206-601-7112, e-mail info@pathwithart.org, or visit www.pathwithart.org.

—Jessica Powers, Path with Art