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Street Scenes : Artworks by the Homeless Find a Special Place in Charlie Colin's Heart

October 18, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — There are probably few art exhibits where you can find a painting accompanied by an info card stating "Mixed Media: Lipstick, Liquid Paper and Shoe Polish."

This choice of materials isn't just some chic artist's affectation.

"Here's another one of the same artist's painted on the back of two L.A. Kings posters," said collector Charlie Colin, pointing to a larger work. "He paints on whatever he can, uses spray paint and shoe polish. He goes through office trash bins to get Wite-Out. When he uses charcoal, it's not like art stores have; it's charcoal briquettes."

This artist, Ralph Middleton, and some 25 others whose work Colin collects are homeless. For the past three years the 27-year-old musician and artist has been combing the streets of downtown Los Angeles, befriending homeless artists and collecting some 200 of their works.

Fifty of those will be displayed at Triangle Square in a vacant storefront next to the Susan Spiritus Gallery, opening Sunday at a "Jazz Fest" held at the shopping center to benefit Share Our Selves (Call (714) 538-8276 for information; the exhibit remains there until Nov. 15.). The Costa Mesa-based charity provides assistance and medical care for needy people in the county.

Some of the artworks address the harshness of street life. Some are about the artist's personal predicaments. Some are dreamscapes. All manner of scavenged materials are used. Whatever else might be said of the paintings' efficacy as art, Wite-Out certainly creates some haunting eyes.

Colin might not seem the obvious choice for someone to be championing the art of society's discarded. He was raised in Newport, was on the water polo team at Newport Harbor High, and got his higher education at Boston's Berklee School of Music and USC. His mile-a-minute speech is unclouded by cynicism or doubt.

He points out, though, that one of the homeless artists whose work he's collected had been a Newport High teammate in water polo and a 4.0 student who experienced mental problems that left him wandering the streets of Laguna for two years.

"It was a real shock to see him living like that, but it brought home to me that it could be any of us," Colin said. "Most of these people avoid giving you their stories, but there are some who will tell you they're out there by choice.

"There's one named Jackson-Collins for instance. He makes no apologies for being on the street. He chose it. He was an econ major at USC, had a live-in relationship with a family, was doing graphic art. He decided his talent was being wasted, that he wasn't being true to the gifts he was given. So he left his job and family and decided to live on the street. That's where he gets all his ideas, so he figured he should be there. He says his paintings are from 'Real Life Studios.'

"Right across from the L.A. County Museum (of Art) there is a billboard which is backed by a wall. He has a sleeping bag and mat there. It's like his apartment. He goes to Fairfax, paints all day, makes enough to by his supplies and some food. He doesn't call himself homeless. He says he's an urban camper."

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Colin began seeking such artists out after roaming L.A. looking for graffiti art to use for an album cover project. "I had done a lot of traveling and was interested in this graffiti and mural art I saw wherever I went. In each country it seemed to address the same basic human needs and problems. It can be socially poignant, and the artists doing it know it might get painted over the next day. I started going out with a camera to record how some walls changed from day to day. Some of my favorite murals, I found, were done by homeless artists," he said.

The first one he met, Middleton, lives in the abandoned Red Car station at L.A.'s 2nd Street and Beaudry Avenue. Though he considers him a gifted artist, Colin said that after visiting him some 150 times, Middleton still can't remember his name.

"I started calling the area where he stays the neutral zone, because there's this giant seven-foot wall that has been completely covered by graffiti. The gangs seem to have a truce there to let everybody do their art."

Colin pointed to a painting of Middleton's of two youths playing with guns. They have rounded, peanut-shaped heads and lost Liquid Paper eyes. One wears a look of glee while the other appears deeply befuddled by the gun in his hands.

Colin said: "Here's gang members with guns. It's not just a negative depiction. He lives with these people. They're his friends; they help take care of him. He has no quarrel with them; he just sees it as being too bad, this situation where 12-year-olds have guns.

"I went down to see Ralph one time, and I saw these kids probably no older than 10. . . . They were taking huge hits from this bag filled with nail polish and glue, just completely gone, and they were messing around with guns."

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