Monday, July 26, 2010

Homeless, Decision Portrait Series

(Above: Homeless, Decision Portrait Series. Stitched words: No fixed address. Xylene photo transfer on tea-stained muslin. Hand stitched with name tag. 25" x 19" unframed; 31" x 25" framed. Click on image to enlarge.)

There have been several Decision Portrait Series pieces that were emotionally difficult for me to stitch. Many decisions depicted in this series are heart-wrenching. Some, I don't understand on a personal level but I've tried to remain nonjudgmental, faithful to the "model", true to the concept behind the series.

This piece, however, has been the most difficult. I'm fairly sure that I didn't succeed in one respect. I can't help myself. I attached a little "value judgment".... in the form of a "name tag".

(Above: Homeless, Decision Portrait series. Detail with name tag. Click on image to enlarge.)

Why? Why did I allow my personal opinion on this man's decision to interfere with my stitching, my work, my concept?

I wanted a HOMELESS person.....someone who CHOSE to live without the responsibilities of an ordinary, tax-paying citizen. I didn't want an individual who was in such circumstances because of forces beyond his or her control. I didn't want someone who'd lost a house due to the economy or gambling problems or a broken marriage or some other hardship. I didn't want someone whose mental facilities weren't capable of another lifestyle. I wanted someone who CHOSE to live this way, HOMELESS. That's exactly who I found.

We met at Gallery 80808/Vista my studio. At the time, there was an art exhibition in the gallery. The people mounting the show were giving a portion of any proceeds to this man's "homeless ministry". There was a box for donations too. This man is the "pastor" of the "homeless ministry". He is tall, clean, articulate, educated through high school, and in good health. He has a cell phone. He has a mail box at a rental storage facility. These are paid for through the donations to the "ministry".

He wanted to know if I was selling my portraits...would he get a percentage? He wanted to know if I'd pay him to pose. He wanted to know if there was an admission to the upcoming exhibition. He was very, very interested in money. He talked about all the things he does as the "pastor" of his "ministry".... like going to the hospital with other homeless men who need medical attention, raising awareness in the community about the plight of the homeless, and witnessing for God. He never mentioned getting a homeless person into a home.

I asked why he was homeless. He chose this lifestyle...exactly what I wanted for this piece. We talked about the Decision Portrait Series concept, about my respect for the decisions made by showing a straight-forward depiction of a real individual who had made each decision....about the title and words for this piece in particular.

Then, it was back to talking about money. How would my piece benefit his "ministry" and him? I said it would raise awareness (one of the things he stressed as his "job"). I said people would come face-to-face with a homeless person, with him, as a work of art. I also said that I would rather NOT create the piece if it meant any sort of financial relationship was part of the deal. I thanked him for his conversation and returned to my work....stitching on another portrait.

When it became obvious that there wasn't going to be any money being exchanged and that I was no longer interested, he relented....with a condition. I had to included the word "pastor". So....I had him sign a model's release and snapped his photo.

(Above: Homeless, Decision Portrait. Detail. Click on image to enlarge.)

So, I had my piece ready to go. I had a signed model's release, a title and words for stitching, and a photo. I also had a problem. I had agreed to include the word "pastor". Of course, I'd done my "homework" before we met. I knew this man was never officially ordained by any religious organization. I knew his "ministry" isn't a non-profit or religious entity or registered anywhere in the city, county, state, etc. I subtly asked about his faith, his position, his "organization". I knew the truth. I knew that the money being raised in the next room, in the gallery space just outside my studio door, was going to maintain a certain lifestyle.....HOMELESS. There isn't a plan to change this lifestyle!

In this Decision Portrait Series piece, there isn't a real "pastor" and there isn't a real "ministry"... but there is a real HOMELESS MAN. I honored my promise. The word "pastor" is on the name tag, right under the true words "self proclaimed". Of course, by adding this truth I also added my personal value judgment. I didn't know how else to stitch the keep my promise but also to tell the truth. I didn't contribute to his "ministry" either.

Since then I've transferred several upcoming Decision Series Portraits. None of these will be as difficult to stitch. (The adorable dog Nugget posed for a sense of scale. He belongs to my friend Jeff Donovan who also has a studio at Gallery 80808/Vista Studios. Talking to Jeff about my "homeless" issue really helped me. Thanks Jeff!)


EmandaJ said...

Hello Susan,

My husband is an ordained minister and he encounters a lot of homeless and disadvantaged people in his ministry. From my conversations with him about these encounters, I think you handled your situation very well. There is still the truth about your subject's "decision" without you, yourself being taken advantage of. I applaud you!


Karen said...

Agreed that you handled this in a fine way. I would have had difficulty with this man as well. It is one thing to choose homelessness and another thing to be running a con for your finances. Reminds me of the people who day in and day out beg for spare change on busy streets with the signs saying they are homeless etc. perhaps some are, but when a woman I had seen with her sign asking for cash for several days walked to her nearly brand new car with better shoes on her feet then I could afford..well, I was not amused. Sad it just made me sad.

Mary Helen-Art Saves Lives said...

This is a very inspiring post Susan...there are con artists out there that would choose their life so you can pay them. I do not keep cash on me and in the studio I offer a suggestion of mental and public assistance if they want to help improve their life. Be strong...I know you are a generous spirit but protect yourself and your heart. Imagine and Live in Peace, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart

Mary Helen-Art Saves Lives said...

Susan the work you have created this month for the Waterfront exhibit in Charleston is awe inspiring. You go girl...I love your style, simplicity and especially your message. Imagine and Live in Peace, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart