A Home of His Own for Local Artist

September 22, 2017 | Posted in Housing |

When you ask Benny Sorrells if he feels good, you might witness him get down on the floor and start doing push-ups. He answers your question with a resounding “yes!” The spritely 78-year-old is a prolific artist and has been a resident at our Garden Terrace community for the last few years.

Benny found Garden Terrace with the assistance of a Travis County mental health public defender. He has struggled with mental illness all of his life and, as a result, spent nearly thirty years homeless. When he came to Texas over a decade ago, Benny didn’t have a place of his own and lacked a steady income. He cycled in and out of the criminal justice system. Now that he lives with us, he has achieved greater stability.

As a resident, Benny has access to our on-site support staff who can help him with whatever he might need. He said he likes living at Garden Terrace and credits art for giving him a sense of purpose.

“If it wasn’t for art, I wouldn’t be alive,” Benny said.

He is an avid painter, sculptor, and pottery-maker. He mostly uses found materials –bricks, discarded metals, and old magazines – to make his art, given that art supplies tend to be expensive. His studio at Garden Terrace is filled with his work and his latest project is usually resting on the easel in the center of the room.

Benny grew up in California and his father died when he was very young. He lived with his mother but was often alone as a teenager. He quit high school and did whatever he could to survive. He studied and taught art. It was in his mid-twenties during a run-in with the police that he ended up in a mental health institution. Benny said he heard voices, something he still struggles with today.

Despite his mental health challenges, Benny has thrived as an artist in the local community. Since the early 2000s, he has participated in Art From The Streets, a program that provides homeless individuals with materials and a free studio space to create art. In 2007, his work was selected for “The People’s Art of Austin Exhibit” at City Hall. Benny works under his artist name “Mjumbe” and sells his work at Art From The Streets’ annual exhibit.

Last year, our staff also organized an art show for Benny at Garden Terrace. His work was displayed, celebrated, and sold to residents and neighbors.

Steph Gajewski is one of our Supportive Services Program Managers and has known Benny for over ten years. She was first drawn to him because of his art and, over the years, the two have developed a deep friendship.

“I’ve gained so much wisdom from Benny’s example of moving through the world in an authentic, meaningful, and carefree manner,” Steph said. “He can find a use for anything and will take the time to create something beautiful with an item that other people would consider trash. Looking at his artwork can reveal a deep knowing of how he experiences the world — he bravely shows his soul.”