Texas artist Seth Camm giving voice to the Atlantic City homeless through art
For most of us, October means that fall is here. The trees are ablaze in vibrant autumn hues, Halloween decorations are out, and pumpkin-spice coffee is back. However, for the homeless population of Atlantic City, October means that the harsh and often dangerous winter winds are looming.
Each year over 3.5 million Americans experience homelessness. In 2011, in Atlantic County alone, close to 3,000 homeless individuals were served at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission.
Of this group, over 90 percent were homeless because of other life circumstances, such as illness, home foreclosures, and loss of jobs. In general, 50 percent of the homeless are mentally ill and 20-25 percent of the homeless are veterans.
Each homeless person has a unique story, a unique set of circumstances that brought him or her to the shelter. However, once there, the greatest challenge the homeless face is a lack of compassion.
Mother Theresa said: “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, uncared for, and unloved is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.”
This is a message that the American artist, Seth Camm, has taken to heart, but for him he’s found his start at the easel. This wasn’t an easy journey for Camm; it took him a nervous breakdown to achieve the compassion he now has for the plight of the homeless.
“Because of my breakdown,” Camm says, “I really identified with the idea of losing everything. I wanted to see if their experiences were like mine.”
While studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Camm found himself drawn to realism in an abstract world. He was at odds with his vocation. Gone were the days of the masters who inspired him the most. Lost in the world of modern art, Camm began to sketch the people that he saw sleeping on the streets in his free time between classes.
He wondered what had led them to this life and, due to his own misfortunes, he empathized greatly with those he painted.
For Camm it was easy to see the beauty of humanity in the direst of circumstances, and he soon began to notice that the beauty of his art could inspire compassion in a society that would rather look the other way.
“I was always influenced by Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Goya and Millet,” Camm says, “because of their realism and their dedicated relationship with their materials. They also all painted the poor. Now, I can be part of that story too.”
This was the start of Camm’s life mission and the upcoming exhibit at the Noyes Museum of Art of Stockton College, “Finding Home: Seth Camm – Giving Voice to the Homeless Through Art.”
“Finding Home” examines the issue of homelessness through paintings and stories. The exhibition is an attempt to build bridges between neighbors and erase misconceptions.
Camm is from San Antonio, Texas, but he has spent the past 12 years traveling around the country, living and working with the homeless in order to tell their stories.
Throughout this 12-year expanse, Camm spent a great deal of time at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission and for the past two months he has been exclusively living with, eating with, bonding with, and painting the residents of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission.
They shared their stories while he painted their portraits.
Camm’s ability to capture the essence of an individual on canvas communicates directly with the viewer. Through these images, it is Camm’s hope to break the prejudice and soften the hostility that often comes from a lack of understanding.
“Finding Home” brings the faces and voices of the homeless to light calling for compassion for all humanity.
Camm has drawn and painted more than 800 portraits of the homeless and has collected more than 300 narratives.
The “Finding Home” project is multifaceted. To accompany the exhibition, local filmmaker Frank Weiss is working to capture the stories of the homeless and their experiences in a powerful documentary. Weiss films as Camm paints.
The causes vary depending on who you talk to, but for many different reasons, Atlantic City continues to have a large number of homeless people.
As we sat stunned by some of the statistics presented to us, we asked time and time again, “Why is our city such a magnet for homeless people?”
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As temperatures plummet, and we recuperate from plentiful holidays inside our warm houses, thoughts of a man like Bill Southrey add a special perspective. Southrey’s CEO of the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, which provides the area’s homeless with a place to stay and services aimed at helping them live life off the streets. An Absecon native, Southrey has devoted his efforts to the Rescue Mission for some 30 years.
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