February 26, 2019

Here’s what happens when artists take over a homeless shelter in an abandoned Macy’s

A D.C.-area artists collective donated their work to brighten the doors and walls of a local nonprofit's temporary facility for homeless families.

Work by artists from the Torpedo Factory Artists' Association adorn various doors at Carpenter’s Shelter in Alexandria, Virgina. From left to right: "Chicken of the Sea" by Veronica Barker-Barzel, "Figure 1" by Charlene Nield, and "Swing" by Jo Ann Tooley. Photos by Margaret Myers

When an Alexandria, Virginia, homeless shelter needed a temporary facility to house its clients, the community stepped up and helped them relocate and set up a new space in an abandoned mall. Walls were erected in what used to be the ladies wear department. But the new space was just that—a suitable setting, for sure, but it wasn’t a home. That’s when a volunteer chimed in and suggested that the walls could use some art, and he knew exactly where to find them.

And so the partnership between Carpenter’s Shelter and the nearby Torpedo Factory Artists’ Association was born. Local artists who work and exhibit in Old Town Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory Art Center—a former naval munitions factory turned tourist attraction on the banks of the Potomac River—donated their designs which now decorate the walls and 16 doors at the shelter. Now common areas, bedroom areas, the children’s playroom, and other spaces are colored with a sense of warmth and delight.

“It has helped create more of a sense of place,” said Carpenter’s Shelter executive director Shannon Steene. “It adds the feeling that someone cares.”

Check out this photo gallery of some of the doors, and a before and after shot of the common room, where artists took over an entire wall.

Artist Marsha Staiger of the Torpedo Factory Artists' Association donated her design, "Graft 17, Caution," to decorate a door at Carpenter's Shelter in Alexandria, Virginia. Work from local artists adorn 16 doors at the shelter, which is temporarily located in a shuttered Macy's while a brand new facility is being constructed in the city's Old Town district.

Artist Jennifer Allevato's "Dream Room" brightens the hallways at Carpenter's Shelter.

Before and after: The common room walls were bare when staff and clients moved into the new facility in June 2018. In January, the shelter unveiled this colorful installation, a collage of multiple artists' work from the Torpedo Factory Artists' Association. "Before" photo courtesy of Carpenter's Shelter

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.