I began my “Homelessness” series while studying at School of Visual Arts. I had just finished working at a law firm off of Madison Avenue in NYC, and each day, as I hurried down the elegant midtown streets, I was disturbed by a recurring theme: Homeless people propped up against the granite cornerstones, panhandling in the landscaped courtyards, and sleeping on cardboard boxes. And NO ONE paid any attention to them, even though some were within arm’s reach of the luxury towncars pulled up at the curbside, dropping off wealthy magnates and CEO’s galore. I always gave what I could, but it angered me that so much poverty and pain could exist alongside such effusive wealth, and no one seemed to care at all.
I wanted to know these people, and I wanted the world to know them; to notice them. So I decided to speak to a couple of them and try to learn their stories. I also asked if I could use their likenesses in my paintings (not recognizably, for privacy); the idea being that anyone who saw these pieces would be immediately reminded of our brothers and sisters who are less fortunate.
My first painting in the series was originally titled Ignorance of Wealth and depicts a well-to-do southern belle sort of woman, seated in a sumptuous evening gown with her back turned upon a scene of poverty, and even further in the background, destruction. I chose to make her a woman of color because I wanted to emphasize that this was a statement on class, not race (however in retrospect my choice has caused so much inquiry that perhaps it had the opposite effect). Much like Nero with his fictitious violin, this woman is content to ignore the burning buildings that light the sky behind her head like a fiery halo. And, just like the tunnel-visioned folk who I saw on my way to work every day, she certainly can’t be bothered to look at the indigent families living without shelter only a few yards behind her.
This was the only painting in the series for which the model was not a homeless person, and as this bothered me, I later changed the title of the piece to The Open Porch, and I considered removing it from the series altogether. Much later, I sold it separately at auction to benefit L.W.A.L.A., a non-profit youth-based organization that focuses on raising funds to help build health clinics in areas suffering from high rated of HIV and AIDS in Lwala, a rural village in the Nyanza Province of western Kenya. Please click here for more photos of the auction.
The second painting in the series is Alms for the Rich. In this piece, a homeless man is giving something unseen, ostensibly of value, to a young stockbroker. They are situated in a post-modern dystopia, after the collapse of Western civilization and a catastrophic market crash, indicated by the laughing skull over the line graph on the laptop. Through this role-reversal, we can witness the erstwhile entrepreneur’s embarrassment that his “less successful” counterpart is more generous than he himself might have been in more prosperous times.
The model for the man on the right was a homeless gentleman I met in Columbus Circle, let’s call him Joe, who caught my attention because he wasn’t asking anyone for anything even though he was obviously very cold and in need of assistance. Joe had a bit of bad luck after losing his job in the 80’s, and never seemed to get back on his feet. He knew there were shelters but preferred to be on his own, and when I later learned about the conditions in some shelters, I do not blame him. He was very polite and grateful for the McDonald’s meal that we shared (a step above ramen for the college student I was), and I was indignant at the stares we received while standing in line, eating and chatting. There is also an unsettling story about the two models I used for the man on the left; however it will keep for the time being.
In the third painting, F Train, I again utilized “Joe” as the model for the man on the left. In this instance, I’ve hidden his face as this was how I first encountered him. I set the painting in the 42nd Bryant Park subway because I couldn’t get good photos at Columbus Circle, and after hearing Joe’s story, it seemed to me that his was a journey that had been cut short, as though he was permanently waylaid in a station. The means of moving on were within physical reach (programs, shelters, charities), but somehow he could not access them because of societal prejudices, psychological traumas, and isolation.
I put a little girl in the upper right to represent myself as a child, because I felt very small and young in the face of all that Joe had gone through, as well as very connected to what he told me, seeing how vulnerable we all are and that easily it could be any of us, at any time.
There are two more paintings in this series which are unfinished; one featuring a homeless man I met near my then-workplace who said that he had lost his way “traveling,” and desired a hot chocolate and “yogurt with granola” which of course I obliged him; and another inspired by a woman wearing several ragged coats at once, who smiled & nodded at my questions, but wouldn’t speak at all. Eventually I’d like to revisit this series on a larger scale, time permitting.
If you’d like to help homeless people like Joe, please consider a tax-deductible donation to the Coalition for the Homeless, the nation’s oldest advocacy and direct service organization helping homeless men, women, and children, in the NYC area. DONATE»