‘We are all homeless’: New art exhibit encourages compassion, empathy
In 1993, Willie Baronet began purchasing and collecting signs from homeless people on the side of the road in Dallas. At the time, he said, he felt very awkward and uncomfortable around homeless people.
“I would try to avert my eyes and not make eye contact,” he said. “Buying their signs became a way for me to connect and change that dynamic.”
Nearly three decades later, Baronet has amassed over 1,800 signs, which have turned into multiple exhibits across the U.S. and the United Kingdom, including exhibits at New York University, University of Pennsylvania and the University of Cambridge, as well as at both the Democratic and Republican National conventions.
This month, his exhibit will be featured at Steamboat Creates, opening during First Friday Artwalk.
What: “We Are All Homeless” by Willie Baronet
Where: Depot Art Center, 1001 13th St.
When: 5 to 8 p.m. Friday. The exhibit will hang through the month of September.
“I can’t say I ever imagined exhibiting over 100 cardboard signs made by homeless people,” said Kim Keith, Steamboat Creates executive director. “However, if you slow down and look closely, the resiliency of the human condition is what is on display.”
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Keith said Steamboat Creates went through a strategic planning process and identified social impact and collaborations as two of their top priorities.
“We now call this type of creative collaboration social impact or social justice programming,” she explained. “Creativity has the potential to be a powerful catalyst for change.”
To illustrate this point, Baronet recalled that once he purchased his first sign, the dynamic between himself and a homeless person completely changed.
“It was very satisfying, and I didn’t realize that would happen,” he said. “It led to conversations, shaking hands and learning each other’s names.”
But, Baronet said, he never imagined that the project would turn into what it is today.
In July 2014, he traveled across the country with three filmmakers, interviewing more than 100 people on the streets and purchasing nearly 300 signs. That experience was turned into an award-winning documentary called “Signs of Humanity.” Baronet has also given several TEDx talks on the project, and his exhibits have been featured in media outlets all over the world including NPR, Huffington Post and Fast Company.
And while he didn’t know initially what the public response would be, he pointed out that the signs are powerful, and the stories that are implied in the signs draw people in.
“People feel frustrated and helpless and have mixed feelings about how they can help,” Baronet explained. “These are the same things that I used to feel. The signs give them a way to engage without the awkwardness of having a human being there who they are unsure of how to respond to.”
Keith pointed out that not all homelessness looks the same.
“Homelessness has many faces, and not all situations look the same as in urban settings with overflowing shelters or people sleeping in cardboard boxes in alleyways,” she said. “In resort towns, there are people who spend years couch surfing, some people fashion sleeping platforms in their truck beds or bunk up with 8-10 people in a small apartment.”
Her hope is that viewers will be able to see the people behind the social issue of homelessness and show them compassion.
“People who are in the midst of personal trauma or mental illness or just down on their luck are very vulnerable,” she said. “If we look them in their eyes and express an interest in their story, we let them know that they matter. We can change their lives through that simple act of kindness, that humanity.”
For Baronet, the project has provided a constant reminder to be grateful.
“When I’m complaining about Wi-Fi speed, I remember that there are much worse situations to be in,” he pointed out. “This has raised my empathy level. I feel much more empathetic toward all human beings, and I like the way that feels.”
Sophie Dingle is a contributing writer for the Steamboat Pilot & Today. She can be reached through the editor.
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