You know those cardboard signs you see people holding on sidewalks, freeway ramps or city parks? Well, Willie Baronet has been buying them for 21 years and this month he’s traveling to 24 cities, from Seattle to New York, gathering signs.
They’re art to him, and more than that really. “I have respect for these pieces of cardboard,” he told me Tuesday. We were sitting on a bench in Denny Park in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, a good place to connect with people who are homeless, and he’d just bought a couple signs on the edge of the park.
The signs have value because the people who make them have value, though most of us can forget that part sometimes. Baronet had the usually fleeting feeling of guilt and the urge to avoid before he began interacting with people holding such signs, Now he hopes his project will nudge a few more of us to see people living on the street as part of the family.
Before he bought his first sign, before he was an artist, Baronet was a successful businessman, owner of an advertising company. He grew up in Louisiana but lives in Dallas now, where he is a professor at Southern Methodist University teaching creativity and design. Baronet always loved to draw, but he didn’t grow up in a family that considered art a potential career. There were eight children, and his father barely made enough to keep the family going. They had a roof and food, but because of his father’s temper they didn’t always have peace or safety.
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In 1993, he wrote to his father and got back a letter in which his father apologized for his past behavior. Since then Baronet said he and his father have been working at mending their relationship. That was also the year he bought his first sign.
I don’t know why, he said. He just saw it and offered to buy it. Something about the exchange felt good, and it became a habit. It wouldn’t be about art or homelessness until much later.
In 2003, his mother died. He told me it was a clarifying event for him and made him realize, “My mortality was a real thing.” He sold his business in 2006 and went back to school to earn his MFA in arts and technology. “Art was terrifying to me,” he said. But since then, Baronet has been on a journey that makes him feel lucky every day.
His first art installation incorporated signs he’d purchased, and he’s continued to make the signs an important part of his work. (He says he likes art that makes people uncomfortable. He’s photographed belly buttons and made video of women’s lips as they read pornographic spam.)
As he collects signs, he likes to let the seller decide the price and has paid from $4 to $40 and met all kinds of people in the process. Baronet said he was wary approaching people at first, but that quickly changed. “Never once has anyone treated me rudely or been mean to me,” he said.
Near Denny Park, he met a young woman named Jennifer whose sign read, “Pregnant & Homeless & Hungry! Anything helps! Thank you! God Bless!” She and her partner, Jesse, were trying to get home to Alaska. His sign said, “Broke And Hungry Looking For work Trying To get Home Any help would Be Amazing!!!
Baronet bought their signs. They’d befriended a Seattle native named George who had his own corner nearby. Baronet bought his sign, too.
Sometimes it’s the people he remembers, other times the person fades, but the sign sticks with him for the message or “the energy of the writing that feels authentic.”
He said he knows a large percentage of people on the street have addiction issues. “Some are drunk or high when I’m speaking to them. Some are so paranoid they don’t want to be in a shelter.” Rather than judging, he wonders what made them that way. Each story is different, and it sometimes angers him that people who aren’t homeless dismissively lump them altogether.
“It’s easy,” he said, “I understand why people do it. I just don’t want them to.”
What we who have homes see or don’t see is more about us than about people without homes, he said. Sometimes, he said, we don’t want to acknowledge that it could be us on the sidewalk.
He calls his project, “We Are All Homeless,” to suggest that roof or not, we are all human. He’s traveling with a crew of three people with whom he is producing a documentary film and book about the experience as a way to raise awareness of homelessness.
He doesn’t pretend to know how to solve the problem of homelessness, but he suggests people smile or wave because anyone can do that much. If you want to go further, “Tell them your story and listen to theirs. Can you imagine how much better the world would be if we did that? I can,” Baronet said.
“I guess I’m an optimist. I do like to see the good in people.”
Baronet teared up as he said that, maybe thinking about his father, maybe thinking about the many people who’ve embraced his project, maybe thinking about the good he’s found in himself.
We all could use a sign that says, try to see the good in people.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org