Guest Artist: Steven Spencer

Steven Spencer is a successful artist and art teacher, but early in his career he was the embodiment of an “Outsider” artist. He lived on the streets of Philadelphia, creating drawings for people in Rittenhouse Square to earn what little money he could. Steven’s journey ─ from promising and talented student, to near death through depression and addiction, and finally to redemption and success ─ is an inspiration that must be shared.

In college, Steven majored in business management at Trenton State College, now The College of New Jersey (“TCNJ”). He founded and served as TCNJ’s first president of the Black Student Union, and started on the tennis team. Due to a loss of financial aid, Steven was forced to leave TCNJ a few classes short of graduating, beginning a downward spiral of severe depression and addiction.

Steven soon found himself living on the streets of Philadelphia. He drew and sold sketches in the park. One day in 1996, a woman asked him to paint a portrait of her daughter. Having never painted, Steven politely declined. The next day the woman came back with painting supplies. Through trial and error, Steven learned to paint. Weeks passed, until another woman interrupted Steven as he was painting, and asked him to bring a handful of his paintings to her gallery. His paintings sold quickly.

Eventually losing the trust of family and friends through addiction, Steven began living on the streets of Camden. He was addicted to drugs and alcohol. He would sometimes hold the drugs for the local dealers. One day he refused to hold a drug dealers’ supplies. He set fire to Steven’s coat, while he was wearing it. Though mostly unharmed physically, he was deeply hurt and prayed for help. Steven’s prayer was answered just three days later, when Lucy DuBose, an addictions counselor formerly with Fellowship House of South Camden, broke protocol and crossed the street to offer Steven help.

Lucy had a 2-day window during which to place Steven in a rehab program, or the spot would go to someone else. But Steven had disappeared. Lucy’s search led eventually to an abandoned crack home, where Steven was found.

Steven was admitted immediately to Kennedy Hospital in Cherry Hill for detox; the most painful three days of his life, due to severe withdrawal symptoms. While at Kennedy, Steven committed to remaining clean forever.

On the 4th day, Steven was driven to the Transportation Center in Camden, given a ticket to Boston, and sent north to Teen Challenge, a fully funded Christian based program helping people overcome addiction in Boston. The program provided counseling, spiritual enrichment, and other needed resources. Two days into Teen Challenge, Steven, suffering from years of addiction, began hearing voices, and Teen Challenge helped admit him to Boston Medical Hospital, where he spent 10 days.

From there, he moved to the Woods Mullen Shelter, where he lived for 6 months. Counselors there helped him apply for social security and housing. Steven frequented the art studio at St. Francis Day Shelter most days. The studio director was a woman named Linda Dolph, who took particular interest in Steven’s painting.

Ms. Dolph was instrumental in helping Steven be admitted to college. Her assistance, and his artwork, helped Steven get admitted to the Massachusetts School of Art. While there, one of Steven’s paintings was selected as a finalist to win a scholarship to Yale University’s summer art exchange program.

Steven’s second chance at college ended in great fanfare, resulting in a bachelor’s degree on a beautiful sunny Boston day on May 22, 2012. Every graduate was applauded, but when Steven received his diploma, his fellow graduates erupted in cheer.

Today, Steven has moved back to the area. He paints whenever he gets the chance, and teaches at a school in Philadelphia.