Cardboard canvas

By Hart Hornor

This article first appeared in Real Change, USA. It was a finalist in the INSP Awards 2015.

“There was a time when I would have been too scared to talk to a homeless person… now I don’t feel any fear.” In 2014, from July 1- July 31, American artist Willie Baronet drove coast to coast buying the signs homeless people use to panhandle for what has become an ongoing art project. He spoke to INSP’s Seattle member Real Change about breaking down barriers and stereotypes with We Are All Homeless.

real_change_cardboard_canvas_3__1_Willie Baronet used to look away when he passed panhandlers standing at freeway on-ramps and intersections. These days he moves toward panhandlers, offering to buy their signs.

Transactions usually begin with him rolling down the window of his Prius: “I say, ‘Hey man, can I buy your sign?’ Most of the time, they say, ‘Sure!’ Then I usually say, ‘How much?’ Sometimes they quote me a price, and sometimes they say ‘Hey, I’ll take whatever you give me.'”

A handful of panhandlers refuse to sell at any price. After unwittingly approaching the same man four times and being rejected each time, Baronet asked if the man would trade his sign for $100. He replied, “No sir, I cannot sell you my sign.”

Other panhandlers ask Baronet (pictured below, right) why he wants their signs. This is a complicated question for him to answer.

The Dallas-based artist is driving from Seattle to New York, stopping in 24 cities to buy signs from panhandlers. Baronet estimates he’s spent $7,000 on his sign collection, which numbers about 600 signs. He plans to use them in an art installation.

A graphic designer by trade, Baronet is drawn to the signs themselves: their fonts, images and materials. He likes the signs because they hold clues about panhandlers’ lives.

“You can see the sweat stains in the cardboard,” he said. “You can see the texture of being out in the sun and, in some cases, the colors fading over the years.”

He even sees the marks of city policies. In Austin, where panhandling is legal, signs are larger than in Dallas, where panhandling is banned. There, panhandlers make their signs small enough to fold into a pocket, out of sight from police officers.


Conversation starter

Before he considered himself an artist, Baronet designed brochures, posters, and other marketing materials for small corporations. He ran a Dallas advertising firm called GroupBaronet.

Driving around Dallas, he imagined drug and alcohol addictions hidden behind panhandlers’ signs. This helped him justify holding onto his money, he said.

Then, on a whim in 1993, Baronet stopped and bought a panhandler’s sign. It became a habit. For one thing, he liked having an excuse to talk with homeless people.

“There was a time when I would have been too scared to talk to a homeless person,” Baronet said. “Now I don’t feel any fear.”

He also wondered what he could do with the signs. In 2006, he sold GroupBaronet and enrolled in a Master’s of Fine Arts program at the University of Texas.

He discovered new fascinations. For a while he photographed his friends’ bellybuttons and each of his cat’s hairballs. For a class project, he compiled a list of subject headers from pornographic spam emails (“Blonde in nylon pantyhose gives footjob in toilet,” “Hot sexual pleasure taking place on the farm”), then videotaped women’s mouths reading them.

After graduation, he told a Dallas audience he had learned two essential truths about himself: “I collect things, and I like to make people uncomfortable.”

In 2009, he got a chance to display his signs in a solo show at a Dallas art gallery. He thought that would be the end of it.

“That was not the case. I can’t stop thinking about them. I can’t stop thinking of ideas.”


Crowd-funded project

As this summer neared, Baronet, now an adjunct professor of advertising at Southern Methodist University, began planning a cross-country sign-buying trip. He drew a route that passed through 24 major cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Detroit. After adding a documentary film and a book about his project to his plans, Baronet came up with a budget of $44,000 and posted it on May 1 to a crowd-funding website. By May 31, he had raised $48,000.

Baronet doesn’t claim to be an expert on panhandlers. And he doesn’t know whether he’s supported drug addictions. In fact, he likes the mystery of the signs. One of his favorites is written on a large square of brown cardboard. On both sides, a panhandler colored black columns, 6 inches thick. Between the columns, he wrote a message in letters so tall and skinny that they’re barely legible.

Baronet said he doesn’t understand what the sign means. He doesn’t need to.

“In art galleries, people give the signs meanings,” he said.

“They may create a whole story about who that person is, whether they’re lying or telling the truth, whether they’re an addict, and whether they’re going to spend their money on drugs and alcohol. They create a story based on this little piece of cardboard.”

Panhandlers have reacted in many different ways to Baronet’s requests. Some have offered to autograph their signs. One woman started to cry.

Her sign had belonged to her dead husband, she told Baronet. She flipped it over to reveal his name inscribed on the back. He felt bad, so he asked her if she wanted it back.

“She said, ‘No, I’m excited that his sign is going to be used for an art project.'”


Seattle filmmaker Matt Longmire, who followed panhandlers for his 2012 documentary, “Cardboard,” said artists find homeless people interesting because they’re unusual.

“It’s not another guy in a suit,” he said. “We always look for things just outside the norm.”

But Longmire gets nervous when he hears about people using homeless people to make art. If the artist’s intention is to help homeless people, he said, that’s OK. “If he’s just doing it because he thinks it’s a neat art project, I don’t know.”


Baronet says he sometimes wonders if he’s exploiting panhandlers by displaying their signs. He likes to think he isn’t: he lets the panhandlers set their prices (usually around $10), he doesn’t resell the signs, and he plans to donate over $2,000 of the money he raised this spring to services for homeless veterans.

Kirk, who sat in front of the ferry terminal on Alaskan Way, said he has displayed the same message for the past 20 years. It says, “Anything will help.”

Would he sell his sign? “I’ve done it,” he said.

In North Dakota, a teacher once bought his sign to show to his class. Kirk said he’d like to see a show of panhandling signs. “I’ve seen people put all kinds of things on their signs,” he said. “It’s kind of interesting.”


All images courtesy of Ted Mase/ Real Change