Liz Powers started volunteering at at homeless shelters when she was an 18-year-old Harvard freshman, serving breakfast early in the morning before her classes started. Ten years later, she’s running a business that helps people move out of homeless shelters for good.
Powers was working with art groups in Boston-area shelters when she noticed a problem: Many homeless individuals were creating beautiful, saleable pieces of art — only to watch them gather dust in a closet or basement.
“Tons of clients were incredibly talented and I saw amazing artwork,” Powers, 28, told INSIDER. “And I thought, what a no brainer to scale this and create a marketplace.”
So, in 2013, Powers and her brother scraped together $4,000 in savings and launched ArtLifting.
The concept is simple: Shelter or hospital art groups around the country submit an homeless or disabled artist’s work to ArtLifting’s curation committee. If that work has potential to sell, the artist is brought on board, and ArtLifting adds his or her work to the online store.
There, customers can purchase original works, prints, and a variety of merchandise (phone cases, tote bags, greeting cards) printed with certain artworks. The artist gets 55% of the profits and ArtLifting gets 44% (in rest of the fine art world, a 50/50 split is considered standard). The remaining 1% is used to donate art supplies to the groups that nurture these artists in the first place.
ArtLifting isn’t a nonprofit that provides handouts — it business that provides opportunity.
“The fact that we’re not a nonprofit is pretty important,” Powers stresses. “We’re actually really proud to be a for-profit, for-purpose company.”
They have already come a long way from that $4,000 start. In ArtLifting’s early days, there was no marketing budget, so Powers spread the word simply by asking reporters to write about the fledgling company. The strategy worked: Soon, art therapy groups around the country were asking to get involved. In three years, ArtLifting has grown its rosters from 4 artists to 72. And they have sold artwork to some major customers: Microsoft and Staples have purchased ArtLifting work to hang in their corporate headquarters.
So far, Art Lifting has also helped 5 artists out of homelessness. Ruben Lopez is one of them.
In his early thirties, Lopez became addicted to alcohol and drugs and wound up homeless. He spent two years living in a New York City shelter, where high tensions frequently boiled over into violent — even deadly — fights.
Finally, in 2008, he checked himself into rehab at Bellevue Hospital. It was there that he first encountered a blank canvas.
“[At Bellevue] I had an art therapist — she’s the one that started all this for me,” Lopez, now 62, told INSIDER. “Because I never did art before, never in my life.”
But he found he had a talent for painting. Soon, he was discovered by Fresh Art, a New York City nonprofit that organizes public exhibitions for artwork by disadvantaged and underserved adults. Then, in 2013, he was recruited by ArtLifting — and instead of just being seen, his work began to sell.
“ArtLifting really helped me,” he said. “They just came out of nowhere.”
Now, Lopez, paints in a studio on 14th street in Manhattan.
The space is long and narrow and dominated by two folding tables covered in paint-spattered plastic tablecloths. The walls are cluttered with paintings — Lopez is one of four artists sharing the studio. It’s cramped, but it’s peaceful — insulated from the noise on the street, and sunny, with a bright white coat of paint on the tin ceiling.
This is where Lopez comes to create a few days each week, listening to music (the Doors, Three Dog Night) while he jumps from painting to painting.
He’s inspired by New York City — its people, its buildings, its bridges. It’s no surprise that his paintings are chaotic, colourful, and messy, just like the city is. In fact, Lopez has come to learn that messiness is actually part of his appeal.
“Some people, I was told, they don’t like perfection,” he said. “When everything looks too perfect, they don’t like it.”
Art can’t fix everything — but it did help Lopez find a home.
Transitioning out of homelessness isn’t an on — off switch, and Lopez admitted that it’s still a struggle to get by.
“I feel like every time climb I keep falling down,” he said. “But I keep climbing.”
And because of the opportunities provided by ArtLifting, he’s made significant gains. He’s still sober. He’s living in a one bedroom apartment in the Bronx. He co-founded a collective of self-taught artists. And he’s set his sights on one major goal.
“I want to sell as much art as I can so I can get my driver’s licence back and get back on my feet,” he said. Lopez used to be a truck and cab driver before he checked himself into Bellevue, and someday, he’d like return to driving full-time.
But no matter what, Lopez will keep on painting.
“To me,” he said, gesturing at his collage of vibrant canvasses hung on the studio wall, “art is like medication.”
Find original artwork, prints, and gifts created Lopez and 71 other artists at ArtLifting.
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