Expressions Gallery opens exhibit featuring unhoused artists to a packed house
A local Berkeley band plays for the opening night of “Creativity Unhoused”
A local Berkeley band plays for the opening night of “Creativity Unhoused”. (Emma Estrada)

On Saturday March 9, Expressions Gallery opened its latest exhibit, “Creativity Unhoused.” The exhibit showcases artwork from both housed and unhoused people, creating a commentary about camaraderie and struggle between neighbors. The exhibit is an effort in community building, showcasing creative, bold, humorous, and touching personal stories of how it looks and feels to live on the streets. The show is meant to provoke changes in attitude and behavior and transforms negative preconceived notions into an opportunity to bridge gaps of communication. It also serves as a platform for the artists to be seen and heard.

The exhibit was curated by homeless activists and artists Marcia Poole and Rinna Flohr along with Berkeley residents and artists. The opening night was lively and crowded, leaving just enough room to get to know your neighbor. A local Berkeley jazz band playing classic oldies accompanied the many voices of the audience in the front room. The reception was free and open to the public, and proceeds from art sales went to the artists and the gallery space.

“Creativity Unhoused” features many different types of media, from screen printed posters to jewelry, watercolor, lithography, acrylic and oil paintings, and photography. Some pieces served confrontational messages, urging viewers to respect, support, and house their unhoused neighbors. Others were more abstract and open to interpretation, or displayed art for its own sake.

A painting of an encampment by Michael Topliff.
A painting of an encampment by Michael Topliff. (Emma Estrada)
Kent Doull with his hand-carved walking sticks.
Kent Doull with his hand-carved walking sticks. (Emma Estrada)

The center room featured a documentary film made by First they came For the Homeless, a homeless-led political organizing group. The group had occupied a space and were overcome by police trying to force them to move locations despite their attempts at an intentional community.

“We had a community garden,” said Mike Zint, one of the group’s founders. Ultimately, the experience was “unstable” he says, especially for people with physical disabilities. According to Zint, a lot of people in the video are now missing.

There were many other types of art present on opening night. Kent Doull, a 63 year-old homeless veteran, also showed his work at the exhibit. Doull makes walking sticks from bamboo, one of which

he uses to get around. He likes to be creative with his walking sticks, using a hatchet and a knife to whittle them down. He started making art when he became homeless. Hanging out in parks, he noticed people taking branches to walk with so he picked some up and made walking sticks out of them. One, he points out to me, he calls a swiss army stick. Other canes have names like Goose and Crow, Bleeding Stick, Wounded Stick, Rattle Stick. He sells the walking sticks and makes a small profit.

Doull also writes educational children’s stories and fiction books. He’s not yet been published but would like to be. He’s been homeless for about five years and has Parkinson’s disease, as well as Scoliosis.

Artist Michael Topliff showcased his watercolor painting of an encampment at the exhibit. “People think [the tents] could be depressing,” he said, but Michael wants to capture their specific beauty. Sometimes people decorate their tents, he says. “They make the best out of their situation.”

“Creativity Unhoused” will be open until May 24 at 2035 Ashby Avenue in Berkeley. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.

Emma Estrada is a writer who lives in Los Angeles and a UC Berkeley graduate.