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Streetwise art from skid row

Residents of the gritty area in downtown L.A. get a showcase for their talents.

May 29, 2003|Susan Carpenter | Times Staff Writer

Joacquin ROEBUCK rides an electric wheelchair loaded with plastic bags, a framed handprint fastened to its front like a license plate. His glasses are thick, his beard is bushy and the flannels and cap he's wearing seem a little too warm for the weather.

If you're guessing Roebuck is homeless, you're partially correct. The 75-year-old Oklahoma native has been living on L.A.'s skid row since 1941. What you might not have guessed is that Roebuck also is a painter -- one whose intricate cityscapes could rival the works of almost anyone with an art degree, and whose paintings, along with those of a dozen other skid row artists, will be on display at L.A. Artcore's Brewery Annex Gallery in June.

"The people down here, they're not a bunch of losers and deadbeats," said Lillian Abel Calamari, the artist and social worker who's curating the show. "The perception is that homeless people are crazy and alcoholics and drug addicts; they're stupid, they're dumb and that's why they're poor. They're not. They're talented people."

People like Enrique Marquez, a formerly homeless man who takes months to paint his colorful Mexican street scenes, and Manuel Benito Compito, a 53-year-old ex-convict who learned to draw while in prison.

"I would never have thought today I could make money doing this," said Compito, whose troubles with the law began when he was 10. "Think of how far I could've been if somebody would have got me when I was young and tutored me and told me I could ... enjoy what I'm doing."

Like most artists in the show, Compito finds inspiration in his surroundings -- the quarter-mile downtown area between 5th and 8th streets that is home to more than 12,000 low-income people. One of Compito's drawings pictures a homeless man sleeping in a box on the sidewalk. Another shows two men hanging out in a park. Compito, who was born on skid row, also enjoys drawing portraits of sports stars such as Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson, but Calamari is most interested in work that expresses "their present-day life, past history and feelings, good or bad, in original art," she said.

Calamari is founder of the Skid Row Art Workshop, a free weekly gathering sponsored by SRO Housing Corp., a nonprofit agency that provides housing and social services for those on skid row. Most of the workshop artists are self-taught, she said. Calamari provides guidance and art supplies. She founded the workshop in 1993, after taking a half dozen low-income seniors on a field trip to the L.A. County Museum of Art.

"Only one had been to an art museum in their lifetime," she said. "The conversation on the way to the museum was quiet. On the way back, the conversation was excited and lively."

It was through another field trip that the seed for the skid row art show was planted. In 1997, one of Calamari's paintings was featured in an exhibit at the nonprofit L.A. Artcore Brewery Annex Gallery. When Calamari brought her workshop artists to see it, the gallery director was so impressed with the group that she asked to see their work.

The result is "Skid Row Artists, Reason for Existence," which opens Sunday and will remain on display through June 29. About 40 works will be shown and, for the first time in the program's history, offered for sale, at prices ranging from about $60 to $400. For any works that sell, 70% of the price will go directly to the artist. Most of these artists otherwise receive about $5,000 a year from jobs or government assistance.

"I tell them not to worry if they sell, but they're all excited because they're going into a gallery and they hear [that] artists sell their paintings in galleries for $10,000, so they've got big dreams," said Calamari, 55. "I tell them the most important thing is their work is getting out into the public.

"There's a great deal of talent and ability within the skid row community," she added. "All that's needed is encouragement and opportunity to express their abilities in order to contribute their special gifts to the community. They're telling stories about their lives and our times."


'Skid Row Artists, Reason for Existence'

Where: L.A. Artcore Brewery Annex, 650 S. Avenue 21, Los Angeles

When: Opening reception Sunday, 1 to 3 p.m. Hours: Thursday to Sunday, 12-4 p.m.; Wednesdays by appointment; ends June 29.

Cost: Free

Info: (323) 276-9320

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