Tiffany Carmouché said an abrupt end to a romantic relationship sparked her creativity in sculpture.
Harnessing her own endurance, she volunteers with the Laurel Winter Shelter program, formerly known as Winter Haven, to guide the homeless community through life’s trials. Then she depicts their perseverance through sculpture.
Carmouché’s collection, entitled Our Stories, features clay busts and bronzed sculptures of the faces of people who she has met while volunteering with local groups. The exhibit was showcased during the ArtRave’s Art All Night event in September in Washington, D.C., and will be featured at an interactive art gallery and charity event in New York in 2018.
“My series of stories is all about seeing beneath the surface of the skin,” said Carmouché, a mother of two and a North Laurel resident who is also an author. “We all have gifts and struggles. Our job as a community is to support each other and know of the beauty that is here. Most of us are so busy that we don’t take time to learn other people’s stories.”
Carmouché weaved the story of her abusive relationship into the first book of her five-book series, “The Alaskan Heart Saga.” “The Imposter,” the first novel, is about a young single mother who moves to Alaska to escape an abusive ex-boyfriend.
Carmouché said when her relationship ended, she and her two daughters were abandoned and left with no money. With their home in foreclosure, Carmouché recalled “dancing with my creative muse” when she and a friend moved her family to Alaska.
“I was not sure how I was going to survive. It was a scary time,” she said. “The series is about how no matter how many times we get knocked down, we get back up. It’s a story of perseverance.”
Carmouché said she tapped into her artistic outlets, such as sculpting, charcoal drawings and painting, in 2012. She took her first sculpting class at Montpelier Arts Center, taught by master sculptor and former arts center director Richard Zandler.
“I fell in love with it and Richard Zandler, my mentor, told me I had talent and encouraged me to continue,” she said. “I feel honored to be challenged by an artist that is so talented. It is a blessing to not just send my work to a foundry, but to actually learn this incredible skill and do all the work myself instead.”
She said she often finds models for her artwork through the Laurel Winter Shelter.
Phillip Ott, a member of the Laurel Winter Shelter’s board of directors, said the program provides homeless men and women with a warm place to sleep and hot meals. The program circulates across 20 congregations in Prince George’s, Howard, Montgomery and Anne Arundel counties, beginning the weekend after Thanksgiving through March.
Ott said he wasn’t familiar with Carmouché’s work but agreed with what she’s trying to do.
“The best thing we can do to help is to sit down and break bread with the different guests and get to know them by their first name. Everybody has their own story,” said Ott, who attends Bethany Community Church in Laurel, one of the participating congregations. “Not everybody who visits the shelter is a broken-down criminal who just got out of jail. They are people who fall in between the cracks.”
During her 15 years of volunteering, Carmouché said she’s followed the program to several congregations. The model for her first bronze sculpture was a homeless man she met during a dinner at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in South Laurel.
“He was talking about how he was a musician [and] the next night, I brought in a guitar and his hands danced on the guitar,” Carmouché said. “He played, I sang and a couple of other people sang. It was absolutely beautiful.”
Despite his talent, she said she saw how the man was treated differently in society for being homeless, and she asked if she could use him for a sculpture to capture his strength and determination.
Carmouché said she took an impression of the man’s face when the shelter moved to Laurel’s Oseh Shalom Synagogue and then used wax to create a mold. Once she completed the sculpture’s shell, Carmouché poured 2,000-degree bronze into it, cracked the shell and sandblasted and fired the piece.
“It’s a really grueling process and to me, it symbolizes our lives. We go through so many trials and hard times,” she said. “It’s so easy to give up, but if we just keep going, we can create our own masterpiece in our lives.”
Seeing Carmouché’s work was moving, said Stephanie Vader, pastor at Emmanuel United Methodist Church. Vader said she worked with Carmouché for a couple of years during the winter shelter program’s run at the North Laurel congregation. The two often worked the overnight shift, enjoying conversation and playing checkers with the guests.
Vader said she recognized how Carmouché treated everyone with dignity and respect and was genuinely interested in their well being.
“They are very vulnerable and often have substance abuse and mental health issues,” Vader said. “They could easily be treated by many people as invisible, but these folks are survivors and I think that she honors that about them. Creating a piece of artwork based on another human being’s physical body is really a powerful way of incarnating them.”
Cecile Moran, a winter shelter volunteer and member of St. Mary of the Mills Catholic Church, said she’s “not surprised at all” about Carmouché’s artwork after seeing her work ethic in the church’s youth group more than a decade ago. The West Laurel resident said Carmouché demonstrated “general compassion and respect” for all when she was a youth group leader for Moran’s three sons.
“We had some people who were challenging in different ways and I would always notice how she always treated all of them in such a level way,” Moran said. “It was very inclusive, not critical. As a result, the kids responded to her wonderfully. They felt valued and respected, and same with the homeless individuals.”
Carmouché says she not only models her work after the homeless, but anyone at various stages in their lives, and her newest series, the Phoenix Project, expands on the Our Stories exhibit.
In the Phoenix Project, the artist collects slips of paper with words or life events written down by the public, burns the paper during an online live stream and uses the ashes in her artwork.
“Sometimes, it’s ‘hate,’ ‘debt,’ ‘poverty’ and ‘racism,’” Carmouché said. “I’m just trying to build awareness for some of the things that are going on in society. The human connections we make are such a gift. We’re a community; we’re a team.”