Sept. 12 2012 08:56 AM

Invisible People' project addresses homelessness in San Diego

Neil Shigley with three of his works, including “Michael 67” (left), his submission in this year’s National Portrait Competition
Photo by Carlos Richardson

From the walls of the art gallery at Southwestern College, 21 sets of eyes appear focused on artist Neil Shigley as he points to one portrait and then another, referring to subjects by first name and describing the circumstances under which he met them.

The people in these works of art are homeless and living on the streets of San Diego.

"Keith," Shigley says, pointing to one portrait, "told me an interesting story about that guy, Dave." He points to a portrait of Dave, explaining that Dave's picture had previously appeared Downtown on the side of what used to be the Art Academy building, where Shigley used to teach. Shigley says Keith told him that Dave wasn't happy about it.

Shigley made a point of finding Dave to reconnect with him. But when he did, he didn't identify himself as the artist who'd rendered him; rather, he simply slipped Dave some money and walked away.

The stories of how Shigley met his subjects start out the same—he goes to East Village, approaches a person and engages them in conversation and tries to find out why they're living on the streets. If they're up for it, he takes a photograph once, maybe twice, and avoids posing them so he can capture who they really are.

"I met Dave down on Island and J, and he was reading a book, which was really unusual to me," Shigley says. "He stood up, dusted himself off and was really polite. He spoke like he was a college professor. I asked him how long he'd been on the streets, and he told me 17 years. I couldn't understand that. At one point, he was living [on the street] across from a construction site where his brother worked. Here are these two brothers with two different worlds going on—so bizarre."

Dave's become the symbol for Shigley's Invisible People series, his portrait appearing on show fliers; his story's a common one: a man who seems to have his head on straight but has fallen out of society and landed on the fringes.


An illustrator, abstract painter, commercial artist and art professor at San Diego State and Point Loma Nazarene universities, Shigley lives a contented life in South Park with his wife, who'd been one of his students, and two toddlers. He has a studio nearby in Golden Hill.

In 2005, he was on his way to an art opening in Little Italy when he met his muse.

"He seemed like an interesting guy," Shigley says of the homeless man's eyes, which are permanent fixtures in his memory.

Since that night, he's been focused on what many people choose to ignore: the human tragedy of homelessness. Invisible People is his attempt to help find solutions to the problem. "Hopefully, by showing the work enough, someone will come up with answers."

"It's a complex issue," he says, adding that numerous people have told him that they're on the street by choice, rather than by circumstance. Of course, many homeless folks suffer from mental illness or substance abuse, or both.

 Shigley doesn't just take photos of people. After capturing a face with a photograph, the hard work begins. First, he draws the portrait precisely, then enlarges it and places it behind a sheet of Plexiglas into which he'll carve the details, using a flexible shaft drill. Working with the drill is physically demanding, Shigley says; he can use it for only an hour at a time. He uses a reverse carving process, filling in the details and patterns of a face before it's covered in the black ink that becomes the background, causing what looks like thousands of white lines to pop forward, forming a facial expression.

He won't know what the portrait looks like until the very last step, when he places paper onto the still-wet block and pulls it back. The paper is then mounted onto canvas and sealed with a wax-like coating. The name and age of the person, and the date and location where Shigley met them, are written on the top of each piece.

His ability to capture the warmth of human expression with a power tool is remarkable. Sure, he could apply his skills to sexier subjects, but his labor of love is portraying homeless people with respect.

"This person could have been a movie star," he says, pointing toward a portrait of a man with a triumphant look on his face. These realistic snapshots of San Diego's homeless are packed with complexity, and while people might look away from the problem on the streets, Shigley's hoping to change that.

"If we look for something in a person that makes us alike, that opens doors for peace and love. Looking for differences is easy," he says.


Neil Shigley Portraits: Invisible People Series is on view at the Southwestern College Art Gallery through Oct. 2. It's the first time that all 18 of Shigley's prints will be on display at once, including three drawings that range from 40 to roughly 60 inches tall and look more like black and white photographs.

The curator of the show is Vallo Riberto, who saw one of Shigley's pieces at SDSU's Downtown Gallery and asked if he'd be interested in showing the collection all at once. The work was shown at the San Diego International Airport in 2009 and is for sale at McNabb Martin Contemporary Art in Little Italy, the gallery that represents Shigley. He donates portions of sales to organizations that assist the homeless.

The next chapter of Shigley's art career will tell if "Michael 67," one of the Invisible People pieces, places in the National Portrait Competition, an annual event sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery and connected with the Smithsonian Institute. "Luther 49" made it to the semifinals in 2010, so Shigley's hopeful that his portrait, which he says shows Michael's "great energy," will catch a judge's eye. He says he'll find out in the next week or so.

Shigley is also commissioned for three portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that he'll paint within the memorial mural along the namesake freeway's eastbound side at Home Avenue.

He'll continue his quest to keep homeless people in the spotlight, but the medium will likely change. Though Shigley loves the challenge of creating the graphite-powderand-pencil portraits that are silvery and so lifelike, the process takes a toll.

"I carve on 3-by-4 blocks of Plexiglas, no matter how large the final image is," Shigley explains of his current process. "Larger ones take up to four plates mounted together. I have to control a drill that wants to spin everywhere. It's very physical work, and I can only use it [the drill] for an hour at a time." He adds, "I love that I'm involved with every line, though."

There's also an Invisible People Twitter account, @visiblepeople, that Shigley updates from time to time with messages from people on the streets.

"We're bombarded in this country every day with images and stories of the rich and famous," Shigley says. "I work on the other side of the spectrum."

Amy blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter @saysgranite.


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