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Art exhibit at Prairiefire tells story of ‘InVisible’ homeless

Mikey is one of 12 artists who are homeless or have experienced homelessness whose work will be on display and for sale at the Museum at Prairiefire through the end of the year.
Mikey is one of 12 artists who are homeless or have experienced homelessness whose work will be on display and for sale at the Museum at Prairiefire through the end of the year. Special to The Star

A meth pipe. A needle. Cancer cells.

The objects stand out in one of the pen-on-paper creations by an artist who goes by the name Mikey. The items represent the road he has traveled.

Though he is currently in an apartment, Mikey was homeless for three years. He had a rough start in life. His mother was raising six kids by herself. When he was 13, his 10-year-old brother got sick and died of leukemia.

“I got into drugs after my brother died of cancer,” Mikey said. “That picture represents the road of my addiction.”

Mikey started drawing before his brother died. He drew as he was falling into addiction. He drew through 12 years spent in prison. He drew after he was rejected by his family. He drew during his time on the street.

But he never shared his art with the public — until now.

Mikey is one of 12 artists who have experienced homelessness. They’re displaying their work in InVisible, an art show and sale at the Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park.

The exhibit, which opens today, is sponsored by the accounting firm of MarksNelson in honor of the company’s 50th anniversary. It’s a way of giving an often overlooked group of people a voice and an opportunity to share their experience, according to Kim Woirhaye-Reid, a public relations and marketing specialist with the firm. All proceeds from the sale go directly to the artists.

The exhibit’s title is something Mikey says he often felt while homeless.

“For three years, I isolated myself. I was alone. I guess my drawings represent me coming out from an invisible world.”

The invisible world of the homeless was something Woirhaye-Reid got to thinking about after she and other employees gave away hats, mittens and gloves during her company’s effort in Wrapped in Warmth. They tied the items around the trees of parks in downtown Kansas City and places where homeless people were likely to gather.

“While we’re passing items out, the homeless are coming up and taking items off the trees,” Woirhaye-Reid said.

“We started talking to them. Almost all said, ‘You made my day,’ not because we are passing out the hats and gloves, but because we are there talking to them. Showing basic human kindness and connecting.”

Wrapped in Warmth is a part of a larger company-wide “Marks of Kindness” effort, which encourages charitable giving and service work among employees.

The company has tackled many projects, like buying TVs for the Ronald McDonald house, allowing employees to “dress down” at work for charitable donations, and holding an annual volunteer day. For the company’s 50th anniversary, they wanted to do something dramatically different.

Woirhaye-Reid thought about the connections made handing out hats and mittens and decided to find a way to help others better understand the often lonely plight of the homeless.

“I think people need to realize we are all one bad break away from catastrophe. Just because someone doesn’t have a home, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be noticed or spoken to,” Woirhaye-Reid said.

She decided to look for artists among the homeless who were already telling their story in poetry and art and put it on display. It would become a unique way for MarksNelson to sponsor a new kind of service.

“It was an idea to take our efforts to the next level to help find ways to make the homeless not feel invisible,” Woirhaye-Reid said.

One of the first artists she connected with was Mikey. Woirhaye-Reid met him through a friend who had seen the man’s drawings while passing out hot soup to the homeless. Back in January 2018, Mikey was living in a homeless encampment under a bridge.

Woirhaye-Reid met him, and asked if he would be interested in participating in the exhibit.

“I was kind of sketchy at first,” he said. “I didn’t know if I wanted my art to be recognized, because I thought they wouldn’t understand me. They wouldn’t understand it. After I thought about it for a minute, I got to thinking, I’ve been looking for an opportunity in my lifetime like this. So, I just took it and ran with it.”

Woirhaye-Reid found 11 other artists in similar ways, asking people who work with the homeless and visiting places the homeless gather. The exhibit features a variety of mediums: pen and ink, plywood and paint, found objects, canvasses and poetry. All pieces are the work of people who have experienced homelessness.

Ten of the 12 artists in the exhibit have transitioned into housing. Two still are homeless.

Mikey turned in almost 40 pieces of art for the exhibit. Fifteen will be displayed and for sale.

Woirhaye-Reid is hoping to make all of the work available for purchase even those not on display. She also hopes people get inspired to find out-of-the-box ways to help others.

“You don’t just have to necessarily donate your time or buy something,” Woirhaye-Reid said.

The exhibit runs through Dec. 31.