Word on the Street

Personal essays from a young journalist in the Sunshine State.

How Art Can Help Heal

Photo of Charles William taken by Mona Reeder/The Dallas Morning News

Photo of Charles William taken by Mona Reeder/The Dallas Morning News

One of the feature stories I’ve been working on ran today as the main feature in the Sunday edition of The Dallas Morning News’ arts and entertainment section. You can read the story here:


 When he looks in the mirror, artist Charles William sees a reflection he often runs from, but one that he is learning to embrace.

The misspelled message painted on his self-portrait, “Unfinished Reflections,” explains it well: “I keep faith, knowing comefort in my own skin.”

It’s taken Mr. William, 34, a while to learn what comfort means. For years, he lived on street corners, in shelters and under bridges. Comfort became a patch of shade, a tuft of grass, a sandwich from a stranger. Then he went to the Stewpot, where he learned of the Dallas-based shelter’s art program. Four years later, he is the shelter’s most prolific painter, the artist who has shown how art can help heal.


How I got the story: I found this story while exploring the city on my first day in Dallas. I’ve always been intrigued by churches, so I visited each of the churches downtown and stumbled upon an art exhibit in the Goodrich Gallery at the First United Methodist Church. I noticed that the artwork had been created by homeless and at-risk individuals who visit the Stewpot, a local shelter. Wanting to know more about the artists behind the work, I picked up a pamphlet about the exhibit, made some calls and eventually got in touch with the woman who runs the Stewpot art classes.

After getting some background information, I asked the director if she could point me to a particular person in the program who had an especially interesting story. I wanted to tell the story of the program through the eyes of a person rather than writing a simple round-up story about it. I’ve always believed good storytelling isn’t so much about places and things. It’s about people.

Opening Doors of Communication with Sources

We’re taught as journalists not to get too close to our sources. The story, after all, is about them, not about us. But I’ve always thought there’s an inherent tension here. When writing a story about someone, particularly for a profile or a feature, you often need to learn about the person’s past and what led them to where they are now. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you end up shadowing sources for days or weeks to get to know them on a level that brings their personality and life story to the surface.
When you don’t have days or weeks to shadow someone, it helps to find a nugget of information that connects you to a person. Let’s say you’re writing a story about a soon-to-be mom. Maybe, then, it’s a matter of sharing stories about your own kids or about your experiences with children. If you’re writing a crime story and want to interview the family members of someone who has just died, sometimes a simple, but genuine, “I’m so sorry for your loss” can help break communication barrriers. 
Recently, I wanted to find a way to connect with a local artists I was interviewing named Charles William. I knew I would have to ask Charles some tough questions about the time he spent on the streets before he started selling art, so I wanted to find a connecting point. Early on in the interview, Charles mentioned that he’s a Gemini. I seized this moment to tell him that I’m a Gemini, too. We talked for a few minutes about our astrological sign, and his whole demeanor changed. He laughed when we talked about Geminis having dual personalities, and he started to share more his story with me. It was just a small nugget of information that helped open our lines of communication, but it was enough.

Blogging from the Tejano Music Convention

I’ve learned a lot this past weekend about Tejano (Spanish-Texan) music and the musicians who play it. For the past couple of days I’ve attended various events at the national Tejano Music National Convention, which draws Tejanos from around the country. Yesterday I even took a Tejano dance class, which I loved. I think I’m still dizzy from all the spinning.

The Tejano music I danced to had a lot of accordion sounds in it, which is typical of Tejano tunes. Tejano music started off as grassroots music and then rose to stardom status with singers like Selena. In some senses, it has returned to being grassroots music. Many have said that Tejano music “died” with the passing of Selena, but the musicians I talked to this weekend said that’s just not true. They acknowledged that Tejano music is struggling, but said it can be a lucrative business and that in many respects, it’s still “alive and well.” What’s lacking, they said, are Tejano music radio stations.

My colleague, Mario Tarradell, and I have been blogging about some of these issues from the convention for The Dallas Morning News‘ music blog. Click here to read our posts.