An artist finds his calling in painting a city’s forgotten faces
Joe Anastasi uses art to tell the stories of Columbus, Ohio’s most poor and vulnerable.
A bespectacled man with a dreadlocked braid down the middle of his back picks up a lunch bag and a water bottle. Volunteer Joe Anastasi stops him, saying, “I have something to show you.” He goes to fetch a large, framed painting of a man with a confident stance and self-assured expression, head cocked and chin held high titled Street Smart.
“Wow,” exclaims the painting’s subject, Elvis McGowan, who has lived on the streets of Columbus, Ohio for 15 years. “You got that perfect. It’s beautiful.”
McGowan’s recognition of his personality and spirit in the painting is the highest compliment Anastasi says he can receive. The 71-year-old, retired from a career in advertising and design, documents the beauty and dignity of those he works with at the St. Vincent de Paul Society. “I pray every day that God will inspire the work that I do,” Anastasi says. “So my paintings and talks will inspire others.”
“The St. Vincent de Paul motto is that we see Jesus in the face of the poor,” Anastasi says. “At first, that just sounded nice, but after a while I noticed there was really something in these people—sorrow, joy, dignity. It was not just Jesus, it was all of Jesus.”
Anastasi calls this portrait The Oldest Son because when he first met this man and his family at the homeless shelter, he did not realize he was in fact a husband and father of three. “This young man told me he was also an artist,” says Anastasi. “I tried to capture his pride and strength.”
Soon after his retirement in 2009 Anastasi started serving lunch at Holy Cross, dinner at another shelter, and helping out at a home for runaway teens. He also began delivering donated food and supplies for several agencies providing social services in Columbus.
After getting to know the regulars at each location, the gregarious Anastasi noticed one man wearing a plastic rosary as a necklace. The man told him he used it to pray. That conversation inspired the artist, who had painted only portraits of his four children, to capture the man and his rosary in a work he called She’s His Mother, Too. “I wanted others to see that he is a child of God,” he says.
At his own expense, Anastasi went on to create and frame more than 50 multilayered, dry-brush watercolors on clay boards as well as pencil studies. He paid his subjects $1 to sit for reference photographs. It was not long before local galleries recognized his work’s artistic merit, and he mounted three exhibitions between 2013 and 2016. Anastasi donated more than $38,000 from painting sales to the Columbus Community Shelter Board and his parish’s St. Vincent de Paul chapter; he also accepts donations for those two groups when he speaks about his work.
His paintings, Anastasi points out, are more than accurate likenesses. He hopes they will inspire others to look closely at the humanity of those often passed by or ignored. That is why, when the paintings and drawings are exhibited, Anastasi insists they include brief stories about each subject. “The stories are what change you,” he says. “It becomes personal.”
Kent Beittel, director of a shelter where Anastasi serves as a board member, points out that the paintings are impactful only because the painter captures how much he genuinely cares about his subjects. “Joe’s art reflects depth,” Beittel says. “It causes others to think of ‘the homeless’ as persons, not just bodies taking up space.”
Anastasi is so impassioned about his calling, he seems unable to stop telling stories about those he meets, be it the former attorney and MENSA member left homeless after an abusive marriage or a woman attending one of his gallery shows who recognized her lost brother in a painting. “All of them are missed at home by someone who waits,” a visitor wrote in a gallery guestbook.
Resigned to My Fate: “This look is typical of many of the people who live on the streets,” says Anastasi. “Life has beaten them down. He seems to be almost looking right through me.”
Back at St. Lawrence Haven, the painting of McGowan is put away and McGowan himself goes outside to eat his lunch. Anastasi returns to distributing Styrofoam containers filled with pasta salad to men and women who move through the line for hours. One regular stops to ask Joe about his recent vacation, another inquires about his grandchildren, another is concerned about his health and offers to pray with him later.
“It is about love,” Anastasi says. “I love these people. I am here because of love.”
This article also appears in the June 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 6, pages 45–46).
Top image: Artist and advocate for those experiencing homelessness Joe Anastasi shows Elvis McGowan his portrait titled Street Smart. On the back of the panel the artist describes the subject as “professorial in his look and demeanor as he peered over his glasses at me. He seemed to have everything figured out . . . maybe he does.” As it turns out, McGowan says he now has permanent housing for the first time after more than a decade on the street. All images courtesy of Joe Anastasi.