Pat became homeless the exact day she moved from her home in Idaho to Missoula. She had just tied up a divorce and her car brimmed with everything she owned. She rolled into the parking lot of a friend’s Missoula business and left the engine running as she quickly tacked a note to her friend’s door. But when she turned around her car was in flames, and almost instantly everything in it was gone. She managed to save her driver’s license, though it was charred and bent, but she lost all the money she had just cashed from her retirement check.
Pat is one of thousands served by Missoula’s Poverello Center, and one of 10 clients chosen for an upcoming art exhibit called Faces of the Pov. (Her last name is not included in the exhibit for privacy reasons.) Featuring up-close black-and-white photos taken by local photographer Cathrine L. Walters juxtaposed against colorfully painted portraits by artist Kim Anderson, the show aims to put faces, names and stories to the Pov’s mission.
“It makes you realize how close you really are to becoming homeless,” says Walters. “It’s really easy. One paycheck. I feel like everyone’s at least one paycheck away from becoming homeless.”
Part of the project required that the 10 clients answer questions about their personal experience. Each was asked the same questions, including what they each wished for, what they looked forward to and their favorite thing about the Poverello Center. Their answers, along with their stories, will also be part of the Faces exhibit.
“They were really excited to share their story with people because they don’t really get much of an opportunity to tell it,” says Walters. “Not to say people wouldn’t listen, but maybe some people are just afraid to ask: ‘How did you become homeless [and] how did you get to where you are today?’ For me that was the most fascinating question.”
Other clients include Ray, who works as a horse packer and guide, living most of the year in the mountains. For him, a house isn’t a necessity, but some long winter months find him strapped for shelter and he ends up at the Pov. Other cases include hardship stories of people escaping abuse and people who have never, not even as kids, known anything but a transient lifestyle.
“It was a really interesting experience because technically, yes, they’re homeless,” says Walters, “but you don’t always know that. Some of them choose it, some of them like to sleep outside, some of them just can’t afford a house. [The exhibit] just really breaks all the stereotypes that you have about people who you meet and see.”
Anderson is aware of the need to help dissolve stereotypes from her work with Missoula Youth Homes. Two years ago she was inspired to paint portraits of the kids at the group homes and tell their stories. At her Catalyst Café art opening for the project, she met Ellie Hill, executive director of the Pov, and the two talked about the need to personalize such otherwise marginalized groups.
“In the non-profit world you’re trying to figure out a really creative and effective way to tell the story of the people that you serve,” says Anderson, who worked off of Walters’ photos to create her portraits. “Paintings are a nice way to do it because they draw people in…[viewers] recognize commonalities, see each other as part of the human race. I am definitely not the most skilled artist in the realistic realm, but I do the best I can. I just think it’s a nice way for me to provide something back to the community when maybe I can’t make a huge [monetary] donation.”
Hill commissioned the project a year ago to help get people to rethink negative views of Missoula’s homeless community. The show’s opening happens to come in the wake of recent controversy involving the Pov’s planned drop-in center for the homeless on the Northside. In response to neighborhood opposition, Hill cancelled the plan at its proposed location and is currently seeking a new space. She says the timing of an exhibit like Faces is perfect.
“As we saw by the reaction of some members of our community in recent weeks to the Poverello Center’s interest in expanding our day services to even more homeless Montanans, many Missoulians have a downright negative perception of the homeless,” Hill says.
The idea behind having a photograph and painting of each person has to do with the subtle ways in which people respond to art. Both artists speak to how paintings can evoke emotion through color and texture. Photographs, on the other hand—especially black and white images, they say—provide the awareness that these are real people. That’s why Walters’ photos zero in on the face, tightly framed. She wanted every wrinkle and every loose hair exposed.
“You get a good opportunity to look them in the eye,” she says. “I think it’s really easy to walk by the street…and you kind of breeze by and don’t look them in the face. What I really wanted to do is make sure the eyes connect with the viewer—really see them.”
Faces of the Pov opens at 515 South Higgins Avenue, upstairs from the Crystal Theatre, Friday, August 1, at 5 PM. Donations accepted.