Former homeless woman paints from experience
Photo by Cari Hachmann
Kate Ferris, a former art teacher who spent eight months on the streets after a life spiral of downturns left her homeless, displays and sells her folk art to a market unlike any other gallery in Portland.
Layered in oversized sweatshirts and blue jeans, the dark-haired wife and mother of four holds up a colorfully painted cardboard sign to cars parked at a red-light freeway off ramp. Her blue-grey eyes wink as passengers drive by.
When a former life of comfort fell through, Ferris became witness to the agonies of homelessness. For survival, she began sketching the most beautiful things she could think of.
The artwork on Kate’s canvas, a slab of cardboard to represent the impermanence of materiality, a subject she knows firsthand, reflects what she knows best, being a female and living outside.
Her favorite piece details a striking mulatto woman dressed in a gown of tree bark and
embellished by other patterns of nature. As one of many underrepresented female artists, she paints to fill a void.
Born and raised in Portland, Ferris attended a private grade school in north Portland
before her family moved to the country. She later studied at Hillsboro High School. Young Kate was particularly interested in art, especially by visiting art teachers.
When she had four kids of her own, she enrolled in college art classes to brush up her skills and began teaching art in schools for three years. Following a divorce, Ferris worked for much of her kids’ lives as a self-employed, single-parent.
She did freelance production, owned a print shop in Milwaukie for 10 years, and taught on and off at 8th grade art programs. After she sold the print shop, Ferris opened a vintage store in Sellwood where she designed dresses. She bought a house and met her new husband, Jamie, a musician.
When she moved her vintage clothes shop, Epoch, to Hawthorne, Ferris began to feel the weight of running an independent business. In attempts to ease the stress, she opened shop later and for fewer hours. Then the bad news arrived. Her mother was to become bed-bound with Parkinson’s disease.
Unwilling to let her mother be taken to a nursing home, Ferris embraced the full-time caretaker position for the next two and a half years. As the brain disorder stole her mother’s memory and cognition, Ferris sat by her side everyday at OHSU during her last living days.
At this point, Ferris was exhausted, out of money, and her own health was suffering. After her mother died, “Everything fell apart,” said Ferris.
In the same year, she and her husband both fell ill with chronic health problems. With her shop long-closed and no health insurance, Ferris sold her house to pay for medical bills. The couple lived out of her car with all that was left of their belongings.
“It was embarrassing,” Ferris said. While some of her Sellwood friends remained well-off and upwardly mobile, she was mentally distraught by the fact that she could no longer keep up and pay for the house she enjoyed for 20 years. Then, another misfortune struck; her car was stolen.
“That’s how I ended up doing this,” said Ferris, pointing to a hand-painted cardboard sign. Homeless with her husband, she lived in a tent near Goose Hollow from May through November, nearly eight months. “It was so abrupt,” she said.
Ferris learned the ironies of homelessness after she was released from one hospital visit into the not-so welcoming arms of nature. Weary and cold, she took rest under some bushes near an office building.
There were a few things she could not get used to while living outside, including the rain and cold, people stealing everything, the mentally ill and physically pained people wandering the streets at night, and other nightmares. She often watched people getting into their toasty cars and just wished to be warm.
Ferris had quit painting in her free time long before she was homeless, but cold and wet with empty pockets, she longed for some expression of hope, “I feel so much more comfortable when I have an outlet,” she said, “It definitely saved my life.”
Flying signs by the side of the road was less intimidating than a stuffy art gallery, she said, but people still hollered everything under the sun at her. “Get a job!” one lady dripping in diamonds called from a Cadillac. Some people gave her their trash.
Other drivers were extremely pleased and surprised by the artwork she crafted with supplies from the Dollar Tree. Ferris has sold over 160 paintings, all ranging in price, from $5 and up, to sometimes free.
Ferris bought eye contacts with one driver’s $100 offering, a nearsighted necessity she lost with her car.
A journey of homelessness ended when Ferris and her husband were picked up on a snowy day by JOIN, an agency that helps people off the streets. JOIN helped the couple into an apartment, where they reside now.
For all the troubles she has come to face, Ferris is surprisingly optimistic and happy. As an artist, she admits to at times, having liked the idea of living free and unbothered on the skirts of society.
She considers time spent living with her husband in their neat and tidy tent downtown “kind of fun,” and calls the entire experience “amazingly informative.”
Largely, Ferris is elated to be painting again.
“Where are all the people today? In their cars,” says Ferris, as she continues to interrupt rush hour traffic with her prismatic paintings.