Xavier Lopez Jr. is candid about his experience with homelessness. He’s been homeless three times and that part of his life isn’t far from his recollection or artwork.
The first time he was only 10 years old. He recalled leaving his childhood home in Montclair, California, with vivid accuracy. His parents and two siblings took what they could and left the rest behind. Lopez was resolute in not parting with his beloved G.I. Joes.
“I grabbed all of my action figures and stuffed them into two boxes, put them in my lap,” Lopez said. “I was not going to let them go, even though I let everything else go. Our Star Wars sheets, basically everything. Everything that mattered to me at the age of 10.”
The contemporary mixed-media artist still has those action figures and used them in a prior art installation.
Lopez is one of four artists addressing homelessness in the space at Fifth Avenue and Columbia Street. It’s part of the “Dialogues in Art: Exhibitions on Homelessness” series created by the city of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture. Communications Manager Erika Lindsay said a panel selected Lopez because of his personal experience with homelessness.
Last year’s “Dialogues in Art” theme was ending racial injustice. Lindsay said this year they chose homelessness because Seattle is experiencing dramatic affordability issues.
“So many people are struggling to stay in their homes or have been homeless. The city hired a director of homelessness to work on the issues related to it,” Lindsay said. “The purpose of ‘Dialogues in Art’ is to be able to have a conversation around large systemic and structural issues through artists’ voices. The homeless crisis is something we wanted to have this conversation with artists about.”
Lopez and his family were homeless for about two months. They lived in their car for much of that time traveling from church to church looking for help. They weren’t always met with mercy and grace; Lopez explained some churches turned them away.
Initially, Lopez said, it felt like camping and it was somewhat exciting.
“At first it was like, ‘Oh well, at least we’re all together and we’re in this. It won’t get so bad because we’re family.’ And there were times that were quite scary ultimately,” Lopez said. “We stayed in an abandoned shack for a little while that we found on this land that they were building on. We got kicked out in the middle of the night.”
The Lopez family was on the move again and eventually settled in Reno, Nevada. Once they were back in a home, getting their lives back on track didn’t happen overnight.
“Trying to get back to normalcy, that took a lot longer, until we were pretty much in high school. Even then we lived in trailers and at one point we had a kerosene heater and we were all huddled in one room because it was so cold in Reno,” Lopez said. “We had to use that one heating element to keep us all warm and we would end up with black soot in our noses when we woke up in the morning. It was pretty difficult.”
He created the installation, titled “Hope/Home,” for the Seattle Presents Gallery located at the Seattle Municipal Tower. It addresses this specific time in his life.
Inside the space are five “sheet ghosts” representing Lopez and his family. The sheets are held up by numerous strings attached to the walls of the gallery. They are shapeless figures and Mickey Mouse ears adorn the youngest member of the Lopez family. Dozens of framed drawings, portraits and artwork are on the wall. A still life portrait by his father is included as well as a painting of roses by his mother. Lopez said the exhibit is a Rorschach.
“You see whatever is really driving you,” Lopez said. “I wanted to make sure that essentially what you have is a background, that while it’s filled with objects from home, specifically my home, it was also open-ended enough that someone could see part of themselves in it.”
The space has a Victorian feel to it, which is intentional. The sheet ghosts are a nod to a time when people would cover furniture in houses and castles to prevent them from getting dusty while no one was there.
Lopez said eventually the sheets became synonymous with ghosts. Last winter it all came together for Lopez, and it’s also a reminder of how he felt being homeless himself.
“I started seeing a lot of homeless people covering themselves and that’s when the whole connection to homelessness started really fitting. I started doing some of the sheet ghosts on the street, just leaving them there with a little tag letting people know it was an art piece,” Lopez said. “There was a sense of invisibility. The sense when my dad would take us out to ask for some money that most people didn’t want to look at you. Most people wanted to look past you or ignore you.”
He wants others to know that most of the homeless people he’s encountered have never given up hope. They want to change their circumstances, and being homeless is not their identity.
“Homelessness doesn’t just affect single people, it can affect entire families. You can find yourself in the situation very easily,” Lopez said. “The next time you see somebody who is homeless, just a simple nod, a simple bit of appreciation — even if you can’t afford to give them any money — can make all the difference in the world.”
“Hope/Home” shows any one of us can become anonymous sheet ghosts moving through the world. It’s an installation highlighting what is and what can be.
Lopez’s work will be on display until June 16. The next artist is George Lee. His show will begin June 19.
WHAT: “Dialogues in Art: Exhibitions on Homelessness”
WHEN: Runs until June 16, open Thursday and Friday, Noon – 2 p.m. (the installation can still be viewed from the outside when the door is locked)
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 Emerald City Edge
Read the full May 24 issue.
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Creating a more humane society: Photographer Gemina Garland-Lewis captures the bond between homeless people and their pets
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