We know what to do. Look straight ahead. Pretend we’re texting. Become engrossed in the passing storefronts. Focus on the traffic light ahead. Never, never make eye contact.
Because if we make eye contact, then we will have to acknowledge that the people sitting on sidewalks or standing on corners — homeless people — actually exist.
The Prairiefire Museum in Overland Park has been displaying works created by 12 artists who are or have been living in the invisible world of homelessness. Their work, featured in the exhibit “InVisible,” speaks eloquently of their unique perspectives on life. Paintings, poems and mixed media are available for purchase, with all proceeds going to the artists.
The destructive forces of mental illness, drug addiction, chronic health problems, domestic violence and natural disasters can rob people of the stability and safety of a home, something most of us take for granted.
“To be homeless causes people to disappear,” says Kim Woirhaye-Reid, a marketing specialist with the accounting firm MarksNelson, which developed and helped fund the exhibit. “But this exhibit says, ‘We see you,’” Woirhaye-Reid says.
MarksNelson also sponsors “Wrapped in Warmth,” a project that has distributed more than 2,000 scarves, hats and gloves to homeless people. Last year when Woirhaye-Reid was volunteering with the project, she heard one man say that he felt invisible to passersby. His words inspired her to think of a way to bring attention to others like him, and “InVisible” was born.
“We pushed boundaries,” she says. “We didn’t just write the check.”
Another sponsor, Kar Woo, founded the nonprofit Artists Helping the Homeless. While walking his dog in the park behind his art gallery on the Plaza, Woo often encountered homeless people. With Woirhaye-Reid, he helped find artists for the exhibit.
“The people are important — nothing else,” Woo says. His desire is to bring people back from the terrible downward spiral homelessness creates. “We want them to excel, not just survive.”
Several artists explained that seeing their work in a museum setting actually matters more than whether the art sells. John, one of the artists, says that when the exhibit opened, it was a validation for him. “I finally called myself an artist,” he says.
For John, art has given him strength and serenity as he struggles with bipolar disorder. “Art is like breathing to me,” he says. “I can’t live without it.
“I really had no background in art,” John explains. “I would be coloring in coloring books with my daughter and would run out of pages, so I would go to the library, check out books and begin copying them for us to color.”
John’s striking portrait of a beautiful woman, superimposed on a puzzle piece background, causes people to ask what inspired him.
He smiles and says, “It’s because I have a few missing pieces.”