Exhibit presents 'personal side of homelessness'
By RICK KOSTER
Walk through the gallery and stare into the framed faces on the walls. It seems that there are a million years and a million experiences in these images, and that each face, while distinct, shares certain etched characteristics with the others - haunted yet hopeful, weary but wise.
In a collaborative new exhibit called "Right Next Door: The Personal Side of Homelessness," painter Elisabeth McGinn and photographer Alex Matthiessen are trying in these pieces to capture the essence of a specific slice of humanity.
But it's more than that. The artists, originally inspired by their own volunteer work, took to the streets, soup kitchens and shelters of New London and Norwich to capture in portraiture the human characteristics beneath the stereotypes conveyed by homelessness. This involved, then, not just artistic studies of the homeless themselves, but also the folks who work and volunteer in that context.
Finally, beyond just the parameters of creative expression, McGinn and Matthiessen hoped to earn not just their subjects' trust, but also to nourish relationships that would continue long after the exhibition is over.
First things first, though.
"Right Next Door: The Personal Side of Homelessness" opens with a reception from 2 to 6 p.m. today in The Gallery at Firehouse Square in New London. The exhibit features a variety of portraits - only a few of the subjects were captured by both artists - as well as autobiographical commentary from some of the folks featured in the show. McGinn and Matthiessen will both be on hand, along with several of their subjects, and a short documentary film on homelessness, made by students at East Lyme High School, will show on a loop throughout the reception.
All of the pieces in the show are for sale, and 100 percent of the proceeds benefit The Homeless Hospitality Center of New London and the St. Vincent de Paul Place in Norwich.
"We wanted to convey that these are people first and homeless second," says McGinn, a former Oakdale resident who recently moved to Norfolk, Va., after her husband, who is in the Navy, was transferred. "When we decided to add volunteers and shelter employees as subjects; the goal became that the viewer couldn't tell the difference between the volunteers and the homeless - that all of these are people of value and meaning."
This is the second joint exhibition between McGinn and Matthiessen - the first being a 2010 show that focused exclusively on downtown Norwich and included images of homeless people - but the genesis for the idea came when Matthiessen and McGinn worked together across the region in support of the Barack Obama campaign. Following the candidate's "Call to Service" entreaty, they started volunteering in soup kitchens.
"After working in shelters for about a year, we hit on the idea of doing an art show together that would depict downtown Norwich," says Matthiessen, who lives in Ivoryton. "It's such a beautiful place, and there are so many stories. We thought, if we could get some of the people, many of whom were homeless, to share their stories, it could be very compelling."
The new show was an organic and natural extension. As the pair began to understand the nuances, rhythms and complex human interaction that takes place between the homeless and those who try to help, they decided to undertake a second project focusing specifically on homelessness and expanding to include New London.
"It all goes back to the beginning. I don't think it could have happened if we hadn't started volunteering," says McGinn. "The director of the shelter told us just to sit in the lunchroom and get to know the people. I couldn't imagine doing that: What do we talk about? Kids? Soccer? My attitude was, 'I want to help, but give me a break.' In my heart, I thought, 'I'm not like you people.'"
Those emotions rapidly vanished, McGinn says - so much so that, by the time of the first exhibition, when a wealthy visitor approached her and asked, "Why would you want to paint this?" she was speechless.
"My feeling had become exactly the opposite," she says. "I felt compelled to do the paintings. These people need more than food. They need to feel someone cares about them, and we wanted to help give their lives meaning and help them find out who they are. And, of course, it helps me find out who I am."
Each artist developed their own technique for approaching possible subjects and, Matthiessen says, "It's an understandably hard thing to get people in that situation to open up. You have to get to know them as individuals, and maybe you do that in the shelter or get recommendations from a mutual acquaintance."
Matthiessen spent weeks earning the trust of one subject, who had moved to the States from Germany and fallen on hard times.
On the other hand, McGinn feels one of her most compelling portraits happened after a chance meeting on the street. "I have a natural curiosity about people," she explains, "and I have no problem just asking someone, 'Hey, can I take your picture?'"
While indeed some of the homeless citizens depicted in the show have become pleasant acquaintances and even friends of the artists, it's also true that many have moved on.
On one level, McGinn and Matthiessen knew that was the reality of the situation. On another, it doesn't mean it's not emotional when one of the homeless people vanish.
"The experience has been so much more rewarding than I'd thought when we started," Matthiessen says. "At the same time, you go in and you want things to be a certain way and to work out a certain way, and that doesn't always happen. You hope they're all doing well, and you're just glad for the experience."
IF YOU GO
What: "Right Next Door: The Personal Side of Homelessness"
What and Who: A new exhibition of photography and oil paintings by Elisabeth McGinn and Alex Matthiessen. All pieces are available for sale, and all proceeds will be donated to the Homeless Hospitality Center of New London and the St. Peter de Paul Place in Norwich.
Where: The Gallery at Firehouse Square, 239 Bank St., New London
When: An opening reception takes place from 2 to 6 p.m. today, and the exhibit runs through March 27. Gallery hours are from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
For more information: (860) 443-0344, firehousesquare.com