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Jewish Journal

On Sukkot, honoring the homeless

by Naomi Pfefferman

September 27, 2012 | 11:14 am

Janet, a former prostitute and survivor of kidnapping and gang rape, died recently of hepatitis. Sunny, an orphan who eventually graduated from UC Berkeley, became an alcoholic and lost his Minneapolis home after his wife died of breast cancer.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Stuart Perlman wore paint-splattered clothes as he loaded up his 1999 Infiniti with art supplies and cans of low-salt Progresso soup before heading out on a painting excursion to Venice Beach. Over the past two years, Perlman has been spending two to three days a week on the boardwalk, creating dozens of close-up portraits of faces of homeless “regulars” there, a number of whom he’s gotten to know well in the process. On this day, he donned a black fedora hat — “half cowboy, half-Lubavitch,” he joked — to shield himself from the sun, and after a five-minute drive from his Santa Monica home, he was greeting transients who high-fived him and thanked him for his work.  

Along a low, concrete wall lined with rusty bikes and makeshift shelters, Perlman stopped to talk to Vincent, homeless and an artist himself, who wore a hoodie over his dreadlocks and who enthusiastically accepted the acrylic paints and brushes Perlman had brought him.  

A few yards down, Perlman hugged Gwendolyn, an African-American who thanked him for listening to her woes when he painted her recently. “I cried so much that day,” she told Perlman, 59, who in his professional life is a psychologist and psychoanalyst with doctorates from UCLA and the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute. 

As Perlman searched for someone new to paint — he always looks for someone whose emotional tone matches his own on that particular day — he pointed out a bench where his late friend, Janet, a former prostitute and rape survivor, used to spend her days. Janet was whip-smart, compassionate and acted as a kind of social worker to the other regulars on the beach, he recalled. “But she was already coughing when I painted her a year ago,” Perlman added, his eyes filling with tears. “She died this past month of hepatitis, homelessness and heartbreak.” 

Perlman’s work, which he does primarily for himself and not to sell on the boardwalk’s famous artists’ way, has nevertheless made him something of a celebrity among the habitués of the beach. So much so that a half hour later, he had no trouble persuading Trevor, 36, to pose for him atop the sandy knoll where the transient had set up camp under a palm tree. 

Perlman told Trevor he would pay him $20 for posing — Perlman’s standard compensation — plus $10 more should Trevor provide him with an original poem or piece of artwork. Before long, Perlman was scribbling notes as Trevor told of losing his father to suicide when he was 5, of growing up in foster homes and taking to the streets at just 18. Perlman uses only his subjects’ first names to protect their privacy. 

Eventually, Perlman set up his easel, preparing to paint Trevor’s face in his signature bold, raw brush strokes for two hours, before closing up shop and finishing the portrait at home. “The entire process takes 15 to 25 hours,” Perlman said, and he also types up a bio of each of his subjects and has videotaped interviews with one third of them; he plans to turn the interviews into a documentary.

This weekend, several of Perlman’s paintings will be on display at a conference of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association, and segments of his documentary will screen there on Sept. 29. Another 15 of his portraits also will be included in the exhibition “Faces of Homelessness,” presented by Home for Good as part of the Downtown L.A. Art Walk on Oct. 11.

“So many of these people are in so much pain; every person I have dealt with has survived significant traumas,” Perlman said. “My approach is to try to get them to open up about the horrendous things that have happened to them, and to validate their experience and their heroism.”

“My life is tikkun olam,” he said, adding that he will title an upcoming book on his project “Venice Beach Regulars: Painting the Unseen Faces Around Us.” “I want to paint what people don’t want to see, so they will learn what they need to see, so this world can be a better place.”

Given the approach of Sukkot, Perlman noted that the homeless remind him of the holiday’s “element of wandering in the wilderness and having to put up shelters by people who have been forsaken.” And just as Jews use palm fronds to thatch their sukkahs, he said, “people live at the beach under the palm trees, and actually sometimes use the leaves to make places to sleep. I feel they’re kindred spirits — part of my family and my people.” 

In Perlman’s airy Santa Monica home, the more than 75 portraits he has painted since 2010 are stacked in corridors, in an office and throughout the living room, alongside photographs of his own family’s b’nai mitzvah and Jewish holiday celebrations. He said he’s made painting the Venice Beach homeless his passion project, and he uses his natural empathy to draw out his subjects’ life stories as he paints in an Expressionist style with vibrant hues. In the process, he’s heard tales of childhood sexual abuse, discrimination and struggles with alcoholism, as well as of college degrees earned and middle-class lives lost.

Many of his subjects — a number of whom have also become his friends — appear ravaged or stoic, and their visages are weathered by sun and neglect. 

Painting

Stuart Perlman painting “Doc,” a former nurse, who acts as a kind of father figure to many of the grunge kids on the beach.

