Taking Art into the Streets

Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall is busy on a balmy autumn evening. A street musician strums as strolling couples pause to listen and drop a few bills in the guitar case propped open at his feet. Down the way, a group gathers in the light of a streetlamp where a hand-made sign invites passersby to “Come Paint.” In the center of the circle University of Virginia studio art student James Dean Erickson sits cross-legged on the red bricks surrounded by pots of paint and chunks of cardboard carved from old boxes. He’s carrying on a conversation with busy toddlers, a businessman on break from a conference at the Omni and a too-cool teen who is tentative about picking up a brush.

“I’m trying to share my individual creativity with the community,” the artist says of this unusual painting project that he and a group of friends carried on throughout the fall semester last year.

“I’m really interested in art that begins to blur with life. I’m interested in art in the social realm, and if there is a gift that I have, I want to use it to meet a need in the community.”

It’s not the first time Erickson has taken his art on the road seeking off-beat opportunities to not only share his gift, but to lend a hand to fellow travelers along the way. More than missions of self-expression, the soft-spoken fourth year and distinguished major has learned a lot through these metaphorical road trips, more perhaps than he ever has in a classroom or studio.

And as he travels, the affable artist is always accompanied by a group of friends who, no matter what the project, want to be in on what Erickson is up to.

“Being around James is amazing,” declares fellow art student Matt Kleberg. “People are drawn to him like a magnet. Unbelievable stuff just happens all the time. I’ve learned not to be surprised by anything anymore.”

During UVA’s Lighting of the Lawn last year, for example, Erickson and Kleberg organized an impromptu exhibition in Erickson’s room at 23 West Lawn. A holiday tradition that mingles members of both the university and Charlottesville communities, the painter recognized the Lighting as an opportunity to bring art into the real world. So he cleared his walls, moved out his furniture and invited classmates to show their work. Hundreds of visitors came by, including a reporter for a local newspaper and at least one grateful graduate student who, according to Erickson declared, “It was like a breath of fresh air to see an art gallery in the middle of the academical village.”

Erickson’s efforts are not so unusual, according to studio art professor Megan Marlatt. “There have been movements in the art world for the last 20 or so years of people trying to reach a different audience…artists who feel that the gallery is too segregated a venue for art, that art should be much more accessible to ordinary people.”

According to Marlatt, Erickson’s work, rooted as it is in these Marxist theories about art and the community and who decides what is art, is almost anti-intellectual. “That’s the thing that James is fighting against: Why is [art] so convoluted? Why is it so unattainable to people out in the street? Let’s not do that. Let’s go out there and interact with them so they can get something out of it.”

Last summer, however, Erickson’s vision of creative engagement with the real world came face-to-face with real life.

“It came out of a desire to live out something that’s not so tangible, like faith,” Erickson explains almost shyly. “A couple friends and I were having a bible study, and we came across a scripture in Isaiah that talked about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. That scripture hit us pretty hard. There’s something about giving of yourself and living a selfless life that expresses your faith in something bigger.”

The scripture inspired Erickson and his crew to commandeer the artist’s pickup truck, load it with coolers filled with ice cream bars and Popsicles and drive around town handing them out to old men at the Cherry Avenue Barber Shop, children in public housing neighborhoods and homeless people in Lee Park. All summer they made their rounds in the makeshift ice cream truck, developing friendships with many of the people they met. Among these new friends was a man named Jay who lived on the streets and slept in the bushes along the railroad track. Erickson did feed Jay, and even invited him into his home—not as an act of charity, but as kin.

“We have a connection,” Erickson says of his relationship with Jay, who has since put his life back together and is living with friends of the artist near Chicago. “I learned some amazing things from this man. I began to see where charity becomes family. You have to care for someone as if they’re your own brother or sister, and that begins with something as subtle as not referring to them as your homeless friend, but referring to them as your good friend.”

“He just knows how to love people,” Kleberg observes. “Most people, if they walk down on the corner and see someone asking for change, they usually ignore them. James just opens himself up and makes himself vulnerable. He can sit down with somebody, and they know they can trust him. He doesn’t have any ulterior motives.”

“It all lies in the gift you’ve been given,” says Erickson, who has been painting seriously since middle school. “I believe in the language that art speaks. For me, art is a medium, a vehicle to translate love. The drive behind my work is the drive to love my neighbor.”

But Erickson understands the language of the street, too…better than most, having grown up around poverty in Ypsilanti, Michigan just outside of Detroit. And it’s his father—a rough character from the streets himself—who inspires the young artist.

“He was kicked out when he was 17,” Erickson explains, “but he was taken in by a guy who owns a construction company and gave him a job.” Now the father is a subcontractor with a masonry company and returns the favor by hiring others who are down on their luck. “He doesn’t want to know about their personal lives. He just gives them a job and sometimes a place to stay.”

So when he encounters someone like Jay, Erickson is reminded of the guys who might be working with his dad. And while he can’t give Jay or Tommy or his other good friends a job, he can paint them. And this he does in the biggest way possible: on huge canvases cobbled together from cardboard boxes.

“He chose cardboard and boxes because he said that’s the material of homeless people,” explains Marlatt, who serves as Erickson’s advisor. “At first he started off painting [these portraits] with art materials, but after a while he realized the art supplies were too expensive and they didn’t have anything to do with being homeless. So he began painting with anything at all that was liquid…soy sauce, chocolate ice cream, anything went on those things.”

“I don’t claim to be artist as hero, and I’m not asking my viewers to solve poverty,” Erickson says. “I’m just trying to say that art can be simply applying the materials that you have and making something out of them that enriches culture. And when you have a 9×8-foot face of some man, it  makes you rethink the way you view that person. I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I saw that man on the downtown mall, and I went up and talked to him and he’s really cool.’”

Erickson’s latest project explores whether art can affect economics. After befriending the owner of the new Pacino’s Deli on the Corner, he and Kleberg arranged to paint a mural on the wall in the Deli’s upstairs dining room as a way of maybe attracting more customers.

“My effort to be in the community is far beyond the homeless,” Erickson asserts. “It’s being attentive to what’s around you and experiencing the truth that when you give your talents and your energies to a need you often get back more than you give.”


© 2008 by Linda J. Kobert