You might think of Ann Bourgeois as a human key.
Ten years ago, she unlocked her own life by quitting her marketing job and taking minimum-wage gigs in art galleries.
Then, as an art consultant, she began to open the minds of executives who have no idea what to hang on empty walls.
Now she's beginning to pursue another, personal passion: to free up the creativity of disabled and homeless artists.
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She'll speak Tuesday at the 18th Annual Friends of UMAR Luncheon at Providence United Methodist Church, where the organization will sell 100 works by artists with developmental disabilities: paintings, photography, ceramics, silk scarves or handcrafted jewelry.
Bourgeois has a unique reason to care: Her older sister, Helen Fleming, lives in a UMAR group home and works at the agency's administrative office in Huntersville.
Yet she's propelled by her philosophy, too: These artists need to reach an audience that hasn't yet learned to think out of the box.
"We focus on disabilities, so we may never know they have artistic abilities," she says. "I'm trying to figure out how to integrate them (into the art community). It's an educational process because they're unknown and misunderstood."
The artists often need education, too, in matters of technique and style. So Bourgeois wants to bring professionals to the Urban Ministry Center and UMAR to expose these novice artists to different media.
"They're challenged in how to express themselves," she says. "They need to do it, but they don't know how."
That sentence might have defined Bourgeois herself, up to the age of 40.
A leap of faith
Until then, she followed a conventional path almost from birth in Charlotte, right up to a degree in economics from UNC Chapel Hill - "my father wanted me to secure a major that would lead to a job" - and almost 20 years' worth of work in corporate marketing and sales.
Then, in 2002, she followed her heart. She was single, had no kids and had put enough money in the bank to cope.
"I was determined, no matter what the compensation was, to get into the art world," she recalls. For a while, that compensation wasn't much.
But after working at various galleries around town for four years, she formed Charlotte Art Consultants. Her first client was Duke Energy, and the business took off.
Jobs ranged from "monumental, site-specific commissions, such as the 14-foot abstract wall sculpture in Duke Energy's auditorium, to archival giclee prints, and all artwork within that spectrum."
This professional upheaval came during a time of happy turmoil: She married ophthalmologist John "Jeb" Bourgeois in 2003, and they adopted a 1-year-old Russian boy (now named Fleming) in 2007.
"It took me a long time not to know what I wanted to do as a grown-up, but to do it," she says. "It's that horrible old adage: Do what you like and the money will come."
Her client roster, which includes 230 S. Tryon Condos, Founders Federal Credit Union and Royal Insurance, shows that it has.
Bourgeois remains the freest of free agents: She doesn't work through a gallery, doesn't limit her choices to a roster of favorite artists, doesn't bring the same basic philosophy to every assignment.
Corporate architects and interior designers hook her up with their clients and let her get to work.
Enlightening the undecided
"Ninety percent of the time, clients don't have the vocabulary to communicate about art," she says. "Often, they don't know what they like. They may know what they don't like. I explain that I'm here to enhance the design (of the building), ask a lot of yes/no questions and put together a PowerPoint presentation.
"Sometimes people will take art that's out of their comfort zone, when they come to trust you. It's a lot of hand-holding."
Her own comfort zone is broad: every kind of media from mokume-gane (a mixed-metal laminate with layered patterns) to asymmetrical fiber works, and artists from Caravaggio to Degas to Wyeth.
So is she an artist herself?
"I've been painting pastels," she says. "They're in my studio now, and my goal is to be good enough to put my artwork in my house. I'm not there yet."
A project of her own
At some point, she mentions a passage from the Gospel of Luke - "Unto whomever much is given, of him shall be much required" - to explain her interest in folks with fewer advantages. Perhaps that explains why another artist lives on the premises, in the garage behind Bourgeois' Dilworth office.
Bourgeois says 53-year-old Mike Morrison has been on the streets exactly half his life.
"My son, who loves bicycles, and I - who am intrigued by artistic expression, as well as artistic characters - spotted Mike at our neighborhood park," she says. "His artistic expression was displayed in front of him as he sat on 'his' park bench. My son and I (asked) about his bike, and he noted the origin of each object affixed to (it). We learned he spends his days dumpster-diving for treasures - some of which adorn his bike, some of which he consumes.
"Fast-forward six months and lots of hours becoming acquainted ... and Mike is sleeping in our garage, having agreed one night when temperatures dropped to 20 degrees. He has just qualified for disability benefits, which are his key to freedom - to a place of his own - for the first time in his life.
"The joy I felt when he qualified moved me to tears in the parking lot at Urban Ministry Center. To be a part of someone being given a whole new life, essentially, was thrilling."