Seen, Heard, and Valued: Painting Stories of Hope

Start listening

Jump to Transcript

Today we explore the making of Greenville’s “Seen, Heard, and Valued” mural, a nearly 50-foot-tall artwork celebrating stories of hope from those who have experienced homelessness. We hear from the artist, Nick Burns (“Ninja Picasso”), Triune Mercy Center Facilities Manager Don Austin, and Triune Mercy Center Pastor Jennifer Fouse Sheorn about the mural’s message and its role in sparking conversations about compassion and action. They are interviewed by Susan McLarty, Executive Director of Greenville Homeless Alliance which spearheaded the project. Join us as we explore how this extraordinary mural is driving change and inspiring hope for those facing homelessness.

Links:

Meet the men and women featured in the Seen | Heard | Valued mural

Greenville Homeless Alliance

Triune Mercy Center

Transcript

Katy Smith:

Greenville is known for its amazing art in public places, and a new 47 foot mural is joining the collection, but this time featuring residents who are too often unseen in our community. 

The Greenville Homeless Alliance commissioned the work on the side of Triune Mercy Center so that the 14,000 people who drive toward it each day will see that people experiencing homelessness are indeed Seen, Heard and Valued – the title of the mural by artist Nick Burns, also known as Ninja Picasso.

I’m Katy Smith with Greater Good Greenville, and on this episode of Simple Civics: Greenville County, you’ll hear from Ninja Picasso about his inspiration, which is both artistic and deeply personal, You’ll also hear from Pastor Jennifer Fouse Sheorn of Triune about why featuring the mural on the side of the building was important to her. Triune staff member Don Austin who is featured in the artwork will share his thoughts on how the mural can give hope to those who were hurting, as he once was. They are all interviewed by Susan McLarty, executive director of the Greenville Homeless Alliance, which spearheaded this beautiful collaborative project to celebrate its fifth anniversary. 

I do want to note that there are 8 individuals featured on the Seen l Heard l Valued Mural who have successfully exited homelessness and all the dreadful challenges that accompany it through their tireless determination coupled with the support of local organizations.

We’ve linked more about the project and the mural on the episode page so you can read their full story of hope.

The mural will be dedicated at Triune this Thursday, February 29th at 12:30 pm and you are welcome to participate.

Susan McLarty:

I am delighted to be here today. I am Susan McLarty, and I have with me Pastor Jennifer Fouse Sheorn of Triune Mercy Center, Don Austin, Facilities Manager at Triune Mercy Center, and Nick Burns, aka Ninja Picasso, our artist of the almost 50-foot mural at Triune Mercy Center.

We’ve titled it, “Seen, Heard, and Valued,” and we’re looking forward to talking about why we commissioned that mural today and how it was intended to celebrate the fifth anniversary of what we call the Greenville Homeless Alliance.

And we look forward to kind of diving into that today with this group.

So my first question is going to be for Jennifer.

You are the pastor and director of Triune Mercy Center.

Can you share briefly who Triune Mercy Center is and why you and the church gave this to the Greenville Homeless Alliance, this nearly 50-foot wall for the mural.

Jennifer Fouse Sheorn:

Sure. Thank you, Susan, and thanks for having me to Katy and everyone.

Triune is a church, a non-denominational church that used to be Methodist, and we have one mission, which is to share Christ’s love by providing life-changing opportunities, meeting the needs of the disadvantaged, and doing biblical justice in community.

And we do this as a worshiping community and as a mercy center.

So we have staff that are social workers and staff that are in operations.

And then we have staff that does drug and alcohol rehab.

So we have a lot going on. We also have AA and NA meetings daily at our church, as well as an art room, which we’ll talk about later, that Premier Arts Collective is now managing as they moved into Triune.

We also have a wonderful nonprofit called A Time Served with attorneys, they’re on our third floor, who help people who are coming out of prison to get their lives back on track.

And so we are delighted to be here, but we’re also most delighted to be advocates for people who have no voice, people who are experiencing homelessness or who are poor, the poorest of the poor, and who have burned every bridge or have had every bridge burned for them.

And so that’s why we’re here today. So thank you.

Why we did the mural on the back of the wall is exactly why I said who we are.

We love the title, “Seen, Heard, and Valued.”

And we believe that the more conversation that can be stirred up and the more curiosity that people have about people who are different from them, I think is a really cool avenue for conversation, for dialogue.

And so I invite people who come by to not only stop and look at the mural and have your picture taken with Robert but to also ask questions and be curious.

