Future Tenant is a small gallery downtown that is home to exhibitions of emerging artists, and since opening last Friday it is now home to a small exhibition entitled Walk on By on homelessness in Pittsburgh. The show is curated by Jay Poliziani of Northside Common Ministiries, and it brings together a variety of artist from various disciplines, each taking their own approach to homelessness using mediums from theater to cartoon to sculpture. The work is a collaboration of volunteers connected to the ministry with more artist who joined in as the project grew. Walking through the exhibition space, you will see portrait line drawings and a documentary on a theater group working with homeless individuals. In the back is a collection of paintings and drawings from children talking about their experience growing up without a stable home. This piece is both bright and beautiful in color, but heart wrenchingly matter of fact. Political cartoons’ quip about the current government reveal frustration with the lack of resources and action to help individuals down on their luck. The show considers the diversity of individuals experiencing homelessness, considering children, people of color, women, and LGBTQ individuals as especially vulnerable groups.
Poliziani describes the idea of the show as a way of asking the viewers to simply engage with homeless individuals. He talks about how easy it is to walk by someone on the street, how uncomfortable it makes most of us and the way we avoid having to confront that. But, through the power of art and narrative, this show honors the fundamental humanity of these individuals. He says a simple “hi” or smile is enough, but it is not good for society to ignore the existence of people just because they reflect some difficult truths about economic security and poverty. Calling for compassion and understanding, each of these artists work in their own way with bring the unique stories of each of these people to the privileged consumers of art.
Walk on By features Carnegie Mellon’s own Daniel See, a sophomore BHA Decision Science and Art major. His piece at first glance are these interesting, lumpy cylindrical forms, but upon closer inspection it is clear that they are actually hand prints grasping a cup. In each, there is a small card with the title of the project and a quote from the man whose hand marks the ceramic object. These mugs are beautiful and complex, a contradiction of intimacy and anonymity. The handprint is individual and a marker of a personal activity, taking a drink from a mug, but the whiteness of the mugs and the repetition of shapes gives a sense of homogeneity. Holding the mug allows you to get to know the individual, but at the same time you never see his face or really learn his story.
The project began when See approached Northside Common MInistries about volunteering with homeless shelters and how art can connect people. At the time, he was taking a sculpture class where he had to make multiple versions of the same object and he wanted to look outward to make the art about other people. One of these cultural shocks of moving to the US, especially a city like Pittsburgh, was the huge presence of homelessness and the ingrained way we ignore it at all cost. He felt deeply dissatisfied with just walking by and ignoring people on the streets and so, like any good artist, he decided to do something about it. The process, therefore, became essential to understanding the piece. Bringing clay mugs to the shelter where he volunteers, See had the men living there press their hands around the mug. At the end of the day, he brought these mugs back and baked them in a kiln. Each of these mugs then carried the stories and wisdom the men shared with See, and hand reaching out for connection and understanding.
Another notable piece in the show is a documentary short by University of Pittsburgh graduate Mark Janavel called It Should Feel Like Home. This film follows LGBTQ individuals and talks about their experiences and difficulties with shelters in Pittsburgh. The documentary was created to spotlight and potentially motivate shelters to change policy and the way they treat LGBTQ youth. Recruited by fellow Pitt alumni Alexander McCarthy, who was the president of the Rainbow Alliance and working with Jay Poliziani, Janavel spent four days recruiting and ended up with twelve subjects to work with for the topic. This film will also be playing at the Pitt Undergraduate Film Symposium on March 30 at 6:00 pm.
These stories, often of young people, recount being rejected from shelters because issues with bathrooms or worrying about their safety because of their sexual orientation. The shelter becomes, for many people, synonymous with returning to the closet as the shared living space makes life uncomfortable and unsafe for trans and queer individuals. It makes clear not only the lack of resources and education, but also hope for changes in the system. This film is incredibly important because homelessness for LGBTQ youth is disproportionately higher and we as a society do not talk enough about difficulties faced by this community. Our faces of queer representation are far and few between, but those that exist tend to be wealthy Hollywood stars or tech moguls. The importance of having visuals and stories to connect issues with people is therefore vital because it validates their existence and urgency of their needs.
The entirety of show reflects this drive for validation of humanity and compassion. Art and social change is a difficult field to enter because often times art points at social issues without providing solutions or really making a difference. Each time there is an opening from an organization that has set out to do good through art, this is a concern the viewer and the artist has to address. Walk on By is about awareness, but it is also about connection. The exhibition as a whole certainly has interesting curation because collectively these pieces do not have a target solution to a specific issue. Rather, each project moves in its own way — taking advantage of its own medium and audience — to connect with their subject and tell their story. These projects are still small, and by no means do they solve homelessness or economic inequality. Rather, the specificity of goals of each one and the diversity of action, when brought together, is a reminder to the viewer of the huge number of ways just one person can make a small difference. As much as the show is about homelessness, it is about kindness and breaking out of the urban isolation effect that happens when we get used to spending most of our time focused on our own worlds. That is what makes Walk on By special and a show that is definitely worth checking out.