'ArtLifting' site uplifts homeless artists by selling their art

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AirLifting artist Ed Johnson lost his home in Hurricane Katrina, and has struggled with addiction. "Art helps me stay sober," he says. AirLifting

Artsy iPhone cases aren't hard to find. But few have backstories as dramatic as the ones sold on ArtLifting, an online marketplace for homeless and disabled artists. These cases feature images drawn by creatives who rely on wheelchairs and disability benefits and dream of one day renting a place of their own.

A case spotlighting a vivid moon rising over Boston's Back Bay neighborhood, for example, was designed by Dante Gandini, who paints at Common Art, a Boston program that provides space, materials, and support to homeless and low-income artists. Asked why he wants to sell his creations, Gandini has a simple answer: "survival," adding that "it builds self-esteem when you sell something."

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Dante Gandini's "Blue Moon Over Back Bay" comes as an original; a print on paper or mounted canvas; or an iPhone 5 case. Dante Gandini

Boosting the spirits -- and coffers -- of disadvantaged artists drives the venture, founded by brother-sister team Liz and Spencer Powers with their own savings. "Our art marketplace not only provides customers a means to decorate their space," says Liz Powers, who has eight years of experience working with the homeless. "It also allows each purchase to directly uplift a disadvantaged individual."

ArtLifting, incubated at the Harvard Innovation Lab and MassChallenge, currently supports 20 artists, mostly from the Boston area. The Powers siblings recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to expand ArtLifting to five cities -- New York, Detroit, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington D.C. -- and add 65 new artists who may barely turn a profit selling their creations on street corners and at craft fairs but will get far broader exposure online.

Works on the site range in price for $19.99 for iPhone cases to $300 for original paintings. They set their price, and ArtLifting signs a contract requiring it to pay artists the amount they identified.

The Kickstarter campaign runs through September 11 and has so far raised a little over $8,500 toward its $20,000 goal.

"Thanks to ArtLifting, by this time next year, I won't have to be on disability anymore," artist Allen Chamberland, who suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and has been on disability for much of his life, said at a launch party for the campaign. "That feels great."

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