Los Angeles has a sizable population of homeless, and among them, about 40 percent are 21 and younger. Struggling youth often fall through cracks in the system, and L.A. County's struggling child welfare system is sometimes cited as the main cause for the growing homeless youth numbers. An estimated 200,000 youth under the age of 18 and thousands more ages 18-24 experience some type of homelessness every year in California, according to the California Homeless Youth Project. Recent reports show that homelessness has increased by about 12 percent among transition age youth (meaning 18-24-year-olds). Safe Place for Youth (SPY) is an L.A. based organization and center that targets their efforts to the homeless youth of L.A. through outreach, case management and offering opportunities to youth to prevent lifelong homelessness. Last year, SPY started The Mirror Mirror Project with the help of Rachel Bujalski, and have been engaging professional artists and homeless youth through creation and communication ever since.
The Mirror Mirror Art Project is a simple program of creating art and creating relationships. Starting in Venice Beach, Bujalski and SPY want to eventually launch this as a national homeless community movement, to give attention and care to homeless youth communities all over America. On Saturday, April 12, SPY is hosting a benefit auction called "Face 2 Face" featuring artwork from The Mirror Mirror Project at Santa Monica Museum of Art at Bergamot Station, to raise awareness and funds for the homeless youth population in L.A. The event host committee includes Gina Belafonte, Robert Berman, Eleana Del Rio, Jodie Evans, Suzy Frank, Tony Ganz, Kenny Harris and Judy Nimtz, Zachary Levi, Robbie and Carol McNeill, Rob and Michele Reiner, Eric Schiff, Christian Slater, Tom Wellington and Vanessa Williams. The Mirror Mirror Project partnered local artists with homeless youth. The artists create portraits of the homeless youth, and the youth in turn, also create the artists' portraits.
This vulnerable population--known as the "invisible homeless" because of their tendency to blend in with other youth their age--is frequently regarded as nonexistent. It is these invisible youths that Bujalski wanted to target her efforts toward, with SPY. "I asked SPY if we could do a project that pairs homeless youth with professional artists, to do portraits of each other. Because portraits--and simply sitting across from someone and interacting--is a really intimate thing," Bujalski says; "we don't do that enough. They gave me the green light to try the project, and so I just started pulling together a roster of artists, and asking them if they wanted to join this Mirror Mirror Project."
The first Mirror Mirror exhibition took place at The Cadillac Hotel in Venice, and this year, SPY was able to recruit the Santa Monica Museum of Art to host their annual fundraiser, inspired by and coordinated with Bujalski's Mirror Mirror Project. The fundraiser will help SPY afford their staff, their supplies, and their facilities. It is an important benefit for this center. "This project has been more intense, more artists, and it's been such an amazing experience. Just to watch partnerships get created, they start relating in a way that you didn't expect. It's been really cool," Bujalski said.
This year, 50 different artists have volunteered to be a part of the project, and donate their time to the youths at SPY's drop-in center. Most of the youths eager to participate and make some art with these professionals. Bujalski elaborated, "They love meeting these artists and seeing what's possible, what they can do; seeing a different medium or style. They get to really explore, and they get to observe tips or tricks that they didn't know."
L.A. artists Shay Bredimus, Gregory Siff and Diana Garcia--among the 50 professional artists who donated their time and artwork to the project and cause--really admire the Mirror Mirror project and found great new bonds with the homeless youth through the creative process. Their resulting artwork shows much more than a simple portrait of their partnered youths. "It was extraordinary to collaborate with both the youth and an important organization like Safe Place for Youth," artist Gregory Siff said. "It's awesome that S.P.Y. is giving youth a stronghold to regroup; think about their lives, recharge, and make sure they don't end up on the street for life. It's an important cause."
Shay Bredimus is a professional artist and tattooer in L.A. whose practice often involves portraiture, but this experience was not like his other portrait projects. "What I took away from this project was my new found knowledge about Allan, and he really reminded me of myself--it was surprising to experience an actual mirrored feeling while getting to know Allan and drawing him," Bredimus says. "It reminded me of myself, and the things I did when I came out to California--the Phoenix connection, the leaving home to go and make something of yourself. A lot of these people aren't as bold or courageous, you know? It's hard for people to break out and take a chance, it's a wild world out there."
