- Willie Baronet has created several art installations using signs made by the homeless as part of his We Are All Homeless project.
"What does home mean to you?"
That's a question Dallas artist Willie Baronet is asking nearly everyone he meets this month as he travels the country buying materials for his latest art project, We Are All Homeless. Those materials? Signs made by the homeless.
Baronet has been purchasing such signs since 1993, amassing over 700 that he's used in several art installations. Though some are in various states of disrepair, he's never thrown a single one away.
He plans to visit 24 states in 31 days this month, starting in Seattle on July 1 and ending in New York City on July 31. The final project? A series of flash mob-like events where people will gather at intersections or other public places holding these signs. Baronet's dream is to stage such events in each city he's visits this month. And he's also at work with a crew of collaborators on a documentary of the experience, to be titled Signs of Humanity.
I spent the day with Baronet and his team while they were in Indianapolis, their fifteenth stop, on Saturday. Baronet added five signs to his collection after about three hours of walking around downtown.
The process had the air of a covert operation. The team consists of Tim Chumley, Willie's friend of 22 years and a professional photographer; Eamon Downey, a producer from New York's Other Side Pictures; and Olivia Morrow, the crew's videographer.
Once Baronet spotted someone, he would approach him or her alone while the rest of the crew hung back behind a sign or building. Baronet was wearing a wireless microphone connected to Morrow's camera, so she could hear the conversation from across the street. If the individual was willing to be a part of the documentary, Morrow heard the consent, signaling the team to walk over for the interview, camera rolling.
Thelma, a woman found underneath the Artsgarden, was suspicious at first.
"She was really engaging and entertaining, but appropriately skeptical of me. I could see her bullshit detector, and I get that sometimes. I asked her, 'Am I freaking you out?' and she said, 'A little bit!'" Baronet said.
She did end up selling him her yellow, plastic-coated sign, which reads "I'm homeless and we're all GOD children... May GOD bless you," complete with a cross and winking smiley face drawings, but did not want to be on camera.
Another, Dougie, was happy to sell his "Down but not out" sign and be a part of the documentary.
"I interact with thousands of people a day. People know me around here," Dougie said. "I was raised in Carmel, but I'm so used to this lifestyle."
Baronet's last sign of his Indianapolis stop, which reads "Hungry as a Hippo" on one side and "I love leftovers. Pigeons don't taste like chicken." on the other, is from a man named Justin who was sitting outside the Indiana Convention Center.
To those who wouldn't sell their signs, or didn't have signs, Baronet or a member of the team would slip them five-dollars and say "Have a nice day" or strike up a conversation. Baronet has paid anywhere between four to forty dollars for a sign.
"I think a lot of these people just really appreciate the opportunity to talk to someone," Downey said.
Baronet has his approach down to a science. He first walks by and simply asks if he can buy the individual's sign.
"That question is usually met with some degree of confusion. Then I explain my project to them, and always give them the opportunity to set the price," he said.
He began buying signs as a way of dealing with his discomfort around the homeless.
"I actually used to avert my eyes whenever I'd pull up at an intersection or walk on a sidewalk where there was a homeless person. Then I realized this could be a way to work through that, and it has been such an exciting and meaningful way to do so for the past 21 years," he said. "Turning them into art gives other people the opportunity to interact with the people behind the signs as well, just in a more removed form."