Originally published in the Waterbury (CT) Republican-American
Hama Pertab was looking for subjects for her mural painting class at Central Connecticut State University and found them very close to home.
While walking down Baldwin Street in Waterbury one Sunday last August, Pertab passed the soup kitchen at St. Vincent DePaul.
“I became curious and asked myself, ‘What does it mean to be homeless?’ and ‘How do they survive?'” she said.
Pertab believes she has now answered those questions by creating an 8-foot by 10-foot mural depicting the soup kitchen regulars, a piece splashed with bright colors featuring Jesus Christ watching over the city’s homeless and poor.
“The challenges these people face are remarkable and it isn’t talked about that much,” Pertab said. “They are normal people like you and me. They just wake up every day trying to find a way to be happy and find a home and dinner.”
The mural isn’t the first work of art Pertab has created. She has been painting for five years, but said she keeps most of those pieces in a tiny bedroom – “my studio” – in her home near downtown. Most of the paintings are still-life portraits and religious renderings. The soup kitchen mural is her first piece of public art.
Pertab was born and raised in Guyana, a South American country directly north of Brazil and about the size of Idaho. She moved to the United States at 19 in search of a better education and more promising employment. Ten years after arriving in Waterbury, she’s now a senior art education major at CCSU. When she graduates in the spring, Pertab hopes to work as an art teacher in the region.
After walking past the soup kitchen that day in August, Pertab spent the next three days talking with the regulars. She met a dozen people – some unemployed, some with part-time jobs, some young and others very old. On her third day of visiting, Pertab approached an 80-year-old homeless man.
The soup kitchen was very busy that day, and the man was sitting alone with his plate of food. He was wearing a dark blue skull cap. He wasn’t much of a talker. He came to St. Vincent DePaul every day for a meal and a few cups of coffee. He found himself visiting the soup kitchen because the $600 a month he received from Social Security wasn’t enough to pay for his housing, health care and food. He was a tall Catholic man, born in Canada, with clean white hair and no family in the area.
Pertab sat across from the man and asked why he frequented St. Vincent DePaul.
“Because I’m poor. I’m old. I can’t afford to buy my own food, much less make it,” he told her.
She wrote his name in her notebook: “Daniel.” As Daniel continued to speak, Pertab began to believe the man may have had a mental disorder. She asked him a few more questions, and he broke into a long, unrelated monologue about his past life – how his twin brother died, his years working in a factory, never being married and the rising cost of health care. He was particularly upset about his inability to afford health care.
“I can go to bed tonight and die the next day with a heart attack,” he told Pertab. “I’m just an old man.”
THE SOUP KITCHEN IS ONE OF MANY St. Vincent DePaul Mission efforts to help the region’s poor. The nonprofit also operates a homeless shelter that holds 125 people, a thrift store and a mental health facility. The soup kitchen feeds 250 to 300 people daily.
Pertab finished talking to Daniel, and everyone else, and began structuring her mural. She mapped it on paper, then spent a week painting it, section by section. After devoting six hours a day to the mural, she finished it on Dec. 15. The next day, Pertab unveiled her mural in the engineering and technology building at CCSU.
It was a small turnout – a few art professors, her classmates, some maintenance staff and Paul Scampolino, who runs the St. Vincent DePaul soup kitchen.
“I didn’t expect it to be as good as the way it came out,” said Scampolino, who has been with the soup kitchen for a decade. “I was very impressed.”
With everyone standing around and looking at Pertab’s mural, Scampolino stood in front of the group and asked for their attention. A few days after talking to Pertab, he said, Daniel, the man in the dark blue skull cap, died. A hush fell over the group.
Monday afternoon, Pertab returned to the soup kitchen, where a photograph of her mural was taped to one wall. The lunch hour rush was starting to die down and Scampolino was in the kitchen, in a black chef’s jacket, still ladling quiche, rice and vegetables, and oven-roasted potatoes. Pertab walked in, waved hello to a few familiar faces, then stood next to the picture of her mural.
A small crowd formed around her. Caroline Medina, who wasn’t in the mural but said she frequents the soup kitchen, squinted her eyes at the picture and recognized almost everyone in it.
“I like it. I like it a lot,” she said, pointing at the top of the mural. “But I think, back here, Paul should be bigger, more so that I can see him more.”
Pertab hugged a few people and then drove to CCSU to stare at her mural one last time.
During the coming spring semester, she plans to ignore the mural and focus on student teaching. She stepped into CCSU’s engineering building and walked directly to the right side of the mural, where Daniel, the man in the dark blue skull cap was painted.
“Somehow I still can’t believe he died,” she said, staring up at his face in the mural. “But at least he’ll still be right here.”