Bredimus and Allan were paired up with one another for just a few hours, but it gave both of them a larger appreciation for the arts, and the struggles we all face. Allan was born in Sinaloa, Mexico, and over the past few years, he traveled around the South West, trying to make his way to California to pursue a career in music. Bujalski and some of the volunteers say Allan is always playing the piano in the center, and singing with his whole heart. When Allan and Bredimus first met, Bredimus was pleased to find out that the talented singer and musician in the center was his homeless partner. "My first impression of Allan, he was playing piano and singing with unadulterated passion, and he was killing it. I was impressed. He looked a 16th century painting with dark, long curly hair, thick eyebrows and dark eyes and features. I thought, this kid is perfect for my work. He looked like Carvaggio, or Velasquez or something."
Bredimus said he tried to create a portrait that not only reflected the situation of the subject but his personality and his own experience and journey as well. "I included St. Christopher in his portrait--because of his journey and his courage."
Bredimus himself experienced a point in graduate school where he lived out of his car, just trying to make it. "A lot of artists and musicians have lived in their cars or have experienced homelessness at some point; to take a chance and try and make it," Bredimus explains. "I did that in graduate school, I could've ended up in the SPY program. I was taking a chance on a new place, to chase my dreams. That's what Allan's doing, trying to chase his dreams."
A lot of the youths at SPY had difficult situations that forced them into homelessness--abusive foster care families, getting lost in the system, homeless family upbringing; but, some were transplants that were just struggling to make a new life, like Allan, and like one of the girls Diana Garcia was paired up with.
Venice artist Diana Garcia is also a transplant to L.A., from Mexico City. She came to chase her dreams of acting, but instead she found art, and the SPY program. "For me, it really was a magical experience. It was perfect timing, because I had been actually looking for a place to share my experience and knowledge I'd been getting from this new profession of art," Garcia says. "I've been acting my whole adult life, and just moved to L.A. four years ago. I just thought it was a beautiful idea, to help somebody to find light in their life, and that art is possible; and that we can pursue whatever we want; what makes us happy."
Garcia loved the experience so much that she paired up with multiple youth partners for the Mirror Mirror Project. As an ongoing project, artists are welcomed to come any time during the drop-in hours and engage and interact with the youth. Garcia found and bonded with two girls specifically, and still keeps in touch with them, even after the artworks were complete.
"I was there for the sharing, to learn about another human being and what's going on in their world, and see if I could advise about some things or learn from them, and we definitely did. We had so much fun. We helped each other, we advised each other, and it was just a really amazing, beautiful experience," she said. "I think given space and time to share with people, away from your family or friends is a beautiful thing to do."
Eva, one of the girls Garcia paired up with is an artist, making jewelry she tries to sell to support herself and keep her creativity alive. "Eva taught me so much. She's such a free spirit. She is a girl that is traveling, taking time to see the world, to see their options. I connected with that so much, because after I finished college that was the first thing I did, is travel, and it was beautiful to share it with Eva and Tracy," Garcia said. "I just feel that they are girls trying to find their own way, and experience different things. I really got inspired by their freedom and the liberty they have in not having to do things. So I really learned to relax from them, and learn not to do things, but instead to simply enjoy life, and that was very beautiful for me to learn."
The girls Garcia paired with, Eva and Tracy, also got the opportunity to draw Garcia. The artistic exchange takes the connection and the new relationship to a whole other level. The art of portraiture is a timeless tradition in fine art, but the therapy of creating a portrait of someone you are trying to get to know can be invigorating and insightful. "For me," Garcia says, "the drawings were just an excuse to have a space to share, and to definitely encourage them to see different possibilities of a lifestyle--like me making art, or making money with art, and encourage them to pursue whatever they were doing. But that was more of an excuse for me, the whole time."
Bujalski also admitted that it was the experience of creating the work and getting to know another person that was really the main focus of the project, the artwork just enabled that experience and gave the participants a jumping off point. "We all live in these little bubbles, and we forget to communicate. This project kind of brings us back together, kind of opens your eyes. I think that art is that kind of powerful thing that really connects you, you kind of forget that with everything else, and you need it. One of the youths even told me because of the Mirror Mirror project, she realized how much she needed art in her life."
Bujalski aims to take Mirror Mirror to other shelters and areas in need of a therapeutic and creative outlet to connect the youths to something greater." It's definitely an art program but it's also a something that brings two different communities together."