By Madeleine Graham
Nestled into a corner of the J.C. Penney wing of the Genesee Valley Mall is an art gallery that provides a nurturing environment for those with disabilities, including mental health issues. It is called the Vista Visions Art Gallery, also known as the Vista Drop-In Center.
The gallery and drop-in center started in 1985 as a collaborative effort with volunteers and was known as Volunteers In Service To America (VISTA). Vista is open 11: 15 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday The Gallery is open from noon to 3 p.m. the same days.
The gallery is a peaceful setting that offers many forms of therapeutic art, including sculptures, paintings, jewelry and other forms of art. The artists vary in style and media chosen to render a work to their personal taste. Individuals facing homelessness can create works of art that for a moment in time provide them with an escape from their everyday troubles.
Curators might be surprised at the quality of work on display, as the artists share a background that might be astonishing to some — they have survived many hardships. But the setting affords creativity to release whatever the artists have faced into a beautiful depiction or sculpture that comes from one’s heart.
In an interview, longtime Vista Center director C.(Charles) Pat Beal explains the center is a 501-C3 nonprofit, which contracts with Genesee Health System (GHS) for its major support. Beal said those funds help alleviate some of the struggles of people roaming the streets of downtown Flint who don’t necessarily make trouble but have nowhere to go.
Genes said Vista attempts to link individuals with resources and housing.
Beal has deep Flint roots: his family came to Flint in the ’60s (Beal was in second grade) when his father took a job with the Flint Public School system and for decades was an art consultant. Beal attended Civic Park Elementary, Longfellow Junior High, and Flint Northern High School.
He studied social work and counseling at the UM – Flint and UM – Ann Arbor as well as the University of Maryland. He has his BA and relates that he had been accepted for a master’s degree program at UCLA when the opportunity popped up to work with Vista. That was 36 years ago, and he’s been there ever since.
Beal described how in 1985 a group of Flint city officials in former Mayor James Rutherford’s administration recognized an opportunity to link services for the aging or handicapped, and the program was launched.
Many other city officials and mayors have continued to support Vista to provide a safe, secure, supportive daytime center.
“Vista has a budget of $150,000,” Beal said. “GHS [formerly Community Mental Health] makes up the majority by far and a small art grant from Michigan Council for the Arts helps too.”
The artists are encouraged to run the center. They do not have to be in independent living such as an apartment — they could also be in foster homes. Vista aims to support the person or artist in the best manner possible; if someone wants to be independent, the person is given the necessary support to achieve their greatest potential, Beal said.
The Center’s full-time and part-time staff are paid, and volunteers help run the gallery or to guide with skill sessions.
“College students have aided with general contact and guidance–even for college credit,” Beal said. “It takes a community effort to provide good mental health services and supportive options. The Vista Center is proud to be part of that effort.”
The center provides “a place of healing and trust,” Beal said.
Other supportive alliances include the Alliance for the Mentally Ill, The Disability Network (TDN), Greater Flint Arts Council, Beal stated.
One of the center’s participants — since the early 1990s — is Bryant Cox, age 62, an East Village resident and an artist at Vista. He collaborated in rendering a painting of a tiger. He had been living with relatives and had been in foster care. After working with Vista, Cox got his own apartment, which he has maintained for 13 years.
His preferred medium is water colors. Painting helps him with concentration, Cox said.
Beal said the center works with about 30 consumers at a time, but that the number has tapered down to about 15 due to the pandemic. However, up to 50 people have been in contact by phone, and the gallery gets about 10 visitors a day.
The gallery, which has displayed rotating selections of paintings, sculpture and jewelry, has been in the mall since May, 2021.
In addition, for years Courtland Mall has a window display of art from the Vista artists — and recently renewed it, Beal said. There also have been displays at the Orion Township Library; sculptures have also been displayed at a Museum in Saginaw.
There is satisfaction when someone wants to get better and improve their circumstances, but others are not taking steps to improve their situation, Beal noted. Art plays a helpful role, he said.
Art “adds a quality of life. It enriches lives, motivating me to provide alternatives,” Beal said.
GHS has a big housing program, As part of his program, he refers people to GCard (food), calls a landlord or Flint Housing, and has paid a security deposit through Vista. VI is not as involved with the homeless field at this time and mentioned that Carriage Town Ministries serves many of those needing housing.
The individuals Beal and his staff works with are not lazy and do want to work, but certain issues make it a challenge, he emphasized. In order to maintain monies from disability, there are certain restrictions. Vista has linked individuals with Social Security.
Matthew Nelson, soon to be 54 and another artist at Vista, serves on the center’s board of directors and became president. He currently is looking for independent living. One of his creations is an acrylic painting with an outstretched arm reaching up with an outstretched arm reaching down with blue raindrops. He said it expresses his feelings about the Flint water crisis and a positive reflection of the help provided. The painting won an art sweepstakes in the Genesee County Fair.
Painting offers a “certain essence and stands for something,” Nelson said. As for motivation, “art touches the soul,” he reflected. He said he most enjoy working with graphite pencils, markers, acrylic paints and coloured pencils.
Gerald Galvas, 65, another Vista artist, is just as enthusiastic with his art and explained that he enjoys coloring with magic markers and colored pencils.
One essential element of the program is the Mass Transportation Authority (MTA), which provides critical transportation for those without a vehicle. Individuals either take the city buses or Your Ride to the center. Some participants have bicycles but are not a desired form of transportation in the winter.
Greg Zafiroff is the center’s artistic coordinator/ education services and also a Vista artist. One of his paintings, of a bluejay, titled “Populist,” is a work in progress. He said his inspiration comes from, “the Lord and nature.” Acknowledging a long history of mental illness, Zafiroff said he enjoys helping others and his art keeps him out of trouble. Working in the arts makes him feel connected and “it is a real good hobby.”
Zafiroff supports other artists, providing water colors, acrylics, whatever the person wants, including materials for sculptures. He offers individualized instruction or group classes depending on the need. His preferred medium is acrylic, because of its water base; oils are harder to clean up, he explained.
Reflecting on his long history with the center, Beal stated, “36 years ago there was a need for a place like the Vista Center, and the need certainly remains today…Collaborative efforts make it happen…We thank all past interested parties and new ones, as well.”
One of those collaborative efforts is with Peggy Sparks from the Flint Institute of Music (FMI). Sparks graduated from Oakland University in theater production and created all the costumes for The Nutcracker. Once a week, she offers classes in exercise beginning with stretching, moving to aerobics and ultimately ends with a cool down. Participants of about 10 seem to thoroughly enjoy the class, Beal said. Music including the Everly Brothers, Elvis, The Beatles and more made the class really get involved.
One evidence of Vista artists’ work goes back to 2017, when they painted costumes for a choreographed dance at UM – Flint directed by Emma Davis. The performance is viewable at Vista Center’s website, www.thevistacenter.org.
The art gallery is inside the Genesee Valley Mall, 3341 S. Linden Rd. Flint, Michigan 48507. Donations are welcome and tax deductible.
EVM reporter Madeleine Graham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.