by Terry Messman
[dropcap]E[/dropcap]xpressions Gallery in Berkeley is displaying dozens of paintings, photographs and artworks in its “Homelessness” exhibit that runs until April 18. The exhibit is a collaboration between Expressions Gallery and two homeless service providers in the East Bay, St. Mary’s Center and BOSS.
When I first learned about this exhibit, I was more than a little skeptical with all the talk of “outsider art” and do-gooder art patrons who want to vicariously experience the urban nightmare of homelessness through the safe vantage point of artists who have created decorative artworks out of anguish and poverty.
The very idea of a gallery serving the whims of upper-middle-class art patrons by hosting an exhibit that transforms human beings into art objects seemed alienating. I recalled how Richard List, a Berkeley artist who actually had been homeless, once protested a museum’s frou-frou photographic display of homelessness by standing next to the framed photos of suffering human beings with a frame around his face. As art patrons approached, they found that one of the images of homeless people stared right back at them through the frame. List’s point was that human beings should not be objectified due to poverty, nor reduced to an aesthetic experience.
And that exhibit took place in a bona fide museum, not anything as bourgeois or commercial as an art gallery.
Preconceptions Blown Away
Yet, on March 26, several artists from St. Mary’s Center in Oakland — artists I care about — were speaking at a panel on homelessness and art, so I reluctantly entered the doors of Expressions Gallery at 2035 Ashby Avenue in Berkeley to listen to a panel discussion — and very quickly had all my preconceptions and doubts blown away.
I was overwhelmed by the deeply moving paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures. Scores of fascinating artworks on the theme of urban poverty covered every wall in every room of the gallery. I hadn’t realized that the entire art gallery had been turned over to a study of homelessness in all its forms, and it was unexpectedly moving to see how many thoughtful artists, both homeless and housed, had devoted so much of their creativity and skill to bringing the hidden world of homelessness to light.
In a society that rejects and scorns homeless people and passes cruel laws to drive them out of sight, Expressions Gallery almost felt like a welcoming sanctuary — and one of the few places in Berkeley where homeless people were not banished, but made visible.
Aesthetic considerations aside, the Homelessness exhibit is an inventive way of breaking through our society’s denial of homelessness. On the streets outside the Expressions Gallery, Berkeley police have harassed homeless people for years, and politicians have tried to drive them into the ground by enacting ordinances to criminalize them. By contrast, inside the walls of Expressions Gallery, homeless artists and homeless people were welcomed, and the posters of artist Doug Minkler were on display, denouncing the Berkeley Measure S campaign to pass the sitting ban that would have criminalized homeless people throughout the city.
Expressions Gallery not only welcomed homeless people inside to attend the panel discussion, but also championed the work of homeless artists. Out of 60 artists represented in the exhibit, the paintings of 21 homeless artists were on display, a testimony to the welcoming spirit of Expressions Gallery, and evidence of the impressive outreach the gallery staff made to artists on the street.
The Artists Dispel Stereotypes
As part of this welcoming spirit, the panel on March 26 consisted, not of professional artists or university professors from the fine arts department, but six artists from St. Mary’s Center who create their art in a center that shelters and serves meals to homeless and low-income seniors in Oakland. The artists from St. Mary’s who spoke about their experience of creating art are Rodney Bell, Ron Clark, Pedro del Norte, Leon Kennedy, Emmett McCuiston and Elizabeth Teal.
The panelists thoughtfully described their struggles to create art while living on the streets, in shelters, or in low-rent SRO (single room occupancy) hotels. These artists have overcome hardships that could have eroded their will to live, and have gone on to create art that dispels all the stereotypes about homelessness — art that is a gift to a society that has too often ignored and disowned them.
Each artist displayed an image or painting they had created as part of St. Mary’s art program. Rodney Bell shared the story behind his creation of “Homelessness Has Faces,” an artwork that challenges the dehumanizing way he was treated in a homeless shelter. The shelter erased his basic humanity, and treated him like a faceless non-person. Art enabled him to reclaim his identity.
Ron Clark had two thought-provoking pieces on display. His drawing of a slumped and depressed-looking homeless man was entitled, “Standing in the Shadows of Love.” Clark used the title of a classic Motown recording by the Four Tops to describe the friendless existence of a man abandoned in the shadows.
Clark, a talented artist who lived in St. Mary’s winter shelter in 2013, asked a powerful spiritual question in a politically charged artwork: “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?”
