The basement of Chicago’s People’s Church is not exactly the Louvre. The ceiling is low. The light from the antique fluorescent fixtures is dim. The sum total of half a hundred concurrent conversations register “DIN” on my nervous system’s noise meter. This is hardly the setting for an art show.

But the Brushed Aside Art Show is no normal gallery opening. Nor is Mike Sered your average patron of the arts. A mail-order catalog consultant, Sered’s real love in life is planning special events and promotions. Brushed Aside, says the enthusiastic and rumpled Sered, is an anti-art show. “I like doing antievents,” he says. “Last year I sponsored the office Olympics with—you know—wastebasket basketball and stuff. It was an antifitness event. Brushed Aside is another of my antievents.”

So instead of wine and cheese, there are tacos on a tray on the pass-through counter from the church kitchen—for the artists, not the guests. This is a real “starving artists’ sale.”

Truly Hungry Artists

The artists exhibiting at Brushed Aside are homeless people, people out of work or unable to work, people who live in cramped, transient hotel rooms.

How hungry are they? Kathryn Manders lives on SSI payments, her budget so tight she can barely afford paints and canvas. “I have to sit and sketch and stare at an idea for weeks before I start to paint,” she says, “because I’ve got to make sure the idea works. If it doesn’t, I’ve wasted precious materials.” As we talk, she steps toward the taco counter, some 15 feet from her display. “Before I put up this display, I never really looked at my paintings. My room is so small I can’t back up to get a good look at them. Here I can see that they’re pretty attractive.” And they are: not very inventive, but careful, accurate renderings of classical subjects (a Madonna and child) and contemporary urban scenes (a homeless person asleep in a doorway). With some training, I think, this woman could earn her keep as an illustrator. Has she ever had art lessons? “Art lessons!” she exclaims, implying the craziness of the question. “Who’s got money for art lessons?”

On the other side of the partition hang the paintings of Anthony Hughes, who paints black women with sculptural depth. The dramatically lit shapes of noses and cheekbones speak of real people with regal bearing. An out-of-work janitor, Hughes paints at his kitchen table. Like Manders, he has never had lessons and never before exhibited. How does he afford materials? “Oh, I get by,” he smiles enigmatically. “I bought these frames at resale,” he says with a hint of pride.

Much of the art is, frankly, awful. But here and there are provocative works, interesting approaches. One young artist is vociferously defending his paintings, executed on tom pieces of brown wrapping paper. Another, in a strange beaded and sequined hat, is defending his distorted urban landscapes. At another booth an upscale couple is discussing how to connect the artist with a studio that can produce prints of her drawings. I tell her her work reminds me of Aubrey Beardsley’s. She asks me who Aubrey Beardsley is. I ask her if she has had lessons. She shakes her head.

Pizza Over Poetry

Mike Sered, promoter of antievents, is on the stage at one end of the auditorium, yelling for quiet. He wants to have some poetry readings by homeless poets. One hasn’t shown up, he says, because he got a day’s work at a pizza parlor. Oh, what values our society has—pizza over poetry!

Between poets, Sered explains how he and People’s Church did the show. He got the idea one day when he bought a painting from a street artist for $50—but it seemed worth a lot more than that. Wondering how many other truly starving artists there were, he started networking and found hundreds in Chicago. He placed an ad in a free newspaper, which said, “Call collect.” He thinks this made a big difference, for call they did.

Sered called People’s Church with the idea, and they agreed to let him use the facilities and provide food for the two-day event. His home soon became “a quasi-shelter” as homeless artists came to show him their work—and stayed around.

The event required funds of up to $4,000. Much came from Sered’s own pocket. The artists are so poor that he advanced money to some just so they could buy materials.

But the show was worth the cost. Homeless artists felt affirmed and gained confidence in their work. Some connected with people who could help them gain greater exposure. Some have actually sold their work. Many sell below what they should get for their work, Sered says, but for them, a sale can mean the difference between eating and not eating. One woman is holding her prices up: $5,000 per painting. “She’s not selling anything,” he says, “but at least she’s keeping her dreams.”

By David Neff.

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