From homeless to hopeful

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Warwick native Rhiannon Smith and her family are set to start living in a new condo in Wickford this month, but theirs is no ordinary move. Their move in date, May 15, will mark five years since she moved into project-based housing in North Kingstown, the first place she lived after experiencing a bout of homelessness.

Smith, like many others, never expected she’d be homeless. She remembered New Year’s Day in 2011 when she expressed those sentiments to her best friend after seeing a television commercial on homelessness.

“I turned to her and I was kind of snarky about it. I said, ‘Thank God I'll never be homeless,’” she recalled.

But one week later, Smith said circumstances “totally beyond my control” landed her and two of her children in a shelter.

“I hated every second of it. I had this nonstop nervous trembling that just never went away. I couldn't calm down,” she said. “I wore my coat everywhere because I never felt like I could relax. I was a complete wreck and I hated everyone.”

Shelter living sometimes took a toll on her children. She remembered her daughter being very affected, sometimes crying in school.

Smith spent her nights feeling angry, staring up at the ceiling in her cot and running through her mind everything and everyone she blamed as her children slept nearby – they often pushed their cots together so they could be close to each other. But one night, something in her thoughts changed.

“I had this thought that was different, and it was ‘it doesn't have to be this way.’ That was it,” she said.

Though she didn’t know what that revelation would entail, it provoked her to take action. She started a process of “healing,” joining a nearby YMCA with her children and taking up a more consistent habit of painting. She started doing a small painting per day and selling those on Etsy or eBay. Though she was “embarrassed” by some of her first works, her skills improved over time and art began to change her perspectives on life.

“I've been painting forever but it got really serious, almost part of the journey of picking myself up out of this,” she said.

At this time, she also found a flyer with listings on apartments in the place she currently lives; she applied and a few months later, moved in. There, she met Jason Musone, a construction worker who would later become her fiancé.

Smith’s art sales were a good part of the reason she was able to move, which offsets her from the stereotypical “starving artist.” She rejects the notion that people can’t make a living as an artist.

“It's bull. It's really just not true,” she said. “There are a lot of people who make very good livings.”

Today, as the woman behind Giggle Goddess Creations, Smith has buyers and collectors and takes part in the ArtLifting gallery in Boston. She sells her small daily paintings for $50 each, but can make hundreds more on commissions from bigger paintings. Her work pays her bills, but also gives her an outlet for expression. Some of her paintings are of everyday objects like sunflowers, starfish and pets, but most gravitate toward fantasy creatures like mermaids and fairies.

“I just don't think I live really in the real world,” she said of her preference for depicting the imaginative over the realistic. “I can make [a painting] what I want it to be, and I love the thought that these things don't exist in real life. I'm making them real on a board.”

Her creations also have characteristics that she’d like to adopt herself. She paints confident, empowered women who are comfortable in their own skin.

Though Smith will be moving to Wickford with her art, children Clayton, Selene and Wesley, her fiancé and his son Jason, she keeps ties to Warwick; she’s still known as “Dave and Donna’s daughter” when she visits her home in Apponaug. Smith enjoyed growing up near the water and has fond memories of taking rowboat trips in the cove. Though she still loves Apponaug, she joked about despising the new circulator that makes her feel like an “incompetent”’ driver.

As she looks ahead to a prosperous life largely bolstered by her art, Smith hopes aspiring artists won’t let others discourage them from pursuing what they love.

“It is a stigma and a weird kind of stereotype that people have, but we've got to break that because everything is art,” she said.

More of Smith’s work can be found on her Facebook page, Giggle Goddess Creations, or on her website at gigglegoddessart.com.

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