Two years ago, artist Gary Wolfe set out to capture some of the hidden facets of life on the streets in a series of stark paintings of homeless men and women on gritty tar paper.
The result of his ambitious project, which aims to bring Western New Yorkers face to face with the region’s pervasive homelessness problem and rearrange the way they perceive the issue, will go on view Friday in the Artspace Buffalo Gallery.
Along with Wolfe’s oil and encaustic paintings, which capture his subjects with rough-edged realism, the exhibition will feature an installation by Dean Block and Jeff “Gnome” Schrieber meant to mimic a typical homeless camp. Wolfe also produced a 40-page catalog for the show, and has invited a broad cross-section of artists, community activists and political leaders to attend Friday’s opening.
To complete the paintings, Wolfe worked with the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Hope Center to connect with some of the center’s homeless clients, who he then photographed and paid for their time. Each subject also was asked to contribute a brief quote sharing something about their experience, which accompanies each painting.
The project, Wolfe said, grew out of his long history of working with those on the margins of society as a social and public health worker for Erie County. He settled on roofing material as a medium, he added, to stress the relationship between his project and the need for new housing for homeless men and women.
“I was using materials that I haven’t used before, and there were some challenges with that, and I think my painting improved,” he said. “But on the other side, as a human being, I started to come to this awareness as I heard these stories about the people I was painting. So many of their emotions, thoughts and challenges resonated in my own life. And I started to realize that there is no ‘they,’ that we’re all in this together.”
There’s no question that homelessness is a worsening problem locally. Erie County’s social services department announced in March that the number of homeless men and women in the county had increased by 14 percent, to 2,198 people, in 2012.
One of the exhibition’s goals is to counter the standard stereotype of a homeless person as an elderly man or woman pushing a shopping cart. According to Dale Zuchlewski of the Homeless Alliance of Western New York, 31 percent of Erie County’s homeless are families, most of which are led by single mothers and some of whom are fleeing domestic violence. Another 28 percent are younger than 18.
“What I’ve really tried to do is capture two things that have always been important in my work, and that is vulnerability and human dignity,” Wolfe said. “I think that the work does evoke an empathetic response and hopefully gets underneath stereotypes and addresses the common humanity that we have with other people.”
The project has been a revelation for Wolfe, who said he discovered new facets of the homelessness phenomenon in the process of creating it.
“I came to realize that a turn of fortune for anybody could leave them on the street, and the inertia of being on the street could keep them on the street,” he said. “That was kind of an enlightenment for me, that their stories became in some way my story, and informed me as a human being. And the whole project kind of blossomed.”
What: “Out of Darkness: Putting a Face on Homelessness”
When: 6 p.m. Friday through Dec. 31
Where: Artspace Buffalo Gallery, 1219 Main St.