One painting depicts an elderly man known as “The Colonel,” a Jewish child survivor of concentration camps, whose teeth were knocked out while he served in the U.S. military during the Korean War and his legs blown up in Vietnam. Another spotlights Daniel, a former project manager for an architectural firm who spiraled into crack addition after losing his wife and children in a car crash 12 years ago. The portrait shows him appearing defeated, with a bedraggled beard, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. 

Sunny — who is also homeless and living on the beach — lost his wife, Jill, to breast cancer in Minneapolis some years ago. Soon afterward, he lost their their home, due in part to the staggering medical bills. His portrait reveals a bulbous, despair-ridden face reddened by years of drinking.

“Jill fought the [cancer] battle for two years and lost it, and I’ve been a piece of s--- ever since,” Sunny, who grew up in orphanages in the South, says in Perlman’s documentary film footage. “I just gave up. I’ve been a drunk; I smoke pot. … I can’t get over her. She’s still the love of my life.”

The film also shows Janet lugging her bedding to a sidewalk where she will spend the night, placing cardboard on the concrete to protect herself from the water the local businesses had sprayed to keep transients away. “I’ll be off this planet soon,” she tells Perlman on camera. “I’m looking forward to death.” 

Perlman grew up in a Conservative home on Long Island, N.Y., and said these days he celebrates the Jewish holy days with members of his wife’s Chasidic family. He also said he traces his choice of work to his commitment to helping others, a part of his Jewish heritage.

Perlman identifies with his subjects on a deeply personal level, as well. “My parents were loving and took good care of me, but I was also viciously beaten and pinched until I bled,” he said, and he has written of the violence in his 1999 book, “The Therapist’s Emotional Survival.”

“My father had been a professional boxer, and he would use those same fists on myself and my siblings. When he got really angry, he would kick me like a football up the stairs, or he’d take an 18-inch, razor-sharp lox knife and bang and shake it at me. I thought I might be gutted.”

Perlman traces his parents’ behavior to their own youthful traumas: His now-deceased father, a deli owner who was active in his synagogue and a confidante of New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, appeared to have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since serving as a bomber during World War II. Perlman’s mother, who is in her 80s, survived a severely deprived childhood during the Depression, when she had to care for a starving baby sister with no food in the house.

Perlman said he survived his own childhood, in part, “by becoming my mother’s therapist. I was a bit of the parental child,” he said. “It’s like I’ve been in training to become an analyst from the age of 5.”

Perlman now practices in West Los Angeles, where he specializes in counseling trauma victims, and he just won a Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing Award, which recognizes the top living downloaded authors in the field. He said he has himself been in therapy for the past 36 years: “In order to do what I really want to do in this world, I have to face emotions that I can’t face alone, which is why I stay in therapy,” he explained. “I realize there’s an element in my work in which I’m trying to save everyone, because I’m also trying to save myself and everyone else in my family.”

Perlman took up painting in earnest five years ago, when his father died, reminding him that life is short and convincing him to return to his youthful aspirations of becoming an artist. He initially took classes at Santa Monica College and the YWCA, but soon tired of painting the bored-looking female models who posed for the students. Then, in 2010, on a visit to Venice Beach, he found himself drawn to its many homeless regulars, whose faces seemed to tell a thousand stories. Nervously at first, he began asking people to pose for him — but was regarded with suspicion for months. “They thought I was an undercover narcotics officer,” said Perlman, who returned often seeking to convince them, achieving his goal by spending hours talking and getting to know people as well as by handing out food and cash.  

The first “regular” to agree to work with him was William, a 60-ish African-American who always wore a wool cap and down jacket, even in the blazing summer heat. “He looked destroyed,” Perlman recalled, “but the longer I talked to him, the more articulate he became and the less disheveled he looked. I’ve since had that experience often. The attention and respect you give people is like watering a wilted flower — suddenly they appear to blossom in front of your eyes.”

Perlman would go on to create many more of the portraits, all 18 by 24 inches, sometimes while witnessing a drug deal, brawl or knife fight. At times he’s been threatened — once by a man he knew owned a gun. Undeterred, he’s continued to return to Venice on Wednesdays and weekends, each time spending three to seven hours talking to and painting his subjects, then taking the works home to finish, with the help of photographs, at his kitchen easel. 

“Stuart is not just painting their faces, but their souls,” said Wendy Coleman Levin, a member of Home for Good’s business leaders’ task force on homelessness. “What comes through is the genuine humanity of these individuals. He’s not just painting what you see, but what they feel.”

“I feel incredibly blessed,” Perlman said of his own life.  “It’s ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ We’re all just one step away from trauma and despair. The homeless are us, and we are them.”

For more information about Perlman and his work, visit stuartperlman.com.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Naomi Pfefferman Magid is the arts & entertainment editor of the Jewish Journal, where she’s spent the last quarter century interviewing everyone from Seth Rogen, Natalie...

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