The Tour Itself Was a Work of Art
One other major inspiration was in store for us that afternoon when our large group from St. Mary’s Center was given a tour of all the artworks on display by Rinna Flohr, founder and director of the Expressions Gallery.
Her tour was a work of art itself. Flohr was sensitive, compassionate and politically outspoken, absolutely nailing it when she described how many of the artworks are a scathing indictment of the gap between the rich and the poor.
As Flohr led us from painting to drawing to sculpture, it became even more clearly evident that these artworks are a beautiful testament to the creativity and determination of homeless artists, and the caring and depth of feeling that non-homeless artists have expressed about the injustice of poverty and inequality.
Rinna Flohr’s discussion of the art was the best part of the visit. She proved to be highly knowledgeable about the political and social issues of homelessness, and sounded more like a homeless advocate than a gallery director in her outspoken defense of the human rights of the homeless community. Support this art gallery!
She explained that the idea of holding a gallery exhibit of homeless-related art came about when a man walked into Expressions Gallery one day and showed her a drawing he had made on a crumpled paper bag. The man was homeless and he asked her, “Can you sell this for me so I can have something to eat?”
Flohr was moved by this appeal, and was highly impressed by his art. She said, “I looked at the drawing and it was fantastic, it really was. But I told him I can’t sell it for you because I run a gallery and I have a responsibility to show things that are on archival paper or on canvas.”
She told the man that she would be glad to show his art in the gallery if he could put it on canvas.
“But it just wasn’t possible and I never saw him again,” Flohr said. “He’s got no money for food, so how can he get money for archival paper and for frames and all that kind of stuff? Or even where does he have to paint or draw? Because there’s no place to do that or to store it.”
A few days later, another homeless man came into the gallery and showed her a painting he had done on a large piece of found cardboard. Even though he only had access to the same kind of paints that housepainters use, his art impressed her.
“He had done this absolutely amazing job of abstract work,” Flohr said. Once again, she was disappointed at not being able to sell or display his work. Those two encounters with homeless artists were what triggered the Homelessness exhibit.
“We finally figured out there’s got to be a way to help homeless people show their work and be known as artists, and not as homeless,” Flohr said.
Expressions Gallery paired up with St. Mary’s and BOSS to identify artists who are homeless and also to find places where they could work and develop their art. St. Mary’s and BOSS worked to encourage homeless artists, and to provide some art supplies and a space to work.
“To our amazement, we found 21 artists who are in this show,” she said. “There are 60 artists in total, but 21 of them were homeless, or are homeless or have been homeless. But they shouldn’t be known as homeless. They should be known as artists because their work is amazing.”
A Sanctuary for Homeless People and Artists
Flohr’s work as curator of this exhibit is also amazing, because she is one of the very few art gallery directors who would have even bothered to take a close look at the art of homeless people in the first place, let alone be so concerned at the lack of community support for their artistry that she curated a beautiful exhibit that filled her gallery from floor to ceiling with art on the theme of homelessness.
At a time when many business owners in Berkeley are lobbying city officials to banish homeless people from view, Rinna Flohr has welcomed homeless artists into her gallery, and has provided a sanctuary for homeless artwork.
Homeless Veteran Finds New Hope in Art
The first paintings we observed on our tour of the Homelessness exhibit were created by Gregory William Rick, a muralist and painter who served in the Army from 2003 to 2007 and was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Upon his return home, Rick was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He tried to get help at the VA, but he spent months and months waiting for help and couldn’t hold a job because he was disturbed.
Rick had planned to return to the house where he had grown up to live with his mother, but he found that his mother had died while he was in the Army, and the house was put up for sale because there had been no one to pay the mortgage.
As a result of all these setbacks, Rick became homeless. Last year, he got back on his feet and began painting again. According to Flohr, he said his artwork was what “kept him sane, kept him focused and kept him feeling that there was hope in the world.”
Next, we looked at Roosevelt Washington’s wonderfully expressive art. His beautifully rendered painting of a homeless man quietly enjoying a take-out meal on a park bench is entitled simply, “A Man Having a Pleasant Meal.”
Flohr said that Washington is “such a fantastic artist and such a sweet guy.”
Washington grew up in poverty and was raised in Oakland by a single mother with six children. He was allowed to graduate from high school even though he didn’t learn reading, writing or arithmetic.
After graduation, he was not able to read a job application, and couldn’t find a job, and then became homeless. Recently, Washington was diagnosed with dyslexia, and finally was taught how to read and write in his late thirties. Nobody had ever diagnosed his dyslexia during all the years he spent in public school.
