Artist Ruby Pearl is glowing. She stands proudly beside one of her latest paintings being featured in Gateway Arts’ annual “Taste of Gateway” fundraising event in April. The canvas portrays a young woman caught in a distant gaze as if attempting to pick a face out of a crowd. Her facial features are striking; the fullness of her lips, the slight furrow in her brow, and Pearl’s signature component – dazzlingly haunting eyes.
“Once I put the paintbrush onto the canvas, it always begins with the eyes,” said Pearl. “That’s where I begin the connection, and when I begin to do the eyes I can speak to the image, speak to the woman on the painting and develop a whole relationship with that person.”
At the event, held April 22, gone is the loose-fitting cardigan she often sports in the artist studio at Gateway. Instead, Pearl is clad in a black evening gown and a feathered hairpiece that accentuates her iridescent purple hair, freshly colored for the event. Tonight she is not adorned in acrylic paint smudges. Tonight, she is dripping in pearls.
Pearl, 67, began painting at the age of four as both a pastime and a creative outlet. She arrived at Gateway 23 years ago, struggling with homelessness, depression, and PTSD, anxious at the prospect of continuing her art in an unfamiliar environment.
Since then, she has flourished.
Pearl helped start the DMH, or Department of Mental Health, studio during Gateway’s earliest years in Brookline. She has created countless pieces, been commissioned by the White House and organized a portrait project about the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.
It has been the combination of Pearl’s talent and empathy toward others that has allowed her to shine and fully support herself by selling her work.
During the “Taste of Gateway,” Pearl chats with colleagues, donors, and art-enthusiasts alike about her work, inspiration, and, of course, Gateway, a non-profit organization founded in 1973.
Gateway’s mission is to provide adults with disabilities the opportunity to create, explore, and prosper through an individualized artistic experience.
Gateway partners with Vinfen, a local organization for those with disabilities founded in 1977, to provide programs in different specializations, from mental health initiatives to brain injury services.
“I think this place is so unique because it takes people who have all sorts of challenges, but when they’re here they’re not people with challenges…they’re artists,” said Bruce Bird, Vinfen’s president and CEO. “I think Ruby’s works are phenomenal. They all have such a strong emotional impact on people.”
The event itself celebrated the accomplishments of both Gateway and its artists while raising $78,000 for the organization.
“The money we raise at Taste of Gateway helps us address a variety of needs, including providing specialized programs and staffing, supporting unfunded or underfunded artists, and helping us address an ongoing rent increase to stay in our current location in Brookline Village,” said Christine Nolan, Gateway’s development specialist.
Over 90 pieces of artwork were included in the Taste of Gateway exhibition. Throughout the evening spectators wove through the studio space, munched on Indian cuisine and bet on both silent and live auction items, many of which were provided by local vendors.
During the live auction, Pearl found a quiet spot alongside various tubs of art supplies, the perfect place to taste-test a selection of sugary desserts. “I feel so honored that people like my work,” she said, smiling. “I enjoy people that appreciate my work—if the art speaks to me, then it can have the same emotional effect on them.”
Wrought with emotion and heartache for the victims and their families, Pearl posted a “call to artists” advertisement on Craigslist, imploring artists to volunteer time and their talent to create portraits of the victims.
Over 100 different artists responded and she hand-selected 26 to be part of the project—one artist for each victim.
“They all wanted to do something, to obviously help the families and to also help the pain they were going through,” said Pearl. “It was one of the best things I ever did in my life. The most painful, but the most meaningful.”