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‘They Are Like Us’: Ex-Officer’s Art Exhibit Features Portraits of Homeless People | News

What drives a former police officer – once tasked with “cleaning up” the homeless situation in downtown Ann Arbor – to dedicate his time to humanizing and documenting the lives of these same people through art ?

Compassion was a big part of it, according to Quill Redpath, a retired Ann Arbor Police Department officer whose first-ever art exhibit, “Once I Was Like You,” is now on display at the Ludington Area Center for the Arts.

While at the department, Redpath harbored a dream of incorporating art into his work. He had hoped to take a draftsman course at Northwestern University while still in uniform, but he did not receive approval from the department.

“I always wanted to be an artist, ever since I was a kid, but I was never encouraged to be an artist,” Redpath said.

And yet, at 80, he found his calling. And the work he did in Ann Arbor is central to every work on the walls of the arts center.

“Once I Was Like You” is full of charcoal portraits of homeless people Redpath encountered during his years in law enforcement. It features around 25 portraits, and Redpath knows the stories behind each one.

Redpath was tasked with managing issues associated with Ann Arbor’s homeless population, from public intoxication and disorderly conduct to loitering.

The city saw an influx of homeless people when Redpath was on the force from 1967 to 1992, and he believes this was partly due to deinstitutionalization, when public psychiatric hospitals closed en masse, releasing people with problems of mental health around the world, often with nowhere to go. go.

The Redpath “beat” included the entirety of downtown Ann Arbor, about 15 miles in total. He walked this rhythm every day for five years, and during that time he met a wide variety of people. He met brilliant musicians, decorated veterans of various conflicts, artists – even an aerospace engineer who “spent all day in the library writing these complicated formulas, but he never spoke to anyone”.

Redpath, however, likes to talk, and he did with the people he met. He heard their stories, learned about their lives, and set about offering all the help he could.

Talking to homeless people in his area, Redpath soon realized that “cleaning up” the situation was going to be a big job. Many of those displaced had medical, dental, and psychiatric needs that needed to be addressed, and Redpath did what he could to help them.

“Eventually, I had a pharmacist working for me, which enabled me to obtain medication for some of these people. I have a dentist working for me, who pulls teeth. I also had a doctor working with me, and he saw people if they really needed help,” he said. “I had it organized pretty well.”

During the beat, Redpath learned to see the similarities, not the differences, between himself and the hundreds of homeless people he encountered.

“They are like us,” he said. “The name of the show is ‘Once I Was Like You’, and I can guarantee that each of these people, at some point in their lives, was just like us.

“We have the same issues – some of them we handle well, some of them we don’t handle well – and they’re in the same boat. Some are alcoholics, some are drug addicts, some are mentally ill.

Redpath found a kindred spirit in social worker Gae Winn, who at the time was working in downtown Ann Arbor. Winn could facilitate transfers to treatment programs for drug addiction and other ailments, furthering Redpath’s quest to help those in his care.

“We started working together, and she knows a lot of these people that I drew,” he said.

When Redpath retired in 1992, he said he “bawled his eyes out”. He had developed “a lot of feelings for these people”.

He remembers a time when these feelings appeared. Right after deciding to retire, Redpath learned from one of his subjects how much his compassion was appreciated.

“This guy…I did his portrait, and he was having dinner, and he was pretty drunk. I was sitting next to him having coffee and he said, “I heard you were leaving.” I said, ‘Yes, I’m leaving.’ He put his arm around me and he said, ‘Who’s going to take care of us?’ And I started crying. I had to leave,” Redpath said. “Most of these people I worked with appreciated that I was there for them. They knew I wasn’t there to degrade or belittle them. They knew I was trying (to help them).

After retirement, he visited his daughter in San Francisco, or stopped off in Vermont, and continued to chat with people on the streets as he went. He asked people if they would like to have their picture taken, and he used the pictures as a reference for his works.

Redpath became something of a renaissance man when it came to the arts, also taking up photography and writing, but he didn’t receive formal training until later in life.

He moved to Midland and eventually got the chance to hone his skills. He took three years of charcoal portrait lessons from an artist named Kathleen Sullivan.

“She finally said, ‘I’ve taught you everything I can teach you. You have to find a project and go to work. That’s how it developed,” he said.

The project was obvious to Redpath – taking the stories he’d heard, the faces he’d captured on film, and turning into an art exhibit with his newly honed skills.

The exhibit’s name comes from something Redpath saw on his travels in San Francisco – a homeless man holding a sign that read “Once I Was Like You”.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s true,'” he said.

When asked why he chose charcoal as his medium of choice to depict the faces of his unlikely friends, he replied, “because it’s dark and (those people’s) lives are dark. They kind of live in the dark.

It’s something he hopes his show could change.

The aim is to shed some light on human beings who are often overshadowed by the stigma of homelessness.

“I think they deserve respect. It’s the least we can give them is our respect,” he said.

At an upcoming artist talk, scheduled for 6 p.m. on Friday, January 21, Redpath will have another chance to share his work and the message behind it.

Winn, the social worker he worked with in Ann Arbor, will join him to discuss the couple’s shared philosophy on homelessness and read a poem she wrote on the issue, which is also on display at LACA. .

“She’s really excited about it,” Redpath said.

Redpath hopes some of the stories he shares will help reduce people’s perception of homelessness and remind viewers that people from all walks of life can find themselves in such situations.

“There’s a guy here who has two Silver Stars in Vietnam – he’s a hero, and he died on a heating grate on the University of Michigan campus,” Redpath said, pointing to one of his many portraits that line the walls of the LACA.

“Most of these people aren’t bad people, they’re just very unhappy. A lot of these things they can’t control. They’re self-medicating, they don’t have health insurance, they can’t help it.

People can view Redpath’s portraits until January 28. He hopes that when they do, they will come away with a little more understanding and a little more compassion.

“These people are like them. We are all the same,” he said.