“ He does amazing work,” said Flohr. “He’s an amazing guy and we’re really happy to present his work.”
Next, we viewed a painting of a homeless person’s face reflected in a restaurant window, a haunting reminder of hunger in the midst of carefree affluence and gourmet restaurants. Flohr pointed out that the disquieting contrast between wealth and poverty was the theme of this painting and several other artworks.
Homeless People and Pets: The Love of Their Life
Tiphereth Banks, a young artist who has worked at Youth Spirit Artworks, contributed an exquisitely designed painting of a young woman cradling her dog. Banks has an amazing sense of composition, and her painting reveals the emotional closeness and heartfelt affection between the woman and her dog by portraying them as almost merging into one another in a face-to-face embrace.
Flohr said, “Tiphereth makes the point that pets are very important to homeless people. It’s the love of their life. It’s the one thing that they feel is loyal to them and is truthful and is really there for them. Yet if people see homeless people with pets, they take them away and put them in shelters. And that’s taking away a really huge part of their lives. It’s like taking a child away from a parent.”
While discussing another painting of the bond between a homeless man and his dog, Flohr told us of an incident that opened her eyes to the importance of companion animals in the lives of homeless people.
“There was this gentleman who was standing on the street corner,” Flohr said. “He was very emaciated and very thirsty-looking. One of the artists came by and she had a bottle of water and she said, ‘Here, it looks like you really need this.’
“The first thing he did was give the water to his dog. She couldn’t understand why he would do that since he needed it himself. So she went and got another bottle and gave it to him. You could tell from that how pets are very meaningful to people.”
At this point in the tour, I was impressed by Flohr’s sensitive awareness of what homeless people go through in our society. In the course of explaining a painting of a homeless man reflected in the windows of the Bank of America, Flohr described the unjust economic gap between the rich and the poor in our country.
While it was heartening to hear an art gallery director speak out about economic inequality, her revealing insights into the hopes and hardships faced by homeless people went far deeper than that.
An Artist Trapped in a Slum Hotel
In the course of explaining an artist’s depiction of a single-room-occupancy hotel room, Flohr offered an acutely insightful explanation of what people are subjected to when living in a slum hotel.
Bear in mind that for many homeless service providers, an SRO hotel room is considered the golden passport to a better life. Often, the hope of someday being placed in a cramped, rundown hotel room is held over the heads of homeless clients to make them jump through the hoops and obey the seemingly endless regulations of nonprofit agencies. Homeless people often question whether service providers have any first-hand knowledge of how miserable conditions usually are in slum hotels.
This is a point that few people other than the most experienced homeless advocates even understand, but count Rinna Flohr among that number. She honestly described why so many homeless people regard these kinds of housing placements as a trap — a degrading bargain in which they are supposed to gratefully trade away their freedom and human dignity for the opportunity to pay all their income to a slumlord for a wretched little room that feels more like a jail cell than a home.
Flohr could easily have limited her comments to an artistic appraisal of the painting, with perhaps a vague statement of sympathy. Instead, she deplored the injustice of this situation with real depth and genuine concern.
“This is a woman who was homeless for quite awhile, living outside, and finally got a single room occupancy unit,” Flohr said. “She was put in this room and she realized, ‘My God, I can’t stand it. There is nothing in this room that I would choose for myself. I don’t own anything in this room. It’s a tiny little room and I can’t bring any friends into it. The mattress is dirty. And I have to follow all these rules. I have to turn out the lights by 9 o’clock. I have to do this. I have to do that.
“So basically she said, ‘You know, sometimes it’s better to be free and out in the streets than it is to be stuck.’”
This poses a crucial question about whether service providers and government officials should be content with offering homeless people a low-rent room in a slum hotel, rather than a real home.
So I asked that very question of Rinna Flohr. “The question is, are we offering people freedom or a cage?”
Flohr answered without hesitation. Pointing to the SRO room depicted in the artwork, she said, “That’s a cage — treating them like animals. I think we need to think about this when we’re offering people spaces. We need to think about what we are offering them. Are we offering them freedom? That’s what people need. They need freedom and protection. We need to rethink the way we offer help.”
The Homelessness exhibit runs until April 18 at Expressions Gallery, 2035 Ashby Avenue, less than a block from Ashby BART station. Expressions Gallery is a community art center that holds classes and events as well as a gallery of fine artworks. Phone: 510-644-4930. Visit their website at www.expressionsgallery.org