NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — After enduring and eventually escaping several abusive relationships, Gwen Johnson reached a point in her life where she felt like nothing mattered anymore.

“I had a lot of mental issues, and a lot of times that’s what causes people to become homeless,” Johnson said. “Running away from hurts, running away from scary stuff, and I was running. I was running from an abusive relationship. I didn’t want to tell my family.”

She spent about 12 years sleeping in her car and crashing in motel rooms when she could get the money, worried that her family might see her as the “weak link”. But now, recalling the past brings tears of joy to her eyes as she thinks about the ways in which art changed her life.

In 2014, Johnson met Nicole Minyard, who she calls her “angel.” At the time, Minyard, who was attending college at Belmont University, was in the early stages of founding a nonprofit organization in Nashville known today as Daybreak Arts.

Meanwhile, Johnson was utilizing services at Room in the Inn, which offers a variety of programs for people experiencing homelessness, and partners with churches to provide overnight shelter.

Artist Gwen Johnson and Daybreak Arts founder Nicole Minyard at their studio in East Nashville. (WKRN photo)
Artist Gwen Johnson and Daybreak Arts founder Nicole Minyard at their studio in East Nashville. (WKRN photo)

“Room in the Inn had an art studio, so I pitched this idea,” Minyard said. “If we could bring in Belmont students to come in and create art with their participants at Room in the Inn, and we actually had visual art, music and creative writing.”

Minyard said she would get questions from the participants about how to legally sell their art or get their work in a coffee shop, and in 2014, she decided to file for 501(c)(3) status with the goal of “providing not only a place to create art, but to turn it around and sell art.”

‘They saved me from destroying myself’

The nonprofit, which equips people impacted by homelessness with the artistic resources, training, and marketplace to gain financial independence and overcome barriers to employment, has since served more than 120 artists and paid out more than $70,000 to artists in Nashville.

“This company saved me. They saved me from destroying myself,” Johnson said. “They also caused me to want to do better. Art really makes a difference… I can’t explain the joy I get when I’m doing a piece of art.”

In March, Johnson’s jewelry and paintings, filled with bright colors and shapes, will be on display at the 2023 Illuminate Art Gala, which will feature a variety of work created by 22 artists impacted by homelessness. It will be the nonprofit’s ninth annual gala since opening in Nashville.

“I feel like a Van Gogh or a Michelangelo,” said Johnson, who added that she’s come a long way from the stick figures she used to draw as a kid. Much of her art now features vibrant colors and depictions of elephants, drums and other aspects of her heritage.

“She’s been with us from the beginning,” Minyard said. “It’s been so incredible to just journey alongside her and watch all of her successes both through art making, but also personal life.”

A majority of artists in the program have a background in art, whether it’s from taking high school art classes or attending the School of the Art Institute in Ohio. Minyard said even those who are self-taught “come in with talent because they’ve been cultivating the skill for years.”

Providing space to create, learn

The nonprofit simply offers them a space and all the supplies they need to create— something Minyard first picked up on while visiting homeless encampments in Louisville, Kentucky.

“It was there that I saw how creative and resourceful so many people were,” she said. “People would build shelter out of bamboo and create these communities in their encampments, and based on physical disability, mental illness, they were unable to maintain jobs and housing.”

Daybreak Arts partners with teachers and workshops to help artists explore other mediums and provides transportation to help them get to and from the studio in East Nashville. Artists are recruited through social services like Room in the Inn, Open Table and the Salvation Army.

“When they have artists or creative people come through their services they can refer them to us,” Minyard said. “Likewise, when our artists experience needs outside of the scope of our program, we already have relationships with people who solve food insecurity, or maybe it’s addiction services.”

Throughout the year, their art is featured in coffee shops and other event spaces, as well as sold online. The organization also offers a communal space for the artists who often have common life experiences, whether it was a divorce or mental illness that spiraled into homelessness.

Gwen Johnson shows off one of her art pieces at Daybreak Arts' studio in East Nashville. (WKRN photo)
Gwen Johnson shows off one of her art pieces at Daybreak Arts’ studio in East Nashville. (WKRN photo)

‘It was just so inspiring to me’

For Minyard, it is largely about breaking stereotypes and giving people a space to flourish.

“Every homeless person is categorized as they’re either drunk or a drug addict or abusive, but Nicole took out time to let us breathe,” Johnson said. “What I mean by that is wherever you go you’re being judged. There’s no judgment here. All she said was respect each other and here’s the supplies.”

Johnson said creating art has brought several positive aspects to her life beyond just financial independence. She shared her artistic knowledge with students in her Pre-K classroom by creating assignments and activities centered around art before retiring in October.

Painting and making jewelry, which she described as therapeutic, also gave her a common ground with her grandchildren and a sense of purpose in life.

Seeing her family and friends at an art gala a few years ago was a shining moment in her life. It was then that Johnson said she sold a manikin she had painted with bright colors and shapes several years back. In fact, the buyer had specifically sought out her work.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “That was the one piece that I sold that moved me the most because it was an old piece and I kind of gave up on it. Nicole would always encourage me to bring it out to the galas. I think she secretly knew it was going to sell. It was just so inspiring to me.” 

Annual art galas bring new opportunities

Over 200 people visited the nonprofit’s annual gala last year at which 14 artists sold over $10,000 worth of original artwork. This year’s event on March 25 will be even larger, with live painting, cocktails, a silent auction, jazz music and more.

The doors will open at 6 p.m. at Riverside Revival, with both an in-person and virtual experience offered. Johnson said what she looks forward to the most each year is meeting and sharing her work with new people.

“This is a really big opportunity for the community to come out and meet the artists and hear their stories and see the best curated collection that they’ve been preparing for all year,” Minyard said.

All proceeds from ticket sales go toward the studio space, art supplies and educational opportunities for artists experiencing homelessness, for which Johnson said she is extremely grateful. Tickets can be purchased by visiting Daybreak Arts’ website or clicking here.

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“It really has impacted my life positively. There’s nothing negative to say about my life with this studio. It’s just beautiful,” Johnson said. “We inspire each other, we encourage each other. It really made me want to live.”