by France-Luce Benson
Stuart Perlman never considered himself an artist. A psychologist and psychoanalyst for over 30 years, he leaned into the arts following the death of his father fifteen years ago. But he found the “bored white models” in his art classes uninspiring and void of the soulfulness he searched for in his time of grief. He found that transformative humanity in the unlikeliest of places.
“I had a beautiful office in West Hollywood, back when there were very few signs of homelessness.” But then Perlman discovered a man who’d been living outside of his office. He slowly got to know the man, Bill. “He became both a friend and a responsibility”.
After painting Bill’s portrait and hearing his story, Perlman realized just how much they had in common. “There but for the grace of god go I”, he repeats; “Most of the men and women I paint are good people that had bad things happen to them”.
Over the last 10 years, Perlman has painted over 250 portraits of homeless men and women living on the streets of Venice Beach and on Skid Row; and he’s watched L.A.’s homeless population rise astronomically. “The number of camps on skid row increased by 86% in one year”.
His voice cracks and quivers over the phone as he becomes more and more impassioned. “How did we let this happen?” he asks. It seems his many years as a psychologist has prepared him for what may be his life’s calling.
“In every interaction I have in my life, I think about the person’s well being and try to help,” says Perlman. While his portraits initially served as the catalyst for his own healing, they have had a profound impact on his muses. As he paints, he listens to their stories. One portrait may take hours, and in that time, the two hold a sacred space of artistic intimacy. “People cry, hug me, and say they finally feel seen and heard.”
Although he does compensate them for their time and provide supplies, the personal connection they share is invaluable, not to mention the esteem and import associated with a portrait. Historically reserved for aristocrats, dignitaries, and the wealthiest members of society, Perlman decidedly paints the members of our community who are often forgotten and neglected. Each portrait is both breathtaking and heartbreaking, with a powerful focus on the eyes. “You cannot look into their eyes and not be gripped,” he confesses.
“These are good people that we have just thrown away,” explains Perlman. His hope is that his portraits will encourage us to see their humanity, while inspiring us to do our part in ending the cycle of homelessness.
One of the main characters in the current Fountain Theatre world premiere of Human Interest Story is homeless. Several of Perlman’s paintings are currently on display at The Fountain throughout the run of the play to April 5, and signed copies of Perlman’s book Struggles in Paradise are available for sale in the café. Perlman will also join us on March 8 at 1pm for a free pre-show discussion with the public. His film by the same title will have a special screening at The Fountain on March 19 at 7pm.
It’s hard to believe that what started as a hobby he picked up in his 50s has become his life’s mission. It’s not just about the portraits. It’s about promoting the well being and humanity of all people – whether it be through his practice or his art.
“This project has brought me tremendous satisfaction and happiness, and yet I often feel guilty when I return home after painting a portrait,” he admits. Still, he believes that something greater is working through him, and so he will remain devoted to this mission – a mission to reveal the beauty of all human beings, housed or unhoused.
“It’s time for us to reclaim our humanity.”
France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre.