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New piece at Seattle Art Museum builds on community perceptions of homelessness

Seattle Post-Intelligencer logo Seattle Post-Intelligencer 5/21/2019 By Zosha Millman, SeattlePI

The Seattle Art Museum wants to put your perceptions of homelessness front and center.

That's the idea behind "Hear & Now: Community Perceptions of Homelessness" which opened at SAM last month. Situated in the Second Avenue entrance of the museum, the wagon is a visual-and-sound art collaboration, designed by student artists at Path with Art, a nonprofit for those who have lived through and are in recovery from homelessness, addiction and other trauma.

It was done in stages: Working with MacArthur "Genius Grant"-winner Trimpin, poets at Path with Art started in the summer of 2017 by writing about their experiences with homelessness. From there, visual artists took the poetry and combined it with their artwork on the wagon itself. Finally, an auditory component was added with new compositions and spoken word from Path with Art student artists.

"It's really cool because the thing about Path with Art is we're not there competing; we're just creating," said B., one of the artists who worked on the project whose name has been changed for her protection. "It (all) totally fits, because it's all based on our experiences of homelessness. So as long as we kept to the theme, it was really pretty smooth."

And that's not all; now on display at SAM, "Hear & Now" is ready for your input.

Path with Art executive director Holly Jacobson said the next phase of evolution for the project is displaying it, and letting the public share their experiences with the piece and the issue of homelessness in a nearby kiosk.

"The objective is to have people examine their own perceptions, while maybe also experiencing different perceptions, around the issue of homelessness by people who have that lived experience," Jacobson told the SeattlePI. "On the kiosk there are questions, give us your questions about homelessness. We are going to take what comes from that kiosk, those public perceptions, and create a performance around it."

"Hear & Now" in its current form is eye-catching. From the street you can see the troubadour-esque quality to it, but up close you get the full experience: a red button lets you access spoken word, among the words scattered across the piece; eyes, stripped of any face, unyielding in their stares at you.

And the interactive sculpture won't be at the SAM forever; after July 15, Path with Art will be moving it to one of two additional (and to be named) venues where it will be throughout the rest of 2019. You can find out more about the future of this project at Path with Art's site.

Before that happens we talked to Jacobson and B. about their experiences with "Hear & Now" were, and what dialogue they hope the sculpture can spark with the public.

How did this project first get started?

Holly Jacobson: This project really started with Trimpin — so Trimpin had taught a path of art class before and he had a vision for having another class with more students. And considers himself one of our teaching artists.

He inherited this wagon from his dad — where he grew up in Germany, they all have these wagons that they haul kids in, take to the grocery store, whatever ... So when his father passed away, he had the wagon shipped here. He envisioned because the wagon exemplifies life in transition and life on the move, he had this idea to work with path of art artists, poets, visual artists.

So he started with the poets. So the poets created poetry around the issues of homelessness, and what is that experience like to be homeless. For the rest of us, we understand what we see, and what we've seen have been very negative images. But very few of us have thought through what is it like being homeless, the day-to-day experience.

RELATED: A fresh start: Makeovers give formerly homeless men in Seattle more than just a new look:

The idea here, is that we will have the wagon for people to experience. And the objective is to have people examine their own perceptions, while maybe also experiencing different perceptions, around the issue of homelessness by people who have that lived experience. On the kiosk (near the art) there are questions, give us your questions about homelessness. We are going to take what comes from that kiosk, those public perceptions, and create a performance around it. And that performance will be on June 6 interpretative movement.

How did you first get involved?

B: I got involved because it was pretty soon after my Dad died, and I knew I needed to do something because I didn't do something after my mom died and I just stayed in that headspace. So being able to have a project one, to look forward to; two, to get out of the house; and three, to be distracted by and be able to create really helped me get through the mourning process.

... I was in the visual art phase, so that would've been the second phase. So we took what the writers did, and the poets, and used that as inspiration, and also inspiration from our own experience from homelessness.

RELATED: New count shows homelessness in King County, Seattle, down for first time in 7 years

I drew my eyes, and then cut out, and then did collage on the cones and also on the drum, on either side. And then on the sleeping bag part, I did the pillow — and the material for the sleeping bag part came from my dad, from his house. So that was something I brought to (it). He was very supportive of artists, and also folk art and things like that. I know it was something he would've really dug.

