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September 03, 2015

Successful automotive designer returns to painting and brings love, validation, and assistance to homeless people

Successful automotive designer returns to painting and brings love, validation, and assistance to homeless people

Brian Peterson's portraits are on view in Santa Ana, California

By Alyssa Brown

After graduating from CIA with a BFA in Industrial Design in 2009, Brian Peterson launched an automotive design career that eventually led him to his current position as interior designer for Kia in Santa Ana, California. Moved by the significant homeless population there, he was inspired to create his most recent project: Faces of Santa Ana. After befriending many homeless individuals during his bike rides to work, Peterson connected with them to give a face to the homeless community by painting images of his new friends. His work is being displayed in downtown Santa Ana and proceeds from sales of the portraits go to rehabilitation efforts for the individuals portrayed.

His project caught the attention of the arts and culture website My Modern Met, which published this story; and OC Weekly, a paper covering Orange County, California, which published this. Peterson took the time to answer these questions from his alma mater:

What made you decide to take on this project?

A few things have led me to this project. I recently moved from Irvine, CA to the City of Santa Ana, CA. Santa Ana has an especially high number of the homeless because it serves as Orange County's main civic center. That being said, as I drove my car, or rode my bike everyday to work, I discovered a yearning in my heart to reach out and speak to my "invisible neighbors." Around this time I was reading a book by Christian author Bob Goff called "Love Does.” The book describes this word ‘love’ as a call to action. Love is about being present and making yourself available. Love is about putting yourself in those uncomfortable positions to help others. This book gave me the courage to take action and devise a plan to use my talents to help people.

I hadn't touched a canvas or paint since my first year at CIA. I realized that I left my painting passion in my freshman year because I didn't have a subject matter. These men and women give me subject, emotion, story, truth, and passion that bring love and purpose to my art. The emotional impact of this project was the driving force in ending my seven-year painting hiatus.

Your project was more than just painting your subjects, you actually got to know the people you painted. Why was that important for you?

It's important to me as an artist to not just paint a portrait, but paint a story. And in order to write a story, knowing the character and his or her development is key. And as the creator of this project, I feel an obligation to vocally tell their stories alongside my canvas and brush strokes.

Upon the completion of each painting, I walk my 30x40 canvases down the streets of Santa Ana looking for my subject. When I find them I have them sign the piece right above my signature. I truly believe they are part of the piece. The trust they have given me in explaining their lives is just as important as my color palette and brush strokes. They are one in the same. So I guess each piece really has two artists.

What did you learn in the process?

In the process I've actually learned a lot about myself. The homeless friends I make continually show me that things are often not what they seem. I have realized that subconsciously I pre-judge these individuals based on their attire, clothing, facial expression, etc. However, this experience has transformed my mind and my calling as a Christian to ‘helping thy neighbor.’

I have also learned that our homeless neighbors desire much more than a dollar bill. Some experiences where these friends may ask, ‘Can you just sit with me for a while and talk?’ remind me that they are emotional beings just like you and me. Motivational words, or listening to their problems provides much more positive results than just loose change. And through art, I have realized that I have the ability to empower them with my talents. Knowing that some stranger is willing to take hours out of his personal life to paint and tell their story is uplifting for my newfound friends. They look at my paintings and see care. They see empathy. They feel love. And most importantly, in the mission to help them, they see hope. Each day that goes by, I continue to learn more about what ‘love’ actually is, and the beginnings of this journey have demonstrated it’s contagious to those around me.

Did any experience or interaction during your CIA years prepare you or inspire you to take this on?

My painting teacher, Lane Cooper, has had a lasting impression on my inner artist. In my first-year painting class we had many discussions about me pursuing a painting career, but my long-term plan was always an industrial design degree. In one of our last dialogues as her student, I'll never forget what Lane told me. She said, in her southern accent, ‘You'll be back; it's never too late to be a painter.’ Sometimes we forget just how much teachers can have an impact on our long-term lives. Lane Cooper’s comment has had a lasting effect on me whether she knows it or not. I have never forgotten those words. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank her for always giving me sincere truth and having the difficult conversations that most would avoid. I feel this is what separates a teacher from and instructor. Thank you Lane Cooper.

Alyssa Brown in a marketing intern at CIA.

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