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Portraits of the Homeless, Part III: Does It Matter?

Painting portraits of the homeless: does it matter? My first reaction and perhaps yours too would be, yes, of course it does! But my honest question in the middle of this undertaking is: does it really? Perhaps it is just the mid-project blues, the time when the honeymoon and initial excitement is behind me and the bulk of the (visible) work continues to lay in front of me. Maybe it's time to thumb through Steven Pressfield's The War of Art to get motivated again. Whatever it is though, I can feel it from the people who stay at the Shelter as well. Last night the cinder block walls and soul-eviscerating florescent bulbs had their way: no one spoke to me for the first hour. I mean, they said hi when I first came in. And then the tv took over from there. The television is always on when I'm there, and that's okay. We all need a break from our realities at the end of the day. It doesn't matter if it's watching television, getting online to game, reading a good book, or indulging in a glass of wine---we need the mental rest while we're still awake. So I get it. But last night was really different than any other night that I have shown up. The tv had never been so dominant before. It felt pointless for me to be there.

Yes, at this point I do have all of the consents that I need. That part of the project is done. Do I really need to show up anymore then? I thought I did. I thought I would be a consistent visitor, not for my own agenda anymore, but just to be there with them. The word "friend" for me is one that I don't bestow around lightly, and I would hesitate to use it for any of the guests at the Shelter. But they all have an aspect of that word that is true: I genuinely care about them. Can they see that? I don't know. Are they frequently abandoned by people in their lives? Probably. Have they quit on themselves? Maybe and maybe not. Truthfully last night I felt somewhat abandoned by them. I know that it's not about me though. It surely wasn't intentional. I'm just a part of the scenery now, the artist who shows up and draws and hangs out. So do I bother being there if I don't feel like I'm making a difference?

The last 30 minutes of my stay there last night was good, however. I met an older Navajo man, and although he had no artwork to show me, I know that he is an extraordinary artist. He saw my doodle on the notepad in front of me and the fire kicked up behind his hardened irises (why can't I see the pupils?!). He spoke slowly and expressively about being a teenager, up late every night in his family's one room house, creating his own world with chalk on paper by the light of kerosene lamps while his parents and siblings slept around him. I hadn't met this man before and I may not meet him again, such is the way of this wandering crowd. I learned his name in English, and then I asked him how to say his name in Navajo. He wasn't born with a Navajo name, he told me. He joked that he was from England instead of the reservation. We laughed. Then he proceeded to give me a Navajo name. I was honored. And yet, it remained in my own thinking that I was not there to gain anything for myself. Later it occurred to me that perhaps by giving a name, that was all this man had to offer. Finally he, who has nothing, could give something to someone else. He was the gem of my night last night because I think that there was something about going there that I was doing for myself. Ah, and here comes the epiphany... although it didn't start this way, I have begun to make my visits personal and therefore selfish. It is time for me to step back again and keep it professional. Indeed it is time to focus on the job of creating the portraits alone. Let them be them for a while and me be me. I trust that something inside of me will let me know when it is okay to go back. Wow, what a relief to discover this notion while typing out this post! (Thank you, dear reader, for your patience traveling this road with me today.)

This is such a strange, difficult, and enlightening journey. So does it matter? I have to believe so. To use a metaphor: I have attempted to plant some seeds of hope. It doesn't mean that they will take to the ground. It also doesn't mean that the plants always need the light of the sun. Resting in the night is also right and good.