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Whispers from the Streets

What good is art, anyway? These days, we are flooded with images everywhere we turn, and the corporate world produces such pretty pictures to fill our heads with how lovely life can be if only we just buy something. I sometimes ruminate on the question: How can art continue to make any difference in such a landscape?

In contrast, the Fresno Art Museum has taken a bold step in mounting a multidimensional set of shows based on a subject that no one finds beautiful: homelessness. And yet, from the moment I saw the works on display, I was drawn into a world where weeds and junk and sleeping in the dirt mix with the striking beauty of humanity and brotherhood, and yes, even dignity. Beginning May 20 and running through July 31, The Homeless Project lets us walk into a homeless encampment and gain amazing insights into the many varied aspects of a life most of us only hope to avoid. We are also granted a vision into a future of solutions.

There are many aspects to this compelling set of shows. The largest, which greets us at the door, is “Whispers from the Street.” Scenes of life on the streets are constructed of, among other things, cast-off wood, corrugated metal, plastic sheeting, cardboard and magazine mosaics and painted with surprising skill. Surprising, because the whole thing was made by McLane High School students, showing insight and talent way beyond their years.

The first time I saw the work, a friend exclaimed, “They must have had a really good teacher!” Two in fact. Marc Patterson and Matt Marhenke teach at McLane High’s ArtVenture Academy. They “used an important social issue as a means to teach their students about the power of art to understand, express, teach and inspire,” says Linda Cano, executive director of the Fresno Art Museum.

She continues, “Because of this brave and powerful artistic journey, McLane High students, faculty and administration confronted homelessness not just in their community, but also in their midst.”

There are approximately 150 homeless students at McLane alone and roughly 3,000 in the Fresno Unified School District. All of the images in “Whispers from the Street” are indigenous to Fresno. The students interviewed and portrayed actual people and places, and that honesty contributes to the obvious: This is real.

The concreteness of “Whispers” started with pages from the journal of a local street person, Kalem Kazarian, who later attended a university and broke out of homelessness. His words were inscribed on tiles and reflect on the intelligence and inner thoughts of their author, from quotes by Thoreau to entries about constructing shelter out of found objects. They feel like pages left behind in haste but also of being etched in stone.

These pages are part of the small details of this show, but what really hits you are the life-sized aspects. A shanty with these pages and images of faces on the inside, and painted on the outside; achingly beautiful fireside scenes of folks illuminated in the darkness by barrel fires and camaraderie. The compositions have the effect of drawing us in as if we’ve just walked out of the darkness ourselves to join this circle.

The paintings are all on rough wood panels, but the faces of some figures are layered on and give a three-dimensionality and cast shadows very much like a fire does. This tableau helps us walk up to a group of homeless without any threat or scariness, and we have the time and stillness to stare into their faces and see their humanity. That’s not to say that there are not also represented here a few “crazies,” but that too is reality.

As I walked around the walls and corners, some of the images are recognizable local landscapes but they are also generic in the sense that this could be Anywhere, USA. With two million or more people in this country in transitional housing or emergency shelters, countless others sleep on the street or in the open.

One aspect that pulls the context from local to national is the sign over the shanty door that reads “Flooded.” It made me think of all the people in New Orleans and beyond driven from their homes by natural disaster―we could be them.

Although it is easy to think that all the homeless are that way because “it’s their own fault,” the slightest bit of reflection lets us realize that most of us are only the lack of a few paychecks, or a medical bankruptcy, or a car wreck, or a chemical imbalance away from that same life.

“Street Stories” is a second aspect of The Homeless Project. For these photographic works of both local and world scenes, Steve Dzerigian and Terry Hayden called on their peers to use this powerful medium that has documented social issues since its inception. The variety of images from around the globe show the condition in its international aspects, although it isn’t always easy to say which are local and which were taken beyond our borders.

Two photos by Poverello House’s Mike McGarvin show little kids caught up in homelessness. One shows two sad waifs, and every time I see it (reprinted from McGarvin’s book On the Level) I can never help but think about what hope their futures hold. The other photo shows a boy and his little brother, gleefully riding a push car and laughing just like any other kids.

Dixie Salazar’s interior of a makeshift home shows a place as neat, tidy and, frankly, serene, as any “real” home.

The Fresno Art Museum began an outreach program with the Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC) last year, which is represented in a third aspect of the show. The EOC’s Sanctuary and Youth Services bring homeless and in transition kids ages 11–17 and 17–24 into the museum weekly to view the museum galleries and to learn new skills and create. They are given basic art lessons with an emphasis on examining identity, and on portraiture and self-expression. Many of these kids have never had any art education, let alone visited a museum.

The programs began with the vision of the EOC’s director of shelter and youth programs, Michelle Tutunjian, who believes “the visual arts can play an important and positive role in healing, inspiring and encouraging the youth that the EOC serves.”

Part of the Fresno Art Museum’s mission is educational, and Cano believes the museum is “here to engage, to be relevant and to serve the community.” Some of the artwork created by the young people is on display in the ChildSpace Classroom, and the artists were enthusiastic and proud to show their creations at The Homeless Project’s opening.

The final component of this show is a vision into a future of solutions. Art Dyson has been creating innovative architecture for more than 40 years. Studying under Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff formed his style, but his kindness and humble demeanor are all his own.

“Whole Places: Ecological Design for Renewed Belonging” promotes humane housing for those who have none. Dyson’s vision offers a holistic, self-sustaining, temporary answer to homelessness, with innovative designs for shelters made from recycled material and a look at how a cooperative community might look and function. Job training, healthcare, gardens, an arts and craft day room, solar heating, help with permanent housing and reintegration into the mainstream are all aspects of his Eco Villages.

In the same gallery is “Leaf House,” a project of Fresno State’s Lyles College of Engineering construction management students. Built mostly from wooden pallets, the single-occupant concept imagines “an environment where homeless can live safely, harvest food and learn a working skill, build self-esteem and reenter society.”

The Fresno Art Museum hosted “Out in the Open,” a community roundtable discussion on homelessness. The panel explored the complex issues associated with homelessness. Photo by Howard Watkins

In addition to these solutions, a community round table discussion, “Out in the Open,” was hosted by the museum and sponsored by Granville Home of Hope. A panel of experts including the Community Alliance’s Mike Rhodes, Doreen Eley of Poverello House, Gregory Barfield from Fresno First Steps Home, Dyson, the EOC’s Tutunjian, Fresno County’s Henry Flores and homeless advocate Alphonso Williams explored the issues. With the Fresno Art Museum’s strong education component as a part of their mission statement, the event was free to the public and fulfills the museum’s new vision to serve our diverse community.

By presenting a show that highlights the depth and breadth of a problem as complex as homelessness, Cano has taken a risky step with The Homeless Project. There was some resistance to bringing the work of high school students into an accredited art museum. It was feared that it wouldn’t be “high art” and did not belong. The insights gained and the posted comments from visitors to the show tell another story. They tell of the power of art to touch the soul and offer solutions.

 

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