Artist opens eyes and wallets with his paintings of Santa Ana’s homeless

Santa Ana-based artist Brian Peterson paints portraits of homeless people, like the ones shown here of couple River and Rebekah, left, and James Lee Lorail McDonald III.
(Brittany Woolsey / Weekend)

Late last year, Rebekah saw herself in a way no one had ever portrayed her before.

Homeless since September for the second time in her life, along with her husband and their two dogs, the woman said she felt like she was often looked down on and ignored by her local community in Santa Ana.

But artist Brian Peterson changed that perception with a simple question: May I paint your portrait?

And with that colorful painting, showing Rebekah’s smiling face, Peterson not only gained her trust but also made her feel appreciated for the first time in months.


“People like him help us feel like we’re not in the dirt all the time,” said Rebekah, through tears. She said she did not want to disclose her last name for privacy and safety reasons.

The painting of Rebekah is one of about a dozen that Peterson has created since starting the Faces of Santa Ana project, which focuses on the city’s homeless, last spring.

Peterson said he was inspired to launch the project after reading a book about sacrificial love and showing love to your neighbor.

“Halfway through the book, I told my wife, Vanessa, that I had to go downstairs to talk to that guy that we always see,” said the 29-year-old Santa Ana resident who works full-time as a car designer for Kia Motors in Irvine. “He was always screaming on the corner. We just always knew him as the screaming homeless guy, but I wanted to know his name.


“I didn’t know I would paint a portrait of him ever, but one day after work, I found him and sat next to him. In the midst of talking to him, I asked if I could paint his portrait. His story was all over his face.”

Peterson, who studied art and design at the Cleveland Institute of Art, begins the Faces of Santa Ana process by befriending his subject and then taking a picture of him or her with his phone. From black-and-white prints, he paints colored versions on canvas.

“I try to be as vibrant as I can with them because the people obviously have lost a lot of the color in their lives,” he said.

He sells the portraits for $1,500, and with each sale, Peterson deposits $1,000 of the profits into bank accounts, which he calls “love accounts,” for his subjects. When they need something, he can access the accounts to cover the cost.

Through his efforts and some extra fundraising, he was able to purchase a van for Rebekah, her husband and their two dogs to sleep in at night. He has also purchased wheelchairs, train tickets and Army cots and covered the cost of motel rooms for other homeless people he has met.

“I know it sounds cliché, but I feel like I’ve found my calling, and that is using the talents that I’ve been given to help people,” Peterson said. “I’ve realized that and learned that arts can help someone, both with financial reasons and also emotional ways. The art changes them from the inside. When they see their portraits, they realize someone cares about them.”

James Lee Lorail McDonald III, 33, has been living on the streets of Santa Ana for about two years. He said he thinks of Peterson as his “go-to guy.”

“Every time I go through something, Brian is there for me,” said McDonald, who had his photo taken by Peterson at the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center. “I’m not talking just financially. I’m talking emotionally and mentally. I trust him and I know he cares immensely for me.”


McDonald, who is also an artist, drew the background of his portrait to express himself.

He said he was proud of his first “professional collaboration.”

“When I get a place of my own, I’m going to get a copy of my own portrait so I can study it,” he said. “There’s so much in it that I don’t even understand, but it came through. I was dumbfounded when I met Brian .... I’ve had people do some sketches of me, but I’ve never had anyone immortalize me in that way on canvas before Brian.”

Peterson’s work is the subject of a 13-minute documentary, also called “Faces of Santa Ana,” that will be premiering at the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana at 2 p.m. Feb. 6. His paintings will be on display the same evening at 5 p.m. at 211 Gallery in Santa Ana.

Documentary producer Wendy Campbell, who works at Eye Skate Media in Los Angeles, said she discovered Peterson’s work through Facebook and felt compelled to help his cause.

“Speaking from myself, I see homeless people every day and I just kind of ignore them as if they don’t exist,” she said. “I told Brian that what he’s doing is letting us, the people that are ignoring these human beings, see them through his eyes. He’s opening our eyes in that process.

“From my perspective, I just think that one of the things that Brian always says is he humanizes them. He’s made me more aware of everyone that I see and has made them human for me. I say hello to them now and don’t ignore them anymore. If Brian can do that for 100 people or 1,000 people or 10,000 people, how amazing is just that step alone?”

Still, Peterson maintains that he isn’t trying to end homelessness.


“This project isn’t trying to solve homelessness as an issue,” he said. “It’s just trying to connect people with people. It’s a person-to-person connection. It’s an incredible thing.”

Through Peterson’s paintings and the documentary, Rebekah and her husband have begun receiving financial help from an admirer of the artist’s work.

Rebekah likens Peterson to Jesus Christ.

“Brian brought us from hopeless to hopeful,” she said. “Because of his help we’re on our way to not being homeless anymore, and we can get the healthcare we need. Faces of Santa Ana changed my life. It changed me husband’s life. It changed our dogs’ lives. It’s a real display of God’s love.”