Homeless Artists

The first time I recall buying art from a homeless person was in Kenya some years ago.  The artist was a Somali women seeking safety in a UNHCR operated refugee camp.  Her surroundings were incredibly basic; her studio was her UNHCR tent, and her materials were found objects and local grasses and remnants of food aid bags.   The weaving she constructed was made by hand; there was no loom.  Today I wished I had asked her more questions.  Had she always been a weaver, an artist?  Why did she make these?  Did she really think there was a market for anything so crude?  Still, I bought the weaving, and have admired its underlying creativity and determination ever since, and had it hung between two plexiglass plates to give it due honor.

My second homeless artist lives on the street too, East Colfax – one the longest and most fascinating streets spanning Denver and surrounding cities.  Some might not call her an artist, just a crafts person since her medium is wool and her skill is knitting.  She claimed she had lived on the street for several years, I think partly by choice.  Any other place was too confining.  Once again, I bought a work of art – a red and black blanket perfect for that emergency blizzard storm.  I made the purchase less for the aesthetic value of the art than out of admiration for her entrepreneurial energy.

My most recent purchase was from a homeless (or so he claimed) person in Boulder just last Monday.  I spotted this thing on the sidewalk.  It looked like a mini semi-trailer at first.  Then it looked like it had morphed into a grasshopper.  It was definitely composed of all found materials – mostly aluminum cans cut apart and the edges serated.  Wires, some wrapped, and some stripped are used for the guts and the sensor aerials.  A faucet for some anterior feature.  A set of wheels which look like they come from a skate board.  My new artist friend had several other works on display too, but the one I saw first was the one I liked best.  He said he wanted $855 thousand and change for this work. I said I didn’t have $800k. He said, “you didn’t listen, I said $855,000”. He explained that this was a fair price because of all the creative input, the technical knowledge, the proprietary insights, etc.  I offered a $50 downpayment. He put his hand out and accepted, and then he gave me a calling card – a squashed and squared tin can.  His name was not on it but it was his sign. 

Why did I make the purchase?  Why throw away $50 on a collection of twisted indescribable metal and other found objects?   Several reasons actually.  In the first case, I admired the creativity and drive of these homeless artists.  Secondly, what good is it to believe in the power of markets to create opportunities if one refuses to get involved?  Artists need customers, and homeless customers need them more than anyone.   And finally, I thought they were good art pieces, and that is my choice to make.


About Al Doerksen

I'm sort of a vocational tramp; my working career divides about evenly between non-profit and the business worlds. I have lived in Mexico, India, Germany and Canada, and now USA. I've had the good fortune to travel to 90 countries of which at least half are developing countries. The last 25 years of my "career" have involved significant (and enjoyable) international management challenges: travel industry, furniture manufacturing, food (aid) programming and ultraviolet water treatment among others. I'm now leading a development enterprise called IDE.
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3 Responses to Homeless Artists

  1. doradueck says:

    It’s definitely a fascinating piece. My question is: where will you put it? It looks large, or is that just the photo?

  2. Al, I love this blog post and how you keep your eyes open as you roam the world. I’m happy that you came to work with me in Boulder that day, it was a good day!!!

  3. Melody says:

    it is good to see someone who sees someone who sees
    and then does something about it.

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