SKID ROAD: Art for the Homeless

People / Places / August 15, 2012

Our conversation with Olson Kundig Architects’ Alan Maskin and Marlene Chen, whose “SKID ROAD” exhibition on homelessness is now on display in the firm’s Seattle studio, continues today:

How serious is the homeless situation in Seattle?

Marlene: Thanks to the work of Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH)’s One Night Count, we know that on one night in January, there were 8,830 people counted on the street, in emergency shelters or transitional housing in King County; 2,861 children in Washington State were homeless at some point during the 2010-2011 school year.  The problem is large, but not insurmountable.  We need to keep this issue at the forefront—people are homeless 24 hours a day.  It is important to remember that the face of homelessness is represented disproportionately by people of color and not only single men and women, but also families and children.

What role does architecture play in this situation?

Alan: Architecture is one of the elephants in the room—it’s the absence of architecture serving the poor in our communities that is the implicit issue. The issues surrounding basic shelter in order to survive should be attainable—and many included in this installation are committed to making that happen

Marlene: DESC’s 1811 Eastlake project has proven that providing housing first, before treatment, can be an effective method of helping to stabilize peoples’ lives.

What role can architecture play in its resolution?

Marlene: To have a safe place to live or spend the day brings some sense of order in a chaotic time.  Architecture, especially thoughtful architecture, can brighten someone’s day or give someone’s home comfort.  To have a space that is your own, where you feel safe and can let your guard down is one less thing to worry about as you move along in your day.

What role can art play?

Alan: We’ve displayed reproductions of the 1920s paintings that Ronald Ginther created of the poor (which include depictions of shelters, “tent cities” and food lines)—all painted of life on our streets almost a century ago. As evidenced by this documentation, visitors get a sense of how long this problem has existed, but also how much it resembles the same problems today. We’ve contrasted Ginther’s paintings with contemporary portrait artist (and nurse at our local medical clinic) Mary Larson.  Mary paints portraits of her patients and clients—many of whom are homeless. She barters this work for goods and services and she created a suite of eleven portraits for this installation, of which 9 have “sold.” An elementary school in Seattle will make 3000 sandwiches for their local shelter in exchange for the portrait titled “Adriana” which will hang at their school. In this work, Mary‘s paintings turns grade school kids into young philanthropists.  Aside from the goods and services that are provided by the sale of Mary’s work, there is also something remarkable that happens when the people who sit for the portraits see their likeness on the wall for the first time—as many did when they arrived at the opening. It was one of those “you had to be there” moments. The homeless are the population that rarely gets its portraits painted, and by doing so, they join Mary and provide services to others who struggle as they do. Many have been returning to SKID ROAD to show their portrait to friends or family members. In those instances, art plays a role in personal integrity.


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Michael Welton
I write about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. I am the author of "Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand" (Routledge, 2015), and the former architecture critic for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.




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1 Comment

on August 29, 2012

Incredible evidence that “Art Saves Lives”…thank you, Mary Larson! What an inspiration!



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