Through Portraiture, An Artist Challenges Stereotypes of Homelessness

At D-Light Studios, an art space in Ballybough, Leonne Kells gasps with excitement when she sees her portrait.

“Look at that, Brooklyn,” she says to her daughter, who appears next to her in the large oil painting, both in sparkly dresses.

The portrait copies a photo, which was originally captured at a fashion fundraiser for World Diabetes Day, says Kells. “It is so good.”

“Me and Brooklyn do a lot for women’s advocacy. We do different fashion shows for different charities,” she says.

The painting is on display as part of the Home Is Where the Heart Is exhibition, which features portraits by artist Tara Kearns.

Kearns, through her work, has tried to capture the vastly varied experiences and personalities of those who, like Kells and her daughter, have lived through homelessness.

And, she says, to get away from stereotypes. “I’m not going to play into the stereotype. I know what that is like and it pisses you off,” says Kearns.

Reconnecting

At the exhibition, Toni O’Connor, a petite blonde girl, is sporting the same fountain hairstyle as in her portrait.

In the picture, Kearns has painted her in front of a canal, surrounded by trees. “I love it, I didn’t think it was going to be that big,” she says.

Taking part in the project was challenging, she says, but now she is glad she did it.

Each woman wrote a piece about their experience of homelessness, a sliver of their own story, to go alongside their portrait.

“My story is up there now and I’m still nervous,” says O’Connor. “It is what I’ve experienced. It’s all real.”

O’Connor had no home for almost a decade, until around eight months ago when she managed to find a private rental with the help of the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP), she says.

She spent years yo-yoing between the streets and hostels. “I’d rather stay on the streets,” she says. “It was a frightening experience [in hostels].”

“My dignity, personality and my uniqueness were diminished,” she wrote in her story of homelessness for the exhibition.

True beauty is in the art and music that connects people, she says. “I was in a city full of art and music but never felt connected.”

Since finding a place to live O’Connor feels more like herself again, she says, and more connected.

Her big hope is to get back in contact with her three children, says O’Connor. “Hopefully I’ll get to see my kids very soon.”

Art Is for Everyone

Artist Tara Kearns grew up on Sheriff Street and she paints the inner city.

She went to art college at the age of 18 and was a total outsider there, where everyone else came from an upper-middle-class background, she says.

She was the only student in her class with a part-time job, says Kearns.

She liked to paint pictures of Sheriff Street shortly after the flats came down, she says, copying from photos. Living in the flats had meant it was a tight-knit community.

“The photographs were from the ’90s,” she says. “I was brought up on my own by my ma. She wouldn’t have had enough money.”

But what she did have great family support because all her aunties lived locally, so she painted them too, she says.

One of her lecturers told her that she was painting “poverty porn”, says Kearns. It was insulting because the images were of her own family and community, she says.

She painted what was around her. Sometimes that was young men dying suddenly, perhaps having been shot or died from drugs, she says.

Her lecturers “just didn’t get it”, she says. “They thought I was trying to provoke a reaction.”

The teachers in art college also had a preference for abstract works, with complex concepts considered to be more meaningful, she says. “I like to paint stuff that everyone can understand.”

She was starting to despair about not fitting in, when she got an opportunity to meet Brian Maguire, a well-known artist who she really admired, she says.

He told her that what she was doing was real and she should keep doing it, she says, that gave her a major boost.

She eventually graduated with first-class honours.

In a recent exhibition earlier this month, Kearns celebrated the musicians, singers and other successful people from the North Wall area, she says.

She sees homelessness around her every day, she says. It prompted her to ask staff at the charity Inner City Helping Homeless to introduce her to people with experiences of homelessness, so that she could portray images of the crisis with truth.

One of her paintings is based on a scene she saw one Patrick’s Day, a man sitting on O’Connell Bridge with a cup, next to a large tricolour flag.

“All the Ireland flags, shamrocks everywhere – and he is sitting with the cup,” she says. “This is Ireland today, look at it as it is.”

“Normal People Could Pay Their Rent”

Kells says she left home at 14 but that was okay because she was working. “That was when rents were normal and normal people could pay their rent.”

After she had her daughter, she got assistance from the rent allowance scheme, she says. She is now in emergency accommodation for the third time.

The first time, she had had to leave a rental property when the landlord said he was moving a family member in, she says.

The second time, the landlord increased the rent beyond what was legally allowed so her rent allowance was cut off, she says.

She was homeless for three weeks that time, managing to find another property to rent quickly.

She lived in that house for three years but was evicted recently, she says.

Each time it gets harder to find a new home, she says, and she doesn’t want yet again to move her daughter to another school.

“I want to be a strong role model for my daughter,” wrote Kells in her piece for the exhibition, pasted up beside their portraits. “Living in emergency accommodation does not define me.”

“My life is beautiful because of who I am and because of my amazing daughter,” her account reads.

Kearns turns to Kells and offers to give her the painting once the exhibition is over.

Kells seems delighted. When they get their new home, she tells Brooklyn, they will put it up over the fireplace.

The Home Is Where the Heart Is exhibition runs in the D-Light Studios, off Portland Row, until Friday 30 July. It is part of the Five Lamps Arts Festival and is funded by the Arts Council.

Sign up to get our free Dublin Inquirer email newsletter each Wednesday, with headlines from the week’s online edition, updates from inside the newsroom, and more. It’s a little reminder when we have a new edition out, and a way for you to stay in touch with what we’re up to.

Filed under:

Author:

Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at [email protected]

Reader responses

Log in to write a response.

Understand your city

We do in-depth, original reporting about the issues that shape Dublin. We're not funded by advertisers. We're funded by readers like you.

We use first-party cookies to allow visitors to log in to our website and read our articles.