Susan McLarty:

That’s fantastic. That is one thing that we were excited about as well, looking at that data that nearly 14,000 vehicles come just in that one direction towards where the mural stands now.

I wanted to ask Nick next, could you share a little bit about your background, both as an artist and someone who was born and raised right here in Greenville, South Carolina?

Nick Burns (“Ninja Picasso”):

Absolutely, Susan. And thank you for having me today.

I grew up in the church and started out as a drummer who from time to time would draw on the back of church programs.

Dance was how I openly first shared my gifts.

I spent 15 years teaching and performing professionally at studios and competitions around the South. And in my spare time I would street perform in downtown Greenville.

Along the journey like I started to create backdrops for dance routines and would create caricatures that grew the itch to further explore art more.

I quit my job of being a full-time teacher back in 2018 and really just completely trusted in God.

I really didn’t have much in my account but, I just had this itch to just do the best that I could with what I had.

And so in 2019, I devoted my life to creating art with purpose, and it led me to meet different organizations, both small and big, that could utilize my artistic gifts.

Greenville historically hasn’t always been the place for an artist to thrive, but thankfully I had imagination and faith that continuously carries me to this day.

Susan McLarty:

Thank you. And I know we found out about you because you were featured in the Greenville News.

And from that, we were connected to Premier Arts Collective, who introduced us to you.

And I wanted to ask you if you would just share your thoughts on when the Greenville Homeless Alliance first reached out about this idea and how we were looking to both connect people who had experienced homelessness and depicting that through your artwork. What were your thoughts?

Nick Burns (“Ninja Picasso”):

Well, my first thought was really every job I request, whether it’s big or small, I’ve always thought about how can God use me in a way that best serves him?

And this was a no-brainer because I dealt with homelessness myself and saw this as a way to bring light to a subject that’s subconsciously ignored.

Truthfully, I was technically homeless myself when proposed to do the mural.

And despite living in temporary circumstances, I thought that this would be, you know, the best way to take the bad with the good.

And so I thought that also that this would be a literal representation of that fact and that only someone like me could do something like this.

So I was really thankful and just shocked by the whole process of it all.

Susan McLarty:

Well, as a follow-up to that, you know, thinking back, we were trying to identify locations after we had those initial meetings with you.

And Triune wasn’t one of those even initial locations.

But when we finally got down and said, we’re looking at these and we sent you that option.

What was your thought on that location? And specifically, why did you prefer Triune Mercy Center?

Nick Burns (“Ninja Picasso”):

Well, a little backstory. When I taught dance, I would literally drive past that location on the way to Furman for recital.

And every time we would drive, you would see like just a bunch of people out there.

And every time I would pass by, I would just be like, what could I do to help?

But I’m in a whole nother career field, you know, teaching dance.

I wasn’t, you know, confident in my art-making abilities at all.

But basically, it’s God’s house.

And what better way to bring this type of message to everyday people?

Also, the location was perfect because of the demographic of homeless people around that specific area.

Susan McLarty:

That’s really cool. I did not know that little backstory until today. I love that.

All right, so we’re going to pivot over to Don and share with us, Don, as this process for the mural unfolded.

I know we talked about depicting different faces who had come through that experience, you were connected to us as someone both working at Triune for almost 14 years when we started this process and then unfolding.

You’ve seen both the mural now, but the creation of the Greenville Homeless Alliance during that time and how it grew out of that crisis that we call Tent City that happened under the Pete Hollis Bridge almost 10 years ago now.

And so you agreed to be one of the eight stories of hope shared through Nick’s artwork.

Can you share why you agreed and what your thoughts are on this title, Seen, Heard, and Valued?

Don Austin:

Thank you, Susan. It was actually an honor just to be asked to be a part of the mural.

I once, too, was homeless due to substance abuse, and I was glad to be able to share my story of hope.

And I pray that someone hears my story for overcoming my struggles with substance abuse and being homeless also.

And because I was led to the right resources that I can get my experience, give my experience, strength, and hope with others, share it with others that God can do all things and that he helped me overcome my obstacles in my life and became a productive member of society that he would do the same for them. And it was just such a privilege to be a part of this from the beginning to the end all the way from Tent City… all the way to now to seeing the Greenville Homeless Alliance celebrate five years was awesome. I remember when y’all first come here and y’all are doing big things getting people to the right resources to help people overcome being homeless. It’s a beautiful thing and it’s a beautiful thing to work with Nick and be a part of this mural and you Susan and thanks to my pastor… I think she’s the one who probably made this happen. And it was an honor and a privilege and I just want to let everybody know that God can help you if you get to the right resources if you’re willing to do the work and set some goals, it’s truly been a privilege and an honor.

