Becoming a work of art

How small is Mary Larson’s studio? So small that it’s hard for two people to stand side by side without touching. There are bookshelves, pots of acrylic paint and jars full of spiky paintbrushes. There are windows along one wall. There are also twinkle lights strung up to illuminate the space because Larson — who works at Harborview Medical Center’s Pioneer Square Clinic — sometimes gets up before dawn or stays up late to paint.

Oh, and then there are the canvases. About 12 of them. Mostly blank. And photos of people, too; Larson, a portraitist, works from photos.

“Everyone that I photograph, I ask them to tell me one thing,” says Larson. “Tell me one thing that you want people to know about you when they look at your painting.’”

It’s a powerful request for the people she’s painting. Because the people she paints — people served by the clinic, people experiencing homelessness — too often feel overlooked by society.

Truly Seen

Jennifer is one of Larson’s patients. She’s a petite woman with short salt-and-pepper hair, a gentle smile and a Seahawks jersey. Eight years ago, Jennifer came to the Pioneer Square Clinic in downtown Seattle for the first time.

“I didn’t think I belonged at the clinic,” says Jennifer. “I thought I had a cushioned lifestyle, that homelessness could never happen to me.”

In 2009, during the worst of the recession, she lost her job and couldn’t find a new one. She used her savings to pay rent and bills, and when she ran out of money, she stopped paying. Jennifer lost her home, her car — and, ultimately, her health.

“Illness takes you to the worst places in your life,” Jennifer says.

Living in a shelter, making trips to the food bank: Jennifer didn’t recognize her life anymore. She knew she needed medical attention, but she couldn’t afford basic necessities, let alone healthcare. But even if she couldn’t pay, Pioneer Square Clinic was there to take care of her health.

Part of Harborview Medical Center, Pioneer Square Clinic provides primary care, mental health care and other services to over 100 patients a day, many of whom are experiencing homelessness. Social workers connect patients with services, while a nutritionist offers help with healthier eating.

The building is also home to nearly 20 other programs serving people who are homeless, including a palliative care street team and a respite care service for patients who have been released from the hospital, but aren’t well enough to return to living on the streets.

For Jennifer, the clinic was a welcoming place with trusted healthcare providers. “They helped me both physically, to become healthier, and mentally, to accept my losses and move on with my life,” she says.

Mary Larson is one of those providers. She’s the assistant nurse manager at the Pioneer Square Clinic and the Third Avenue Center in Belltown. Both clinics serve many people who are poor, experiencing homelessness, or underinsured. She says working for Harborview — which she’s done for 23 years — is her dream job.

“Knowing that people who may have nothing can walk through our doors and get some of the finest care in the country inspires me every day,” Larson says.

Demand for their services is high — and growing. “I wish there were more clinics like ours,” she says. “That would be a giant step toward creating healthcare equity.”

Larson was an artist from a young age. Growing up in Seattle, she started out with cartooning and illustrating, then moved on to photography, mostly self-taught. The first time she picked up a paintbrush, she fell in love with painting.

Art and nursing came together when Larson was working as a nurse in Washington, D.C. She took pictures of a few patients. When she moved back home to Seattle — and joined the Pioneer Square Clinic — Larson found the photos and was inspired to paint portraits from them.

As soon as the first paintings were hung in the clinic, patients began asking about them. “They would say, ‘Those people are homeless,’” recalls Larson. “I would ask how they knew, and they’d say, ‘I was homeless once. I can tell.’”

Then some patients started asking if they, too, could have their portraits painted.

Interview With Gino
Gino discusses his relationship with the staff at Pioneer Square Clinic.
Interview With Jennifer
Jennifer talks about what Mary’s art means to her.
Interview With Kendihe
Kendihe shares his thoughts on participating in Mary’s art project.
Interview With Gus
Gus talks about his path into and out of homelessness.

Jennifer has known Larson for as long as she’s been coming to the clinic, but it took her years to realize that her friendly nurse was the artist behind the colorful canvases on the clinic’s walls. Once she did, Jennifer quickly asked to be painted.

“Mary sees beauty inside of people,” she says. “No matter where they’re at, she makes them look beautiful. She helps people become a work of art.”

The portraits take a few months to come to life, and the beginning, when Larson takes a photograph and asks her patients what they want viewers to see, is crucial. Their answers range from former occupations — opera singer, electrician, pathologist — to reflections on overcoming hardship. Larson designs vivid backgrounds with colors and words that symbolize their stories.

On one recent morning, Gus dropped by the clinic to see his newly finished painting. He’s struggled with homelessness and substance issues for decades, he says, but the 64-year-old turned his life around two years ago when he decided to get clean. “I see the true me,” he says, studying his portrait closely. “It makes me feel like I’m somebody.”

Larson’s paintings are dynamic and bold: vibrant, yet intimate. The faces gazing out range from joyful to serene to solemn. But for Larson, the true beauty of her art lies in how it helps others.

Larson’s portraits aren’t for sale — but she does barter them in exchange for donations of useful items to shelters and food banks. A painting might go for 1,000 sandwiches or 1,200 new pairs of socks. For her, it’s a way to leverage her art to do good.

For Jennifer, the painting gives her a chance to help others.

“It’s a way to give back a little, because the medical team inside this clinic has really helped me to get better,” she says. After about a year and a half of being homeless, she found housing again and now works as a rideshare driver.

She hasn’t seen her portrait yet, but hopes it will be ready soon. When it gets done will depend, in part, on Larson’s schedule; the clinic keeps her busy. But even in her studio, her patients are never far from her thoughts.

“I’ll start out by myself with blank canvases,” Larson says. “And when I go to turn the lights off, I’m not alone in the studio anymore. It’s filled with all of these wonderful people.”

By Stephanie Perry
Photos: Doug Plummer