Campus Safety got a call on Monday, April 2 reporting “suspicious activity” near Platner Hall. Within the hour, five more calls were made reporting the same thing. Little did the callers know that the individual in front of Platner Hall was fourth-year Jada Henry setting up her senior art display that would begin a conversation about homelessness at Whittier College.
Henry constructed the project as a part of her self-designed Art, Environment, and Society major. She set up three installments around campus: one in front of Platner Hall, one on a bench in front of the Science and Learning Center (SLC), and the third display in front of Diehl Hall, which is the largest of the three art pieces. Modeled after homeless people in the Los Angeles area, Henry’s goal was to bring a conversation to Whittier College that she feels is important to have and is often overlooked — a conversation about why we are so uncomfortable with homelessness even though it is right in our community.
At the start of her project, Henry focused on the questions: “How do I put homelessness into art and make it one project that people can understand?” She decided that the best way she could convey her ideas was through art. “I believe it begins in the community, just on campus, … and I do believe that art is something everyone can share … I think that art is something everyone can understand in their own individual way,” said Henry.
For Henry, one of the largest challenges was creating art surrounding such a complicated and difficult topic that everyone could understand. She originally had planned a photography project, but she did not foresee photography having the same impact that the figures would make. Her process of creating the figures began with two components: a conscious component and a materialistic component.
With the encouragement of Associate Professor of Religious Studies Jason Carbine, Henry began to journal her daily thoughts surrounding the topic of homelessness. “Why was it that I saw so many people? Why were they invisible to everyone else but not to me?” Henry asked in her journal. She wrote about the homeless community in Uptown Whittier, noting how the people interacted with one another, what they wore, what items they kept, and where they slept.
Another part of the conscious process was reading literature that allowed her to explore new ideas. She read a book called No Salvation Outside the Poor that influenced her thought process, particularly surrounding language and the influence language has on how we speak about homeless people.
“Language is a tool that can sway the mind. It can be destructive or productive,” said Henry. She challenged the audience at her presentation to bring forward the words that people think of when they think of the word “homeless.” This challenge was similar to the type of thinking Henry did in her journaling process leading up to creating the art pieces for campus.
Henry also thought a lot about social interactions through her project to understand the way we treat homelessness. “We’ve been made to know that they have nothing to do with us; they don’t [interact] in a social way that is acceptable to us.”
Once she began the art pieces, she started by sketching designs for her figures that she would place throughout campus. These sketches eventually turned into the homeless images seen around campus which she made with wiring, felt, donated clothes, blankets, recyclables, grocery carts, and anything else she could find. She partnered with several organizations such as the Los Angeles Mission, the Union Rescue Mission, the Good Shepard Center, and the Los Angeles Youth Network.
The main objectives of Henry’s project were to see what reaction she would receive from the community and to make people think. “I got a lot of different reactions. I got a lot of overwhelming reactions,” said Henry. “Some of them were good — people knew what was going on, they had either heard me talk about it or someone else talk about it … It was a good response of ‘oh they look so real,’ and they were in awe but they were still scared.” Despite the positive reactions from those who knew about the project, there was also a large amount of negative reactions. Many individuals were shocked to see Henry’s displays on the clean and beautiful campus; some were even scared or disgusted. Several students thought that the figures were creepy due to their uncanny nature and how realistic they looked. They even made an appearance on many student’s social media accounts.
Henry was grateful for the conversations that the figures began. “These figures weren’t supposed to be beautiful in the sense that we think art should be beautiful. They are supposed to make you think,” said Henry.
For many students, the project illuminated their personal feelings around a difficult topic. “[The project] really puts it into perspective how uncomfortable people feel around campus about [homelessness],” said James. “It was more about a reaction than homelessness itself. It critiqued our perspective … and I thought that was really interesting.”
First-year Richie Salval was frightened at first by the figures, which caused him to self-reflect about his own reactions to homeless people. “I realized almost immediately that it wasn’t a real person, but I was alarmed at how real it was,” said Salval. “I don’t think about [homelessness]. I avoid it a lot. Seeing those pieces of art, seeing them on campus right outside my dormitory, made me face something that I normally don’t have to face.”
The project also attracted the attention of staff and faculty. Professor and Director of the Writing Program Charles Eastman saw the installation in front of Platner Hall and thought it was real at first glance. He prepared some change and a granola bar and walked up to the figure only to find that it wasn’t real. “I didn’t know what was going on. It was the next day I learned that this was an installation,” said Eastman. “I was definitely fooled, which I think is a great way of starting a conversation — you have to kind of shock them a bit. I think it’s a very important conversation to have, especially in Whittier, we have a fairly sizable … [homeless] population.”
Henry’s project does not end here on campus. She is hoping to open a donation center at Whittier College or encourage more students to help the homeless on a daily basis. “I’m trying to figure out why homelessness is so big in my mind and why it should be bigger in all of our minds,” said Henry. She will continue to ask her question of how she can make an impact and encourages the rest of campus to do so as well.