Monday, December 7, 2009

Humble Beauty: Skid Row Artists

Skid Row. . . a slum where vagrants live
Slum. . . a dirty overcrowded district inhabited by very poor people
Vagrants. . . persons without settled homes or regular work
Judgment. . . misfortune considered to be sent by God; opinion
~ Oxford American Dictionary ("The Most Authoritative")

Words matter. Words can be wrong.

Appearances may be deceiving.

Stuff happens.
* * * * * * * *

"They're lazy and just don't want to work." "They're all alcoholics and drug abusers.""They've always got their hands out. What have they ever done for me?" "I was warned never to go into that part of town." "All they do is have one kid after another they can't afford." "We've got to do something about those people." "We tried to help and where did it get us?" "Why should I care? It's their choice to live on the streets." "They're all dirty good-for-nothings." "We don't allow people like that to come into our town." "We don't want them either."

* * * * * * * *
They hear the words under the breath. They show what the eyes avoid. They feel the stares.

They are men and women.

They are young and old.

They are educated and not.

They may be sick. Often, they're hungry.

They are homeless.

They are you and me but for the grace of God.

* * * * * * * *

In Los Angeles, the place known as Skid Row is said to have the largest concentration of homeless people in America.

In America, we who are not homeless think we know who the homeless are.

Two women, film-makers Judith Vogelsang and Letitia Schwartz, show us how little we know.

They show us by telling stories using cinema verite, intimate interviews, straightforward narrative.

They show us through art. Art made by people who have nothing but images in their heads and talent in their hands.

Vogelsang and Schwartz are the writers, producers, and directors of Humble Beauty: Skid Row Artists, a one-hour documentary about a group of homeless and no-longer-homeless men and women on L.A.'s Skid Row who create art. Fine art. Art that comes from oils, acrylics, and watercolors; charcoal; pens and inks; crayons; supplies scavenged from dumpsters and cans filled with others' garbage. Art that is drawn on paper bags. Art that tells their stories of humble circumstances. Art that is their life we rarely see.

* * * * * * * *

Painting takes up all my waking hours. . .  All the time I'm constantly thinking up 
what I can do that nobody's seen before.
~ Joaquin, Skid Row Artist

* * * * * * * *

Mentored by painter Lillian Abel Calamari, a social worker with SRO Housing Corporation, and painter and still photographer Rory White, a social worker with the Lamp Community, the artists of Humble Beauty create paintings, sketches, drawings, collages, mixed media works. They join art workshops and get paint, canvases, frames, easels, technical pointers, creative guidance, support. A few show their art in downtown Los Angeles galleries. Their art sells. They become known.

One, once a hustler, directionless, becomes a respected community leader. Another is admitted to art school at the University of California/Berkeley and is given a scholarship but prevented from attending because of his status as illegal immigrant. Still another, who has been on the streets since 1941, when he ran away at age 12, spends all day making art, all night dreaming art.

They each have eyes that see. They all have hands that make. The art they make changes their lives.

Lives that go by the names of Barbara, Enrique, Lucille, Magdalena, Manual aka "OG Man", Darlene, Vytautas, Vachelle, Joaquin. . . Lives making art celebrating life.

* * * * * * * *

Humble Beauty had its premiere in Los Angles on September 11, 2008. Most recently, it was screened at the Santa Fe (New Mexico) Film Festival.

For Humble Beauty Productions' Humble Beauty Website, click here.

The nonprofit fiscal sponsor SRO Housing Corporation accepts tax-deductible donations on behalf of Humble Beauty. For more information, e-mail at

Additional video clips from the documentary are available on YouTube and on the film's Website.


Joyce Wycoff said...

Maureen ... you lift me up! Thank you so much.

whitering said...

What many people who have never been homeless do not realize is that they are one or two paychecks away from becomming homeless.

For others who have alot of money things can happen and it can all be gone in a heart beat.
They too are closer to being homeless than they realize.
For thoes who have much it's so easy to judge and look at thoes who are homeless and say heartless things that really have no basis in fact.
You cannot know what the life or heart or soul is of another until you walk in their shoes.

The state of homelessness grows larger everyday. It exists all over the country. It might have a larger voice if all politicians everywhere spent a few years being homeless as part of the qualifications to enter into politics.

For all that artists bring to the world it would be reasonable to believe that there was more support for all who create art.
It would be reasonable to think that artists would be considered living treasures.
The truth is far different.

Without the work of these two filmmakers the lives and works of these artists would have remained unknown.
For many more artists who exist in the same place, that being homeless or the working homeless no one will ever know or see their work.