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Portraits of Dignity
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Jay Johansen is a portrait artist who has made it his life’s work to express the dignity of human beings he encounters living on the street. For Jay, the artistic process is also about building relationships. “People experiencing homelessness have dignity. Dignity is something I want to encourage and support, not diminish.” He donates a portion of his proceeds to benefit organizations working to end homelessness.
“I feel very close to the people that I paint. The barriers come down and I see their beauty and appreciate their dignity,” explains Jay Johansen. He is a portrait artist who has been painting the people and emotions he encounters on the street for the last ten years. Jay has also been commissioned to paint portraits of the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, among others.

Jay describes painting people who are experiencing homelessness as rooted to his essential identity as an artist. When he started painting, he painted everything but people. “I enjoyed painting, but nothing spoke to me until I crossed paths with a man who was homeless in San Francisco.” Jay reacted like many people, feeling sympathy yet also wanting to walk past the man. But something shifted and Jay spoke to the man. Jay listened to the man’s story and offered him money in exchange for photographing him. “I took several photographs. I couldn’t wait to get home to use the photos as a reference for painting what would become my first homeless portraits.” Jay was started on a path that has taken him all over the country and into the lives of people living on the margins.

Jay’s “Lost In America” series portrays human emotion through both the subtlety of monochromatic paintings and paintings that explode with color. This series is a testament to anyone who has felt lost. Jay uses watercolors and acrylic for these prints.

For Jay, the artistic process is also about building relationships. “People experiencing homelessness have dignity. Dignity is something I want to encourage and support, not diminish.” Jay’s process is to take photographs of people experiencing homelessness and to later use these photographs for developing paintings. While many of his relationships began as a business agreement, over time Jay met and conversed with many of the same people, transcending the business relationship and getting to know people. “There was a chap named Roland. I would seek him out. We sat together a dozen or more times talking about his life and his reflections. He was down and out and had a son in Southern California. I encouraged him to contact his son, but he always said that he was too embarrassed.” Roland appears frequently in Jay’s “Lost In America” series.

“I once spoke with a man at the Civic Center. When he spoke he was incoherent. I think he suffered from substance use and mental illness. My interaction on that day led me to understand that many people who are on the streets are lost both within themselves and within our society. I have learned not to make judgments about who is or who is not trying to make it. It is not for me to judge. I think for many people opportunities simply have not been there.”

Jay shares reflections on his own growth as he has learned more about people who are experiencing homelessness. He talks about mistakes he has made and what he has learned. “I once met a man who was drinking whiskey and took his photograph to paint. I found I couldn’t connect with the image. It didn’t feel right, so I never finished it. I want to create awareness, but not that kind of awareness.” While Jay recognizes that substance use is linked to homelessness, his desire to portray people in a way that moves beyond stereotypes and judgment is evident in his paintings.

“I have developed a greater appreciation for where I am in my life and the opportunities that have been given to me. Most doors have opened for me. In contrast, some people work hard their whole lives and never have an opportunity. Painting people experiencing homelessness has given me more compassion.” Jay’s studio, JJ Studios, is becoming more involved in outreach with groups like Project Homeless Connect. He plans to donate time and a percentage of his profits to non-profit organizations that are serving people who are experiencing homelessness.

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