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The Rev. Dan Fowler of the First Presbyterian Church talks about what he likes about the painting "A Child Knows Better" hanging at the church. Andy Atkinson / Daily Tidings

Framing homelessness: Series of paintings touring Ashland houses of worship

A poignant and moving set of four original paintings of homeless people by Aaron Hansen Burgess of Walla Walla, Washington, is making the rounds of Ashland churches and synagogues. It’s now on display at First Presbyterian Church after previously hanging at the South Mountain Friends Meeting house in Ashland.

With uncanny realism, they show the homeless in various states of distress, hunger, hopelessness, roundly being ignored by passers-by and, says the Rev. Dan Fowler of the Presbyterian Church, “They all remind me of the times when Jesus called to us to serve those in need.”

The artist’s statement accompanying the display is blunt: “I have never been homeless. But I’ve lived in big cities with little money. I’ve seen a lot of sadness on the streets, under bridges, on freeway ramps, in doorways: the mentally ill, veterans of our immoral wars who seek drugs/alcohol to treat their demons, runaway, abused kids who never had a chance. People who just had a run of bad luck. Battered women. And I’ve seen the bankers driving past in their $100,000 cars with their beautiful wives and their hideous arrogance to their fancy restaurants.”

One painting, called “Soup Line,” stings with its simple display of bundled-up people, stripped of all pride, looking downward, all except for one girl, about 8, glancing poignantly to the side.

The Rev. Fowler notes, “I’ve worked in a number of soup lines and homeless shelters. Often they don’t want to look you in the eye, because of shame. The little girl is nervous. She doesn’t want to be there.”

“Invisible People” depicts five homeless folk slumped against a downtown building, one holding his head, another, with gray beard, reaching out to two men passing by in suits. A woman tries to hold the homeless man back.

“Some people walk by. I’ve done it myself when I have nothing to give,” Fowler said. His favorite is “A Child Knows Better.” Here, an old gray-bearded man has a sign saying “hungry,” but the busy crowd trudges by — all except a young girl about 10, accompanied by her mother. The girl turns and begins to smile, as if she realizes something can be done to help the man.

“Children have it right,” says Fowler. We adults get our biases and harden our positions, but the kid sees it. It’s right there in Matthew and Luke — ‘You give them something to eat.’”

The artist comments, “I wanted to convey … a feeling of utter outrage. Fury at the injustice of poverty and homelessness here in the richest and most powerful country in the world … How can there be such disparity of wealth and such callous disregard for the poor when it is so completely unnecessary? It’s not complicated. It’s simple greed.”

The art is hung in a large hall, where the church hosts many homeless people one night a week during the Ashland “shelter season” (November-April). The art will be at the church for a month or two, then make its way to showings in other Ashland houses of worship. Fowler can be reached at 541-482-3536. He said he will be glad to take people on tours of the paintings.

First Presbyterian Church of Ashland is at the corner of Walker Avenue and Siskiyou Boulevard (the street address is 1615 Clark Ave.).

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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