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Homeless Portraits Go Homeless

A studio visit with artist Gary L. Wolfe, whose long-planned exhibit of portraits of the homeless at Artspace has been temporarily evicted

I recently drove up to Niagara Falls with painter Gary L. Wolfe to take a tour of the Niagara Arts and Cultural Center, in a re-purposed high school building commanding a view of the approach to Pine Avenue and Portage Road, the gateway to the Falls and the Great Lakes Seaway Trail. Five generations graduated from the former Niagara Falls High School, built back when kings and queens came to visit the Power City. Now, at 180,000 gross square feet, the National Registry of Historic Places landmark building is the largest arts center in New York State, providing affordable space to more than 70 artists, a ballet school, two theaters, and recording studios.

I wanted to meet the artists and artisans who might be working there on a Thursday afternoon. As Wolfe and I walked the wide, high-ceilinged hallways, brown banks of vacant lockers on both sides, we peeked in chicken-wire windows and knocked on hardwood doors, but there were few artists in evidence. The echoing surrounds were still those of glorious high school days long past; even the dual staircase with its elegant wrought-iron balustrades spoke of a time when public secondary education was the height of academic achievement for most people.

Wolfe managed to find a few resident artists, including a master craftsman in woodworking and design, Victor Marwin, who has had a studio since the NACC opened in 2003. He expounded on the energy and diversity combining artists and artisans in one building. His wife, Katherine Johnson, is president of the NACC Board. With executive director Kathie Kudela, she is responsible for keeping the organization viable. Support comes from individuals and NFHS alumni and does not involve the presence of a real-estate developer in any form.

Along the hallways we passed driftwood assemblages and metal sculpture. At the bottom of a lonely staircase, an open door led to a windowless, boxcar-sized recording studio, a performance workshop of three bands. Nick Spacone showed us around amplifiers, guitars, and music stands…he had been there eight years.

Winding our way back upstairs we met a recent studio renter from Buffalo, a jewelry artist, Kimberly Davis, now showing her work at Wild Things on Lexington Avenue. She exclaimed over the great light and spacious arrangement, allowing her to both work and display her work with expansive ease.

Wolfe led me to his own studio and gave me a tour of his multiple ongoing projects, in particular a series of portraits of people to whom he has been introduced through the Lt. Matt Urban Hope Center. On substantially built box panels, the representations of persons who have been or are now chronically homeless in the city of Buffalo peer out from a façade of torn tarpaper and hand-weathered wooden shingles. His subject’s eyes are penetratingly bright in high value oil paint and encaustic, heavily brushed on the tarpaper surface. Wolfe works from photographs, catching his subjects in candid three-quarter views. Each model was interviewed and provided a own quote to be placed with their portrait. Models were paid a sitting fee.

In his artist’s statement, Wolfe says that the disenfranchised, the poor, and the problems of pain, suffering, and alienation consistently inform his work. There is a sense of heroic posture in much of his work, often with an apparent spiritual influence. One of his long-term projects is based on painter Mark Rothko’s belief in the spiritual significance of contemporary art, how painting can create a transcendent experience for the viewer.

Locking up his studio, Wolfe and I retired to lunch down the street at the Como Restaurant. Over chianti and plates of stuffed shells, we talked about the long-bedeviling issues of public funding for the NACC and cultural arts generally in a time of depressed economic expectations. Adding to the abiding strain on all parties is the need to remediate the land on which the school is located.

At the opening reception for an exhibit of his portraits at Artspace, Wolfe intended to present a “performance work,” focused on bringing persons from diverse socioeconomic conditions together in the same space and time around the portraits, literally putting real faces on a chronic community concern.

But hold on, this just in: The gallery at Artspace has suspended all exhibitions until the completion of the Art and Technology Center, set to open in January 2014. (Construction was to have begun this past April but intrinsic delays pushed beginning work until this past week.) In a perfect storm of irony, Wolfe’s exhibition—27 portraits plus an art installation/performance highlighting the predicament of the homeless—is itself presently homeless.

When the exhibition finally manifests, it will represent a two-year collaboration between the artist, the Lt. Matt Urban Center’s Hope Center, and the Restoration Society’s Harbor House. Thirty percent of all sales will go to the Hope Center toward Hope Gardens, a 12-unit residency for chronically homeless women currently being constructed on Buffalo’s East Side.

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