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O.C. artists want to send a message

Times Staff Writer

To many passersby, homemade signs asking for money are works of desperation: “Homeless,” “Hungry,” “Disabled,” “Please Help.”

But to a Santa Ana couple who run a local gallery, the messages are works of art, and Chela and Joseph Banuelos are snapping them up at $5 and $10 apiece.

The Banueloses are using the signs to create a performance art show that will premiere later this year at their Amorviejo gallery and, they hope, put a face on the local homeless problem.

“We thought we should be doing something as artists,” Chela Banuelos said. “These people are faceless out on the street, and we wanted to humanize them.”

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As part of the performance, visitors to the gallery this summer will be handed the signs and told to stand on Main Street “so they can taste what it is like to stand out there and ask for money,” said Joseph Banuelos.

To gather signs for the “Sidewalk Angel Project,” the couple drive around Santa Ana, jump out of their black Cadillac when they see a homeless person holding a sign and approach cautiously. Many of the homeless are reluctant to talk or part with their signs, which they say have brought them luck.

A few days before Marlene Gammelgard and her husband, John F. Martin, were asked to sell their sign, a man had given them two donations totaling $557.

“It was my lucky sign, said Martin, 54, who recently found work as an electronics technician. “It was Styrofoam. It was good during the day, and it could be seen at night.”

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Joseph Banuelos paid $100 for that sign and later bought artwork made by Gammelgard -- scenes created with scraps of paper, cloth and cellophane collected on the streets.

After buying a sign, the Banueloses usually give the seller a pen and cardboard to make a replacement. Signs carry messages such as “Please. Homeless! Disabled! Help. Hungry,” “Homeless. No Family. Please Help,” “Can you please find it in your heart $ $ $ God Bless You!” and “A little goes a long way. Have a nice day.”

The signs come from Santa Ana’s homeless, many of whom would not give their names. A log of the collected material includes notes describing the signs’ authors: “Waiting for Housing ... she only uses a red pen” and “White male, mid-20s. Shook my hand -- his hand was very cold.”

The gallery owners said that many homeless people are not spending the money on liquor or drugs, but rather on food or a night’s stay at a motel. “You have to look ... into their eyes,” Chela Banuelos said. “You have to be brave to stand on a sidewalk. They are so exposed and vulnerable.”

The Banueloses aren’t the first to turn signs by the homeless into art.

Dallas artist Tracy Hicks, for instance, collected signs from 1997 to 2001 and displayed 227 of them at an art gallery there. The signs are “symbols of our under-caste society,” he said in a telephone interview.

The Santa Ana project generated a mixed reaction from Jim Palmer, president of the Orange County Rescue Mission, which operates several shelters.

“Their heart may be in the right place,” Palmer said. “Some of these people are truly homeless but for many, it’s turned into a business.

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“The truly homeless that we see are mothers and children who want to be invisible,” he said. “We do not advocate people panhandling on the side of freeways.”

Gammelgard said that many homeless people are truly in need and that the art project should be applauded. The Banueloses’ effort “is really cool,” she said. “They are trying to raise awareness in Orange County of a problem many people don’t imagine is out there.”

As part of the project, the Banueloses plan to sell the signs and give the money to a charity that helps the homeless.

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jennifer.delson@latimes.com


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