Drawing on newfound strength, homeless artist finds solace

A psychiatrist suggested Eileen Galbraith, 49, relieve anxiety by keeping a diary, writing poetry or doing artwork.
A psychiatrist suggested Eileen Galbraith, 49, relieve anxiety by keeping a diary, writing poetry or doing artwork.
Published Nov. 28, 2013

TARPON SPRINGS — Eileen Galbraith left the Pinellas County Jail on Sept. 6 after serving three months for taking a swing at a cop. She said she didn't remember the incident and attributed it to an epileptic seizure.

Tarpon Springs officers, naturally, didn't believe her. They had hauled in the homeless woman known as "Blondie'' a dozen times since 2009, mainly for trespassing or fighting or some other alcohol-fueled dispute.

The 90-day sentence was the longest. It might also have been her salvation.

On her first day, a psychiatrist suggested Galbraith relieve anxiety by keeping a diary, writing poetry or doing artwork. She looked at the doctor and said, "Artwork? You want me to do artwork? I can't even do stick figures.''

She tried drawing flowers and hearts. Peace signs. She wrote "Love'' and "Harmony'' and it did make her feel better. Her earliest drawing on a brown paper towel expressed "Mom loves her kids.'' She hoped to someday rekindle a relationship with her son and daughter, 21 and 17. "You think about that a lot when you're locked up,'' she said.

Galbraith moved to butterflies and dragonflies. As her confidence grew, she told stories with her art. She drew herself with a lion's mane, climbing upward from despair. She drew a white picket fence, a symbol of domestic bliss. "Not everything is as it seems,'' she said. "Some bad things go on behind that white picket fence.''

She would know. She lived there before her world fell apart.

One night in jail, a violent inmate screamed and kicked as a guard hauled her away. Galbraith felt her heart racing. She retreated to her cot and scribbled wildly until calm was restored. She named the finished result "Chaos,'' a collection of floating butterflies and other gentle creations that made her feel better — love, peace, harmony.

She drew a large bird and colored it yellow with mustard jailers had given her as part of an "indigent package.'' She used A&D Ointment to coat her drawings for preservation.

Other inmates took notice. They asked her to draw for them. She traded food for pens and paper. "I lost six pounds,'' she said. "My art was my journal. I didn't miss drinking. I left jail feeling there might be something better in my future.''

• • •

Galbraith, 49, returned to the streets of Tarpon Springs. Inmates and jailers had encouraged her to let a trained artist look at her drawings, and she knew a gallery.

She walked down Tarpon Avenue in the center of town, past a building where she once had worked as a cosmetologist. The salon owner let her go in 2009 when her husband kept showing up or calling, making a scene, scaring the customers.

Eileen and Carl had been together since high school in New York. He made good money as a machinist. She did hair for 12 years at a JCPenney and had plenty of other customers on the side. In 2006, they bought a house in East Lake Woodlands near Oldsmar for $372,000.

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Police reports paint a dismal picture of domestic violence and alcohol abuse as the Galbraiths fought. She says he forced her to move out and homeless men in Tarpon Springs gave her shelter and protection. On Oct. 14, 2009, Carl attacked one of those men outside a Wendy's, stabbing him in the neck. He chased Eileen to a nearby Panera Bread and strangled her until customers came to her defense. Eileen's friend recovered. Carl spent eight months in jail as prosecutors reduced attempted murder charges. He later moved to Arizona. Relatives took in the children.

Eileen hoped the talent she discovered in jail would help her make a better life. She stuffed her drawings in a folder and walked into the Artists' Faire Gallery, which shares space with the Chamber of Commerce. Heather Risley, a talented painter who had presided over the Tarpon Springs Art Association, looked up as the front door opened.

She thought the woman looked familiar. She had probably seen Eileen working street corners for money. "They're the invisible people,'' said Risley, 70. "They're around, but unless you have contact with them, you don't see them.''

"Do you have time to look at my drawings?'' Galbraith asked.

Risley, alone in the gallery that Sunday, took her time. "They were so unique,'' she recalled. "I would ask her about each piece and she would describe the emotions she was feeling. She was so passionate. You could feel and see the depression and angst, very dark feelings and thoughts. At the same time, she had a sense of purpose, promise and hope. She took responsibility for her situation. She didn't blame anyone. That was especially important to me.''

Risley's paintings have been featured in Boston galleries and private collections. One large piece was selected as a prop for Sean Penn's apartment in the Oscar-winning 2003 movie Mystic River. She retired to Tarpon Springs nine years ago and originated the popular Paint & Photo project that brings artists and photographers together for four days each November to work at scenic locations around the city.

Risley defined Galbraith's drawings as "outsider art — non-traditional in materials and style but very popular in some urban areas.'' She was particularly impressed at the "ingenious'' use of her limited supplies in jail. She invited Galbraith to return later and when she did, Risley had matted the stylish yellow bird drawing on a black background. She let Galbraith read an essay she had been inspired to write, "Eileen.''

The opening paragraph: "She is as fragile as a snowflake and as hard as a diamond — all at the same time.''

Galbraith hugged Risley and sobbed.

"Nobody gets me,'' Galbraith said. "Nobody gets me, but she gets me.''

On her most recent visit to the gallery, Galbraith dressed in a fuchsia blouse with a matching head scarf and necklace. Her old boss at the salon, she said, had washed and set her hair. A visitor complimented her appearance.

"Hey,'' she responded, "just because I'm homeless doesn't mean I can't be stylish.''

She left uncertain about where she might spend the night, much less fast-approaching Thanksgiving. She expected to catch up with other wanderers at a place they call "the homeless tree.'' She drew a picture of it, coated it with ointment and signed it "Blondie.''