The Faces of Santa Ana

Info board

Sometimes, what’s written leaves a lasting impact upon us. In fact, some words can motivate us to reach out to others who are living within the straits of difficulties beyond their control. This was the experience of Brian Peterson who decided not to just look past the needs of those without housing in Santa Ana California. In this Q & A he shares what lead him to begin the Faces of Santa Ana project.

Would you be painting now if you hadn’t read Bob Goff’s “Love Does“?

That’s a hard question to answer but I do believe I would have eventually started to paint again. However, I do feel strongly that I without reading “Love Does” I wouldn’t be using my talents to help others and spread God’s love. Bob Goff’s writings instilled in me a drive and a passion to truly step out into uncomfortable situations (like Jesus did), and show unconditional sacrificial love.

In the article on you said that you began to ponder the idea of art being able to change a life. Has it? In what ways?

I do think my art has impacted lives. I say this generally because I’ve witnessed it change the lives of the homeless and well as people with homes.

The Faces of Santa Ana project has taken turns I never anticipated when it began.

Although none of my homeless neighbors have yet to find permanent residence by way of my art, I’ve witnessed a forming of a family with all who have been painted. They often attend my pop up art shows, and as a result they meet each other. Their portraits link them together. A few weeks ago I had an outdoor art show and about five of my friends experiencing homelessness showed up. I gave them each Subway gift cards and about an hour later, I looked across the street through the subway glass and saw them all dining together and sharing stories. There was power and change in this moment. As a result, they still gather to support each other.

In addition, I’ve witnessed change in the general public.

I had a former homeless Atheist write to me and say he’s beginning to see God through my project. Others have expressed their changed views of their local homeless community globally. Some even say they often stop and chat with them rather than walking by. The amount of life change is hard to measure. On paper it may seem insignificant, but in the hearts of the followers and the homeless, I’m convinced God has facilitated huge change.

How did you come up with the idea of letting your painting subject(s) sign their portrait above your signature? Does this give them a sense of ownership and recognition?

From the beginning I never wanted this project to be about me.

For a while, nobody knew what I looked like and was surprised to find I’m a young guy. One guy said, “When you showed up I expected an old white guy”. We had a great laugh about it. I say this to convey the idea that the hierarchy of Faces of Santa Ana exists in this order: God first, my homeless friend second, then finally me.

Cindy portrait signing

I have them sign the painting because I do believe they are an important part of the project. Yes, the moment does humanize them again, but I want them ultimately to know that they have value, they are important, and they are loved. I often witness the most significant moments when they sign the piece. The most memorable are those who pause for a couple seconds while trying to remember their signature. In this I realize that they may not have signed a document in years. As a result, there’s power and hope in this action. It’s beautiful to be a witness.

What stories do you see in the “Faces” that you have painted? Do their stories differ in any way from what you expected?

Somehow our homeless neighbors carry their stories on their Faces.

Most of us have the ability to shave, shower, or apply make-up and mask the pains and trials in our lives. My homeless friends often do not. Consequently, their trials of the previous days, weeks, or months are made completely evident.

One story that changed my life was that of Darryl. He was my second portrait and before starting Faces of Santa Ana I must have driven by him a hundred times. He always wore a bike helmet but was never seen with a bike, only a walker outfitted with his life’s belongings. Admittedly, I internally judged him and labeled him “crazy”. Upon our first conversation Darryl mentioned that he’s had over 30 seizures in the last year. He explained that his helmet saves his life every time. I was convicted, and quickly learned the story I expected of him was quite different from the reality. Today, I approach each person with complete humility anxious to hear their testimony.

Why do you call the people that you paint friends and family?

I call the people I paint friends and family because that’s how I honestly feel. Behind the Facebook posts or media stories, I am in constant connection with my new friends. We talk on the phone often, text, and see each other frequently. Faces of Santa Ana is so much more than just a project about paintings. It’s more of an endeavor filled with love and real friendship. My goal is to befriend them first, before ever painting them. A painting without the friendship at its root is much less valuable to both parties.

Have your paintings “knitted” your new friends closer together?

Yes, as mentioned earlier, the art has a way of bringing people together. In the very same way that galleries draw spectators together in conversation and dialogue, Faces of Santa Ana does the same. The power lies in the fact that my homeless friends often experience less dialogue than you and me. As a result, meeting each other at my art shows fosters longer lasting bonds. The connections last longer than a mere conversation, and grow into ensuring each other’s survival and well-being.

