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Compassion colors Santa Monica therapist's portraits of the homeless

Psychologist Stuart Perlman has made a hobby of painting the homeless of Venice Beach. It's been a transformative experience, for him and for them.

June 10, 2012|By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • Kemberly "Doc" Jordan, left, and Jens Jensen, right, check out a portrait of Jordan done by Stuart Perlman, center.
Kemberly "Doc" Jordan, left, and Jens Jensen, right, check… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

When he heads to the beach from his Santa Monica home, Stuart Perlman wears paint-spattered jeans, a plaid shirt over a T-shirt and a black wool Stetson to shade his bearded face.

With one hand he rolls a plastic crate piled high with paints, brushes, a portable easel and a yellow-and-white-striped beach umbrella. In the other, he totes plastic bags filled with containers of homemade pastas and soups, gifts for his "regulars."

Perlman is a psychologist. In his spare time he paints faces — of individuals that most people look past. Over the last two years, his forceful brush strokes have captured the angst and mettle of dozens of homeless people along Venice Beach.

PHOTOS: Painting portraits in Venice

As he paints, occasionally against the backdrop of a beach-side knife fight or drug deal, he slips into the role of itinerant therapist. "I want to hear about your life," he says. Before long, the posers reveal details of lost loves, thwarted dreams and battles with addiction.

Take Daniel, whose portrait conveys weariness and loss. The onetime workaholic's world crumbled a dozen years ago when a drunk driver killed his wife and children.

Or "Doc," whose image suggests anxiety and struggle. The former mental health care worker gave his worldly goods to a daughter seven years ago and headed west from Arkansas.

And Aftin, a moon-faced 20-year-old whose painting captures her neon-hued plumage and sun-scorched skin. She professes to be happier bunking down outdoors with other self-described "travelers" than being bored back home in Tennessee.

These wandering souls have touched Perlman's heart and reminded him of life's fragility.

"People are people," Perlman said. "We're all them, and they're all us. We're all one thin line from being traumatized and homeless."

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Perlman took up painting seriously about five years ago after his father died. He took art classes at Santa Monica College and a YWCA.

With a budding artist's perspective, he began to scrutinize the homeless people he encountered near his home and his West Los Angeles office. In their weathered faces, he sensed stories that needed telling. As a psychologist, he thought, he could reveal these forgotten souls to others as a reminder that "there but for the grace of God go I."

Perlman, who counsels trauma survivors, had to spend months persuading distrustful people to sit for him. "They thought I was a cop for the first few months," Perlman said. "Now, I'm a little bit of a celebrity among the homeless."

That could have something to do with his paying them $20 each to pose. He also gives $10 if they create for him an original poem or painting.

He has completed about 65 18-by-24-inch paintings; each took 15 to 25 hours.

Perlman usually starts a portrait at the beach and finishes from photographs at an easel in his kitchen, in a style he calls "representational post-Impressionist." Some faces have sad eyes. Some have loopy grins. Some of his subjects hide behind their hair or flaunt lip, nose and eyebrow piercings.

Perlman has invested in video equipment and is editing interviews with his subjects for a documentary. He also plans to produce a photo book, incorporating their personal stories and creative works. If the projects eventually generate income and he can recoup some of his costs, he intends to donate proceeds to nonprofit groups that serve the homeless.

Earlier this year, he displayed 40 paintings at a meeting about homelessness. Representatives of agencies that provide housing and services studied each image and biography.

"He has an ability to express in his work the essence and the soul and the core of the individual," said Wendy Colman Levin, a member of a business leaders task force on homelessness. "Each time he paints a new one, he's not just painting a person's face. He's painting their life story, their struggle, their hope."

Now and then, Perlman hears some good news about his subjects. He is pleased for Daniel, the 50-something architectural project manager from Texas who started smoking crack cocaine after his family was killed. After six years on the beach, Daniel has moved into an apartment.

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For one recent excursion, Perlman fills his 1999 Infiniti I-30 with food, painting supplies and a dozen of his favorite portraits, and drives the two miles to Venice Beach.

In a parking lot at the foot of Rose Avenue, Perlman greets Kemberly "Doc" Jordan, dressed in black pants with the cuffs rolled up, a Big Lots T-shirt, a Kobe Bryant 24 Lakers jersey and a camouflage hat with an "Eat Me" patch. Jordan's hands are gnarled and his nails split. His front teeth are missing, making him look older than his 53 years. He lives on the beach in a tent fashioned of umbrellas, tucked behind giant garbage bins. He earns money fixing bikes.

Perlman hands him a container of blended vegetable soup. "Healthy, no salt," Perlman says.

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