[radio segment link below] Brian Peterson is a car designer for Kia Motors in California by day and a bike-riding humanitarian painter by night — that is, of course, if we wanted to impose a general label on his boundless spirit. In fact, what Brian aims to do is to remove the labels placed on his neighbors, with the hope of restoring our shared identity as sentient beings and to recognize that we, after all, are one.
Brian redefines what it means to be homeless by painting unique portraits of those he encounters living on the street. In recent months, he has befriended his homeless neighbors in Santa Ana and painted their portraits as a way of understanding them as well as himself. The paintings are signed by Brian and by the subject, then sold to the public. The proceeds of these sales directly benefit the subject.
On Brian’s website facesofsantaana.com, you can find paintings for sale as well as his past works. Read more about his process and growth in the interview below.
1) Why have you chosen art as your medium for connecting with people?
Art in its most basic form is about storytelling. The oldest art we know of exists in caves where stories were drawn in symbols and icons to document events in our ancestors’ past. My mission with “Faces of Santa Ana” is also to tell stories. I aim to capture the individual emotions of the subject in the painting. In doing so, these feelings often lead spectators to ask more about the lives of my homeless friends. This gives me the opportunity to tell their stories and to bring awareness to the issue of homelessness in Santa Ana.
Art also holds another transformative power, that of care and of love. I discovered this when I had my first subject actually sign his painting right above my signature. I do this because I believe the stories they have shared with me are equally as important as my palette and my brushstrokes. What I have found is my homeless friends feel emotions of love and care at this single moment. They begin to realize that only a sacrificial love would move a complete stranger to invest hours of his own life to paint their story. I watch them become hopeful, in a world where their hope has been stripped from them. This is a power in art I never knew existed, but now I realize its lasting effect on people.
2) Tell us about the moment when your idea transitioned into action.
There were a few things that motivated me to act. The first being when I moved to downtown Santa Ana, which is Orange County’s civic center. Here, the homeless population is larger than in most areas. Every day as I biked or drove to work, I would pass these people by without saying a word. At most, I would give them loose change or a dollar.
Second, around this time I began diving deeper into my Christian faith and was reading a book called “Love Does” by Bob Goff. In his book, Bob explains that love is about taking action and being present to others. It’s about making yourself available even if it means sacrificing your own time, money, or talents. This idea of sacrificial love struck a chord in my heart and guided me down a path that led me into meeting my “invisible neighbors.” After speaking with Shannon (the first of my newfound homeless friends, I realized that the homeless people I saw every day have real stories. They’re real people with real character and often, they just yearn for friendship amongst the individuals in their neighborhoods.
Finally, I wanted to find a way to help. Downtown Santa Ana has a thriving artists’ community, and art has actually begun to transform the city center. As art brings restaurants, businesses, shops, and galleries to the city, it led me to ponder the idea: If art can change a landscape, can it also change a life? Can I paint these people and use the proceeds from sold portraits to aid in their recovery? This one notion reignited my seven-year painting hiatus and led me to start the “Faces of Santa Ana” project. It was my way of putting my sacrificial love into action.
3) What personal experiences have inspired your current worldview?
My newfound Christian faith has led me down this path of helping others. In Matthew 25:34-40, Christ calls his followers to a life of helping those in need. I used to think this was about giving loose change and old clothing, but now I know it’s more about love and care. My experience with “Faces of Santa Ana” so far has filled my heart with satisfaction. It’s helped me realize that my time here on earth is more gratifying when I am helping others rather than trying to better myself individually. Consequently, I am growing and beginning to learn more about myself every day from the work I’m doing in the homeless community.
4) How is your process of creating a portrait unique to the tradition of portraiture?
My process is unique to traditional portraiture because at its deepest root, this work is about love. The paintings are not commissioned work or a tribute to a successful individual. Instead, they are stories of helplessness, selflessness, and hope. Behind each painting is sacrifice, friendship, and conversations about a bright future.
From Peterson’s Linkedin: