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Art About Poverty and the Unhoused

May 1, 2014
Adam Zucker

In anticipation of our collaboration with Andres Serrano called Residents of New York, opening May 19th, we are featuring artists who have made socially engaging work about poverty and homelessness


Andres Serrano, Nomads (Sir Leonard), 1990, Cibachrome print. Joseph and Charlotte Lichtenberg Collection. © Andres Serrano

Andres Serrano has a keen awareness for the people who live on the streets of New York City.  The artist first photographed the homeless in 1990 for a series called Nomads. In this series, Serrano went around the city with a portable studio and photographed homeless individuals whom he found on the streets and subway tunnels. Serrano gave no definitive directions to his sitters, however many of them chose to take a very heroic pose as seen in the case of Sir Leonard. The result shows the dignity and honor that these men and women had in being involved in the art making experience.

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Andres Serrano, Residents of New York (Timothy Hicks), 2014.

Over a decade later, Serrano chose a different approach for photographing homeless men and women in Residents of New York. In Residents of New York, he removed his signature studio elements, focusing instead on personal connectivity and interaction directly on the streets of New York City, where the homeless live. During the photography shoot, participants of Residents of New York mentioned how it is a blessing when someone takes time to interact with them and to acknowledge them as not being invisible.

Texas based artist, Willie Baronet has incorporated his work with the homeless into his art practice for twenty years. Baronet’s “We Are All Homeless” series of work has led the artist to devote his practice to understanding homelessness and spread his passion for helping and advocating for the homeless.

Artists Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope started Signs for the Homeless. The artists would meet homeless individuals on street, interview them, and offer to make them new hand-painted re-creations of the old signs.


Mike a.k.a. “The Pope of Harvard Square” with his before and after signs, part of Kenji Nakayama and Christopher Hope’s “Signs for the Homeless” project

Two past More Art collaborators Krzysztof Wodiczko (2011) and Michael Rakowitz (2007), created conceptual works of art that addressed homelessness. Wodiczko’s Homeless Vehicle Project was made in collaboration with the local homeless population in New York city between 1987 and 1989. The idea was to work with this population on producing both a psychical object and a concept that would make their “participation in the urban economy visible and self-directed.” [Kathleen MacQueen, Tactical Response: Art in an Age of Terror (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Publishers, 2010 pg. 88)]

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Homeless Vehicle, 1988-89.
© Krzysztof Wodiczko

While the public was cautious, the operators of the vehicles took the project seriously. According to Wodiczko, “You see this in certain gestures, certain ways of behaving, speaking, dialoguing, of building up stories, narratives: the homeless become actors, orators, workers, all things which they usually are not. The idea is to let them speak and tell their own stories, to let them be legitimate actors on the urban stage.” [Krzysztof Wodiczko – Critical Vehicles: Writings, Projects, Interviews (The MIT Press, 1999 pg. 177)]

Michael Rakowitz’s project called paraSITE, also a collaboration with the homeless, developed inflatable shelters that run off expelled HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) air from buildings. The artist consulted with individuals and couples on what they’re needs were and then created the shelters based on the model they discussed.


While artist interventions are not seen as a big picture solution for homelessness, they provide a moment of powerful and holistic interaction. The issue of homelessness is removed from being a statistic or public service announcement that often feels like an indifferent approach to contextualizing the issue.


Rakowitz said, “My project does not make reference to handbooks of statistics. Nor should this intervention be associated with the various municipal attempts at solving the homeless issue. This is a project that was shaped by my interaction as a citizen and artist with those who live on the streets.”


Heather Stoltz, Temporary Shelter, 2011.

Heather Stoltz’s Temporary Shelter Project is reminiscent of a sukkah which is used on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The sukkah tells the stories of homeless New Yorkers ages 4 to 75. The inside panels each represent one individual staying in NYC’s faith-based shelters and the outside walls are made from fiber art created by children in New York’s family shelters.

Jody Wood’s ongoing project is called Beauty in Transition, sets up a mobile beauty salon that serves the homeless at shelters around the city. The mobile salon originated in 2006 in Kansas, and has since traveled to Denver Colorado, and through the support from A Blade of Grass will be traveling city-wide to multiple locations in NYC in late Summer/Fall 2014. According to the artist “Through providing human-to-human dialogue beyond institutional constraints, this project aims to facilitate empathetic understanding and to unravel the reductive label of home-less.” These are just some examples of the way artists are visualizing homelessness. Are there any projects that we didn’t cover? Are you an artist who has worked with the homeless community on a collaborative artwork? We’d love to hear about it!

Marc Clamage, Colleen, 2011.


Another project is by Boston artist Marc Clamage who painted portraits of the homeless in Harvard Square.

According to the artist “My approach remains the same. I’m torn on the issue of giving money to beggars, but I have no problem paying for services rendered, so by paying $10 to let me set up my french easel and paint them I feel these folks are earning a fee, not just accepting a handout. All paintings are done from life, on site, plein air and alla prima, and take between one and four hours to execute.Additionally, as I’ve worked more and more on this series it’s turned not only into an art project but a socioliterary one as well. Over the course of the past few years I have become aware of some continuing sagas, like the tragic love story of Gary and Whitney or the mysterious Rabbi, and these continuing chapters are included as notes where appropriate. For the most part I have not updated the stories as originally recorded, but appended updates as addenda at the end of each description.”