There is no Place Like Home

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little. ~Franklin D Roosevelt

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Image courtesy of http://www.martharosler.net

It is nearly impossible to drive around San Francisco and not see persons living at risk on the streets. This happens not only in San Francisco, this is a concern for the state, the country, and also internationally. I intentionally and purposefully avoid calling it a problem, because it then mistakenly gets misconstrued that homeless persons are the problem, and it is the problem for those living on the street, rather than a problem of the greater community, a societal problem, one facing those of us who are sheltered; and, by sheltering oneself from the problem this can lead to avoidance rather than engagement to finding solutions. Awareness, concern, and support (along with budget commitment) are needed.

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Joel Daniel Phillips, Aunt Kitty, 2016, graphite and charcoal on paper. Image courtesy of http://www.joeldanielphillips.com

Last December when visiting an art gallery where directly across the street was a row of colorful tents lining the sidewalk, ‘tent city’ as many locals call these makeshift communities, I asked if anything could be done to provide support for these neighbors who we observed from their gallery windows. There must be local services in the neighborhood, I inquired. What about holding an exhibition to raise monies for the local services or offering a percentage of art sales to support existing organizations that help those in need? I suggested.

I thought of various other businesses that are successful models for combining consumerism and charity; for example, Patagonia has given to charitable organizations over the years and this last December donated 100% of black Friday profits ($10 million), the small employee-owned Four Sigmatic, a nutritional food supplement company donates a percentage of profits to cancer patients on an ongoing basis and this last January donated 100% of profits to cancer organizations, and this past January Petzel Gallery’s exhibition “We need to talk…” not only donated a percentage of sales to charities chosen both by collectors and artists but also during this exhibition visitors were invited to write their thoughts, feelings and hopes for the future.

Undoubtedly, it is costly to maintain an art gallery and living as an artist has economic challenges, yet I wondered could there be a way for art to be an advocate for change, to make an impact, to support shelters, food banks, or social services, all which help towards improving the lives of those living on our streets? Could this be done with the gallery acting as a catalyst through annual art exhibitions and fundraisers, if not on an ongoing basis?

Fouladi PROJECTS, opened the New Year with an exhibition focusing on homelessness, “Coming Clean: SF”. This group show is co-hosted and curated by Lava Mae, a local organization that provides shower and toilets to persons without permanent shelter and access to the basic need to get clean. Doniece Sandoval, Lava Mae’s founder and CEO, took her compassion that all people deserve dignity and the ability to keep clean combined with her creativity and innovation she then looked towards a solution inspired by gourmet food trucks and gaining access to out of service metro busses created mobile bathrooms.

Lava Mae’s team inquired how might they bring greater awareness to their organization and needs of homeless persons. They contemplated alternate ways to think about philanthropy and to engage a community. Art was the answer.

Artists have a unique way of addressing a serious matter and creating an artifice that doesn’t belittle or exploit the difficult subject, instead they create an aesthetic, a fictional rendering, making it easier to access than looking directly at darkness and undesirable realities. Perhaps through art we can feel enticed and invited to experience caringly and without judgment. We are able to see the precarious lives of people living under freeways, in doorways, in tents, and in public parks toting their entire possessions in shopping carts and rolling suitcases; through an artists’ perspective we can look empathetically at these members of our society where we might otherwise have chose to look the other way or cross to the other side of the street in order to avoid coming close to a homeless person, or worse, wanting to displace them to a place not-in-my-neighborhood. Maybe art provides an access for people to face one another, approaching from compassion. I hope art elicits empowerment to be a part of the solution. How we choose to either pass judgment or show empathy towards the disadvantaged reflects on our commonwealth as a society. Just beginning by connecting eye-to eye with people affirms that they exist, are seen, and are humanized. It is a deeply healing, therapeutic experience.

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Joel Daniel Phillips, Vicki, 2013, charcoal and graphite on paper. Image courtesy of http://www.joeldanielphillips.com

In 1989 Martha Rosler created “If You Lived Here” exhibited at Dia Art Foundation, an art project on housing, homelessness, and architectural planning with a collaboration of work from artists, writers, filmmakers, poets, homeless people, community groups and schoolchildren which took the form of town hall meetings and deployed activism and discussion as a form of art. This exhibition has shown around the world, most recently in 2016 on a one-year stint in Seattle funded by The New Foundation and re-titled “Housing is a Human Right”.

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Other artists have used their art to illuminate the homelessness challenges in our society. Michael Rakowitz created paraSite shelters, custom designed inflatable transportable temporary shelters out of recycled zip-lock bags which were inflated and heated by attaching to exterior outtake vents of a building’s HVAC (heating ventilation, and air conditioning system). These ‘art objects’ have been distributed to over 30 homeless persons in Boston and New York City since 1998.

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per owner’s request, designed to look like a rib cage. image courtesy of http://www.michaelrakowitz.com

Krzysztof Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle unveiled in an exhibition at the Clocktower Gallery in 1988. It is a hybrid between a shopping cart and a rocket-like-looking sleeping compartment. Wodiczko, like Rakowitz, ‘consulted’ with homeless persons in developing the design for his art piece.Both Rakowitz’s paraSite and Wodiczko’s Vehicle are neither a temporary or permanent solution to the housing problem, nor are they intended as prototypes for mass production, rather they are social/political art raising awareness of the existence of a crisis and calling into question its causes and possible solutions.

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Kryzysztof Wodiczko, Homeless Vehicle version 3, 1988-89. Aluminum, steel, plastic, plywood, lexan, rubber. Image courtesy of http://www.mca.chicago.org

And, Willie Baronet’s artwork stemmed from a direct purpose to raise funds for his “We Are All Homeless“campaign and exhibitions. He gathered handmade signs, those often seen held by people standing along a busy city street or propped against the leg of someone sitting on the sidewalk with their hand out asking for help, and he collaged these signs together making them into large wall installations. These few examples make clear that this has been a decades long challenge with no simple solutions. I believe with innovative, intelligent community engaged citizens, artists, and local/state leaders we can garner visibility and funds required for developing housing that is connected with social services as a part of tenancy and with upward transition possibilities. We can help give people more stable homes than those made out of blue, yellow, and green nylon. We can start creating solutions, it is happening now, and tomorrow it continues.

In this essay are images from two artists in the fouladi Projects exhibition; Amy Wilson Faville, whose art transforms mobile shopping cart collectives into aesthetically appealing images, she is interested in the tableaux created, the narrative of the contents, and Joel Daniel Phillips, intricately draws portraiture on a lifelike scale, capturing the commonalities we share as humans, exposing visibility to deeper, truthful emotions. “A true portrait is far more than a rendering of physical form-it is the capturing of the vulnerable, un-invented narratives that make us human.” states Joel Daniel Phillips. In addition, the other artists in the exhibition Elizabeth Lo, Danielle Nelson Mourning, Ramekon O’Arwisters,Yon Sim, and Kathryn Spence each in their own words expressed homelessness could happen to anyone, it could happen to them, and they hoped their art would open hearts and minds. The “Coming Clean: SF” exhibition showcases art as an imaginative and compassionate advocate for the precarious and complex issue facing those living on the streets. This is making art that matters!

Please share in comments any other art projects or exhibitions that matter, particularly those addressing homelessness. Thank you!

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Amy Wilson Faville, Pasture, 2007, graphite and collage on paper. image courtesy of fouladi  Projects.

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