From above, square city blocks with tent-lined sidewalks must look like broken seams on a patchwork quilt. They’re signs that life is fraying for people who call these sidewalks home. And they’ve inspired Phoenix artist Joel Coplin to explore the fabric of those lives.
Coplin bought a warehouse on 11th Avenue and Madison Street in late 2018, then worked with his wife and fellow artist, Jo-Ann Lowney, to transform the space into a working art studio and gallery. That was before the tents took over, leading to recent sweeps by local police.
“There are a lot more tents than there used to be,” Coplin says. “I counted them the other night. There were 230 of them.”
He’s been watching the shifting urban landscape east of the Arizona Capitol for more than a year, sometimes looking down from a second-story window as people walk by with shopping carts or wheelbarrows packed with clothes, bedding, or other objects.
More often, he’s on the street, talking with the people whose stories have informed an ongoing series of paintings. Some are individual portraits. Others capture small groups and their everyday activities — smoking, fighting, washing their hair with a garden hose.
He has painted 20 portraits so far and hopes to exhibit the series in April. In the meantime, he’ll keep listening to the stories of the people he paints. Some struggle with mental illness, he says. Some use drugs.
For Mark, a man with a full auburn beard who walks the streets with a shopping cart, it was a series of unfortunate events that led to living on the streets. First, he landed in the hospital. Then his big rig was towed. Now he’s talking with Coplin about how to get his stuff into storage and deal with several citations for vagrancy.
A chain-link fence topped with barbed wire separates the gallery parking lot from the street. Coplin pulls the gate open for gallery visitors, sometimes leaving it ajar so people living on the streets can wander in to talk or get a bottle of water. “They ask me for can openers and all kinds of things,” he says.
Sometimes they help to tend a small garden that sits just off the parking lot. It’s filled with trees, paving stones, and plants that stand in stark contrast to the barren lots that dot this part of the city.
We stopped by recently to see how the series is coming along. We found Coplin blasting music from the Mozart opera Don Giovanni and surrounded by an eclectic mix of paintings in a space that’s anchored by his easel and painting palette.
The hues of his palette run together, like the colors of the objects piled up just across the street from the gallery.
“They look like piles of trash and people’s belongings, but if you look closely you’ll see them moving,” he says. “There are people in there.”
The last few weeks have been unsettling.
“Recently they made everybody move,” Coplin says of the sweeps. “It’s scattered street families, so they’re all separate now and trying to find each other again.” It’s a reference to people congregating in groups, rather than literal families.
The sweeps have had other consequences, as well. “Alicia lost all her important papers when the police dumped out her cart,” Coplin says of a woman living on the street. “She even had new pots and pans because she had an apartment in the works.”
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“People lose everything on clean-up days,” Coplin says.
He’s hoping his paintings will help put a face on the issue of homelessness. But he says that artworks alone can’t solve the problem. He’s spoken at several City Council meetings, and he’s part of a new coalition of area businesses looking for solutions.
He says, “These people are our fellow citizens, and they deserve better.”