Telling the story of homelessness, person by person

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BRATTLEBORO — People without a home are often not identified by their true selves, but in the context of their homelessness and the pieces of their lives they carry around with them.

"Who do you see when you see me?" asks "552,830," an exhibit featuring portraits painted by Steve Kinder, is unveiling at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center on March 14. While the exhibit doesn't answer the question, it asks the observer to consider how their own perceptions of homeless people affect how they interact with them.

"Exhibits like this give us an opportunity to delve into pressing social problems," said Danny Lichtenfeld, executive director of BMAC.

"552,830" refers to the total number of Americans who experienced homelessness in 2018.

"Steven Kinder's portraits compel us to stop and see people we might otherwise overlook — and to see them as dignified human beings

deserving of our compassion and respect," states an essay from Groundworks Collaborative that will be published in the exhibit's catalogue.

"Today there is a robust resurgence of artists using portraiture to explore themes of social inequity, with a focus on cultures that have been suppressed, excluded, violated, and silenced," writes Katherine Gass Stowe, who is curating the Kinder exhibit, in an essay also to be published in the catalogue.

Lichtenfeld said Kinder works with homeless people in New York City, takes their pictures and brings those pictures back to his studio. From those pictures, Kinder creates large painted portraits, which will be on display at BMAC.

When Kinder paints his subjects, notes Stowe, he removes the ingredients that identify the person as being without a home.

"No cardboard boxes, cups, signs with messages, or blankets," she writes.

The exhibit will consist of large, unstretched canvases hanging from the ceiling by a simple system of hooks and string, forcing the viewer to lift his or her chin and look up.

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"This type of viewing is not typical of our experience walking by a rough sleeper," writes Stowe. "In that case, we usually look down, hoping to step over or pass by without any engagement, indifferent, our eyes often averted."

Kinder has been meeting and working with people on the street for years, asking permission to take their photographs and offering compensation for the opportunity to paint their portraits, writes Stowe. "He is not speaking for the unsheltered. He simply wants to offer us a perspective on and a reflection of the person who has captured his attention.

In addition to the exhibit in BMAC's main gallery, a revised version of Liz LaVorgna's Coffee & Conversation, a multimedia project that was started in Brattleboro in 2015 in collaboration with filmmaker Wyatt Andrews and with support from Groundworks Collaborative. For the new exhibit, LaVorgna has updated some of the original stories, introduced new stories, and documented how the landscape has changed for unhoused people in Brattleboro since 2015.

Stowe writes that artists around the world are creating art that ask questions about who gets to be depicted, celebrated, and remembered.

"Whose histories and narratives are being repeated in art and society, and why? Who has been erased and ignored from the stories over time? Who is the actual subject of portrait painting: the sitter, the painter, or the viewer?"

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Stowe writes that homeless is a blanket term that is used "to describe hundreds of thousands of individuals with vastly differing personal stories and circumstances."

"In the end, if we haven't experienced being unsheltered ourselves, what do we truly understand about it?" asks Stowe. "Can art help build a bridge?"

Lichtenfeld said on occasion, BMAC hires a guest curator to set up an exhibit in its space.

"We had seen some things that Katherine had done," he said. "We met with her and invited her to submit a proposal for an exhibition in our space. We told her about the kinds of exhibits we try to do and she came up with some ideas. Featuring the homeless is one of them."

According to the Groundworks Collaborative essay, Brattleboro was once a community with little visible homelessness.

"Brattleboro has experienced a shift over the past few years," states the essay. "Throughout the summer months, when the seasonal emergency shelter closes its doors, tent encampments appear in the downtown area. However, contrary to perception, the number of people experiencing homelessness in and around Brattleboro has actually decreased recently."

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Groundworks attributes to the decrease to new approaches to the problem of homelessness.

"These include Housing First, Permanent Supported Housing, and Rapid Re-Housing — approaches that prioritize getting people into housing first and then providing voluntary support services to help them stay there," notes the essay. "This sounds simple enough, but it represents a dramatic shift away from the approach taken by service providers for years, which unrealistically required people to solve all their housing- related challenges — for example, securing gainful employment or overcoming addiction — before they could receive critical assistance with housing."

The essay notes that Kinder's portraits compel the observer to stop and see people they might otherwise overlook, and to see them as dignified human beings deserving of compassion and respect. "Once we do that, it is not hard to summon the will to do whatever it takes to insure that everyone in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world has a place to call home."

Doors open on the Kinder exhibit on Saturday, March 14 at 11 a.m. That same day, there will be an opening reception with the artist at 3 p.m.

Six other exhibits are opening the same day. They include John Gibson: Jazz, Alison Wright: Grit and Grace, Women at Work, Wesley Fleming: Silvestris, Wild and Untamed, Steven Rose: For/While (2020.01), Roger Clark Miller: Transmuting the Prosaic and Postcards to Brattleboro: 40 Years of Mail Art.

Events related to the Kinder exhibit include: "In Sight: What the Unseen Are Holding for Society," a lecture by Kurt White, a therapist at the Brattleboro Retreat, on April 15 at 7 p.m.; a tour hosted by curator Katherine Gass Stowe on April 18 at 1 p.m.; "Homelessness: The Big Picture," a lecture by Tom Byrne, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Social Work on May 3 at 4 p.m.; "No Place Like Home: Housing in Windham County," a paenl discussion on May 14 at 7 p.m.; and "Food for Thought: Homelessness in Brattleboro," a casual supper at BMAC with staff of Groundworks and others involved in addressing homelessness on May 26 at 5 p.m.

"At the related events, we will distribute Groundworks info and ask attendees to consider donating to Groundworks," said Lichtenfeld. "At the museum's front desk, throughout the run of the exhibit, we will ask visitors if they'd like to add $1 to their admission fee as a donation to Groundworks."

Groundworks will also receive copies of the 60-page catalogue for them to sell or give away.

Kinder, born in Queens in 1956, studied at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Primarily a painter, Kinder has worked in a variety of mediums over the past 40 years. In addition to solo and group exhibitions in New York, Kinder's work has been shown at Market Art & Design — The Hamptons and Art Basel Miami.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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