Inside the Seattle Presents Gallery, 18 evenly spaced portraits hang on the walls. Each shows a person resting with their arms in various positions, and everyone is lying on the same hunter green blanket and pillow. Each is tucked under a multi-colored crocheted heirloom blanket made by a Swedish immigrant. The blankets and pillow can be seen piled in the corner of the gallery space.
The photographs are of nine different men and women: five city officials leading the response to the homelessness crisis and four people experiencing homelessness who live at Othello Village, a community of tiny homes in Southeast Seattle. Some of the portraits are encased in gold frames while others are in plain ones made by the artist George Lee. It’s a nod to the haves and have-nots. Each portrait is repeated.
“One is visual impact. Get people to stop. Feel it,” Lee said of the exhibit, titled “Salon Domicile.” “Feel the gravity of the situation. Feel the gravity of all these people sleeping.”
A 36-minute video posted on YouTube adds another dimension to the work. Under their photographs, the audience can hear the participants describing their favorite place and moment in their home. The participants are anonymous but some of the faces of the public officials are recognizable.
The fourth person shown in the video is a man who described living at Nickelsville as the place he’s felt most at home. The self-professed nerd was homeless for two years, and the smoking tent was his favorite place because he’d play Dungeons and Dragons.
“We just sit and make up crazy stuff that happens in these worlds that we’re role playing in. Because we’re role playing in four or five different worlds or multiverses, I should say,” he said. “It’s just wild and fun. We have a murder investigation going on and a giant war going on and a crazy adventure through hundreds of different worlds going on.”
One participant said Thanksgiving was the favorite moment in her home, while another talked about unwinding on the couch in her living room with her cat on her lap. Lee’s work brings two groups together whose lives are intertwined. In the video, Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson reflects on the coveted teatime he shares with his wife on the weekends on the porch of their home.
“We feel so privileged to be able to do that, knowing how many folks don’t have the ability to have those quiet moments, let alone have those quiet moments under cover and in shelter,” Johnson said. “It’s something that we both really love and we both don’t take for granted.”
Lee said what stood out for him from his conversations with the participants was the emphasis on the simple rather than the luxuries a home can provide. Lee has never been homeless, but like many others he’s feeling the squeeze as the cost of living rises for Seattleites.
Lee’s work is the second of four installments in the “Dialogues in Art: Exhibitions on Homelessness” series created by the city of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture. The recently released Count Us In tally of unsheltered homeless people found 5,485 people sleeping outside in January, 22 percent more than the earlier incarnation of the point-in-time count in 2016. It’s yet another sign the homeless crisis is getting worse.
“We need to house everybody,” Lee said. “We need to house everybody with a tiny home or whatever it takes, right away. Now. It does not take a lot. Seattle is just measurably complicit.”
“Salon Domicile” also highlights the politics of sleep for people who are homeless. Despite being crucial for our mental and physical well-being, those living outside aren’t always afforded the opportunity for a peaceful night’s rest.
In 1993 the Seattle City Council passed a “sit/lie” ordinance that prohibits a person from sitting or lying down on a public sidewalk, blanket, chair, stool or any other object on a public sidewalk from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the downtown and neighborhood commercial zones. Those in violation could face a $50 fine or community service if they can’t pay. Among advocates the sit/lie ordinance is seen as another way being homeless is criminalized.
Lee is a sculptor and experimental designer who has earned public art awards. He’s worked with homeless youth in the past but talking with homeless adults reinforced his rejection of common stereotypes about homeless people. In “Salon Domicile” he also questions how one can stabilize their life and become self-supporting without a home.
“My work is a lot about how humans are like a biological organism, and we need to work with our species’ strengths and weaknesses. I very strongly believe it’s about relationships,” Lee said. “I was trying to build a very personal relationship with some of those politicians and then with the viewers and a respectful relationship with people living in the camps around this issue.”
WHAT: “Dialogues in Art: Exhibitions on Homelessness”
WHEN: Runs until August 18, open Thursday and Friday, Noon – 2 p.m., viewable from the windows when the gallery is closed.
WHERE: Seattle Presents Gallery at Seattle Municipal Tower, 5th Avenue & Columbia St.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge, Facebook
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