A home is not just a “place.” It provides roots, identity, safety and a sense of responsibility. Those who do not have a home know this all too well.
We have all encountered the homeless — on sidewalks, street corners, along highway intersections — and at one point or another may have felt homeless.
“We’re All Homeless” is an exhibition at Payne Gallery at Moravian College of what is all too familiar — the signs and placards made and used by people as a way of reaching out for help — for money, work, food. The exhibition is an in-your-face statement about the plight of those less fortunate.
It’s on display as part of the college’s In Focus thematic programming for the academic year: “Poverty & Inequality.”
The signs and placards were collected by Willie Baronet, a former advertising company owner who is now the Stan Richards Professor of Creative Advertising at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. In 2006 Baronet sold his company to become a full-time artist. He went back to graduate school and received an MFA in Arts and Technology from University of Texas, Dallas, in 2011.
“Frankly, I really wanted to pursue art. Staying in the advertising business seemed like a way to hide out.”
For two decades Baronet has been buying homeless signs for the purpose of using them in art projects. Some signs were acquired during a recent cross-country road trip starting in Seattle and ending in NYC.
“It began because of the awkwardness I felt when I’d pull up to an intersection and encounter a person holding a sign, asking for help,” he says. “Like many, I wrestled with whether or not I was doing good by giving them money, wondered if they would spend the money on alcohol or drugs.”
Engaging the homeless wasn’t easy for Baronet. He struggled with the idea of moral obligation.
“I struggled with the unfairness of the lives people are born into, the physical, mental and psychological handicaps,” he explains. “In my struggle I avoided eye contact with those on the street, unwilling to really see them, and in doing so avoided seeing parts of myself.”
“That began to change once I began asking them if they would sell their signs. The dynamic changed between us, as we both had something the other valued.”
“For me, it is certainly a form of expression,” says Baronet, who identifies with French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp. “I don’t know that the people know the signs they make are art or not. These are individual messages by each of these people and they each represent an interaction I’ve had with somebody.”
In July 2014 Baronet traveled with a documentary film crew across the country, stopping in 24 cities in 31 days. They traveled 7,620 miles, bought 282 signs, and documented well over a hundred interviews with the people they met.
“It was really just about getting out of my own comfort zone a bit,” he says. The film, “Signs of Humanity,” is in post production and scheduled for release in April.
All together, there are some 172 signs in the exhibit from across the country as well as from Italy and France. They represent well over a thousand interactions with people, says Baronet.
The works are unframed and tacked to the wall of the gallery in a continuous line, mimicking Baronet’s journey across the country. The line of cardboard and words starts at eye level and soars up the walls of the Payne above door jambs almost to the ceiling, continuing up stairs along the second floor to a short video made by Baronet showing his encounters with the homeless.
There are signs for every occasion and circumstance. Some of the signs are humorous, others all too depressing. One asks for money because “ninjas” are after them and they need money for karate lessons. Another claims the person is a veteran and needs something to help him get by. There are signs made for the Sunday after church crowd that quote scripture, others that speak humorously to the after-hours club crowd.
“My relationship to the homeless has been powerfully and permanently altered,” says Baronet. “The conversations and connections have left an indelible mark on my heart. As a graphic designer for much of my professional career, I also marvel at the typography, texture and patina of the signs themselves. The messages that were written. Wondering about the choices made by each person in the size and legibility of the letters, the words they used, and occasionally the drawings, the humor, the typos.”
Baronet has exhibited “We’re All Homeless” throughout the country and has been featured in media including Yahoo! News, The Huffington Post and Al Jazeera America. An UpWorthy video about the project that was uploaded in 2015 has been viewed over 5.3 million times.
“I still wrestle with personal questions regarding generosity, goodness, compassion and guilt,” says Baronet. “I see these signs as signposts of my own journey, inward and outward, of reconciling my early home life with my judgments about those experiencing homelessness.”