Thirteen years ago, homeless writer and artist Ace Backwords printed a street art calendar to hand out to friends at Christmastime. Today, the Telegraph Street Calendar is a creative tradition, featuring the work of Berkeley’s homeless artists.
Backwords’ holiday gesture more than a decade ago is now an annual social document that reflects the mood and spirit of the street. Contributors move on or leave the area, and new artists take their places. Some years, the calendar mirrors the Bohemian sentiment of the street; other years, it has had more of a “Skid-Row” appeal, Backwords says.
The calendar, on sale at Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue, gives Berkeley’s homeless a place to showcase their talents and express their humor, wit and angst. The number of calendars sold each year ranges from 700 to 2,000 copies, and profits are split up amongst the contributors, Backwords says.
“It’s gratifying that what started as a personal thing now means so much to so many people,” says Backwords, who co-publishes the calendar with cartoonist B.N. Duncan, whose work is also featured this year. “We’re showing them as creative people trying to live productive lives.”
The 2002 edition of the Telegraph Street Calendar features the work of cartoonists, chalk artists, painters and conceptual artists. Some contributors depict fantasy, while other document everyday life around Berkeley using simple lines and shapes. “People’s Park,” a cartoon by Moby Theobald, shows children playing and laughing in the shadow of the Campanile near sack-toting men with a pet alligator. Another cartoon by a barefoot, 19-year-old woman named Amy, documents “The Life of a Bug!” and under it, a dog’s journey into a fire hydrant.
Tim Stroshane, a senior planner with the city, estimates that between 1,000 and 1,200 homeless people are living in Berkeley on any given day. This number includes people living on friends’ sofas, on the streets and in shelters.
“It’s getting worse and worse,” Backwords says. “Each year the kids are getting younger, more desperate. There are a lot of teenage runaways from broken homes, so it’s more depressing.”
There are so many reasons why people become homeless, Backwords says. Some of the homeless are artists, who use their free time to create. Others are alcoholics, and some are just plain lazy. Some people can’t cope with the high cost of rent and have no where to go but the street, Backwords says.
“There is a wide spectrum of opinion about who the homeless are,” Backwords says. “In the calendar, we try to show them as people first, without the stereotypes. Because we’re coming from within the street scene, we can really show the scene as it is. Not like a reporter who comes and talks to people for 20 minutes and then tries to write a story.”