What began as a weekly trip to feed Sacramento’s hungry and homeless became the inspiration for a striking series of portraits for one Sacramento woman.
After moving back to midtown in January after nine years away, painter Suzon Lucore was struck by the increase in homelessness in and around the capital city.
“I would just feed people and talk to them,” Lucore said about her Sunday trips around town, including to Cesar Chavez Plaza with 10 to 20 Carl’s Jr. meals or a tray of homemade dishes in hand.
In the process, she discovered “John,” and a new focus for her art.
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John – which is not his real name but the one he prefers, she said – was one of the first people Lucore got to know during her meal-sharing trips.
Lucore would continue to see him and eventually heard his stories of life on the streets.
“It dawned on me, I have all this subject matter in front of me,” Lucore said.
Lucore began painting a series of portraits of homeless and hungry people who she has met in Sacramento parks and homeless encampments.
All the while, Lucore was trying to understand the transformation of homelessness in the area as well as Sacramentans’ weary and divided feelings on the issue and how it should be addressed.
“I paint about things that are current,” Lucore said, explaining that events in the news often become inspiration for her art.
One such painting was of Arnold Schwarzenegger, which Lucore did during his time as governor here. Lucore said that the actor and politician saw the finished piece when it was exhibited at Thai Basil restaurant on J Street. She heard that Schwarzenegger didn’t like his portrayal, which was done in green tones, though his then-wife, Maria Shriver, did.
Lucore, who was born in Reno and raised 30 miles north of Sacramento in Rio Oso, first moved to the area in 2005. After marrying, she and her husband left Sacramento to live in the Auburn area. Upon returning, she was struck by how much things had changed in the midtown area.
“You would see maybe five homeless people a day,” said Lucore, remembering how things were before her move. “I met people who were homeless and I would give them jobs.”
Now its “dozens and dozens, I’d say hundreds,” she said.
Lucore is right. More than 3,600 individuals are homeless across Sacramento County, and on any given night, more than 2,000 of them will sleep on the streets, according to a 2017 report by Sacramento Steps Forward for the County of Sacramento.
That number has grown quickly in recent years. Sacramento Steps Forward said the homeless population grew approximately 30 percent between 2015 and 2017, from an estimated 2,822 individuals to 3,665.
After asking John for permission to take his photo with a cell phone, Lucore made him the subject of the first portrait in her series on Sacramento’s homeless and hungry, which she began in March.
Today she has four portraits completed, two in the works, and has plans to paint about 10 more.
A marketing manager by day, Lucore has always found time to paint, and the three-by-four-foot portraits each take two to three weeks to complete.
Her preferred workspace is in front of her midtown home, which is cool and shaded in the summer mornings. Her husband Lance helps her set completed works along her yard for neighbors and passing walkers to see.
Working off of a print of a cell phone picture, Lucore interprets her subject, in shades of bright orange and regal purple.
One man is standing over his bicycle, another is sitting on the ground with his dog.
Although lots of the homeless people she meets are grateful for the meals and happy to talk to her, most decline being photographed or painted, she said.
“The ones that let me take their photos, they usually had a story to share,” said Lucore, who began painting as a child and later attended the California College of Arts and Crafts, now the California College of the Arts in Oakland.
The experience of helping the homeless has been eye-opening. One example was the time someone complained to police that she was sharing food in Cesar Chavez Park.
A group of six officers approached her as she was giving food to John and some others, informing her that a Sacramento ordinance prohibits distributing food to the homeless without city authorization.
Lucore was caught off-guard, but thought quickly.
“I had another Carl’s Jr. sandwich in my bag and I opened it up and took a bite,” Lucore said, then told the officers: “I know John. Is it illegal for me to eat with him?”
The one female officer in the group gave her a little smile. “That’s fine,” Lucore remembers her saying before the officers walked away.
Lucore recently shared an image of one of her paintings on Nextdoor.com, a popular website that hosts private neighborhood social media.
The painting was of a man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and carrying a coiled extension cord over his shoulder. According to Lucore, he carries the extension cord and power strip to help other homeless individuals charge their devices.
Participants on the midtown Sacramento forum have differing views on what is helping and what is worsening the issue of homelessness. But the portrait received overwhelming praise.
Lucore wants her series, which she hopes eventually to show in a local gallery, will help others see homelessness with fresh eyes.
And she sees it happening in her own circle. Lucore spends about $100 a week on food to give away and was recently approached by a good friend who asked, “how can I help?”
But it was her mother’s reaction that left the strongest impression. Her mother had viewed homeless people as a nuisance.
But then Lucore told her the story of a woman she met near K Street who had lost her job and had been evicted, and was looking to buy a tent for shelter on the street. After hearing how circumstances could put one person on the streets, Lucore’s mother observed: “I’ve never thought of it that way” and, according to Lucore, gave her daughter $500 to help her continue buying meals.
Her next painting in the series is of a man who recently got new red shoes.
“News is like a flash in the pan and you don’t get to see the real meaning behind it,” Lucore reflected.
“Painting makes you think.”