Denver Mayor Michael Hancock has been fielding a lot of questions about homelessness lately, particularly about recent sweeps. A visiting artist has one more for him to respond to: Dear Mayor Hancock: What Are You Going To Do? is the title of PlatteForum‘s latest exhibition, which opens on December 17.
Brooklyn-based visual artist and writer Sarah Gerard (her latest book, Sunshine State, hits stores in April) has been researching and talking about homelessness for almost a decade. Her passion for social justice stemmed from her mom’s career as a social worker. “Homelessness looks like many things,” says Gerard, 31. But “the word ‘homelessness’ glosses over what it really is because, for instance, somebody who has been abused by her husband and is escaping an unsafe home is homeless. Part of the goal of this project is to get underneath that word and really look at how complex the issue is.”
The exhibit is the culmination of Gerard’s artist residency at PlatteForum. The programs run six to eight weeks, and every resident artist is required to team up with an “underserved urban youth (K–12)” during his or her tenure. The kids work alongside the artist to “collaboratively plan, produce, and exhibit a body of work.”
For Dear Mayor Hancock, Gerard guided six high school-aged students from Mi Casa at North High School—some of whom have either personally experienced homelessness or know people living on the streets—to create a multimedia exhibition featuring video interviews, audio interviews accompanied by portraits of the subjects, found materials from encampments that had been torn down or abandoned, a ‘zine of art and writing by those experiencing homelessness, and collages by Gerard. The interviewing, photography, and audio and video editing was done primarily by the students. The result is true immersion into the subjects’ lives, with audiences coming face-to-face with those experiencing homelessness and hearing their stories in their own voices.
Gerard is a journalist, so she’s comfortable with the interview format and felt it was the best approach for this project. “I think it’s one of the best ways to inspire empathy in someone—to make that person listen to another person’s story,” she says. So Gerard had the students interview the subjects themselves. “I could tell some of them were leery about approaching a stranger on the street,” Gerard says. “I really wanted the kids to look beyond or push aside their initial prejudices and really engage and empathize with people.”
As for the pointed nature of the exhibition’s title? “It’s a question, and it demands an answer so there’s an automatic dialogue,” Gerard says. “We’re not pointing the finger necessarily, because there are lots of root causes of homelessness, [but] it’s very direct—and it should be—because the issue is serious.”
Gerard knows an art exhibition isn’t the solution to homelessness, but she does hope it will spark conversations and represent the scope of the issue and the people it impacts. “I’m not an expert. I’m not a politician,” she says. “I’m just very interested in picking apart the complexity of the issue.”
If you go: Dear Mayor Hancock: What Are You Going To Do? runs December 17–23 at PlatteForum, 2400 Curtis St., Ste. 100. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday, noon to 6 p.m., or by appointment. The free opening reception will be held Saturday from noon to 3 p.m.
Follow contributing editor Daliah Singer on Twitter at .