On Skid Row in Los Angeles, there is no art, and you have to squint pretty hard to see the beauty. I am a balancer, so when I walk through places like Skid Row or homeless shelters, I think about what is needed, and most of the time there is more than enough food and clothes to go around. What these communities do need, however, is to feel human again.
At heart, I have always been a simultaneous artist and philanthropist. I didn’t want my passions to be separated, and so I have always sought to holistically combine them. This project, called Sacred Streets, does that in a way I have been trying to imagine for years.
Sacred Streets is all about bringing beauty and dignity to a community that rarely ever gets it. I want to know the people from this community on a personal level, and the best way I know of connecting with them is to make portraits. To draw a person, in person, is for me a means of being present and attentive to the dignity in them.
While sitting with someone eye to eye for hours, and taking the time to capture their essence in artistic expression, an intimate exchange occurs— they are releasing themselves, baring their lives in an act of transparency, and in turn, receiving a deep and meaningful expression of their being. As I go about this work, I have seen a certain dignity restored in a person in a way that would’ve been difficult to achieve simply through words and impossible to achieve through a hand out. I want to help them feel human again and artistic engagement definitely has the power to do that.
I further this effort of restoration by drawing the portraits on reclaimed objects that are meant to tell a story parallel to the people depicted, a story of being found again and renewed. As the portraits come to completion I integrate shapes, symbols, and materials that resemble traditional images of saints and icons you would see in a cathedral, usually placed as altarpieces or objects of veneration.
If I were ever to try my hand at a recipe for bringing justice to the world, I think my base ingredient would be “feeling human.” That is one thing I think we all deserve, and if it is missing, so is justice. Artists have the power to replace this missing piece because the center of our practice is bringing beauty, renewed meaning, and yes, dignity to the world— things that are intrinsic to humanity.
— Jason Leith
Sacred Streets will be premiering this Thursday in Los Angeles. For more information on the project and opening, go to sacredstreets.org.
Jason Leith is a graduate of Biola University with a BFA in drawing and painting, a minor in Bible and Business and a graduate of Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute. He resides in Southern California where he leads Saddleback Church’s Arts Initiative, Ex Creatis.