Written by Michelle Matthews
Uncovering a hidden passion for art, a homeless cowboy gives back to the shelter that helped put the paintbrush in his hand
Warm, safe, dry, a full tank of gas. My Saturn is a haven. Outside the blustery wind blows trees from side to side. Mother Nature is showing off and Calgary’s homeless have to watch. I’m deliberating whether to get out of my car and join the show or cancel my interview because it’s so cold and windy that even the traffic lights are swaying dangerously above the rush hour traffic. Crap, I see Wyatt Heston walking my way. I turn my car off and with it the sound of Mariah Carey’s melodious voice. We shake hands. Unexpectedly, his hand is warm and so is his smile as he laughs and teases me about the goose bumps on my arms. “I thought you were a Canadian,” he says, and I reply, “Only according to my passport.”
I suggest we head to the TransAlta office building across the street that I am positive is heated. Heston is reluctant. He says he isn’t welcome in there but I reassure him it’s fine and hope I'm right. We’ve been sitting on the comfy lobby chairs for about 10 minutes and so far nobody has bothered us. The last thing I want to do is humiliate him. Heston is homeless but doesn’t let it define him. He thinks of himself as a real cowboy who grew up on a 23-acre Wyoming cattle ranch with 14 brothers and sisters. His authentic black cowboy hat, red, white and blue collared shirt reflect his cowboy nature.
We talk and he says he was born on July 4, 1956 to the crackling sounds of fireworks at his family’s ranch. His path to Calgary is a bit unclear, but abruptly ended on Calgary streets. His eyes widen as he tells me about a woman he ran into on 8th Avenue earlier that morning who said, “Hey, didn’t you get the memo, Stampede was over in July,” to which he replied, “Ma’am, my Stampede lasts 24/7.”
Heston is a homeless cowboy, a recovering alcoholic and a victim of lung cancer. He represents one of Calgary’s chronic 4,000 homeless, mainly men who live on the streets during the day and in shelters at night. What distinguishes him is a love for painting, and that his art hangs in the collections of at least two Calgarians. He discovered painting at The Mustard Seed, a non-profit homeless organization dedicated to helping men and women living on Calgary’s streets. In the face of all it: the cold, the wind, the hard grey mats at night, he retains hope fuelled by his passion for making art.
I met Heston in May of 2009 when I began a summer internship in the communications department at The Mustard Seed. At this point Heston had been painting for almost six months and it was all he could talk about. I’ll never forget meeting him because my experience interacting with the homeless was limited. My first conversation with Heston lasted for almost an hour, of which he did all the talking. As I wandered back to my office I remember thinking to myself, "this guy loves art more than any art student or art teacher I have ever met." Over the next few months Heston would often come to my office to chat and would stay until my boss chased him away. He told me all sorts of stories about his family ranch back in Wyoming, and of course his latest piece of art. Heston is an enigma; both to me, to his caseworkers and probably to his family. Sometimes it’s hard to tell truth from tale but as Heston’s art is evidence of a program that’s helping.
The arts program began in 2007 when it hired Hannah Poon, a graduate from the University of Calgary. “When people come here they get to express themselves and be creative without any judgment and for a lot of them it’s very therapeutic,” Poon says.
The Mustard Seed has a small art studio located in the basement of its main office building and it is open to anyone who is part of a Mustard Seed program. Poon recalls the first time she laid eyes on Heston, “He had this black cowboy hat on, and a big studded cowboy belt that you couldn’t miss and he called me ma’am which I thought was hilarious because he’s like 20 years older than me.”
Poon continues, “When Wyatt came to his first art class last year he was withdrawn and stubborn and I had a hard time reaching him but since then it’s like he’s turned into a different person and I think partly it’s because he found something that he’s passionate about.”
In June of last year, Heston and a few others at The Mustard Seed showcased their artwork at Market Collective, an art studio in Kensington that promotes new artists. Heston volunteered to help Poon organize the event and even helped raise funds to rent a space through a barbeque hosted at The Mustard Seed. Heston says, “This was my chance to show people what I could do and I have to admit I was kinda nervous. . . thought people might walk right by to the better artists but a lot of people stopped to talk to me about my work and I even sold two pieces and made $365,” he adds with a proud smile. “I had more money in my pocket than I had in like five years.” Then he did something remarkable: He counted out $100 and gave it back to Mustard Seed art program.
The buyer of Heston’s art? Ian McLaren, a 25-year-old roofer with a secret passion for art. McLaren says, “I’ve always loved art and I think the homeless art movement is so cool because they paint with more emotion and passion than most professionals.” He describes the painting he purchased as rich, full of texture with warm red and orange tones, The perfect Canadian fall. McLaren says one of the best parts was being able to meet Heston and talk to him about what the painting meant to him. Heston told McLaren he loves the fall because it represents the end of long and hard season on his ranch back home and seeing the leaves turn red brings him a sort of satisfaction and happiness. McLaren says, “I can relate to that because being roofers we usually work our butts off while it’s warm and once things start to cool down you know the busy streak is coming to an end.”
Heston spends between 20 and 30 hours a week in the art studio but he says this isn’t enough. “I crave art like I used to crave whiskey and my dream is to have my own art studio someday so I can paint whenever I feel like it.” I asked Heston if I could watch him paint one day I thought he was going to burst with happiness. “Listen here li’l lady, if there’s one thing I love it’s showing off in the studio. I’ll even show you how I mix my own paint.”
When I arrived at The Mustard Seed for a little painting session with Heston he was waiting outside for me and, as usual, he looked like he just walked off the set of an old western film. His says his mother named him for the famous cowboy Wyatt Earp. “I think she had high hopes that I’d become a stunt rider with a name like that,” he says while rolling his eyes. “But God had other plans for me: hospital beds and cement pavements.” A full-grown beard and mustache mock his hidden bald head, “Chemo works in mysterious ways,” he adds with a chuckle.
