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Re-Envisioning the Homeless

On a warm Friday evening, Eugeniusz L., a grizzled Pole with burgundy skin, stood up at a dinner table lined with guests. “Where’s the wine?” he demanded, rather loudly.

The guests, who had just enjoyed a homemade meal, were sitting in the Church of the Ascension Parish Hall (122 Java Street), which serves a temporary respite center for the homeless. Eugeniusz had come from the Bowery Resident’s Committee (BRC) assessment shelter on McGuinness Boulevard. Ordinarily, this would have been an awkward moment, followed by embarrassed silence. Instead, the entire room, including Eugeniusz, burst into laughter.

It was a perfect joke. Eugeniusz and others were staging a photo of the Last Supper as part of “Banquet/Uczta” – an interactive exhibition and dinner party presented by “members of Brooklyn’s arts, homeless and Polish communities” on May 10th. Conceived and developed by artists Eva von Schweinitz, Hilary Krishnan and Kristin Arnesen in collaboration with the men of the respite center and the BRC shelter, including Eugeniusz L. and Slawomir Mikola, the show featured photo, video and sound works exploring the issues of homelessness and community in Greenpoint. Photos included restagings of classic art works in which the artists, Eugeniusz and Mikola posed as angels, saints and other religious icons on the neighborhood’s streets.

Schweinitz, Krishnan and Arnesen, all graduate students at Brooklyn College, started working with Greenpoint’s homeless in March, delivering and serving food at Ascension Hall. Once they began eating with the men, the women learned much about their own lives and discovered that they shared artistic interests. The trio then looked for a space where the men could perform cultural activities but, after a few months, realized the paradox at the heart of homelessness.

“Everybody wants to help the help the homeless,” said Krishnan. “But nobody wants a shelter on their block. We couldn’t find anybody willing to give us a place.”

Appropriately, the women decided to turn the streets into a studio, working mainly with Eugeniusz and Mikola, whom they had met at Ascension Hall. Mikola, who had been an office clerk in Poland, came to the United States fifteen years ago to visit his sister and stayed to work as an asbestos worker. After suffering a stroke in 2002, Mikola lost his job and spent the next ten years on the streets. He has resided at the BRC shelter for the last six months and now uses a walker. Eugeniusz was a carpenter who had also decided to stay and work in New York during a trip in 2004. Four years ago, he lost his sight to cataracts, retaining only 2% of his vision in his right eye. He entered the shelter shortly before December.

To overcome the initial language barrier (Mikola only speaks conversational English, and Arnesen conversational Polish), the artists communicated their ideas with the men through pictures of great works of art, finding that those that resonated the most were often religious. Over the course of a month, restaging images such as Raphael’s cherubs and the Pieta led the artists to discover the transformative power of taking on roles.

“Emulating the gestures of a saint changes you,” explained Schweinitz. “Just like smiling makes you happy. Taking on the postures of those revered figures makes one aware of their stories, which are allegorical and reflect the struggles in [Slawomir and Eugeniusz’s] own lives.”

That personal investigation became the artists’ goals, defined in their statement as “interrupting socially prescribed roles and public perception of the homeless community.”

“There was one guy who kept saying, ‘I’m garbage, I’m garbage,’” recalled Arnesen. “But as we kept working, he stopped calling himself that. Participating in this project put them in roles in which they do not see themselves nor does anyone else. One of the greatest parts of the process was discovering that Slawomir had a great eye and pointed out mistakes in the photos.”

The role change also rejuvenated the men. During the project, Eugeniusz and Mikola formed a close friendship with the women despite differences in age, language and background. “It was great to do something else for once,” said Mikola, who plans to regain his health and return to work. “We understood that it was a show about homelessness, and it was nice that someone noticed us as people. We felt young again!”

“We were very happy to help these girls,” agreed Eugeniusz, wiping tears from his eyes at the end of the event. “We wanted to let everyone know that not every homeless person is just some moron, and that many of us are sick. I would happily work again, but I can’t because I’m blind, and Slawomir is partially paralyzed.”

Eryka Volker, a longtime advocate for the homeless community in Greenpoint, praised “Kristin, Ewa and Hilary…for bringing values to an otherwise unappreciated part of the community.”

“I applaud their talent and love for others in need,” Volker added, “and hope the team will continue their artistic endeavors here in Greenpoint.”

Music at the event was performed live by Genevieve Morris and Max Kolbe.

For more information about the project, visit http://www.brainhurricano.org/BanquetUczta/PressRelease.zip.

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