Expressions Gallery highlights faces of homeless population

Roosevelt A. Washington/Courtesy

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Homelessness leaves thousands to roam the streets without the promise of warm shelter or a meal. This epidemic impacts the masses and threatens the personal identity of those characterized by such a defining term. The multifaceted nature of a particular individual is jeopardized as the person becomes lost in the subset of society known as the homeless, coined by this unjustly all-encompassing label.

A homeless person is more than his or her homelessness, which is precisely what Berkeley’s Expressions Gallery remarks in its exhibit “Homelessness.” Running through April 18, the multimedia exhibit highlights the numerous faces of the homeless population, giving back threatened individuality and forcing the citizens of Berkeley and Oakland to open their eyes to the issue at hand.

The concept for the show materialized when gallery director Rinna B. Flohr identified an issue of unexposed talent. “Periodically, there would be a homeless person who would come into the gallery,” said Flohr. “They would show me a scrap a paper, and the sketches were good, but I couldn’t do anything with them.” With limited artistic supplies and an inaccessibility to sheltered locations for art creation, a host of issues keep these artists from producing and displaying work in galleries.

Teaming up with the city of Berkeley, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency and St. Mary’s Center, Expressions Gallery has utilized external resources to overcome the limitations imposed on homeless artists in order to sell and display their work. BOSS helped identify talented artists within its shelters, providing space and supplies for individuals to freely create and express themselves. Through the collaborative effort of artists, activities and local do-gooders, Expressions Gallery has transformed into a creative shelter housing the works of both homeless artists and local artists for whom this issue hits close to home.

Art expands through the four rooms of the gallery space, walls covered corner to corner with photographs, paintings and mixed-media work. While medium and subject matter differ from piece to piece, each individual creation echoes a motif of life in the streets, a problem so prominent in city life that the average passer-by rarely bats an eye at the shivering man on a street corner. The art on display attacks homelessness from every conceivable angle, addressing a range of issues from the street youth of Berkeley to the disappearance of shopping carts to the unbreakable bond between a homeless woman and her pet dog. No ground is left untouched.

According to a 2013 city report on the homelessness population in Berkeley, 40 percent of the population suffers from chronic substance abuse, and 41 percent are severely mentally ill. Many homeless artists fall within these statistics, and the art of those who don’t further highlights some causes of homelessness — substance abuse and mental illness.

Among the art adorned walls is the work of Roosevelt A. Washington. One may have crossed his path wandering down Telegraph on any given Sunday, where the artist sells his handmade crochet work among Berkeley’s street vendors. Behind this artistic craftsman is an untold journey of poverty and street life, a unique and personal tale that reveals the story of a man who is more than his homelessness.

For Washington, art was a cathartic release from the trauma of growing up on welfare as one of six children raised by a single, alcoholic mother. “Art saved him from ever becoming involved in the surrounding drugs, gangs and violence,” reads the artist’s bio.

Washington made his way through the crowded and impersonal public education system of Oakland, but his inability to read and write went unnoticed. He was forced onto the streets, becoming another face among the throngs of Oakland’s homeless population. Behind this academically challenged young man was a burgeoning artist, an artist who could not have been born were it not for exposure to the harshness of street life.

His large-scale pastel, “A Man Having a Pleasant Meal,” sits front and center in the gallery’s opening room. It is priced at $30,000, a giant leap from creating art with the limited supplies and space of the streets. While the man in the this drawing is easily identified as homeless, eating on a park bench out of a styrofoam take-out box, the title strategically omits such a label. Washington’s work reasserts the underlying theme of the exhibit at large: An individual afflicted by homelessness is not his or her homelessness, but rather his or her personhood.

Contact Peggy Beim at [email protected].