Armed with a backpack, camera and $10, Neil Shigley treks the streets of downtown San Diego searching for a face with structure — a face that has character.
Shigley, 57, began creating a series of portraits in 2005 to help bring more focus to the issue of homelessness.
At an art gallery opening last week at Southwestern College, Shigley discussed his series, “Invisible People: Portraits of the Homeless,” with dozens of interested students.
Shigley said it’s the homeless who are most invisible to the world and by presenting their faces on a large scale it forces others to confront the issue.
“For many people who encounter homeless people, they avoid them,” Shigley said. “They ignore them. Art can focus attention and raise awareness, bringing more opportunities for change. It forces people to acknowledge them — making them visible in some way.”
As an art professor, Shigley said he started with no end in mind.
“I was initially captured by an incredible character — hard-earned from the daily struggle,” he said.
Everything took off from there.
Shigley calls his work a labor of love because he becomes connected with his subjects — physically and emotionally.
“It’s pretty physical work and for me I like that because I’m touching every line and connecting with the images I’m working on big time,” he said.
Shigley’s method of art starts off with a simple photograph of his subject in which he attempts to capture some kind of emotion.
From there he works from the photograph using a print on plexiglass, carving away the darkness and revealing the depth of each person’s features.
“I have to describe form and tones where light hits the face,” Shigley said.
Shigley said although he may work on a portrait for months he will likely never see his subject again.
“When I approach people, I do so with a lot of respect and a lot of caution,” he said.
Shigley offers each subject $10 for lunch for their time.
On each piece that Shigley creates, he finishes with a graphic symbol at the bottom, most notably used by homeless in the ’40s as a communication tool.
“The symbols were used to describe a place — this place is good for a handout, the owner is nice, the owner is not nice, there’s a dog, good place for water, the water is poison,” Shigley explained.
Shigley calls his art a doorway into a life unlike the norm.
“It opens the door for love, peace and understanding,” he said.
Shigley said that at times, his subjects open up to him.
“Homeless people will reveal their issues — drugs, alcohol, mental illness,” he said. “I don’t feel sorry for them. I have a tremendous amount of empathy for them.”
Aside from putting a face to homelessness, Shigley occasionally also gives them a voice.
Sometimes he offers the social media tool Twitter as a platform to say what they feel to the world.
Their responses range from spiritual to defensive, such as: “God is love. God is good all the time,” and “I’m not sick. I don’t have a disease. I just have a bigger bedroom. I’m at home wherever I am. It’s a choice.”
“I’ve learned a lot from people who live on the streets,” Shigley said. “Each one is an individual. Each has their own story.”
Shigley said it’s children without parents or role models that are most likely to end up on the streets.
A portion of any work in his series that’s sold is donated to the Monarch School, a charity in San Diego that educates children impacted by homelessness.