I recently added a section to my website of my Street People Series in the Painting section.
Willie, the man in the image above, was the one that became the most personal for me. Willie sat in a wheelchair with his white cup at the corner of Michigan Ave and Randolph Street. Initially Willie was cool to me, no surprise. Then he told me how he was shot in a store robbery which was why he was in a wheelchair. He wasn’t homeless, he had a small subsidized apt but he couldn’t work so he worked the corners of the loop. When Willie finally showed me his wonderful smile his face morphed into a beautiful map of his life, full of deep ridges. I wanted to capture that. By the end of our meeting I felt a special connection to Willie and I really wanted to do him proud.
After I painted Willie, I began to exhibit the piece around the area. The painting always affected people on a deep level and more and more people would say they recognized Willie from different spots in the loop. The painting was chosen for the cover of an annual art & literary journal. I began to feel that I needed to find Willie again and show him the finished work. I made a 5×7 copy of the painting and put it in a clear plastic case and kept it in my car. I kept it there for 1 1/2 years! Every time I would go into the city I would look for Willie back at Michigan and Randolph and other nearby corners. Finally, one day I was downtown with my 17 year old daughter who was auditioning for college theatre programs at the Palmer House. When we were done I purposely went a couple blocks out of my way as I often did to pass Michigan & Randolph and there was Willie…I thought. I wasn’t sure. It had been a long time. I parked illegally with my daughter in the car, ran out with the photo and asked Willie if his name was Willie. He said yes. I re-introduced myself to him and gave him the photo and told him how much his painting had meant to so many people. He was touched, he blessed me and asked me to store the photo in the pocket of his wheelchair. I was done.
As a painter, I was always interested in people. Much of my early work incorporated photojournalistic images of people from the depression era and those on the fringes of society. I guess it was a way to express my compassion through art. Eventually I was not happy using other peoples photos and I embarked on a project to meet and photograph contemporary people on the fringes of the city of Chicago. This was probably around 2007 or so. Perhaps the hard economy at the time brought a sense of urgency to me about what everyone was going through and I thought that the people in need on the corners would represent all of us struggling.
I would travel around the city and stop when I found someone on a corner with a white cup or a tattered cardboard sign asking for money. I would then politely approach the person, introduce myself as a painter and explain that I would like to offer them some cash in exchange for their story and a few photos. I think only one person ever said no.
This was a hard assignment and I always walked away determined to honor their story and shine a light on their existence. Inspired by Kehinde Wiley’s gorgeous embellished large portraits of black men, I create each piece on a 60″ x 48″ canvas. The backgrounds were stenciled with ornate pattern work and collaged with gel transfer images either taken at the scene of our meeting or found images relating to their store. I then layered more gel medium on top entombing their “story” into the canvas. Then I would begin the process of painting the person as I saw them, with dignity and purpose.
This was very much a labor of love for me. That I only completed 5 portraits in this series is in part due to how difficult the project was. I still really love this series.