Atlanta artist and social worker Franco Bejarano’s portraits capture something commonly in sight, but rarely truly seen. His life-size drawings of Atlantans experiencing homelessness bring attention to the individuality, abilities, and ongoing journeys of these members of the community. Bejarano also works to house homeless clients, contributes to art therapy programs working with the homeless, and has a passion for mental health advocacy. During the pandemic, his talent was tapped for a public art project on homelessness organized by MARTA and HOPE (Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement) Atlanta. The result is “Street to Home,” an installation of his portraits which is now on view at MARTA’s Five Points Station. Bejarano joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to discuss his work in homeless outreach, and how he puts his artistic energy to use improving lives in Atlanta.
“From a very young age, I knew that I wanted to be an artist… and then, when the time actually came to choose a major in college, I was hit with the reality that I come from a working-class immigrant family, where being an artist is not really a wise career choice,” said Bejarano. “At the same time, I was going through this existential crisis, looking for meaning. I knew I had the technical skills to make beautiful things, but why? I didn’t want to make art for the sake of making art.”
Bejarano instead went to school for clinical social work, focusing on community psychotherapy, which he calls his “true passion.”
He completed grad school and started working for Atlanta non-profit Intown Collaborative Ministries in a homeless outreach program. Through his work, Bejarano happened upon the opportunity to combine his passions and bring art back into the picture.
“I remember one day, I was housing one of my clients. He had been homeless, sleeping outside for 10 years… and here he was, moving in, just like any regular day, and no one was around to see it,” said Bejarano. “That’s when I realized, like, ‘Wow, this moment is quite monumental. People need to see this…’ So I thought, how can I commemorate this person’s story of resiliency and perseverance in a way that is dignifying? And so I said, I have some time, why not do a portrait? Why not do a life-size portrait?”
The first portrait turned into two, then three, then dozens; Bejarano now posts regularly on an Instagram account dedicated entirely to his drawings of people he meets through homeless outreach. The inspiring concept gave the artist license to incorporate art into other areas of social work, such as working as an art therapist, and even writing and illustrating a children’s book, “Nuna and the Fog,” on the subject of clinical depression.
When MARTA and HOPE sought his services, the mission was to make space in public transit facilities to invite conversation on homelessness, an issue exacerbated by the pandemic. “[Homelessness] is a very delicate and complex matter to discuss in public art,” said Bejarano. “I think homelessness and public transportation have a long history of intersecting each other. But because of the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in individuals riding the trains, using them as shelter, which I think is a result of, A, more people becoming homeless, and B, places shutting down that would otherwise be used as shelter, like public libraries.”
An installation of Bejarano’s portraits now occupies the concourse at MARTA’s Five Points Station. At the project’s unveiling in August, representatives from MARTA’s Artbound public art program passed out pre-paid Breeze cards so that attendees could “pay it forward” to anyone without means and in need of a ride. “I think MARTA has really positioned itself as an agency that wants to help homelessness,” said Bejarano.
“There’s a tremendous amount of resiliency in this population that needs to be celebrated and displayed, and it has huge potential for self-actualization.”
More information on MARTA’s HOPE program is available at www.itsmarta.com/marta-hope-program.aspx.
Franco Bejarano’s portraits and other updates on his work are posted regularly at @franco.bejarano on Instagram.