Besides James & John, Rebekah & River and Cindy and Ben did any of your painting subjects know each other before you painted them?

No. Aside from the names mentioned above, my other subjects often “knew of” each other but have never met.

Matt was the first person that you talked to. How did he respond when you first said hi?

Matt is the most shy of my friends experiencing homelessness. When I first down next to him he seemed a bit apprehensive. I can tell it was an unfamiliar experience for a stranger to sit down next to him and talk. I think most people today would feel similarly. Maybe in time we can change this narrative in our own cultures. After I said hi and introduced myself, he proceeded to do the same. He started with one word answers but after a few minutes began speaking more stories of his life. Matt is very soft spoken and I can remember leaning over real close to him in order to hear his dialogue.

Whose responsibility is it to care for the homeless?

Ours. I often imagine a world where everyone offered help in need. It’s a world where helping someone is just as natural to us as ensuring our own basic survival. Everyone in need would be flooded with help. I was watching a lawyer named Bryan Stevenson who speaks about the poor and those in prison. He states, “A culture will ultimately be judged not by how they treat the rich and privileged, but how they treat their poor and condemned.” His quote holds a special place in my heart. It drives me to do so much more.

Is what you do an act of compassion?

Faces of Santa Ana is an act of love. I do feel like compassion is a subsidiary of love so yeah you can say the work is compassionate.

How have you made a difference in their lives?

I have seen the paintings, my presence, and support, breathe hope into their lives. In finding this hope I have also witnessed them see themselves differently. I’ll never forget revealing John’s portrait to him. He said, “Wow, this is how my sister’s must see me”. He said this because his sisters see a light and a future in him he cannot realize. Somehow, the composition, palette, and brush strokes brought out an image of him only an outsider can see. I think he now sees himself as a light for others.

Has painting them made a difference in your own life?

Painting has become therapeutic for me. Creating Faces of Santa Ana has made me and my wife very busy. The more people I paint the busier my everyday life becomes. However, when I’m painting I’m at peace. I begin every painting session with a prayer and follow with Christian worship in my headphones. As I ask God to lead my hand and work in my creativity, I feel Him in the process. It’s me and Him.

What do you believe in and why?

I believe in bringing your talents and ideas to God. Pastor Albert Tate inspired when he said, “Bring your dumb ideas to God and get out of the way”. I am witnessing this statement come true. God wants to use all of us, but often we just get in the way of his plan. I believe that in seeking him and living a disciplined life in his word, he unlocks a magical love for us to spread around the world.

Daryl is a creative thinking man in his own right. A maker of “Iconic Art“made from trash. Do you think he should have his own Art Showing? Are there any upcycling artists in Santa Ana who would be willing to work with him? Or artists working with metal so that Shannon could do the welding?

I think Darryl could be successful in a gallery showing in Santa Ana. I have actually been thinking of having him create a piece for my upcoming show on Feb 6th. Unfortunately, I cannot find him right now. I’m praying for his safety and health.

I am not sure about artists that work with metal that Shannon can help. You have inspired me to search for some. Shannon would love that. Welding is his passion.

Do you still plan on calling for other Artists to help with the project?

Yes. I am currently working to create a Non-Profit organization. In doing so, artists around the world can help the homeless in their community.

Do you think their stories should be turned into a book?

Yes. Their testimonies have changed life and I believe they can change others’. They have taught me so much about love, faith, contentment, and friendship.

What’s next for you and the Faces of Santa Ana?

With confidence, I say, “I don’t know”. I enjoy the process of not knowing. I wake up each day and ask God to set forth a path for me so that he may do his will in my life. Most recently, He has been leading me into other stewards of his kingdom interested in helping start my Non-Profit organization.

Photo Credits: Brian Peterson

Interested in helping make your local community better? Contact Brian Peterson for more information on the future Non-Profit organization.

Support the Faces of Santa Ana project:

Purchase a print or the full painting here: Faces of Santa Ana Esty Shop

Read the stories of the lives of this Family: Facebook – Faces of Santa Ana

Share this article with your friends and family and prayerfully seek a way as to how Love can move you to help others.


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