Tell me a bit about what you were thinking with the eyes in this project.

B: Well it was an idea that I brought to the group — at least I remember when I was homeless, I always felt like I was being watched. There was no place that I could get away. Especially being an introvert; you know, you need that downtime to ... cocoon.

And that just doesn't happen when you're homeless. Even when you think you're alone you're not alone. There could be somebody, good or bad, dangerous or safe — I don't know, you really can't consider anyone safe when you're homeless. At least, outside. And so just that sense of always living in a fishbowl, eyes always on you — always. Always. Exhausting you like, always.

What do you hope people get out of this project?

HJ: It's all about challenging our own perceptions. Art is a really powerful tool for connecting us, versus the lens of statistics, for example.

We talk a lot about the homelessness crisis in Seattle, but we talk about it as if it's one crisis. When really, it's a situation that has lots of different entry points, and will require lots of different exit points. It is going to require human centered solutions that will require putting the person that is having that experience at the center of the solution.

And that it's a conversation we should all be having with each other, and that to really come to find solutions to these problems, we have to understand each other. And art is just a tremendous vehicle for that.

RELATED: Demeaning the homeless of Seattle: Our new Jim Crow

B: What I hope people get from the project is that people who are in homelessness or have experienced homelessness are people who are not the typical bias of homelessness. Which is: blitzed out of their mind on drugs, fried, that sort of thing. That even people with mental health issues and coming from domestic violence shouldn't be condemned for either their choices in life or simple brain chemistry that they have no control over; that we're people who are trying and fighting too to just be, really... Just that we're people who are people, who are just like them.

Most people either lost a job and didn't have that — for me, quite frankly, being on the street was safer than being at my house. Which is why my image isn't in there (the kiosk). But just leaving my apartment can be trusting the universe that I'm going to be OK today, and know that nobody's going to follow me or track me down. So there's a lot of issues that we deal with, that I don't think people quite understand.

So I think when you stop and think about what we're dealing with, I think a lot of people who have such a stigma against homeless people wouldn't hold a chance to it; (it's like) men wouldn't be able to birth babies, it's got that kind of stamina to it. It's just what it takes. I think people would have a higher respect for homeless people or people who are in poverty.

HJ: What do you feel like art's role is, in getting (out of homelessness)?

B: It's overcoming fears, and being able to have a purpose in life ... The socialization to be able to say, there are people who care about me here. To be able to have an identity — especially when you've been in hiding — it's like I can't have an identity. You have to constantly strip away that identity, and dismantle it, and think of different ways to hide.

But some of the projects that (I've worked on) — like on the kiosk, my face doesn't come up but a print that I did comes up. And that print was really meaningful because it helped me realize that I am a person, I can have an identity, even though I don't use my real name. I have an identity as an artist.

Will this project be moving around the city at all -- or beyond?

HJ: This project was partly funded Department of Neighborhoods, so for a set time we will be here in Seattle. And I'd like to see where we go from there. And those locations will be revealed, but we want to be rooted in SAM for now -- it's the biggest location of the year for the longest amount of time.

"Here & Now" is about OK we are here, and now. It's meant to be a community conversation. Art can invoke conversation, but we're asking people to write in and to respond, and have a specific course of conversation regarding the perceptions and understanding of the experience of homelessness, and what we're missing out on while staying separate.

Do you have any future plans for "Hear & Now" beyond the end of the year? Do you see it potentially evolving into something else?

What we'd like to do is really provide a venue this year to create those community conversations that we believe are crucial. Path of Art believes we cannot solve civic problems — I believe we cannot solve civic problems without all coming together and seeing each other through a human lens.

RELATED: #SeaHomeless answers: How much does lack of affordable housing contribute to homelessness?

So we'd like to start that conversation and see how that evolves; our community connections program is designed to do that, so it is designed to bring people from disparate experiences together through art-making and art-engagement, because art is just this powerful tool for being human and stripping away circumstance. So regardless of my situation, rich or poor, you're not going to judge me for my circumstance, or for my ableism, or for my skin color, or for my gender, or whatever. We're just going to engage with art.

You can find out more about the future of this project at Path with Art's site.

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