Art classes at homeless youth center offer more than just a creative outlet

Alexander Huerta works with “two bad lambs” during one of his bimonthly Saturday morning art classes at Shannon West Homeless Youth Center.
Bill Hughes

Artist Alexander Huerta is sharing his life story with a couple dozen residents of the Shannon West Homeless Youth Center who are sprawled out on sofas in the recreation room. Huerta talks about his past with alcoholism and “dark places,” but he skips the part about being hooked up to a dialysis machine three times a week and being born with only 20 percent of one kidney, which he wiped out by drinking. Instead, he mostly talks about feeling blessed and happy, how great his life is, an energy he exudes on any given day or night in the Arts District, where Arts Factory owner Wes Myles calls him the “Ambassador of Love.”

The Downtown artist has become part of the landscape here at Shannon West, leading Saturday morning art classes in the center’s kitchen twice monthly and giving these evening talks from time to time.

“I’m not saying I’m great. I’m saying I feel my life is great,” he says. “Twelve years ago I hit rock bottom. I was really tired. My brain was tired. My soul was tired. My body was tired. I wasn’t living from the inside out.”

Now, he says, “I took my pen from the world, and now I’m writing my own story.”

Some nod their heads, feeling his words, while others pass around a binder of his artwork—murals, studio paintings and collaborations. Two days later he’s back for the Saturday morning art class, where a dozen of the 60 or so residents chat while drawing and painting.

Nikki Paskevicius prepares a painting during a Saturday morning art class at Shannon West Homeless Youth Center.

Nikki Paskevicius prepares a painting during a Saturday morning art class at Shannon West Homeless Youth Center.

Some were court-ordered to Shannon West, arriving from jail. Some landed there after drug treatment. Others were homeless, and this was a better option than the street. The HELP of Southern Nevada center on Las Vegas Boulevard North provides life skills, vocational and consumer training, counseling and other programs designed to help its clients, ages 16-24, get on track. Art is one of the outlets, and Huerta, 46, is their connection. For some, it’s a potential discipline. Others see it as therapeutic.

“When you do drugs, it’s run by your emotions. When you do art, you can put emotions into it,” says Ian Iglehart, who is collaborating with resident Tommy Williams on a couple of mixed-media works in the vein of Huerta’s Three Bad Sheep art collective. Iglehart and Williams jokingly refer to themselves as “two bad lambs” and like what they’ve seen at First Friday.

At another table, Nikki Paskevicius says, “I was thinking about going down to get a booth at First Friday in the Arts District, but I was too busy getting high.” The 20-year-old was court-ordered to Shannon West after being arrested for pawning stolen goods in exchange for drugs. Working on a freehand drawing of a rose, she talks about playing the piano, smoking heroin, meth-addicted parents, running away as a child and briefly attending the Las Vegas Academy. Just as matter-of-factly, she follows up with thoughts on living at the center. “I have to be the strongest person in my life, and this is what this is teaching me.”

Once Paskevicius is allowed to leave the property, she’s going to head over to Huerta’s Peacenart Studio as the others have done. He’s already talking about giving her an exhibit there. The day before, Williams spent six hours at Peacenart.

Though Williams’ past includes treatment and an arrest for assault as a teenager, he says he’s been clean “three years, six months and seven days.” He managed to finish high school, wants to go to college and is about to start a new job. He’ll continue art, and Huerta, with whom he can connect, will be his mentor. “It’s awesome to see what life could be like,” he says.

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Kristen Peterson

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