Virtual Voices

N.Y. Journal: Homeless at home in art

Culture

When artist Gabriel Reese moved from Toronto to Brooklyn, a panhandler entered the train he was riding one day and begged for money. It unsettled Reese the way everyone saw through the man, without making eye contact or acknowledging he was there. It was then that Reese conceived a project to show the humanity---and to some, a spark of the divinity ---of the homeless.

Toronto had its own homeless population---they even had their own "Tent City," an abandoned property where about 100 homeless people built haphazard homes---but in New York, Reese said, the plight of the homeless was closer. People begging in the subways and on the sidewalks came closer into his personal space: "In New York, everything's so much in your face. It became a little more personal to me."

That's how "If I Saw You in Heaven" came to be---Reese's street art project painting portraits of the homeless in a way that draws them to another plane. The title comes from the lyric of an Eric Clapton song. Reese likes it because the talk of "heaven" and "earth" helps change your perspective, seeing the humanity of the people we sometimes see through: "If you saw this guy in heaven, you're not going to think less of him."

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He finds his subjects on the streets. When he introduces himself, he shakes their hand---a gesture that sometimes surprises them, since people usually avoid physical contact. From the many whose pictures he takes, he chooses the ones he connects with on a deeper level. Prospero, the subject of his latest painting, talked to him for several hours.

When he paints them, he adds a touch of unexpected beauty, draping an almost regal red cloth around Billy Bobby (pictured), adding a pair of wings to Adam, and putting a rose in Prospero's hand.

His latest subject is an older man in his 60s, looking up with a diffident smile and posing with two shopping carts overflowing with bags. Reese said the man collects bags and pushes two carts at a time---one for a block, then another.

Once Reese paints the portraits on heavy paper, he transfers the art to city walls, choosing sites that, like his subjects, are condemned or abandoned. He put the man named Billy Bobby on the side of a boarded-up church because he, more than the others, was so troubled. "I thought the church for compassion," said Reese. "And it's also like a refuge."

The little church is between two glittering restaurants, boarded with cardboard and unrecognizable as a house of worship except for two crosses on the rusting gate. Billy Bobby sits next to a splash of graffiti, bearded and with his eyes raised and in flowing robes. It's an arresting sight.

"They've got their spot. They're settled in," Reese said. In a way, he's giving them a home.

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