Portraits of the homeless

Posted: April 21st, 2017 | Arts & Entertainment, Feature, Top Story | No Comments

By Lucia Viti

South Park artist advocates for ‘invisible people’

Neil Shigley is more than an artist. The painter, printmaker and educator is an advocate for what he calls the “invisible people” and what society labels the “homeless.”

Incredibly moving, at times haunting, large-scale print images capture his vision of the homeless “human figure.” Shigley shares the plight of the homeless through an artistry that exhibits its face.

Neil Shigley with three portraits of homeless men he has met (Courtesy of the artist)

“Portraits overflow with character that’s hard earned through years living on the streets and the daily struggle for survival,” he said. “Nobility, beauty, strength, and vulnerability are present, if we choose to look. Large formats bring the homeless into focus to make them visible, to force us to confront their human condition.”

The South Park resident will show his work at this year’s Mission Federal ArtWalk in Little Italy on April 29-30. Hosting two booths, one to display his homeless portraits, the second for a series of celebrities, Shigley intends to highlight the “difference between the haves and have nots.

“ArtWalk’s an amazing, awesome city event that brings thousands of people together in one spot to celebrate art,” he said. “By creating art of the homeless, I hope to expose and humanize the concept and open a doorway for reflection.”

A chance encounter launched Shigley’s foray into the world of the homeless. While attending an art opening in Little Italy in 2005, he locked eyes with a homeless man.

This is Dave, who lives on the streets

“Stunned at the intensity of his face, my friend suggested that I compose a portrait of him,” he said. “I didn’t give it a thought — at first. But as I walked through the art exhibit, I saw his face through every bright light and every art piece hanging on the wall. I went back outside but he was gone. And I’ve been searching for that face ever since.”

A week later, Shigley passed another homeless man, but this time requested and received permission to create a portrait. He snapped a photograph, admitting that “I’m not a photographer,” and thus began his endeavor to serve as a beacon for the homeless. The artist uses photographs and subject “interaction” as building blocks to create his woodblock portrait series.

“I talk to each individual for as long as they let me,” he said. “I soak in their stories, asking them where they’re from; how they landed on the streets; and what the first day of being homeless was like. Stories cross the board — epic, mundane, bizarre and tragic. The more I learned, the more interested I became in chronic homelessness, an issue that leaves me with no answers.

“People treat homelessness like it’s a monolithic issue, but it’s not,” he continued. “Homelessness is about Willy who lost his job and Ruth who escaped domestic violence. It’s the story of a young woman raised in a gang, roaming homeless through the streets of LA. Pregnant at 16, she was the mother of three by age 20. She fled to Father Joe’s Villages in San Diego with her children, received job training and placed her children in The Monarch School. She’s a success story. She’s a hero. I have two children — ages 6 and 8. I can’t imagine being homeless for one night much less with three children to protect. Children without parents or role models are most at risk for homelessness. No one dreams of living of the street. I can’t help but feel compassion.”

Dwelling on the story behind the face: “Light cascades across the landscape of a human face and words in my head influence my art,” he said.

Shigley carves into a wood block, paring white spaces and shapes before rolling the block with ink and hand-pressing the image on paper. He also carves into plexiglass with a flexible shaft drill. The 62-year-old became hooked on working with large wood block prints in the late 1980s when Bern Hogart, a famous artist and illustrator, “gave me the opportunity to work on a 6-foot-tall, wood block print,” he said. “I was hooked.”

He describes the art of printmaking as a long process contemplating and focusing for hours.

“Printmaking isn’t definitive,” he explained. “I never know what to expect until I pull the paper off the print. Painting allows you to modify the image. Printmaking is different. You wait until the end to see it all.”

Shigley attributes his artistic origins to his father, an architect who served in the military.

“My father’s art sense is the reason for my homebrewed flavor for art,” he said. “He painted and drew renderings of our residences and travels. He immersed the family into the culture and art of every area that we lived, and we lived everywhere — Europe, the Far East and all over the U.S.”

He studied painting and printmaking at San Diego State for more than 10 years, attending every class that related to art including human anatomy, art history and illustration. He was then awarded a full scholarship to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Not only did he graduate with honors, he served as the first commencement speaker in the school’s history.

Shigley then took his talent to New York and became an award-winning free-lance illustrator.

“I walked the streets of a city full of energy showing my portfolio to publishers, magazines, design firms and ad agencies,” he said. “While I had a robust career as an illustrator — I worked for many Fortune 500 Companies — I still pursued my fine art. I left for San Francisco five years later before heading back to San Diego.”

This is Bella, a homeless person Neil Shigley met. (Courtesy of the artist)

The artiste is presently working on female portraits.

“Homeless women are so vulnerable,” he said. “A 21-year-old woman, homeless since age 14, showed me names written on a wall. She knew what happened to every single person: Who died, who was in jail, and who suffered from AIDS. She was a victim of several rapes and said that she didn’t care if she died. It was really sad. We stood 100 feet from the main road, hidden in a world of people living in the river banks. The homeless population is a society living under our feet.”

By raising awareness, the activist is determined to “affect” others to look at the homeless differently. “I hope to raise awareness for the viewer to see respect instead of disdain,” he concluded. “These are real people. This is human life.”

Shigley’s homeless portrait series has been on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and San Diego International Airport. He also teaches at SDSU, the institution that he said has captured his “heart and soul.”

—Contact Lucia Viti at

Leave a Comment