Monday, January 7, 2008

Michael Howell, Part III

Late 1991 was a huge turning point in my life. I used to use email signatures that said things like, "Harnessing Stupidity, Since 1991" and "One Personality To Serve You, Since 1991." Between September and November of that year I resolved the old split personality and broke out of a lot of the problems that PTSD put me through. I quit smoking cold turkey. I felt like a new person. One of the consequences was that I decided I could deal with hanging out with Michael Howell again.

I decided that on the spur of the moment. I was walking by the Burger King on NE 50th on a Sunday and went in, impulsively. Sure enough Michael was there with poet Stan Burriss, who often dropped in to meet Michael without going on to the Blessed Sacrament feed.

After getting through with the "long time no see" business and after I dished up a diplomatic answer to "why haven't you been around?" Michel broke the news that he was about to move his traveling "Homeless Art Gallery" into a physical space downtown.

Michael Howell's Homeless Art Gallery had been a collection of art work done by homeless and formerly homeless artists who trusted Michael to store their art in his apartment so he could haul it out and display it in public places.

The idea for this traveling art show preceded the Seattle Goodwill Games of 1990. But the city's homeless sweeps in advance of the games spurred a revolt. There was a Tent City and associated protest. The protest gave rise to SHARE and WHEEL, Seattle's most active grassroots organizations powered by homeless people themselves. The rallies incident to the protests surrounding the Goodwill Games and to other actions by SHARE brought new life to Michael's art show. Homeless protesters wanted to show the public that homeless people are talented and sensitive human beings. So activists were happy to help haul the art around and set it up wherever public actions were planned.

Meanwhile, the severe winter of 1990 prompted the Archdiocesan Housing Authority to open a severe weather shelter in Belltown which evolved into a permanent women's shelter (Noel House) in a building at 2nd and Bell. Yielding to neighborhood pressures, the AHA agreed that the corner storefront of the building would not be used by the permanent shelter. Instead some other use would be found for it, one which would benefit the entire community, not only the homeless community.

Enter Michael Howell. He offered to run his Homeless Art gallery out of the storefront as a working studio and gallery. It would benefit the wider community by being a place where anyone could come and see the artwork. The studio space would be open to all walk-ins. Even non-homeless could create art in the space.

Michael figured he couldn't sell the idea as "Michael Howell's Private Gallery" open by invitation to other artists. He had to tell AHA that he wouldn't really be the owner of the new gallery. He told them it would be a democratically run cooperative.

Already in the Burger King, December 1991, without having seen me for two nearly two years, Michael Howell couldn't resist bragging to me how he was pulling the wool over the eyes of a "religionist" bureaucracy. The gallery would be open to homeless and formerly homeless artists, but he intended to retain iron control. There wasn't going to be any cooperative.

When he said it would be open to formerly homeless artists I perked up. "Hey, I'm a formerly homeless artist," I said. Even before I first met him I had been doing pen and ink drawings. I had since taken up acrylics. he asked to see some, so the next week I brought a handful of paintings to the Burger King. He admitted they weren't to his taste, but he said they would fill a niche in the gallery. He had been looking for a non-native who did "native" art, because, he said, the natives were too demanding.

I pointed out that my art wasn't really Native American inspired, except insofar that Native Hawaiians are now Native Americans thanks to Hawaiian statehood, and a fraction of my art is Native Hawaiian inspired, although mostly I've been influenced by art from other realms of Oceania, such as New Zealand and New Guinea and Indonesian -- and he said, "Yeah, whatever."

So that's how he accepted my art for display in the Homeless Art Gallery.

[Below: Me in front of my display in the gallery a few years later. Michael was already on the way out when this picture was taken but you can see two of his pieces in this scene. One is the bowed man in blue over my left shoulder. The other is a painting of a woman at my far right, below a couple of landscapes by a third artist. My stuff is around the windows. Michael wasn't able to paint directly on large canvases and boards such as these. One of the reasons he wanted the gallery space was to have a place to set up a projector. He came in nights when the gallery was closed and projected his small drawings onto large boards and traced them.]

There was still a little agoraphobia problem that made it difficult for me to ride crowded buses from the U District to Downtown Seattle. In March 1992 I saw the place for the first time thanks to Michael's gracious agreement to ride with me to keep me distracted and get me past the panic attacks.

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