Susan McLarty:

The feeling is mutual. It’s really been wonderful to, I’ve known you, but to really know you more.

And I was, you know, almost a little bit sad when Nick did finish the mural because it sort of meant like that daily or, you know, frequent interaction had come to a close.

But I wanted to ask you also, Don, homelessness is occurring, as we see in the news, just all across our country right now.

So what do you believe sets Greenville apart from other cities?

Don Austin:

What I think sets Greenville apart is, you know, the value of being seen, heard, and the value of the caring and loving people in the Greenville area coming together, not just to give someone some food, not just to give them some clothing, but to try to get them to the right resources to get them housing.

And it’s very important for me, it was, to get housing.

Then I was able to set some goals and accomplish a lot of goals once I got that house.

But it’s a beautiful thing to have so many loving and caring people that’s willing to sacrifice their time and their monetary donations to help people experiencing homelessness.

It’s a beautiful thing here in Greenville.

Susan McLarty:

Well, we hope that Greenville will continue to be this sort of beacon of light and the way that Nick has painted the mural.

We just love that it’s so bright and joyful.

Don, can you also just share what you hope the mural might mean to people who came to Triune this morning or others who have no safe place to put their head tonight?

Don Austin:

It means that if someone can look at that mural and know the history and the meaning of eight other stories that’s been shared, that they have hope.

It can give them hope that God will give them the same path to housing and have a safe place to sleep at night.

Like the shelters, emergency shelters starting out, and then get to the right resources to continue their journey to not become homeless anymore.

Susan McLarty:

We certainly hope so, too. Can you, Don, provide just a summary of how Nick and the Greenville Homeless Alliance kicked off that block party?

When you think about that day in July and bringing together all those different people, what is your memory of that, and why do you think that was important?

Don Austin:

It was very important. First of all, it was hot.

It was a beautiful day, but it was hot. And I loved it just to see the diversity of people coming together to paint on the mural, to have fun and enjoy each other.

And for all people not looking at it like they’re homeless or housed, they just came together and make everyone feel a part of the same support and the same cause. It was a beautiful thing.

Susan McLarty:

It was a beautiful thing and that is one thing that we lift up as the Greenville Homeless Alliance that we believe when we can create that proximity between people who may not have that opportunity on a day-to-day basis that that is the beginning point of real change for our community and for all of us understanding what we need to do around homelessness here in Greenville. All right, so back to Nick.

It’s easy to spot these faces when you drive on Stone Avenue and you see that mural.

And can you share, besides the eight stories of hope, what other hidden elements that you included and how those relate both to your artistic style as well as the people, the organizations, the community, some of those restrictions as well that you had to work around as an artist with what the city of Greenville allows in art in public places?

Nick Burns (“Ninja Picasso”):

Yes. Well, I’ll start with the idea of love.

And we often relate it to uplifting positive things, but we never talk about the bad that comes with it.

Love is hard. Life is hard. And we all go through things in life.

And when someone pours love into you, you have the ability to pour into someone else.

And if you look closely at the piece, you know, you’ll see a young lady holding an urn with the water that just kind of comes out of her hands and it pours into the foundation of the piece.

And the water throughout the piece symbolizes that and how it shapes the lives of everyday people.

Different shapes, identities, and colors that can only be made through love we receive in life. The good and the bad.

But if you look closely at the rocks, you can see different characteristics that were created by the people at the block party.

And even if I pre-designed it and painted it myself, it wouldn’t have carried the same weight you feel when you look at it, or you look at the foundation of the mural, and that was just one of those elements that I could not have planned myself, and it really did require the community to do.

You know, the sun, it symbolizes GHA, the jasmine flower, jasmine road. And those are just a few to name. But ultimately, it’s about connection and community and how together we can create an image of beauty that can transform lives like the butterfly that sort of comes off the chimney.

I think that there is power in testimony. And for each of the people that were brave enough to speak on it shows that power in its scale.

I really just want to say that, like, you know, if you go at different times, the mural will literally hit you differently.

It’s not meant to just be seen online. It’s meant to be experienced in person.

And so it’s like a lot of things in life, like before you judge it, just take the time and go and see it.

