The art of friendship: Two Charlotte women with two different life circumstances form an unlikely bond

“This artist.” That is how Tatiana was first introduced to Hannah Blanton and her church, Covenant Presbyterian Church, in 2009 during a sermon on selfless giving.

Blanton said she had no idea at the time that the person from the sermon, this artist, would have such a profound effect on her life.

Blanton, 45, owns Sozo Gallery at Hearst Tower in uptown Charlotte. She is a wife, mother, business owner, Christian, philanthropist and survivor. Blanton was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), and used her experience to start a Charlotte support group in conjunction with the GBS/CIDP Foundation International.

Tatiana is an artist and a devout Christian. She is also homeless, Russian, suffers from schizophrenia and has only one leg. Her back story is unknown, but Tatiana is more than just her circumstance, she is an artist with a philanthropic heart.

On that Sunday in 2009, Blanton was inspired in a way she had never felt before. What resonated with her the most was that Tatiana gives all money from the purchase of her art to the homeless community. After the service, Blanton saw Tatiana’s art for the first time.

“I saw her work after the sermon and my heart was stirred …. physically and emotionally,” Blanton said. “I knew I had to do something for her.”

Tatiana was a participant in the ArtWorks 945 program through the Urban Ministries Center CommunityWorks program. The goal of the CommunityWorks program, and the Urban Ministries Center, is to treat the people they serve with compassion and to provide them with the resources to get the help they need to improve their current conditions.

After seeing her art, and having a chance encounter with Tatiana a month later, Blanton had an idea for an event – Carolina Art Soiree – to support local artists like Tatiana, the ArtWorks 945 program, as well as benefit the GBS/CIDP Foundation International and raise awareness about the disease.

After showing artwork from Tatiana and other ArtWorks 945 program participants at the Carolina Art Soiree, Blanton was eventually approached about opening a gallery at the base of Hearst Tower on Tryon Street.

“I like to call this a ‘Jesus Moment’ as I do not believe that any of this was coincidence,” Blanton said. “Owning a gallery was never in my master plan. I remember one morning in particular, I was driving to Sozo and questioning my business decision. Had I done the right thing? After I parked and walked out the front entrance of Hearst Tower, who should I happen to see sitting with a warm cup of tea and her dog? It was Tatiana.”

It was at this moment that Blanton realized Tatiana was her blessing. Refusing money, bus fare and food, Tatiana reminded Blanton of what is important in life – the little things.

“She told me she had her home in the woods, her dog and her God, what more could she possibly want,” Blanton said. “She inspires me.”

After talking with her, Blanton discovered what Tatiana really wanted – more art supplies. Blanton reached out to some of her artist friends, and they were able to pull their resources together. Tatiana’s wagon was filled with canvases, paints and brushes. Her dog, Cabo, harnessed to the wagon with a scarf, walked with his owner to take the treasures home to share with Tatiana’s artist friends.

“Art is universally powerful,” said Maria Mazzocco, community engagement coordinator for CommunityWorks. “Art is a way to connect on a deeper level ... a way for someone to become engaged.”

“Homelessness is a condition people live in, but it doesn’t define who they are,” Mazzocco said. “Our goal is to allow for opportunities for the people we serve to feel good about themselves, to feel they are making contributions, and to get the support they need.“

“If I could tell people one thing about Tatiana, it would be to look into her eyes,” Blanton said. “Her eyes capture you and you will immediately see this beautiful humble soul, that’s probably seen more hardship than any of us ever will. Humility above all else, humility.”

In Greek, Sozo, the name of Blanton’s gallery, means to be healed by God, to keep safe and to save. Although unlikely friends, Blanton and Tatiana bonded over a love of art and faith.