LA Mission’s art

Maya Oroszlan and her older brother Ben Oroszlan give a thank-you sign to Kenny Scharf.

Los Angeles Mission recently released a short documentary, or mini doc, that covers homelessness in Los Angeles and Skid Row.

“The Heart of Skid Row,” features commentary from LA Mission’s chief executive officer, Pastor Troy Von, along with information about the organization’s services, and incorporates footage of Kenny Scharf’s mural he is painting on the nonprofit’s building. 

LA Mission Arts Council, an advocacy group that started during the pandemic, is part of LA Mission and focuses on making the organization more visible to the public. The council aims to spread poverty dynamics in a modernized way across the state and country and helped orchestrate the documentary and the Scharf mural. 

Eli Graham, chair of LA Mission Arts Council, described the council as “an advocacy group that focus primarily on mental health homelessness and drug rehabilitation,” he said. 

“We advocate for causes (dealing with our focus) and we grow awareness around causes, driving the change that needs to happen around these issues.”

A notable example of the LA Arts Council’s work is a recent partnership with UCLA’s Center for the Transformation of Schools to create a free guide for teachers about how they can discuss homelessness in the classroom. 

“This is part of (LA Mission’s) advocacy in creating a way to provide guides, resources and information from our expertise of homelessness and poverty,” he said.

Graham said the name of the mini doc and mural is intentional and meaningful. 

“When we say, ‘The Heart of Skid Row,’ it is referring to the collective humanity and the voices that are in this community,” he said. 

“The voices of the individuals in this area don’t get heard from, which is what the LA Mission and LA Mission Arts Council does. We bring their voices to everyone’s awareness, and we advocate for more support for homeless individuals.”

The documentary came at a time when the council started to collaborate with artists like Scharf. 

“We felt like it was important to share a visual representation of the present-day work that’s going on with the LA Mission, matching it along with this amazing project we did with Kenny Scharf,” Graham said.

The documentary shares the nonprofit’s multifloor renovation that provides better living situations to residents, and a long-term recovery program is called “Fresh Start.” The 12-month live-in program helps residents of LA Mission and Skid Row on their path toward “independent living,” according to the documentary. 

Graham said the documentary, along with Scharf’s mural, worked concurrently, not only contributing to a showcase of the organization’s work but getting word out about the LA Mission to those unfamiliar with it. 

Graham said that although it’s hard to quantify the impact of Scharf’s mural on the organization, he noticed an “exponential” increase in volunteer interest. The mural, like the council’s other projects, serves to modernize how those in need find and receive support for shelter, recovery programs and counseling. 

“We’re putting a statement out to the public that we are here,” Graham said. “We’re showing that we’re a strong force that can do good for the city and we hope that as we keep going, people will notice and catch on. That is what brings people in to seek recovery.”

A 30-year artist, Scharf said the project started with a direct message on social media asking if he would visit the LA Mission to paint. Upon taking on the project, he said that it felt like the right thing to do. 

“I just stumbled upon this, and of course I jumped at the chance to do anything that might help. For me, it was a very gratifying experience, especially when I know that it’s touched people. As an artist, that’s all I can ask for.” 

Scharf said he felt the project was a rewarding and touching experience after having conversations with Skid Row residents. 

“The conversations I had with the beautiful souls on Skid Row who responded to what I was doing surprised me because of how much they cared, and it made me cry a lot. … I was very honored to do the mural, and I was touched by the reaction from the neighborhood,” he said.

While painting, Scharf conversed with Kevin Kidd, a six-year Skid Row resident who came to Los Angeles to pursue an art career. 

Though Kidd is not affiliated with LA Mission and does not utilize its housing services, he is familiar with housing programs through other nonprofit organizations.

Kidd’s interaction with Scharf and Graham happened while seeing Scharf at work that Kidd passes by daily and said is “beautiful.”

After speaking with Graham and Scharf about the mural and art, Kidd asked if he could bring his own art to show the two of them. According to Kidd, he connected with Scharf and Graham. The meeting allowed him to sell some of his art. Meeting Scharf and Graham, Kidd said, motivated him and gave him the “push toward success” that he needed.

Though Kidd maintains an exemplary level of optimism, hope and faith for his life and career, he spoke about the reality of living in Skid Row, not shying away from traumatic experiences that shape many lives of the community’s residents. 

“I’ve seen things that I didn’t think I’d see in my lifetime (on Skid Row), but I’m still here,” Kidd said, “I’m going to chase this art career to the ends of the Earth if I have to.

“(The mural) makes a difference to the community because of people like me. It means hope. Some people in these streets might not get help; some of those people might die on these streets. Even if the mural isn’t for everybody and it was for one person — me, Kevin Kidd — then it serves its purpose,” Kidd said.

The next step for LA Mission Arts Council is an art exhibit called “Prices with a Purpose” in Downtown Los Angeles, next to the Ace Hotel, on Oct. 1. The council will accept donations for the nonprofit at the exhibit and giving donation “certificates” in return, in the form of household items and clothing. 

For example, a person who donates an amount worth 10 T-shirts would receive a single T-shirt that says, “This T-shirt is worth 10 T-shirts,” Graham said. The exhibit’s purpose is about interacting with people who stay in nicer areas of Downtown LA and don’t come to Skid Row. It’s called “Prices with a Purpose.” 

“This is the start of a long journey of creating a national platform that advocates for homelessness,” Graham said. 

“Los Angeles is just the beginning; we will be growing, and we’re glad that people took notice of the mini doc and Kenny Scharf’s mural. It’s a statement to the incredible community we have in Los Angeles.”