Susan McLarty:

So, Jennifer, since Nick completed the mural, I thought we might just touch on that because you’re the host and it’s Triune Mercy Center’s building, you’ve had a lot of positive, but also it’s not all been positive.

There’s been some negative responses that you’ve received. Can you share what you hope this mural will do for Greenville and why you think maybe that’s okay?

What advice would you have as well for someone who wants to truly help Greenville address homelessness?

Jennifer Fouse Sheorn:

You know, at first Susan, the negative really bothered me because I couldn’t get past the fact that people didn’t find the beauty in your art, Nick.

And now I kind of like the negative because it’s causing conversation to happen.

And, you know, conversation can be really hard and awkward, but I’m really encouraged.

I know that sounds maybe wild, but I’m encouraged by some of the negative.

When people call it graffiti, it’s not graffiti.

It’s art. But what I love even more is that it was God’s work through you and eight people who have stories of hope. And that power is amazing.

And so I hope what it does is continue to bring people out in conversation, whether it’s behind social media or in a coffee appointment, which I would be glad to have with anyone, to talk about what it is to really be seen.

It’s uncomfortable both for the person who sees and the person who is see. You talked about nick pouring out love you have to be able to receive that love and the majority of the people with whom we work have a hard time receiving it because they don’t believe it’s authentic and I tell you what there is nothing inauthentic about triune or that mural. And that brings me great joy. And so that’s what I hope for people is that when they drive by, they will be invited into a deeper conversation that is authentic and hard and beautiful.

That is my hope. And that when they drive by and they’re sitting in traffic instead of cursing, when they’re in that traffic, that they look up and ask God, wow, how are you calling me to have purpose here?

Because that is the question.

Susan McLarty:

That’s beautiful. And we do believe that the way Nick designed it helps tell our story.

He mentioned the sun, which is in the center of our logo, representing a person-centered approach to solving homelessness, but also how the stories and the faces flow and connect.

We truly believe Greenville is a place where we can be those connected resources that are going to make sure people can find and take that next step to their own stability.

And that has to have housing, like Don said, as a central piece of that.

So as we talk a little bit more about some other things happening at Triune, I wanted to say, hopefully in the show notes, we can link the different faces that are depicted in those organizations and how those all relate back to how the Greenville Homeless Alliance found our start in this space five years ago.

And so I was going to ask Jennifer if you could share the opportunity ongoing for art and music therapy that happens at Triune Mercy Center every week through Premier Arts Collective, who also represents Nick as an artist.

Jennifer Fouse Sheorn:

Sure. Premier Arts Collective has an art therapist and a music therapist, and they rotate every other Monday.

So art therapy is on one Monday, and then the next week is music therapy.

And it begins at 9:30 on Mondays. And anyone in the public is welcome to come and participate in that art therapy and or music therapy.

So if you want to come every Monday at 9:30 and switch off, you are welcome to do that.

Also, we have a free art space on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9 until 12 in the art room.

And that is a wonderful time for community and fellowship and just to create art. Some people come in and don’t say they don’t know how to do art and they leave an artist.

It’s amazing to see what happens in that art room. So we’re grateful for our partnership with Premier Arts Collective.

And we are grateful that we have so many people who care and who want to come and be uncomfortable and have some beautiful conversation.

Susan McLarty:

Well, Triune certainly seems to be the hub of a lot of good things happening.

And so we’re also excited about Homeless Court starting in March.

And I just wanted to close with saying, whether you come to Homeless Court, which is open to the public the first Monday of each month at 2 p.m. at Triune, or you come to experience the art or the music, we hope on the way in, you might stop and sit on that bench that Nick has painted and take a selfie with Robert Shell, who’s depicted there.

And Robert has a lot of wise words that he shares with many people.

And so we picked just one little phrase that Nick painted there.

You’ll see it says, I” want to be known more than I want to be noticed.”

And so we hope you’ll take time to notice Robert and the other stories and then post that selfie and use our hashtag #GVLHomes4All, the number four, on social media and help us spread this work that we know that it’s the second biggest mural right now in the city of Greenville.

We don’t know in terms of a mural about homelessness, we may be one of the few in the country, if not the only of this size.

But we believe this is a catalyst for change and a way that seeds can be planted for decades to come through the work of Nick, through Don and others sharing these stories of hope, and through Triune Mercy Center walking into this space to give us a nearly 50-foot wall.

So we are so grateful to each of you for sharing your stories, your buildings, your artistic talents.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

Image via the Greenville Homeless Alliance

Join the discussion