The New York Historical Society (NYHS) is currently displaying portraits of BronxWorks participants as part of their Art For Change: The Artist & Homeless Collaborative exhibit, running now through April 3, 2022.
The Artist & Homeless Collaborative was a public art project founded in 1990 by artist Hope Sandrow. The exhibit is filled with historical images and art projects from homeless shelters across New York. Many of the art projects were done collaboratively with artists outside the shelter system.
BronxWorks became involved with the exhibit when Francis Palazzolo, BronxWorks Artist-in-Residence and Recreation Coordinator, was approached by the curator for the exhibit, Rebecca Klaussen. “Rebecca’s contacts at the Coalition for the Homeless had seen the portrait drawings and photographs hanging on the walls of the BronxWorks Living Room and Pyramid Safe Havens,” he said, “and they recommended me for the exhibit when she asked them if they knew of any artists collaborating with people in the New York City shelters.”
Francis came to BronxWorks in 2006, being awarded a small art workshop grant. “Once a week, on Monday nights, I organized projects like drawing workshops, poetry groups, movie clubs, and jewelry making at the Safe Haven shelters,” he said of his beginnings at the agency. Eventually, in 2016, Noel Concepcion, BronxWorks Department Director of Adult Homeless Services, offered Francis a contract to develop more projects at the shelters. Through these activities, Francis worked with participants to create “interdependent” portraits of some of the shelter residents.
Doing the interdependent portraits elevates the participants’ visibility, agency, dignity, and social support. Each portrait reveals that we share the power of representation.”
-Francis Palazzolo, BronxWorks Artist-in-Residence and Recreation Coordinator
Francis works directly with shelter residents to create these portraits. “We have conversations throughout the process,” he said, “sometimes inviting onlookers to join in, which fortifies the social scaffolding and supports our clients’ emancipatory potential to represent themselves as they want to be seen and gain recognition in their community.”
Francis joined three of the artists at the exhibit to talk with them as well as NYHS and BronxWorks staff about the portraits.
Peter J.’s “video portrait”, Shift to Permanent Housing, was recorded on his last day at the BronxWorks Safe Haven in 2019. “The film captures our conversation and our hands drawing together on paper,” Francis said. “This piece expands the form of portraiture into video and reveals our teamwork and shared expectations.” Peter was full of excitement at the exhibit, marveling at seeing his name in a museum. “That’s me!” he exclaimed many times, pointing out his hands to the people there. “This is great! I’m having a lot of fun. It’s amazing to me, at 56 years old, it’s extraordinary! I’m honored. I can’t believe it.”
Annie W.’s portrait, titled Annie, Black Woman For President, is striking, done in colored pencil. “A Black woman ought to run for president,” she said. Upon seeing her portrait on display in a museum, she said, “I cried. I was so elated. I sent pictures to everyone: my children, my grandchildren. We are ordinary people, going through some trying times, and doing work like this helps us escape out of the valley of fatigue.”
Jorge T.’s portrait, Salsa, shows him along with his instrument of choice, the conga drum. For Jorge, this exhibit is not his first: “When I was in fourth grade, there was a drawing competition to draw a monster. I said to myself, ‘I can do that!’ I got a brush, got different colors, and it came out nice and I got first place! This is the second time I’m in a museum.” Still, he said, “I’m impressed. This is a big deal for me.”
Francis shared in everyone’s enthusiasm, saying, “To emphasize our shared humanity, and to do so on as large a stage as the New York Historical Society Museum, is imperative at a time when homelessness and the related stigma continues to prevail.”
As of today, Annie, Jorge, and Peter all have moved out of the shelters and into permanent housing, an incredible accomplishment. “For me, every time a client transitions to permanent housing is a moment of joy,” Francis said. “Witnessing Annie, Jorge, and Peter’s transitions was brilliant. I feel honored to have been even a small part of building community with these artists.”