By Christen Mattix
During the recent CIVA conference, I resonated with the theme of welcoming the “other” which kept emerging in the presentations of my fellow artists and community activists. One spoke of welcoming the other, for example, by “porching”—a practice of sitting on the porch every week at a designated time and inviting people of all backgrounds to hang out. Another talked about the need for churches to create neutral outdoor spaces of hospitality such as the plaza in front of St. Ambrose Church in Italy. As simple as it sounds, I believe many of our societal problems can be traced back to a lack of interaction with those we perceive as different than ourselves and an absence of love for the other. In order to love the other, we must see them first as human beings who have value and dignity. But how we see the other is heavily influenced by depictions in the mass media which are often dehumanizing and distancing. People are afraid to let down their walls long enough to encounter someone who may not look like them or think the same way. As an artist, I regularly interact with a wide swath of humanity across political, racial, and economic divides. I see the image of God in each person I encounter and feel the deep pain of those who are deemed by society at large as unworthy of love.
I believe homeless people are the easiest population to objectify or demonize as the other. They are “the homeless,” a sort of faceless crowd, easy to ignore or avoid—unless you make friends with someone who is homeless. That’s what happened to me when I innocently signed up to teach an art class not knowing the impact it would have on my life and art. When one of my former art students (aged 34 and homeless) was found dead in February 2018, I grieved like I’d lost a brother. I painted his portrait on a wooden bowl and later approached Lighthouse Mission to ask to make portraits of other local homeless people who had died in the past year. I kept hearing sweeping, disparaging generalizations about “the homeless,” and I wanted the opportunity to reveal the humanity of these people.
I hope there can be emotional healing through grieving and celebrating these lives together. I pray that, in viewing these portraits, homeless men and women will gain a greater awareness of their innate worth as children of God. I use precious gold leaf to gild each bowl as a way of reflecting the sacredness of each person represented. As I paint a portrait, I see glimmers of the ultimate homeless man, Jesus Christ, who was born of a teenage mother in a barn, grew up a refugee, had nowhere to lay his head, and died flanked by felons.
Christen Mattix is a writer, artist, and connector. She makes paintings, fiber art, and catalytic community events like sidewalk poetry readings and street art. Mattix has exhibited throughout the Pacific Northwest and nationally. She received a B.F.A. from Western Washington University and an M.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute. Mattix grew up in Thailand and currently resides in Bellingham, Washington. You may view her portraits on Instagram at @christenmattix and see more of her work at christenmattix.com.