Homelessness etched into artist (Free Press article on Freddie Harris)

January 5th, 2009
Drawing by Freddie Harris

Homelessness etched into artist

Detroit Free Press

When he draws, Freddie Harris sits on the packed boxes in his apartment. When he sleeps, the Detroit artist curls on the floor with a few blankets.

Just six weeks ago, Harris was one of the city’s more than 15,000 homeless people. After decades of living in shelters and on the street, he still finds boxes and floors more natural than chairs and beds. The privacy and quiet Harris now enjoys in his own place are welcome but confusing.

“Being homeless is all I’ve known, and it’s a struggle to adjust,” Harris, 47, told me at the Whitdel apartments in southwest Detroit, where he moved in the day before Thanksgiving. “I’m still in a homeless state of mind.”

Harris always thought he would die on the street. That he has survived the last 30 years is a minor miracle. He has battled not only homelessness, but also mental illness that can lock him in fear, depression, paranoia and confusion. Still, the self-taught artist has managed to create hundreds of drawings — many of stunning quality — using pencils, pens and spiral notebooks he bought from money earned collecting bottles and cans. Hundreds more of his drawings have been stolen or lost.

The skillful proportion and perspective of Harris’ human figures have impressed renowned Detroit artist and designer Dominic Pangborn. “It wasn’t like he was copying an image,” Pangborn said. “He’s taking those images from his head, and they’re excellent.”

Harris’ bold and colorful abstract sketches and human figures — some inspired by cartoon characters — have a swagger and confidence that are outwardly lacking in his own personality. He’s painstakingly polite and painfully shy, speaking in a plodding monotone and rarely looking a listener in the eye. When I visited him last week, he was dressed in cotton pants, beat-up and unlaced wingtips, a denim shirt and camouflage-pattern cap.

But his eyes flickered when he flipped through his sketchbooks; his voice grew in force and confidence.

“It’s important to bring out my own originality,” he told me. “I don’t want to copy no one.”

Harris, whose single mother was addicted to drugs and alcohol, grew up on Detroit’s east side. A special education student, he dropped out of Finney High School. The world he created with pencils and crayons was the only one he fit into.

Over the past year, Harris has gone from sleeping under a bridge to exhibiting and selling his artwork.

In April, Steve Palackdharry, a documentary filmmaker and communications manager for Southwest Housing Solutions, saw Harris huddled and scribbling in a doorway on Michigan Avenue in southwest Detroit. Harris had been sleeping under the 14th Street freeway bridge and at the New Life Rescue Mission.

Palackdharry started talking to Harris on his way to work, slowly gaining his trust. He eventually referred Harris to Southwest Solutions’ Go-Getters Program for the homeless and mentally ill. There, Harris occasionally received meals and counseling, as well as a place to draw, shower and use a computer.

Counselors diagnosed Harris’ mental illness, qualifying him for a federal shelter and care voucher. He also received medication for depression and insulin for his severe diabetes.

Through Southwest Solutions, a nonprofit housing developer, Harris secured a one-bedroom apartment at the Whitdel. It was a good fit. Southwest Solutions, which has housed 500 formerly homeless people over the last four years, seeks artists as tenants at the Whitdel. It worked with the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit to create the Ladybug Gallery in the building’s basement.

In November, Harris had his first exhibition in the gallery, showing about 10 sketches signed: “Unknown homeless artist.” He sold one for $50, and the buyer committed to buying several more. This year, Harris wants to frame more of his sketches to make them more suitable for sale, as well as branch into sculpture and carving.

Neither homeless nor unknown, Harris now faces other hurdles, including learning how to pay bills, do laundry, buy groceries, cook and clean.

Defying his environment, Harris created compelling art. Now he must create a whole new life.

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