New locally touring exhibit uses inspired artwork to highlight empathy and encourage residents to not just ‘walk on by’ when they see a person in need
By: Tyler Dague
A makeshift photography studio was set up inside the Northside Common Ministries (NSCM) building in California-Kirkbride. One by one members of the homeless community sat down and spoke with photographer and director of communications for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council Jennifer Saffron, who regularly volunteers at the organization.
Saffron listened to each subject share their story before taking their photograph in a series of formal black and white portraits. She would show them the shots and gain feedback before the next subject came in for his or her portrait.
“It was a collaborative process,” Saffron said. “Some of the people had amazing poise. These are not photo booth shots. Just because someone’s poor or in a tight spot or struggling or trying to overcome some of the challenges that may be at the root cause of homelessness — such as addiction for mental health issues — does not mean they don’t have a commitment to living a better life.”
Saffron’s portraits of homeless community on the Northside are just one part of the larger exhibition “Walk On By,” a mixed media artist collaboration being featured at the Carnegie Library of Allegheny throughout the month of March. “Walk On By” seeks to challenge stereotypes of people experiencing homelessness and reinforce their humanity and dignity to the broader public.
Both Saffron and NSCM executive director, Jay Poliziani echoed the importance of the show’s theme towards bonding, creating social connections and reaching out to the homeless even if it isn’t financial. Despite his position, Poliziani admitted he doesn’t often give money to panhandlers. Rather, he establishes trust.
“It’s very rare, but after I’ve said hello to them a couple times, there’s not an expectation of money anymore, but they’re grateful for being acknowledged,” Poliziani said. “That really changes the dynamic. It changes my comfort level. Once I’m comfortable, then I can be an advocate. I think future generations will be in that same place – ‘Well, why weren’t we connecting with these people as opposed to walking past them?’”
Poliziani is no stranger towards introducing art within NSCM’s mission. Last year, the NSCM featured the artwork of Carnegie Mellon student Daniel See. See created ceramic mugs bearing the handprints of homeless men, and Poliziani found it inspirational.
Soon, the idea spread to artists who — like Saffron — volunteered at the organization, and a two-week show at the downtown gallery Future Tenant opened in 2017. In addition to Saffron and See, the exhibition featured drawings from Amy Tenenouser, documentary video from Steve Mellon, paintings from Sara Beck Sweeney and Denis Bergevin, mixed media from Susy Robison and photography from Renee Rosensteel, nearly all Northside residents.
“It was a really great turnout, especially for the opening weekend,” Poliziani said. “One of the people who had attended was a librarian at the downtown branch, and she started the idea of showing it at one library and then connected with other libraries.”
Since then, “Walk On By” is now booked on an exhibition tour at libraries across the Greater Pittsburgh area for the rest of 2018. The works will be displayed along the support columns within the main area of the Allegheny branch.
Carlton Stout, the library services manager at the Allegheny branch, had seen Mellon’s video chronicling the experiences of several homeless people in Pittsburgh and recognized several as regular clients.
“I think for everyone it will humanize their plight and showcase the creativity of the artists,” Stout said. “It’s cool we’re celebrating folks that don’t normally get celebrated.”
Saffron was thrilled to hear of the library tour and thought “Walk On By” was a great match to discuss homelessness within such pillars of democracy.
Poliziani was open to suggestions as he noted the library tour happened organically. Saffron suggested the exhibition’s success could be parlayed into homeless visitors to the organization making their own contributions or having the works sold at a silent auction to benefit future shows.
“If one of the goals of the show is to raise awareness, to raise curiosity around what homeless people are going through, libraries are a perfect place for that,” Saffron said. “People are already coming with the goal to seek knowledge.”
“Walk On By” is the first in a new direction toward art as the primary medium of advocacy for Northside Common Ministries. In partnership with homeless advisory council Allegheny County House Aid, the organization has commissioned a graphic novel made up of stories related to cartoonists by homeless individuals. Poliziani plans to release the novel around the end of the year and hopes to move on to a theater as a way to highlight the homeless community.
“[Homelessness] is far less threatening when it comes through an artistic medium,” Poliziani said. “It’s much more comfortable, but it’s still pretty transformative. Our hope is to work with other artist communities to create other types of things that bring attention to the homeless and more visibility about who they really are.”
After its display on the Northside, “Walk On By” will continue to tour with one-month stays in libraries at Mt. Lebanon, Cranberry, Sewickley, Greentree and Hazelwood.
This article was updated on February 28, 2018 at 9:12 a.m.