Brian Peterson Paints Portraits of Santa Ana's Homeless

Three months ago, industrial designer and artist Brian Peterson moved to Santa Ana from Irvine. Immediately, he began noticing the city's homeless. He had never talked to a homeless person before–not until he met a man named Matt. Soon enough, Peterson learned of Matt's story: originally from Kentucky, he came to California to become a musician but it didn't work out.

Peterson became intrigued. Who are the city's homeless?


“Within the first 30 seconds I wondered why I never did this before,” Peterson says. “I used to only give the homeless money and not talk to them.” When he ran into Matt for the third time, he asked him if he wanted to be part of a new project called Faces of Santa Ana where he'd paint portraits of the homeless. Matt agreed.

“I was reading a book called Love Does by Bob Goff where he says love takes action, sacrifices, and offering yourself to other people,” Peterson explains. “I wanted to know the homeless' names and stories. I had a canvas in my house for five years and it's been blank. I was finally inspired to paint again.”

In Peterson's portrait of Matt, Matt appears to be staring into the side of the canvas, deep in thought and not noticing his surroundings. One eyebrow is raised higher than the other, and he isn't smiling. “Matt told me his girlfriend is missing and he doesn't know where she is,” Peterson says. “Everyone that looks at his portrait sees worry in his eyes. His story and prime concern right now are what I ended up documenting in the painting.”

Peterson's second painting is of a man named Daryl. At first, Peterson subconsciously judged Daryl for wearing a helmet when he never had a bike with him. Peterson soon learned that Daryl wore a helmet because it helps him control his seizures. Peterson says that experience taught him to be more open-minded.

“Everyone knows Daryl,” Peterson says. ” He hangs around Main Street and First. He's a very creative person–for example, he made a makeshift satellite once. Daryl was actually a florist before.”

The latest portrait for the project is of a man named Shannon. Shannon used to be a welder and is currently studying so that he can renew his welding certificate. “Of the three people I painted, Shannon's the closest to getting back on his feet,” Peterson says. “We spoke the other day and he said he had a job interview. I'm praying that went well for him.”

Peterson's favorite part of the project is seeing how his subjects react to the portraits. “At that moment, they're most human,” he says. “They realize people care about them and that there is love, hope, and encouragement in this world. When Daryl saw his portrait, he gave me his mother's phone number and asked me to send a photo of the portrait to his mother. So now me and his mom talk.”

“And when I show the painting to them, they actually sign on top of my name,” Peterson continues. “How they feel about the painting is just as important as my brushstrokes.”

If there's anything Peterson has learned from doing this project, it's that the homeless value friendship more than a dollar bill. “Once, I approached a homeless woman and she asked me to just sit down and talk with her,” he says. “We talked for an hour.”

Peterson hopes to paint at least 10-12 portraits altogether. To learn more about the project, follow him on Instagram @facesofsantaana.

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