2014 Archives

SMU prof gains insight from 24-city trek to buy signs from homeless


The following is from the Oct. 7, 2014, edition of The Dallas Morning News.   Willie Baronet is a visiting executive-in-residence in the Advertising Division of SMU's Meadows School of the Arts.

Willie Baronet at TEDxSMU

October 8, 2014

Staff Writer

Willie Baronet bought his art collection one piece at a time — from homeless people throughout the country.

Each piece is made of cardboard or paper scraps. They’re covered in black marker and misspelled scrawls. They’re battered by wind and stained by sweat.

Baronet, 54, an advertising professor at Southern Methodist University, purchased hundreds of signs used by panhandlers to ask for food and money. Initially, he was fascinated by the texture, materials and messages. He became drawn to the stories of those who created them.

“Need Food / Please Help”

“Pregnant homeless & hungry”

“Dreaming of a Cheeseburger”

“Ex-wife had a better lawyer”

“Smile! You could be homeless.”

Baronet, a slender Cajun with a goatee, bought his first sign in 1993 as a way to cope with the guilt, judgment and discomfort he felt when driving by a panhandler. He started to roll down the window instead.

He turned the signs into an art project. At galleries, he stuck them to the floor and strung them from the ceiling. He organized a flash mob holding the signs. In 2012, he delivered a TEDx talk at SMU about the project.

 homeless person's sign
Baronet's Art&Seek interview audio icon

Baronet explained that he had lost his apprehension of homeless people. He drew parallels between their stories and his childhood in an abusive home. Their desire for safety and stability struck a chord.

“I started to have a real connection to the people on the street — no fear anymore about talking to them,” he said in the speech. “The big shift I noticed was that it was no longer me and them. It was just us.”

During the talk, Baronet suggested traveling the country looking for signs.

In July, he took that journey with a three-person crew — photo director Tim Chumley of Richmond, Va.; producer Eamon Downey of New York; and camera operator Olivia Morrow of Seattle — who filmed the project for a documentary. They raised money for it online and through word of mouth.

The team stopped in 24 cities over 31 days and found signs near tourist destinations, million-dollar apartments and abandoned buildings. They noticed the effect of geography and laws.

In Denver, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco, more signs had bubble letters, colors and catchy slogans. Signs ran large since they didn’t need to be hidden from police.

Read the full story.

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