Making Art, Advocating for Affordable Housing

Dionna Flowers first entered Art Academy of Cincinnati (AAC) in the 90’s, when the school was still up in Mount Adams.

A graduate of Forest Park High School, Flowers served abroad in the Navy during Desert Storm before getting discharged in ’92. Back in Cincinnati, she had no framework for understanding PTSD and the addiction that was running her life, so she threw herself into going back to school.

“I have been drawing since I was seven years old. It was my way of escaping,” Flowers recalls. “So I jumped up and decided to go to the Art Academy of Cincinnati to try to ease the pain of being discharged from the Navy.”

Flowers got into the AAC on a full scholarship but quickly discovered that overcoming financial barriers was only half the battle.

“[The scholarship] wasn’t enough to keep me in there because, as I said, I didn’t understand the dynamics of what I was dealing with internally—dealing with PTSD and military sexual trauma and a survivor of so many different things as a child. I didn’t understand. I thought, if I just do this, and if I just leave that alone but still drink this, then I’ll be okay. And it didn’t work.”

What followed was rock bottom—and a vicious cycle.

“[It was] a long, twenty-five year journey of homelessness, dereliction, in-and-out of jail, in-and-out of institutions, in-and-out of halfway houses […] Clean, dirty, clean, dirty.”

The road to recovery began with intensive therapy at the Fort Thomas VA, then was sustained through the gift of affordable housing—thanks to OTR Community Housing and other local advocates—which gave Flowers the stability and the dignity to begin to dream again, for herself and for her community.

“Once I got equitable and affordable housing, I vowed that I would always give back to the community that I took so much from […] to make good the part I played in the destruction of our neighborhood.”

Finishing What They Started

Flowers is now celebrating five years of being clean, with restored family relationships, a strong support network, and a chance to finish what she started decades ago at the AAC.

“This is like a dream that I lost and was given back.”

Flowers is finding ways to merge art and advocacy work. Outside of class, she is a circuit speaker for the Homeless Coalition. In addition to silent auctions, her work can be found at the YWCA, the OTR Senior Center, and Algin Retro Furniture (as part of Visionaries and Voices), and at an upcoming show at the VA themed around PTSD among female veterans.

This Final Friday, Flowers is hosting “Art Extravaganza,” an art show fundraiser at the OTR Senior Center, with proceeds to benefit local senior services and affordable housing. The show features prints of Flowers’ original paintings made on 4×4’s that were left behind at the end of the school year, which she reclaimed and upcycled.

Flowers is grateful that in spite of everything, including a criminal record, art remains an open door to her. And she is all in.

“I’m open, like a sponge, you know, soaking up everything that I learn here [at the AAC]. And I’m willing to learn more and more and more. I’m ready for class to start back up. I’m ready to come back to class.”

This article was written by Sarah Dupee.