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  • Writer's pictureGabriella Hsu

Faces of Santa Ana: Cultivating Hope through Building Community

In these times of isolation and continued quarantining, upset routines, and altered schedules, nurturing a sense of community and connectedness has become increasingly important. Yet even prior to the pandemic, we might have found ourselves struggling to find a sense of belonging, without the time or energy needed to actively cultivate a sense of connectedness in our lives. Our modern age, so full of constant activity and an unending list of incomplete tasks, often pulls us away from the deep connectedness which can happen on the every-day level. Too often we pass by others without seeing them, and too often we, too, may not feel seen. What lies behind this inability or unwillingness to see and be seen and how can we, inspired by hope and a desire for connection, overcome this and foster community with others?

Artist and activist, Brian Peterson, is all too familiar with this issue, familiar, too, with the hope of a more connected world. Peterson is the founder of Faces of Santa Ana, a non-profit organization that supports individuals struggling with homelessness by telling their stories through beautiful portraits, prose, and building ongoing relationships in the community. Peterson befriends and paints those experiencing homelessness in Santa Ana, California. The paintings sell for $4500, all of which goes to the subjects of his paintings in order to build a better life. Peterson’s work is a testament to the pain that can be caused from feeling invisible and unheard, and in turn, how powerful and inspiring it can be to be seen and heard by another.

It all began in 2015 when Peterson had a chance encounter with Matt, a man experiencing homelessness in Peterson’s neighborhood. Peterson, an automotive designer, had not painted for almost eight years at the time but was struck with a desire to foster this relationship with Matt, to tell his story. The result was a painting, thoughtful and bold, which acknowledged Matt’s story and pain and began a journey to continue this process for many others. What started as an instinctive desire to connect with those deeply in need of connection blossomed into a project and now, a non-profit organization which has changed the lives of countless people struggling with homelessness.

Peterson’s project not only creates a relationship between himself and the subjects of his paintings but also includes those who purchase the paintings which often sell immediately. Many people who buy the paintings remark that the individuals depicted there remind them of their own loved ones, inspiring a sense of connection and investment in the wellbeing of those who we may not know personally, but who share with us the struggles and joys of being human.

Though the monetary support is undoubtedly an incredible gift, it is the human connection between subject and artist, human being to human being, which seems most powerful for both Peterson and his subjects. It is this connection that inspires hope in individuals who often were not given the basic human right to being seen and heard. Peterson’s paintings reveal his subjects not only as they are--often with some sense of sadness and suffering in their eyes--but also as they can be and often become: lit up by the joy and power of a human being invested with undeniable dignity and power. Though Peterson is gifted with the ability to draw this out of his subjects, his paintings stand as a reminder that this dignity and power cannot be given to us but lies within us already. His work simply uncovers this often hidden reality, reminding his subjects of their own power and purpose and place in a community of fellow human beings.

If you would like to view Peterson’s paintings, you can check out the Faces of Santa Ana website here. If you cannot purchase a painting but would like to help, consider donating to their effort here. You can also view this brief documentary.

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