Drawing from home

Artist focuses his gaze on Buena Vista residents

"Palo Alto is a wonderful city, but it's also a highly curated space," says Joel Daniel Phillips. He's standing in his studio at the Palo Alto Art Center, where the walls are adorned with his black-and-white photographs and pencil sketches. On the desk beside him are a ruler and notepad, a mason jar of what appears to be the dregs of yesterday's coffee, and a quiver of graphite and charcoal pencils, their tips sharpened to intimidating points.

The Oakland-based artist goes on to describe his latest subject in contrast to downtown Palo Alto.

"There's a wonderful reality there in spaces created for individual enjoyment, rather than public consumption," he says. He's talking about Buena Vista, the only mobile home park in the city and the subject of recent controversy as the owners of the property prepare to sell, a move that would oust the park's roughly 400 residents. But Phillips isn't so interested in the debates raging over the intended closure. Instead, he wants to take an intimate look at the people who live there.

Phillips is the current artist-in-residence at the art center, where he began working on a collection of portraits of Buena Vista residents in June. After spending a day at the park meeting its denizens and taking photographs, he began creating a series of highly detailed drawings of individuals standing in front of their homes. Phillips' residency continues through Aug. 29. His completed drawings will be exhibited as part of a group show at the art center, "Front Yard/Backstreet," which runs from Sept. 19 to Dec. 13.

The artist is no newcomer to depicting people whose personal stories rarely make headlines. His last major exhibition featured life-size drawings of subjects he encountered on the corner of 6th and Mission streets in San Francisco, a notoriously crime-ridden area. Many of them were homeless, and few had ever been asked to pose for a portrait. Phillips described the subjects of that series as "the community most people walk around, try to avoid."

"My work," he added, "is about trying to take people who are social dark matter and shine a light on them."

The residents of Buena Vista Mobile Home Park have grown accustomed to being in the spotlight, though it's the plight of their properties rather than their personal lives that's been scrutinized in recent months. Among those who has found herself publicly advocating for her home and those of her neighbors is Melodie Cheney, who is also among the subjects of Phillips' drawings. Eager to share her side of the story, she invited me to visit her at Buena Vista for a guided tour.

A third-generation Californian, Cheney works in the admission office at De Anza College. Fifteen years ago, after her father died, Cheney used her modest inheritance to invest in the single-wide travel trailer at Buena Vista that has been her home ever since. When she heard about Phillips' project, she said, "I thought it was intriguing. We've been approached by many people who want to do documentaries, stories, articles and so on, but this was the first one in my opinion that actually presents life in the park so people can see it."

Cheney met me at the Buena Vista entrance on a July evening wearing a black Save Our Homes! T-shirt, her long blond hair gathered in a ponytail, her fingernails painted in red, white and blue glitter. As we walked along the main road leading in to the park, she began her introduction, focusing first on the numbers: about 110 homes in the park, occupied by about 400 residents representing three generations, with more than 100 residents under the age of 18. She also talked finances -- at $1,300 per month including utilities, she said, her mortgage is more affordable than any one-bedroom she's seen in the area.

"We have custodians, teachers and gas station employees who live here," she said. "We are your everyday people."

We passed Airstreams and Prowlers, manufactured homes with elaborate gardens and even a house that seemed to be built around the trunk of a massive oak tree. But it was when we reached her trailer at the back of the park that Cheney's love for Buena Vista became most evident.

"I'm proud to show off my house and our community," she confessed, pointing out her pots of basil and marigolds, petunia and snapdragons, the hummingbirds flitting to and from a hanging feeder and her tortoiseshell cat, Cleo, slinking behind the screen door. "Nothing's locked," she noted, gesturing to the house. "I've never had anything stolen. We know how to coexist with each other. This is my first home, and it's my second family."

On the walk back out to El Camino Real, Cheney introduced me to a few of her neighbors, among them a man named Tim, who greeted her with a big hug before turning to take in my pen and notepad.

"I have a feeling we're gonna get to stay," he announced, holding my gaze. "I just have this feeling."

On May 26 of this year, the Palo Alto City Council voted unanimously to approve the right of Buena Vista's owners to shut down the park. Since then, residents have heard nothing about their fate. Meanwhile, Santa Clara County and the City of Palo Alto have together committed more than $29 million to a possible purchase of the park, and have selected housing nonprofit The Caritas Corporation to lead negotiations with the owners.

It's against this backdrop of an uncertain future that Phillips is working to capture the spirit of the park, one resident and mobile home at a time. As of press time, three drawings were complete; Phillips expects to have five total works to include in the September exhibit.

One of his subjects, Phillips explained, was Amanda, who was wandering the park on a sunny day, wearing a kimono and carrying an umbrella, her two dogs by her side.

"As a portraitist, I'm looking for subjects with honesty," Phillips said, adding that once they began talking, Alison showed unusual generosity in sharing her story.

"She was a very genuine, open individual," he said. "She let the veil drop."

Phillips' drawings won't be accompanied by descriptive text; instead, he hopes the images themselves will convey the true nature of their subjects.

In one of the first drawings he completed, Melodie Cheney stands outside her home, grinning at the viewer. Everything is there in minute detail: the single flower pot balanced on the trailer hitch, the quilted steel of the front door, even the sign in the front window that declares, "A house is not a home without a cat." Above Cheney's head hangs her hummingbird feeder.

"When I showed up at the park, I knew immediately that I had to include the homes," Phillips explained, describing Buena Vista as a collection of "amazing, eclectic oases." Drawing mobile homes meant the life-size works he had done in the past were impractical, so Phillips opted for a smaller scale. Each drawing invites the viewer to lean in close and admire the specificity of the vision, whether it's the fuzzy spines of a potted cactus, the light reflecting off a metal folding chair or the velvety coat of a black Labrador sitting at his owner's feet.

Hanging next to the photographs they're modeled on, the drawings are strikingly realistic, yet Phillips prefers not to exhibit the photos alongside the finished works.

"Changes happen," he explained. "I end up deciding that there are points I want the viewer to focus on and others that are distracting or not part of the story I want to tell." What's most important, he said, isn't slavishly copying every detail of a scene; it's capturing the essence of the subject.

To Cheney's mind, that's exactly what Phillips has done. After a visit to the art center to see his works in progress, she raved about their effect.

"It's astonishing how lifelike they are," she said. "He really captured our spirit."

Knowing that these images will be on view to the public makes Cheney feel seen and recognized.

"I think people read the articles, see the news stories and hear about the hearings, but Joel and his pictures bring the story to life," she said. "You can see the people behind the stories, and I think that's going to have a big impact -- maybe not on a legal or a financial basis, but on a personal basis."

What: Artist-in-Residence Joel Daniel Phillips

Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road

When: Drop-in studio hours: Through Aug. 29, Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. "Front Yard/Backstreet" exhibition: Sept. 19 to Dec. 13.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to cityofpaloalto.org or call 650-329-2366. For more about the artist, go to joeldanielphillips.com.

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