What compels a former police officer — once tasked with “cleaning up” the homeless situation in downtown Ann Arbor — to devote his time to humanizing and documenting the lives of those very people through art?
Compassion had a lot to do with it, according to Quill Redpath, a retired officer with the Ann Arbor Police Department officer whose first-ever art exhibit, “Once I Was Like You,” is now on display at the Ludington Area Center for the Arts.
During his time with the department, Redpath nurtured dreams of bringing art into his work. He hoped to take a sketch artist class at Northwestern University while he was still in uniform, but he wasn’t given approval from the department.
“I always wanted to be an artist, ever since I was a kid, but I was never encouraged to be an artist,” Redpath said.
And yet, at age 80, he found his way. And the work he did in Ann Arbor is at the heart of every work on the walls at the arts center.
“Once I Was Like You” is full of charcoal portraits of homeless people Redpath encountered during his years in law enforcement. It features about 25 portraits, and Redpath knows the stories behind all of them.
Redpath was charged with managing issues associated with Ann Arbor’s homeless population, from public intoxication and disorderly conduct to loitering.
The city saw an influx of homeless people when Redpath was on the force from 1967 to 1992, and he believes that’s partly due to deinstitutionalization, when state psychiatric hospitals closed en masse, releasing individuals with mental health issues into the world, often with nowhere to go.
Redpath’s “beat” included the entirety of downtown Ann Arbor, about 15 miles all told. He walked that beat every day for five years, and during that time he met a wide variety of people. He encountered brilliant musicians, decorated veterans from various conflicts, artists — even an aerospace engineer who would “spend all day in the library writing these complicated formulas out, but he’d never talk to anybody.”
Redpath, however, enjoys talking, and that’s what he did with the people he encountered. He heard their stories, learned about their lives and set out to offer them whatever help he could.
In talking to the homeless people in his area, Redpath quickly realized that “cleaning up” the situation was going to be a big job. Many of the displaced individuals had medical, dental and psychiatric needs that had to be met, and Redpath did what he could to help.
“Eventually I had a pharmacist that worked for me, so I could get medication for some of these people. I got a dentist working for me, who would pull teeth. I had a physician who worked with me too, and he’d see people if they really needed help,” he said. “I had it pretty well organized.”
While on the beat, Redpath learned to see the similarities, not the differences, between himself and the hundreds of homeless people he met.
“They’re just like us,” he said. “The name of the show is ‘Once I Was Like You,’ and I can guarantee that each of these people, at one point in their life, were just like us.
“We have the same problems — some of them we do a good job of handling, some we don’t do a good job of handling — and they’re in the same boat. Some are alcoholics, some are addicted to drugs, some are mentally ill.”
Redpath found a kindred spirit in social worker Gae Winn, who worked in the downtown Ann Arbor area at the time. Winn could facilitate transfers to treatment programs for substance abuse and other ailments, aiding in Redpath’s quest to help the people in his charge.
“We started working together, and she knows a lot of these people that I’ve drawn,” he said.
When Redpath retired in 1992, he said he “bawled his eyes out.” He’d developed a “lot of feelings for those folks.”
He remembers a moment when those feelings came to the fore. Just after deciding to retire, Redpath heard from one of his subjects just how much his compassion was appreciated.
“This one fella … I did his portrait, and he was eating dinner, and he was pretty drunk. I was sitting next to him having a coffee and he said, ‘I hear you’re leaving.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m leaving.’ He put his arm around me and he said, ‘Who’s going to take care of us?’ And I started crying. I had to leave,” Redpath said. “Most of these folks that I worked with, they appreciated that I was there for them. They knew I wasn’t there to degrade them or belittle them. They knew I was trying (to help them).”
After retirement, he visited his daughter in San Francisco, or stopped by Vermont, and continued to chat with people on the street as he went. He’d ask people if they wouldn’t mind having their picture taken, and he’d use the photos as a reference for his artwork.
Redpath has become something of a renaissance man when it comes to art, also taking up photography and writing, but he didn’t have formal training until later in life.
He relocated to Midland and finally had a chance to hone his skills. He took three years of charcoal portrait lessons from an artist named Kathleen Sullivan.
“She finally said, ‘I’ve taught you everything I can teach you. You need to find a project and go to work.’ So that’s how this developed,” he said.
The project was obvious for Redpath — taking the stories he’d heard, the faces he’d captured on film, and turning into an art exhibit with his newly refined skills.
The name of the exhibit comes from something Redpath saw on his travels in San Francisco — a homeless person holding a sign that read, “Once I Was Like You.”
“I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s true,” he said.
When asked why he chose charcoal as the medium of choice to depict the faces of his unlikely friends, he said, “because it’s dark, and (these people’s) lives are dark. They sort of live in the dark.”
That’s something he hopes his exhibit might change.
The goal is to shine a bit of light on the human beings who are often obscured by the stigma of homelessness.
“I think that they deserve respect. That’s the least we can give them is our respect,” he said.
During an upcoming artist talk, scheduled to take place at 6 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21, Redpath will have another chance to share his work and the message behind it.
Winn, the social worker he cooperated with in Ann Arbor, will join him to discuss the pair’s shared philosophy about homelessness, and to will read a poem she wrote about the issue, which is also on display at LACA.
“She’s really excited about it,” Redpath said.
Redpath hopes that some of the stories he shares will help curb people’s perceptions about the homeless, and remind viewers that people from all walks of life can find themselves in such situations.
“There’s a guy here who has two Silver Stars in Vietnam — he’s a hero, and he died on a heating grate at the University of Michigan campus,” Redpath said, pointing to one of his many portraits lining the LACA walls.
“Most of these people aren’t bad people, they’re just very unfortunate. A lot of this stuff they can’t control. They’re self-medicating, they don’t have health insurance — they can’t help it.”
People can view Redpath’s portraits until Jan. 28. He hopes that, when they do, they’ll walk away with a little more understanding and a little more compassion.
“These people are just like them. We’re all the same,” he said.