Off Campus

Finding Balance

An artist’s ascent through Boston

Interview conducted by Becca Rubin

Paul Andrews answers the door wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and a look of surprise. A paintbrush dangles from his fingers and two unfinished paintings perch on an easel behind him. It is 2:18; he has forgotten about his 2:00 interview. As he hops his way into a pair of pants, he offers an honest explanation. “I was painting,” he explains. “I don’t think about time when I’m painting.”

Paul, an artist who paints under the name Uthman, has seen parts of Boston that are invisible to the majority of its population. A 58-year-old Roxbury native, he has set up his easel during his stays in prison and homeless shelters; he has painted his way through a life-threatening alcohol addiction; and he is days away from moving into his own housing for the first time in over a decade. Now, he sits on a bench during one of the first cool days of fall and tells his story.

“I’m not classically trained,” Paul says with a smile. It isn’t a concession—it’s a mark of pride. He won his first art competition when he was eight years old, and has since scoured every available resource to further himself as an artist. Beginning with graphite, charcoal, and pastels, he since mastered watercolors and oil paints.

Paul’s lack of classical training has not prevented him from taking a unique and empirical approach to his artwork. “You try to understand your subjects,” he explains. “If I’m painting water, I have to study it first…You need to know how water interacts with light and shadows. And how it moves.” He glides his hand through the air, mimicking the fluid movement of water.

The diversity and beauty of Paul’s portfolio demonstrate his self-taught grasp on artwork. From tranquil still-lifes and landscapes to vibrant portraits, he has produced a wide range work across several mediums. Yet the serenity and happiness evoked through his artwork do not reflect the instability and hardship that Paul has experienced in his life.

For 14 months, Paul was homeless. A prison sentence was the root of the issue, a part of his life that he hardly discusses. Upon leaving the prison system, he found himself with no place to live and few opportunities for work. “It was scary,” he admits. “You feel lonely and you feel like you aren’t part of mainstream society.” Despite his unstable circumstances, his devotion to his artwork remained a constant. “ I would paint as much as I could. I would find an empty room in the shelter, set up my easel, and paint.”

These painting sessions not only allowed Paul to continue his progress as an artist against the odds, but also served as a crucial form of support throughout this unstable period in his life. “It’s just relaxing, you know?” He searches for the right words to say. “It’s therapy for me.”

Paul’s struggle with homelessness ended just over two years ago. In coordination with the Boston Housing Authority, Paul was able to find stable housing through Commonwealth Land Trust (CLT), a Boston nonprofit that provides housing and on-site supportive services for 650 Massachusetts citizens. Most of CLT’s residents battle problems with addiction, chronic homelessness, HIV/AIDS, or physical and mental disabilities.

Paul moved into a CLT property known as Bowdoin Manor, a large brick building on Beacon Hill less than a block away from the Massachusetts Statehouse. At Bowdoin Manor, Paul has converted his small room into a studio. His easel is the centerpiece of the room from which the rest of his belongings swirl outwards. Glimpses of past works peak out from behind his shelves and empty frames line the walls. “Being an artist here can be difficult because there isn’t space for large scale projects,” he explains. “But [CLT] got me out of being homeless. I feel stable here.”

Yet Paul’s stay in Bowdoin Manor coincided with another difficult chapter in his life—a severe struggle with alcohol addiction. “It started two years ago,” he says, but offers few details. The important part is that Paul fought through it. And, according to him, his artwork played an enormous role, as painting was the only thing that could take his mind away from drinking.

The staff of Bowdoin Manor continuously supported Paul throughout his recovery, aiding his progress with access to both addiction support meetings and a weekly art group. CLT has a strong commitment to provide a pragmatic approach to each individual, as opposed to issuing the blanket requirements found within many similar organizations. Above all, however, CLT recognized that Paul was worth the effort—that with a little help, his passion and perspective would enrich both the lives of those close to him and the entire community he called home.

Now, Paul is sober, working as hard as ever, and has taken control of a life that many others would have given up on. With the help of CLT, he is not only ready to return to “the mainstream society,” but to improve it with his artwork. His story outlines both the dark undercurrents of surviving in Boston and the strong commitment of the community to break this adversity.

More than anything, however, he has demonstrated the importance of holding onto a passion at all costs. “It saved my life,” Paul says. “Art did.”