Traditionally the phrase, three hots and a cot is reserved for describing the basic provided while you are in jail. The current black and white portraiture exhibit at Pensacola Museum of Art, of the same name, profiles the feeling of imprisonment homelessness can evoke. Interestingly enough the museum itself used to be a jail and today provides a fitting setting for the exhibit.
Many times while researching a story, you discover that the initial subject matter is not as one-dimensional as you thought. In this case, the story assignment was to cover a photography exhibit, and what we found is that this story has many layers. It is a tale of how a photographer, a museum, a billboard company and an interfaith ministry all came together organically to place a spotlight on the plight of homelessness in Florida.
The exhibit – photography by E.J. Manton consists of twenty-four of the over three thousand photos Manton took over the course of two years. She is a twenty-five year career psychotherapist who decided to take her people skills to the streets and photograph the residents of homeless shelters in Chapel Hill, N.C., DelRay Beach and Miami, Fla. As she says, “It was an extension of my work. I have spent time with so many people. I wanted to capture the human spirit and de-stereotype homelessness.”
Manton had this to say about her use of black and white photography, “I used black and white to show the reality, there is no blue sky when you are on the streets.”
When asked about how she was able to gain the trust of the residents, Manton says, “With the permission of the shelter administration, I went in with a camera around my neck and ate lunch there, then stuck around to follow some of the folks into the streets. After a while, I asked if I could take their photos and many said no, others said yes. I got to know their stories and wrote them down. Once the photos were developed, I sent them to the shelters, many had not had a photo taken of them for 15 to 20 years, and soon those that had said no originally asked if they could have a copy of their picture if they let me take it. It was worthwhile and incredibly interesting.”
There are so many poignant stories behind the photographs, revealing the amazing strength of the human spirit. There is one story that sticks out in Manton’s mind, “I would have to say the story of Taz and Barbara. Taz is a Congressional Medal of Honor winner and Barbara was a woman who had lived a very rough life. They protected each other. Her family was not talking to her anymore because she could not get emotionally stable. Taz and Barbara kept their distance and did not spend the night in the shelter. She was killed when a truck hit her while she was walking down a street. That was especially hard on everyone.”
The point of the whole exhibit in Manton’s words, “I set out to de-mystify the person who is homeless. So many I have talked to using the shelters services have master’s degrees or a Ph.D., used to have everything and somehow have nothing left. The photos were taken a number of years ago, with the current recession and job loss being rampant; I wonder what they would look like today? No matter the country, there are some who cannot function in society – we need to take care of them. We have to be responsible for our own.”
The show opened on November 3, and runs until December 30.
The ministry – enter Faithworks Interfaith Ministries Network Inc. Rick Dye is the high energy President of the nondenominational ministry. He is a former banker who left his career to dedicate his life to assisting those in need. Dye discovered the need of others after Katrina, when he and others turned a Christian retreat on the beach into an evacuation center. They helped folks from Louisiana for 100 days, and when the last one went home, he continued to network to find help – the needs were great and varied tremendously.
“Not everyone has the same needs,” Dye said. “There are many levels of homelessness. Like patients in a hospital, not all need the same antidote.”
The mission of Faithworks is to unite the local community with those in need. Currently Dye has collaborated with the Switzer family and Lamar Outdoor Advertising. Lamar gives the retired billboard vinyl material to Faithworks, who in turn provide sewing machines, training and patterns to folks who have come through a work, VA or alcohol and drug program. The program folks make money on what they make, creating jobs in the community. Faithworks will purchase as many crafts as they can make.
So, when you go to see Manton’s photo exhibit, there will be folks on the same floor of the museum making crafts out of the billboard material. Tote bags and other pieces created by the program are priced beginning at just $8 and will be available for purchase.
We visited the sewing operation that is taking place at the museum, and met Jeremy Packer, 29. He is calm and soft-spoken with kind eyes that has been walking the country for 10 years. He left home in Indiana at 19-years-old. He is currently working with Faithworks as part of a work program, after a run-in with the law. Packer was making bags when we walked into the room; he was alone because the other machine’s needles had broken and the others got frustrated and left.
When asked how he feels about the program, Packer says, “I feel security. I have been looking for a job and no one is looking for someone who has been in trouble. It is lonely, cold and dangerous out there, I have been ready to get off the streets for about five years now.”
Packer says, “The one thing we can do is to be open minded about being homeless and who the homeless are. Understand the misunderstanding and educate yourselves.”
He is planning to attend Pensacola State College in January, and wants to earn a degree in social work. Packer had a lot of insight he can communicate to people who are getting into trouble. He also wants to go on to get a master’s degree in a larger college setting.
Packer coined the title, “Seam Smith,” when Dye was describing what the seamstresses were doing with the material. They will use that title going forward.
Here is the secret formula, Sonya Davis, Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Pensacola Museum of Art sees Manton’s exhibit on the homeless in South Florida. Then Davis sees Dye and the Interfaith Ministries working with the homeless and the billboard material donated by Switzer at a music festival in East Hill. She puts the two together and ends up with one inspiring show.
THREE HOTS AND A COT
WHEN: Now through December 30, Tuesday-Friday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday Noon-5 p.m., closed Sunday and Monday
WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St.
COST: Members and children under 5 are free, $5 adults, $2 for students with ID and active duty military