Not Exactly: What Home Means to Those without One

Is an art exhibit capable of ending homelessness? No, not exactly. But RedLine's newest exhibit may very well spark discourse by authentically and tactfully capturing the experience of living without shelter. Not Exactly opens at the nonprofit art lab June 1.
Denver's a transient town. It's almost too obvious a sentence to transcribe. People are always coming and going. Last month it was a high school friend moving to the city for a job; last week it was married friends leaving to start a family back home. In a city like ours, struggling to define home isn't something reserved solely for those lacking permanent shelter.
Which is why this year's signature show at RedLine, Not Exactly, will hit home (pun intended) with everyone it touches. The show is the 2013 installment in the urban arts nonprofit's tradition of annual exhibitions designed to comment on a particular social injustice.
When they began organizing Not Exactly eight months back, Curators Robin Gallite, RedLine's Education Director, and Chad Kautzer, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado Denver, set out to bring a constructive critique of homelessness -- one capable of shattering misconceptions -- to the Front Range. The result, a diverse collection of artistic offerings surrounding the theme of houselessness, delivers on its promise.
Take Frank Sturgell, for example, whose contribution to Not Exactly is an off-beat series of wheatpaste posters. The man's impeccably clean, articulate, and just a little bit shy in a disarming sort of way. He's not so different from the countless other Midwesterners I've met out here. Traditional nuclear upbringing: check. Bachelor's degree: check. Graduate degree (a four-year Master's in Architecture from University of Colorado Denver): check. Six-figure job, trendy condominium: check and check.   
Sturgell did everything right, which is why I'm shocked when he explains he's one of the artists that uses RedLine's Reach Studio on Tuesday afternoons when it's open to Denver's houseless and in-transition artists. Reach was started by Metropolitan State University of Denver students in 2010 as a way to bolster a community of outsider artists -- which, technically, is what Sturgell is. 
Frank Sturgell is one of the Reach Studio artists featured in RedLine's "Not Exactly" exhibit.
He's been houseless for four years, since the convergence of events left him in a strange city with no house and no job. "This month, I'm staying in a first floor room of a minister's home," says Sturgell. "I don't know what I'll do come June." The artist is a prime example of the exhibit's aim: He lives without permanent shelter, but he's not exactly homeless.

Homeless at heart
Gonzo is another Reach artist. Part philosopher, part comedian, the abstract artist inspired the exhibit when he casually proclaimed, "I'm not exactly homeless; I'm living in a situation that is not mine." Today, Gonzo's "homeless at heart," but isn't houseless because he lives with "his girl" at The Cornerstone Residences at St. Francis Center, a 50-unit affordable housing complex catering to individuals who earn less than half the local median income.
In his thirties, Gonzo chose to be homeless when he left a comfortable  -- albeit unhappy -- house in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and hitchhiked around the West, following the Grateful Dead and convening with the Rainbow People. The wanderer found himself in Denver in 1994 when he stopped to re-up on food stamps. "I got a temporary labor job, was drinking Everclear in the park with the boys, and then Jerry Garcia died and there was nowhere to go," he explains. So Gonzo stayed put. 
He was houseless "on-again-off-again" for nearly two decades. Sometimes he lived on the streets or at tent city, other times he stayed in cars or with friends. When I ask about any career he had before his art career that began in 2011, he tells me about a "criminal career" that landed him in jail and is to thank for his artistic awakening. "I'd write letters to my girl all the time," Gonzo says. "When I got sick of writing, I started drawing."
Like some -- but certainly not all -- of the other 12,605 or so Denverites living without permanent shelter, Gonzo grapples with addiction. "I'm fighting demons all the time," he says. "Now, I've become addicted to that therapeutic space in my art where I can go to escape." While the alcohol and drugs may seem predictable, the artist's obliged and optimistic attitude isn't. "When you have nothing and you survive that, everything after is a blessing," he says. RedLine, he believes, is one such blessing. 
Aside from hosting Reach artists like Gonzo and Sturgell, RedLine offers a distinguished Artist-in-Residence program for approximately 15 to 20 emerging artists who, once accepted into the program, remain "in residence" for a two or three year period. "We provide studio space for the artists," says Gallite, "but we're more than a studio for rent." Residents have access to a handful of resource artists whose expertise guides them through the creative process. 
Not Exactly, opening June 1, 2013, features contributions from 21 artists. "This is an impressive and diverse group of artists both in terms of medium used and situation in life," Gallite adds.

Convergence of life and art   
One particularly impressive project is Mind Your Own Business, a visual media presentation originating from the studio of Resident Artist Alvin P. Gregorio. Gregorio was hesitant at first. "I didn't want to exploit people in difficult situations for the sake of conversation and voyeurism," he says. Still, his curiosity was piqued. 
You see, home has always been complicated for Gregorio. The product of homesick Filipino immigrants, the artist "inherited the confusion" of his parents growing up. Physical abuse landed him on the streets; a teenage runaway, he occasionally slept at his high school when he wasn't "hopping from place to place."
For the exhibition, Gregorio targeted people in Boulder and Denver -- men and women who appeared to be "traveling" -- and asked them to define home while his camera rolled. The artist tempered this sampling with interviews from folks who didn't appear to be "in the situation of living without shelter." The product is a collection of small business cards, each with a photographed portrait of the interviewee and a QR code directing smart phone users to a YouTube video containing the unedited interviews. "I wasn't interested in editing because that might force my viewpoint into the project," Gregorio says. 
When I turn the figurative camera on Gregorio and ask him to answer his own question, he struggles. "I'm not convinced it's a physical place," he says. "Home is where you feel accepted; it's where you feel safe." For Gregorio, this exhibit is only the beginning. "I've been doing art professionally for 15 years, and this is the first time my art and my life have come together in a seamless way," he says. 
Other artists will show more conventional art. Reach artist Caroline (OUI) Pooler, for example, tells her own story -- that of a well-intentioned whistleblower who lost everything -- through The Existence of the Ostracized, a series of red puffs arranged in a circular motion on a wall next to a panic button that, when pushed, delivers a poem about Pooler's ordeal. Gonzo works on his thesis for the show.
Not Exactly consists of both indoor and outdoor components. In fact, Gonzo plans to make an appearance early in the exhibition, dragging "stuff" down one of the alleys where he'll create graphic art from cardboard, decals, and various other items. 
"This has not been an easy show to curate," admits Gallite, who made an effort to be especially thoughtful in dealing with such a prominent, tense issue. "Art gives people a way to have an important conversation," she says, hopeful that the eight-week-long exhibition will be the catalyst for meaningful discussion that continues long after the art comes down. 

Not Exactly opens at RedLine (2350 Arapahoe St.), with a reception at 7 p.m. on Sat. June 1 that includes a presentation from Denver Homeless Out Loud concerning the organization's findings regarding the urban camping ban. There will be ongoing performances and workshops, as well as relevant film screenings and readings. Not Exactly is open to the public and free. RedLine accepts tax-deductible donations.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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