2014 Archives

Q&A: Oak Cliff artist Willie Baronet


The following is from the May 26, 2014, edition of The Oak Cliff Advocate. Willie Baronet is a visiting executive-in-residence in the Advertising Division of SMU's Meadows School of the Arts.

June 6, 2014

Willie BaronetOak Cliff-based artist Willie Baronet started buying signs from panhandlers more than 20 years ago. He says homeless people asking for money on street corners made him feel uncomfortable, and he had the idea that buying signs was a unique way to engage them. The former advertising agency art director went to graduate school in 2008, and he used the signs as part of an interventionist art project, wherein friends and classmates staged flash mobs holding homeless signs at busy intersections in Dallas. Later, he installed them on art gallery walls and from the ceiling at an exhibit at Richland College. Now Baronet is a professor at SMU, and his sign project, “We Are All Homeless,” just keeps growing. Baronet is raising money for a cross-country trip next month — 24 cities in 31 days — to collect homeless signs. The trip also involves a documentary film and book project. Baronet spoke to us about the project in his Oak Cliff studio.

So let’s talk about how this project started in 1993.

When I first started doing this, it came out of my discomfort out of seeing people who are homeless. I didn’t have any idea that I would be doing this 20 years later, and I had no idea the connections I would make. It shed a light on the fact that I made up stories about the homeless in my head, without knowing one thing about them … You know, you will see a lady who is emaciated, and you assume that she is on drugs … and that is not always the case. Once I started talking to them, I realized, “Hey dude, your stories are all screwed up. That’s not a truth about that person; that’s some truth about yourself.” I really try to let people tell me their story before I make it up. I don’t know if that’s hard for you, man, but I’m judgmental.

Can you think of a specific moment when that happened?

Yes, I met this couple in Austin. The lady only had one leg, and her sign said “on my last leg,” which I thought was funny. We talked for quite a long time, and she was smart and engaging and funny, and she wanted to share her story. I was just struck by her. There was another guy in Austin whose sign I bought, and he said, “Hey, do you want me to sign that for you?” so he signed it, and he told me his dad owned an art gallery. And he was like, “Please don’t tell my dad that I’m on the street … ” as if I was going to run into his dad. But he was interested in art, and he engaged me in this conversation about art, which again, is not the story that was in my head.

How much do you pay for the signs?

I let them set the price, and the range is $4 to $40, but I’d say the average is probably $10.50. I’ve paid $25 a few times. I paid $40 to a woman in Austin because she said, “I can’t leave this street until I have $40 because I need a room for me and my kids.” She was persuasive, and I said, “OK.” 

Read the full interview.

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