Portraits look at humanity of the down-and-out

Anchorage artist's 'Faces of Homelessness' took a year to create

Posted: Thursday, April 23, 2009

ANCHORAGE - For those of us who find it hard to look at the down-and-out, Don Blackwell's portraits make it a little easier with his "Faces of Homelessness" series.

Blackwell was born to working parents in Hendersonville, N.C., May 24, 1952. He joined the Air Force and worked as a graphic artist. The military sent him to Galena where he fell in love with Alaska; when they rotated him out of state, he volunteered to return.

Stationed at Elmendorf, he took art classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage for three years, studying under Hugh McPeck. "He's a great teacher," Blackwell said. "I took every class I could from him, some twice."

McPeck showed him how to create vivid work composed solely of dots, pointillism. Blackwell used the technique for his first show, portraits of Alaska Natives, then wildlife.

He was encouraged by the owner of Aurora Fine Arts Gallery, Diane Louise. Blackwell credits her with encouraging him to use his art to create images of the down-and-out in Anchorage.

"I went to an ATM and filled my pockets with $20 bills, then went onto the streets with a camera and tape recorder," Blackwell said. He paid people "modeling fees" to take their picture and interview them.

He got advice from agencies including Bean's Cafe and the Veterans Administration, who told him, "You really want to ease into this." A number of subjects experienced mental illness, drug and alcohol problems or just had hair-trigger tempers. "It was kind of scary a couple of times," he said, "especially when I followed some of the veterans into the woods to their 'squats"' -- shelters. "Also, it was February. My darned camera froze up on me."

It took a year to create the work that was first shown at Aurora in 2002. Since then Blackwell and his wife, Phoebe, have moved back to North Carolina where he now teaches art at two community colleges. They have children and grandchildren in Alaska and a cabin on Kachemak Bay, all of which regularly draw them back here for visits.

When Blackwell left Alaska, his portraits remained behind. Noting that the problem of homelessness remains current, Louise proposed a final showing at her gallery, which opened this month on First Friday.

Last week they migrated to Bean's, to which Blackwell has donated the collection.

"Faces of Homelessness" was featured at Bean's 30th anniversary celebration last Friday.

Some of the portraits were auctioned off to patrons, a spokesman said. Others will be kept by Bean's. Still others will be given to other social service agencies.

For each picture, Blackwell also collected interviews and composed short essays, included with the selections shown here. The texts seem as integral to the composition as the image itself.

Blackwell described his painstaking, time consuming technique in detail. After taking the picture of his subject, he sat down with the photo and made a pencil drawing of it on archival quality paper. Then using the drawing as a guide, he re-examined the photo for its light and shadow, which he re-created using layers of pen- and-ink dots set down with different-size technical pens. The smallest of the pens has a point that resembles a needle.

The results are clear and detailed images that show us people in our town that we often see, but sometimes try hard to look past.



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