Ojai Landmark Education Graduate Sets Hearts Afire with Art by the Homeless
Bob Ballard is an Ojai, California graduate of the Landmark Forum who has used his participation in Landmark Education's programs to discover and cultivate his commitment to make a difference with homeless people in unique ways, such as by giving them an outlet for artistic expression. Several years ago, he realized that he was uncomfortable around homeless people and wrote a song about it as a means of bridging the divide. Later, while he was taking Landmark's Power and Contribution program, he created Hearts Afire, an organization that would fulfill on his commitment to empower the homeless. Ballard took a film crew across the country to interview the homeless and hear their stories. Now he has moved onto the next phase of the project, which is to allow homeless people to express themselves through art and music. The venture has gained significant press attention.
Ventura County Reporter, January 24th 2008
Home is Where the Art is
Ojai-based group Hearts of Fire showcases the creativity of the homeless
By Lisa Snyder
At a recent art show in Ojai, attendees from as far as Santa Barbara and Camarillo came to admire beautiful paintings and drawings and learn about the artists’ compelling stories.
“People who came to the art exhibit were really amazed,” said Bob Ballard, executive director of Hearts of Fire, the nonprofit that organized the exhibit and brought the collection from San Diego and Washington, D.C., to put on display.
What most intrigued the art enthusiasts, though, was the realization that the artwork was not created by professional artists, but by homeless people.
Last fall, over the course of several weeks, Ballard took Hearts of Fire on the road to nine homeless shelters in Washington, D.C., and San Diego to conduct art workshops for the homeless. The tour produced stunning images created by shelter residents. Eighty pieces were featured in the Ojai exhibit. Ballard feels sharing these pieces helps change public perceptions and allows the homeless an opportunity to have a creative outlet.
Ballard’s role in bringing homeless art to Ojai is intriguing. He moved to Ojai from Boston three years ago, where the images of homelessness inspired him to write a song. While living in Boston, Ballard passed by homeless people everyday. His song, “Not Like Him,” helped him confront the feelings he had about them, recalling how self-conscious he felt and how he couldn’t look them in the eye. He didn’t like that it made him uncomfortable and decided to overcome that through his song, which soon provoked him to film an accompanying music video.
“I was just really inspired by who homeless people are,” Ballard said.
To film the video, Ballard took his guitar, a camera and a couple of his friends back to Boston in late 2006. He and his crew spent two days on the streets, talking to the homeless and filming. He was surprised by their willingness to tell their stories and participate in the project, some even acting out scenes for the video.
“I saw something in them I didn’t see in other people,” said Ballard, who recalled being shown a mural under a bridge created by a homeless man. This inspired him to create his non-profit, wondering, “Wouldn’t it be great if people could see them the way I see them?”
Through his involvement with Landmark Education, a training and development program, Ballard created Hearts of Fire and is currently awaiting final paperwork from the federal government establishing the project as a 501c3 nonprofit organization. The organization’s mission is to “[shift] public perceptions of the homeless through artistic self-expression.” Ballard’s expertise has not always been with homeless causes. As a certified student of the Berklee College of Music, Ballard has been playing guitar and writing songs for 30 years. It didn’t take him that long, though, to figure out that making music wouldn’t pay his bills. “I got out of it because I wasn’t making any money,” he said.
He went to business school and started his own CPA firm in Boston specializing in government grants and contracts. His experience in the arts and working on grants has proven a great fit with Hearts of Fire, but he knew there was more work than he could handle and fundraising quickly became a top priority.
“My job is to get funding,” said Susan Justice, who volunteers as Hearts of Fire’s development director. Justice moved to Ojai last year from Phoenix, met Ballard and was moved by what he wanted to do.
“He is bringing self-expression to people who are otherwise pretty much invisible,” she said.
“We’re like a Johnny Appleseed. We’re just scratching the surface with this,” said Ballard.
During his fall tour of Washington, D.C., he visited a shelter each day for four days, including: Bright Beginnings, a program for children of the homeless; Community of Hope, a family residential facility; and Community for Non-Violence. In addition to conducting art workshops, he set up a mobile recording studio and discovered a number of homeless musicians with original music. Two members of the famed Gil Scott-Heron jazz band came to help facilitate jam sessions.
What proved most profound for Ballard were the astonishing statistics he uncovered. He found that about half of those in homeless shelters work — they just don’t make enough to afford rent. Homeless families, not just single males, he said, are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. And he learned 50 percent of all homeless people in California and 11 percent of all the homeless in the U.S. — some 85,000 people — live in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.
Ballard also discovered a common thread in why many of the homeless end up in their predicament. “A catastrophic event, someone gets sick, someone gets hurt or laid off,” said Ballard, echoing what we often hear, that many people are just one paycheck away from homelessness.
“A lot of people are couch surfing,” Ballard said of those who find themselves without shelter and try to get back on their feet by staying with friends. “There’s a lot of people living in cars.” Eventually, he said, they end up with no other options and find their way to a shelter.
Hearts of Fire has become a burning passion for Ballard, who admits, “I’m not trying to solve any problems, not find them housing and food. I’m just looking for a way for them to express themselves.”
His next project is to bring the art tour local and travel up and down the coast to the five counties suffering the brunt of homelessness. This year, he will focus on 25 shelters from Santa Barbara southward, with art workshops followed by local exhibits that can be attended by the artists themselves.
“We’re just really excited about what’s going to happen next,” he said.
Ballard envisions that art pieces and music CDs can be sold, with money going into the pockets of those who created it. He also wants to teach others to lead similar workshops, so that ongoing programs can be established in the shelters they visit.
To turn his vision into reality, though, is going to take money and personnel. Ballard is looking to enlist professional musicians and artists to help with the cause. He needs volunteers to serve on the board and to help with tour logistics and public relations. He is also looking for seed money from other nonprofits to keep the vision alive.
All along the way, he has had cameras in tow. He plans to produce a documentary film to bring attention to the cause.
“I’m really committed to having these people be heard,” Ballard said.