Last spring, Heston found out that he had lung cancer. His doctor told him it was likely caused by a combination of exposure to asbestos when he worked at a coal mill and as a young teen smoking. We make our way into the basement of The Mustard Seed where the art studio is. The room is well lit and there are several people sitting in front of half painted canvases. Heston shows me the piece he has been working on for the last week, it’s his first abstract and he named it Slow Release. The paint is still wet from the day before. The main feature on the canvas is a human eye with a steam of teardrops cascading down until the white tears get lost in a small blue stream. Next to the stream stands a silhouette of a cowboy with his hat tipped downwards. I ask him what the painting represents and he says, “This painting cries the tears I don’t have left, because to cry you’re taking your bodies energy and releasing it naturally instead of using violence or a bad habit, and well, the cowboy, that’s how everyone sees me, a dark silhouette.”
According to the City of Calgary, 4,060 people were believed to be absolutely homeless on May 14 in 2008 – 3,195 were staying in facilities, 296 were counted by service agencies and an estimated 569 people were living on the streets. This represents an overall growth of 18 per cent of the homeless population since 2006. Heston falls somewhere between the visible homeless living out on the streets and the demographic seeking refuge in a facility such as The Mustard Seed shelter.
It’s unclear where his family fits into the picture. Heston finished his first round of chemo in late November and is currently waiting for the results. Like anyone he has his bad days and even though he’s pondered following the big red exit sign, hope, his passion for art and his new family on the street reel him back in every time. Heston and I are waiting to cross the street to sit at a coffee shop to continue our interview when he spots his friend Tim walking out of The Mustard Seed. He has mentioned him before but this is the first time we have met. Tim is from the Muskowekwan First Nation Tribe in Saskatchewan and has been homeless since he was 15 years-old, and is now 52. His tall frame complements his neat long black ponytail and his smile sports a set of teeth that look like they haven’t ever seen a dentist.
Heston introduces us as we wait to cross the street and when it’s our turn to go Tim looks at Heston and says with a smile, “And white man says we can walk.” I ask Tim what he and Heston do when they hang out and he says, “You know, normal stuff, hang out, chat, drink coffee, talk about the future sometimes, Wyatt’s art.” Like Heston, Tim struggles with alcoholism and although they don’t like to talk about it, their separate experiences seem to have brought them together.
Heston doesn’t talk much about what living in a shelter is like and I’m curious about how he spends his nights because he always looks so tired. He says the bags under his eyes are permanent and the chemo isn’t helping but he isn’t a big fan of shelter life because he doesn’t like anyone telling him when he can sleep, eat and shower. He tells me he falls asleep each night to the sound of people crying or talking to themselves or worse, coming down from last night’s drug binge.
I suggest we go to the shelter together later in the week so I can check out the place he so often complains about. We say our goodbyes and decide to meet on Thursday. I run back to the safety of my car and pump the volume. Mariah Carey’s voice rocks my Saturn and as I’m driving away I see Heston huddled under a stairwell with Tim trying to escape the wind. What a life. What a way to live. I feel pretty lucky driving away in my warm car to my warm house. I’m kind of nervous about Thursday but I know it’ll be worth it.
When Thursday arrives the snow is falling and it’s really cold when I get inside my car. I wonder what it would be like to sleep outside on a night like tonight. How long would it take for my hands and feet to freeze?
I arrive at The Mustard Seed shelter just after 8 p.m. and am greeted by an empty and quiet front hallway. There is no colour, and not a single painting decorating the walls. A sad-looking goldfish in a small tank rests a little too close to the edge of a small coffee table and I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to call a place like this home. I recognize the woman behind the desk from my internship in the summer and she gives me directions to the food hall. When I arrive I scan the crowded tables and spot Heston in the far corner. He’s sitting with Tim. We talk briefly about an upcoming interview Tim has with a potential employer from a furniture warehouse for a mover’s position. Then Heston asks, “You still wanna see where I sleep?”
We make our way across the dining hall and into a large area. Grey floors and high ceilings, it looks similar to an auditorium. Heston spots some friends of his and he introduces me. We get to talking and I find out that Marcy and Ray have been married for a year. I think they’re in their thirties but they could be younger. I can tell the street life has taken a toll on them. Their faces look worn and Marcy’s cheeks are sunken and have holes in them. A telling side-effect of a serious meth habit. I ask them where they sleep and Marcy explains that men and women have separate sleeping areas even if you’re married.
Heston leads the way to the mat he was assigned to when he arrived at the shelter that afternoon. The homeless are assigned a new mat number every night, maybe so people don’t get too comfortable, but I’m not sure. His mat, like all the others, is grey and small, smaller than a single bed. It’s even smaller than the children’s single beds that you see at IKEA.
I lay down on it and notice how hard it is and how the plastic material sticks to my skin and makes noises when I move. My feet are about two inches from falling off which means Heston probably has to sleep curled up unless he wants his feet to dangle over the edge. The mat is so narrow that I can’t roll over. Blankets aren’t provided but most people have one stored in their property bins that they’re allowed to leave at the shelter. Heston doesn’t have a blanket because he likes to use his long black winter coat but I wonder if he’s just saying that because he doesn’t have one.
I close my eyes for a second and try to imagine what it would be like to sleep there every night, a stranger on either side of me and nowhere to go when I wake up in the morning. It’s a scary thought and I know I’ll never really understand what it’s like to have nowhere to go and nobody to turn to but this is giving me a small idea as to how alone and scared someone might feel. Heston walks me out to my car and says, “So what do you think of my house?”