Wednesday, Apr 10 2013 02:05 PM

Scourge of homelessness explored in works of art

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    By Photo courtesy of Louis Medina

    The work of Percy Watson, an artist who once was homeless.

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BY CAMILLE GAVIN Contributing writer

Visual art has the power to work in wonderful ways and five local artists -- calling themselves "The Bridge" -- are hoping their work will shine a light on the issue of homelessness.

The periods between the words in the exhibit's title, "Home. Street. Home" indicate the path and the desire for a homeless person. The art will be on display Wednesday at the opening of the Residences of West Columbus, a new affordable housing community.

Before starting their work, the artists researched the topic by delving into statistics and contacting agencies involved with getting people off the streets.

And for some, like filmmaker Fabian Vasquez Euresti, it was an eye-opening experience.

"I learned many resources do exist, yet there is still a disconnect between those who can provide help, and those who need it," he said. "That said, I also learned of folks who may not well respond to others' best efforts."

Euresti's contributions to the exhibit include a 20-minute projection and three other pieces that will be shown on monitors.

All are high-definition video loops in color.

The artists' chief source for information was the Kern County Homeless Collaborative, a network of public and private organizations working to put an end to homelessness in the county. Its fiscal sponsor is United Way of Kern County.

One of the first officials the Bridge group contacted was Homeless Project Manager Louis Medina at the United Way's Homeless Project.

"I was surprised when the artists first approached me," Medina said. "It's unusual for anyone to come to us and say they would like to do a project to benefit homeless people."

Medina complimented the group on their willingness to spend time getting facts and statistics.

"What I really laud them for is coming to our meetings, which are long and probably boring to them," he said. "Especially Cynthia Hallstrom --she took all that data and turned it into a painting; that's important because without data collection we can't go to the federal government for money."

Stephen Pelz, executive director of the Housing Authority of Kern County, also was surprised but pleased to learn of the artists' intentions.

"What a brilliant idea ... a perfect match to combine the celebration of a wonderful new resource in our community with an art show benefiting the homeless," Pelz wrote in an email. "(I'm) impressed that these accomplished artists would share their time and resources for this cause."

Pelz's agency was responsible for establishing the West Columbus complex, a 56-unit affordable housing project for low-income families, and also for foster youth who are transitioning into adulthood and independent living.

Then, as a result of contacting Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, the Bridge artists invited Percy Watson, who used to be homeless himself, to join their group after seeing images of his work.

"The show at the grand opening of the Residences on Columbus is the perfect place for to join us," said Hallstrom. "His being given a home three years ago gave him the peace that allowed him to become prolific with his art -- it is the story of what Home First, a program of the collaborative is all about."

Watson uses pastels and colored ink pens to produce fanciful urban landscapes that are somewhat based on his interactions with people and his environment, but that greatly come from his imagination.

Other artists whose work is being shown are ceramic sculptor Eileen Ettinger; Claire Putney, assistant curator of the Bakersfield Museum of Art; and illustrator Louis Chavez.

All pieces in the Home. Sweet. Home. exhibit are for sale. Medina said the artists will receive 50 percent of the purchase price; the Homeless Collaborative, 25 percent; and exhibit coordinator Nicole Saint-John, 25 percent.

The exhibit will be shown again on May 3 at Sustenance 101 in downtown Bakersfield.

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