For Jerry Smitson, the journey from being homeless to becoming a contributing member of society began with art.
The 50-year-old Indiana transplant recalled Christmas on the streets near the St. Vincent de Paul store here — he's not sure if it was 2005 or '06 — when he found some potatoes and vines in the Lake Maggiore woods. He turned them into a snowman set under the Catholic charity's tree.
"The homeless got to encouraging me," he said. "It was the greatest thing they had ever seen."
Buoyed by their reaction, he kept discovering what would be detritus to most — fish bones, pine cones and palm tree husks — and creating primitive art.
He attended Art in the Park events in 2008 with a small Indian composed of pine cones with coconut shoes. After coordinator Leslie Curran turned him away several times, she relented and let him display his work.
The Indian sold for $60.
"That was big money to me, man," said Smitson as he led a visitor through displays of his work at Interior Motives, Curran's gallery on Central Avenue. "She said, 'You're a hit. You're in.' "
As Smitson spoke, he cradled a cup of hot coffee, smiling easily in flip-flops, shorts and collared shirt as he pointed out his creations. Off My Rocker is a deer skull he found in the mud of the Ohio River.
The deer's eyes are buttons used in bingo at Boley, the recovery center where he has been for 17 months after 14 months of homelessness that tested the unemployed house painter, whose weight dropped from 210 to 170.
Now a robust 240, Smitson described a story whose elements are typical of those who descend into homelessness. A marriage of 30 years that ended in divorce. A series of lost jobs here after he lost his own Indiana business. Depression after a Kentucky auto accident that killed two grandchildren and partly crippled a daughter.
While homeless, he'd walk to Largo and Fort De Soto, unsure of where he'd sleep. During that time he was beaten up several times over bicycles and bus passes. He said he was glad that after eight months of waiting, a spot at Boley opened.
"But now my spirits are better," he said, standing beside flowers made of tarpon bones. "That's my obsession. There's nobody else doing this type of work, so I might as well keep it up."
Others artists have pushed him to do just that. Carrie Jadus met him at an art event and bought an owl made of snail shells from him. Jadus, who created the Waterfront Centennial poster, was touched by his story.
"I wanted to be supportive of his creativity," she said. "It's just something totally different that represented his lifestyle and way of life."
Local artist Lance Rodgers felt a similar kinship with Smitson. He said he watched Smitson transform after a few sales.
"You could just tell his pride grew, his self-esteem and how he looks at himself," Rodgers said. "It's a naive art form, but a lot of that stuff is intuitive and you can't teach that."
Smitson sometimes walks near St. Vincent de Paul as a gentle reminder of what homelessness was like. But mostly he seeks materials in the Intracoastal's mangroves at low tide.
Boley is trying to find him better digs, but Smitson is buoyed by supporters: "They tell me to keep plugging. You can't catch that fish unless you keep throwing that plug."