Ask a dozen artists what their creations mean to them and you'd probably get a dozen different answers.
But to a group of Boulder women who paint and draw together for a few hours each week, their creations are motivated by one common bond: their art is an escape from homelessness.
On any given Wednesday, the Carriage House Community Table, which provides daytime shelter and food for the city's homeless community, provides two hours of artistic instruction to women.
The work is part emotional outlet and part self-esteem building.
"Sometimes, it's difficult for people to express themselves verbally," said Joy Eckstine, executive director of the Carriage House. "This is an outlet for people. When people are feeling so down about themselves, I think it can help them start rebuilding some of their self confidence."
About three years ago, Eckstine noticed the propensity for art that so many of the people using the shelter had.
Some of her clients left art as thanks for a hand up, while others simply displayed a natural knack for creativity. So Eckstine partnered with Susan Stephens, a Boulder artist who has since volunteered her time at the shelter.
"Sometimes," Stephens said, "you find an extraordinary talent" in someone.
Stephens provides cost-effective materials, like water colors, charcoal and pencils. While she's a professional artist, she doesn't ask the women who participate to take on any one style or technique.
"I get them comfortable with the medium," she said.
She provides artistic direction only when asked, or sketches out designs for those who are "reluctant to attack a plain paper."
The work is also about self expression, releasing emotions and creating a sense of accomplishment and escape for the women -- any of whom don't know where they'll sleep later that night.
One picture hanging on the walls of the shelter, a self portrait of the artist, features a woman's face with a single red tear creeping down her cheek.
"She's expressing her past abuse in art," Stephens said of the artist. "It's a way to bring (feelings) out without having to do therapy."
The group attracts women with an array of backgrounds. Some are what the city would classify as being temporarily homeless, while others have been on the streets for years and are considered chronically homeless.
At age 57, Terri Sternberg has been without a place to live for just more than a year. A classical violinist by trade, she lost her job and then her home in Longmont. She's since become an activist for the homeless and taken to the art classes like a fish to water.
"My father was an artist," she said. "I remember being 3 years old and sitting next to him looking through art books."
Now, she said she finds comfort and release retracing those roots. She's especially taken to electronic art, creating dozens of computer-assisted paintings using programs at the Carriage House and the Boulder Public Library.
Thumbing through a stack of her pictures, Sternberg stopped on one image that showed a house.
"Not having a house, I guess this is a good way of pretending this could be my room," she said.
She said that when she was losing her home, she'd often end her days grappling with strong emotions of sadness or anger. Art, she said, has helped temper the pain.
"It's a big outlet," she said. "If they had more stuff like this in jails or prisons, it would be healing for people."
Brooke Blinebry, 28, of Nederland, was homeless last summer for a brief time. She came to the Carriage House looking for help. She got it and is now back on her feet and living in a Nederland cabin.
She found a talent making jewelry at the Carriage House art sessions.
"I think it's hugely important for people to express themselves and find hope and joy, no matter what's around them," she said.
Blinebry said the homeless are some of the most creative people around.
"I see people who do art with cardboard boxes," she said.
Officials at the shelter say Blinebry is a success story., and they've asked her to help lead the art sessions some weeks.
"I'm going to ask people to be as creative as they can," she said.
In March, the shelter will take the art a step further, displaying and selling dozens of pieces at the Boulder Arts & Crafts Gallery, a cooperative owned and operated by local artists since 1971.
The gallery will feature work by Carriage House artists from March 10 until April 4, with a fundraiser and an artist meet-and-greet on March 12.
The pieces will be available for $20 to $50 each throughout the gallery showing. Proceeds from the sale will be split between the Carriage House, to help fund ongoing operations, and the artists as a source of income.
Lisa McDonough, a spokeswoman for the co-op, said this will be the second year the gallery has partnered with the Carriage House. Last year's exhibition drew more than 250 people, she said. It's anticipated that the show will grow in popularity this year.
"I've seen how art helps us through time of trouble," McDonough said.
She said art that's created by the homeless, perhaps more than any other community of artists, "you can tell it's from the heart."
Kris, a 47-year-old Boulder woman who asked not to use her last name, said her work at the Carriage House truly is a reflection of what's in her heart.
A brain injury left her unable to work, and she's living in transitional housing in Boulder. The artwork, she said, is the best escape from her woes.
"You forget about your troubles," she said. "It's healthy self-expression of your feelings."
Smearing her fingers across a pastel drawing of a mountain landscape, Kris chuckled. "Obviously, I'm feeling good."