Homeless portraits: Artist tells story of those on the street in unique fundraising effort

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Behind each portrait thoughtfully painted by Brian Peterson is a story-- and through those stories he seeks to honor and dignify the subjects of his work and ultimately help them in the struggles they face living on the streets.

In all, the Southern California artist, who works as an automotive designer for car company Kia, has painted 27 portraits of homeless people in his Santa Ana community.

He's sold 18 of the portraits for $2,500 each.

Of that amount, Peterson says $1,500 goes to the subject of the portrait and the remaining $1,000 goes toward Faces of Santa Ana (FOSA), the nonprofit he has started to help the homeless. 

Faces of Santa Ana began two and a half years ago in the most unexpected way and took on a life of its own.

Peterson says in 2015, he was in his apartment reading a book called "Love Does," which focuses on unconditional love and making sacrifices for others, when he heard a homeless man screaming from outside. He says he had heard the screams before but that day it was different.

"This time, love intersected his screams and my heart was filled with compassion. I needed to know him, find out his name, and respect him as my neighbor," Peterson told KTVU.

A few days later, the 31-year-old was on his way home from work when he says he felt the need to seek out the person he heard screaming the other night. He rode around his bike until he found him, introduced himself, and struck up a conversation with him.  

He ended up learning a lot about the man whom he would later call his friend. 

"Matt moved to LA from Kentucky with dreams of being a musician," Peterson said. He learned that Matt chased his dreams in faith but had no specific plan in place and ended up spending the last 12 years living on the streets.

As he listened to Matt's story, Peterson said he surprised himself with a question that came out of nowhere. 

"Within my heart bubbled a question that changed my life. 'Hey Matt, can I paint your portrait?' I think the questioned shocked me more than it shocked Matt because I left my passion for painting somewhere in freshman year of college when I chose to pursue a career in automotive design," Peterson said.

With Matt's permission, he took some photos and went home to paint his portrait. He said he had no other plans than to hang the artwork in his own home but when he later shared the piece on Facebook, that plan took a turn. 

"What I didn't know, is that Matt’s painting would change the entire direction of my life," Peterson explained.

People began asking whether he was selling the piece and that's when he realized he could make a difference through what he had previously regarded simply as a passion and hobby for painting. 

Since that first piece, Peterson has raised money to help the homeless people he paints. 

Those needs include everyday items like food and clothing, as well as hotel rooms to stay in, and travel money to visit family members.

Peterson says what Faces of Santa Ana regards as its greatest success is how the project has helped restore hope among those he paints. 

He told us about a woman he painted named Cindy. She has since been able to find a home to live in and is now making ends meet with help from a monthly social security check. 

"Looking back she said, 'You guys didn't have means to help me with a home, or provide services to get my social security in order, but the day I saw my painting is when I began to hope again.'"

The artist says with each painting FOSA includes the subjects' story and journey on how they ended up on the streets.

He adds that while those who purchase his work are drawn to the art itself, it's the story behind each piece that first captures the buyers' interest. 

"That's really powerful," he said. "That's my favorite part."

Peterson says an integral part of the project is to get the stories of the homeless out there and make them more approachable.

FOSA has expanded in the community, with workshops getting high school students involved in the art-making, homeless advocacy, and fundraising process. The group has also recently completed a large mural featuring the portraits of those who formerly experienced homelessness.
The organization's official name is "Faces of Mankind" and Peterson says his dream is to expand outside Santa Ana and use the project's model to help communities elsewhere.

"We see the opportunity to activate artists around the world to see their neighbors with eyes of love and to use their gifting for positive change," he said.