Christopher Chinn: Cardboard Sidewalks

On Saturday, the Cultural Alliance of Long Beach is presenting Cardboard Sidewalks, an exhibition of paintings and sculptures created by Christopher Chinn. Chinn’s current work is a meditation on homelessness, and the humanity of those who are often feel invisible. He didn’t have much understanding about the challenges of homelessness until he moved into a studio space near L.A.’s Skid Row shortly graduating with a Master’s in Fine Art from USC in 2001.

“Some friends and I rented an old sewing factory as a live/work loft. It was a great space at 5,000 square-feet, and cheap for young artists, and was also located just south of Skid Row in downtown LA.

“When we moved in three people were living in the front walk-way that led to our door. There were homeless people everywhere, living in cardboard structures and doing everything we do in private on the streets. It really affected me.

“Art was a natural bridge for me, a way to begin a conversation with them, a reason to sit with them and engage them. I had to confront the negative stereotypes, as well as my pity.

“I should clarify, too–the homeless in that area are chronically homeless, the most likely to die on the street. Many had been homeless for five to ten years.

“I would sit and talk with them, especially the people that lived on my block. It was all parking meters there, so a few would watch our cars and our meters for us. We got to know them pretty well. After getting to know someone I would ask if I could draw/paint them. Most have been open but not all, and that’s okay. They would politely decline and I would never bring it up again.

“Most people though would love the attention. To have someone sit down next to them on the street and be interested enough to want to draw them and to talk to them, hear their stories… I had people try to give me things out of their shopping carts, like plastic flowers and old radios, because they were so thankful for my attention.

“I had a solo show of paintings in 2008, and the gallery director and I were talking about trying to bring some of the homeless individuals who I had worked with to see the exhibition. It never worked out and, later, after giving it more thought I realized that, instead of bringing them into a gallery, it would be better to meet them where they live and to move the art out onto the streets. At that point I realized sculptures would be much more compelling than paintings.

“I imagined these pieces living on the street. I imagined over time that they would show signs of that life on the street. I hoped that they would get beaten up, tagged, broken, worn, etc. For most of them, that has happened.

“The piece that I used as the postcard image for this show was completely destroyed over the course of a day while it sat on 5th Street near the intersection of San Pedro. The piece in the gallery window was tagged, moved and broken over its time on the streets.

ChristopherChinn02“But they have also been quite loved. People usually leave things with the sculptures, like half-eaten sandwiches, cigarettes, shoes, blankets, etc. They are highly interactive when they are on the street, and I love that about them. I did think that, after they had lived on the street and had collected some scars, I would show them in a gallery, when they were too broken for the street.”

The transition from painting to sculpture was difficult for Chinn.

“I hate sculpture. I only half-mean that, though. Painting is my relaxing pass-time, now. Still, it was pretty tough. I had one sculpture course as an undergraduate and loved of it. Especially bronze casting.

“My grandmother was a self-taught ceramic sculptor. Growing up, my cousins and I would sculpt with her, and that lead me to take several ceramics classes during high-school that came in handy as I returned to ceramics for these works. I’ve also had an enormous amount of help from colleagues and friends. Coleen Sterritt and Rodney Tsukashima from LBCC, and Kristan Marvel’s foundry in LA, were all very instrumental in my being able to create these works. I’ve also enjoyed wonderful studio assistants who have helped me move the works from the studio to the kiln, and back, and with moving the pieces for installation. Ashton Amores, Erwin Papa and Marissa Vidmar.”

Part of the impact of Chinn’s work is its scale.

“They had to be life-size. I wanted the viewer to understand the figure on an actual scale. The first piece was originally going to be fired in a kiln, but I wasn’t a good enough ceramicist to make the free-standing legs hold themselves up. After three attempts I gave up and decided to cast it. That’s why it’s larger than life-size. Clay shrinks 10-15% when its fired so, not being fired, it didn’t get to shrink. The mold was taken off of wet clay. All of the other pieces have been fired ceramic. They are all life-size, except the first one. I actually don’t mind it being a little larger than life-size, though.”

This exhibition is the first time Chinn has shown the entirety of this work in a gallery setting.

“In July, I had an exhibition at PØST in downtown LA. ‘Encounter #1’ was installed at the gallery, and the other three pieces were installed on the streets around Skid Row. People could see the works at the gallery then drive over to skid row and walk around to see the other pieces. That’s where ‘Encounter #4’ came to a terrible ending. That piece you won’t be able to see, unfortunately.

“For the show at PØST I decided it would be interesting to make some small, sketchy pieces–each are made in an hour or two –and to invite people to take them home at the end of the reception, so long as they made a donation–completely on the honor system–to a suggested organization working with the homeless. I am doing that again at C.A.L.B., for Catholic Charities in Long Beach.

“We also asked the audience to bring in new or lightly used coats, sweaters, and blankets or new under-garments, socks or personal hygiene products to the show. They will be distributed on Thanksgiving day, after a nice meal is served to the homeless.”

Chinn admits that this work has been transformative for him.

“It has brought me in contact with a lot of wonderful people, and great organizations. It has given me the opportunity to engage this very difficult problem plaguing our society – a way to try to make a difference. It has completely shaped my expectations for what I want my work to do, and how I want it to live in the world.”

Chinn, a professor in the Fine Art program at Long Beach City College, is wrapping up a year long sabbatical.

“The time is quickly ticking away. One of the things I have been thinking about is who actually creates the policies that affect the lives of homeless people on a daily basis, and those who enforce these policies. Who has the power to actually make a difference in the part of our city called Skid Row?”

The opening reception for Cardboard Sidewalks takes place tomorrow, Saturday, November 2nd, from 6-9PM. The gallery is located at 747 North Pine Avenue, inside the Bungalow Arts Center. To learn more about Chinn’s work, visit You can support his work through  

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