It’s early on a Friday night in San Francisco’s Upper Market area, and a man is sleeping under a white blanket next to a palm tree, inches from the intersection of Octavia Boulevard and Market Street, where scores of cars zoom past every minute. Just up the block, another homeless man, this one swathed in a red scarf, stands speaking to himself, saying words that amount to gibberish. No one wants to get near either man. No one dares to talk with them. In caste terms, the men are “untouchables.” But San Francisco’s homeless are as much a part of the city’s social fabric as, say, tech workers, and a new art exhibit near that same intersection, “Coming Clean: SF,” tells the story of homelessness in an enlightening way — not just through unique artwork, but through the artists’ utter honesty.
Many of them admit to having been scared of homeless people, or fearful they themselves might enter into similar circumstances if they suffered a bad economic break. But “Coming Clean: SF,” at Fouladi Projects, is full of empathy — which gives it a level of engagement that is raw and emotional without being patronizing.
“Honestly, that could happen to me,” says artist Amy Wilson Faville, in an exhibit recording. “Maybe it’s less likely now, but there’s times when it could have happened. I think the only thing that keeps a lot of people from being in that situation is that they have a support system.”
Through her mixed-media works, Faville endows homeless people’s shopping carts with colors and patterns that transform them into layers of casual beauty, as if the people who use the carts shopped regularly at IKEA or Macy’s. The homeless people are still present in Faville’s renditions, such as Cabana, in which a figure with sneakers sleeps faceup near the cart’s front wheels. But the carts and their mosaicked patterns are the shimmering focal points.
In his charcoal and graphite series “No Regrets in Life,” men and women stand and pose for Joel Daniel Phillips, who situates their likenesses on life-size white paper in an effort to “elevate” them. Phillips befriends the people he draws, many of whom battled drug-abuse issues. For several years, after moving into a live-work space near the corner of Sixth and Mission streets, his subjects were residents of the area’s
SROs, which provided them subsistence shelter. In 2011, newly graduated from a college in Santa Barbara, Phillips moved into the space sight unseen, and when he initially saw the area, he admits one initial reaction was “fear.” That changed when he got to know the people there — and they got to know him and his work, which for many months was featured in a storefront window near Sixth and Mission.
“The hardest part of the process is reaching out, because it is difficult,” Phillips, 27, tells SF Weekly. “A lot of people who are in the economic situation they’re in are very aware of ‘disaster porn’ — of people taking pictures of them. There’s very much a bridge and a barrier I have to cross, to prove that I’m not someone who’s interested in just taking advantage of their circumstance and moving on — but that I’m interested in a relationship. For me, that’s why my work has always been about my immediate neighborhood. There’s not really a timeline I can put on it. Sometimes, I’ll meet someone and I don’t draw them for six months, even though I see them on a regular basis.”
By limiting his drawings just to his subjects — with little or nothing about the physical street in the scene — Phillips says he “decontextualizes” them from their public environment. They aren’t homeless or SRO residents, even if some clues are apparent, as in Spaceman O.T. #3, which features a broom-holding man who’s a recognizable figure along the Sixth and-Mission corridor.
“On white [paper], they remind me a lot of Greek and Roman sculpture, the white marble,” he says. “There’s no contextual information, so you’re forced to address them as simply who they are, with their own choices of how they portray themselves.”
Phillips moved to East Oakland for a while, near the Oracle Arena where the Golden State Warriors play, then back to San Francisco, to the Bayview district, and is now doing a year-long artists’ fellowship in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A homeless, middle-aged man named Billy whom Phillips got to know in East Oakland — and whom he’s drawn roughly seven times in two years — embodies the deep connections he makes. Billy lives on the East Oakland train tracks, Phillips says. On a recent night, he says, a man with a camera and a knife stabbed him while filming the assault. Billy fought off the attacker and survived. The first person he contacted after being discharged from the hospital? Phillips.
“He was stabbed 27 times in the middle of the night,” Phillips says. “He barely lived through this. When he got discharged from the hospital, it was pouring down rain, and he knocks on my door at 10 o’clock at night. He needed a place to be. In some sense, I’ve been able to offer practical help to people — but more so it’s been the fact that I’m interested in hearing their stories. I’m not a nonprofit with a lot of resources. I’m a starving artist. But I was able to call up some friends in the East Bay, and my girlfriend’s mom is part of a network of women who work with local nonprofits, and they got together a bunch of medical supplies and clothing and stuff, and were able to get him get back on his feet a little bit.”
While none of the artists in “Coming Clean SF” are homeless, homeless people are in the exhibit space through audio recordings made by the San Francisco organization Sound Made Public, which also recorded the artists’ thoughts. At Fouladi Projects, Sound Made Public embedded its audio of homeless people into a piece called Can You Hear Me, which is made of the kind of cardboard that many unhoused people rely on for shelter. In one clip, a 50-year-old woman describes taking an Ellis Act buyout — and then being forced to live on the street “broke.” To listen to the audio at Fouladi Projects, visitors have to sit in the piece, atop the type of milk crates that are also a frequent part of homeless people’s lives. The experience is unsettling — and that’s the point, it seems.
Lava Mae, a San Francisco nonprofit that offers mobile showers and other hygiene services to homeless people,
co-organized the exhibit. Speaking at opening night, when people crowded into the gallery, Lava Mae founder Doniece Sandoval told SF Weekly that she wants the exhibit to travel to San Jose and Los Angeles, and that artists like Phillips and Faville “bring a lens and a level of creativity to intractable problems” and can “shift perception and start dialogue.”
Right outside the exhibit was the homeless man in the red scarf, looking toward the Castro. He seemed oblivious to the art exhibit happening just a few feet from his person. So close, yet so far away.
“Coming Clean: SF”
Through Feb. 25 at Fouladi Projects, 1803 Market St. Free.
415-621-2535 or fouladiprojects.com.
On Thursday, Feb. 9, 6-8 p.m.