Kate Capshaw’s Portraits Bring Homeless Youth Out of Dark and Into View

Columbus, Georgia, a small college town south of Atlanta, is an unlikely place to meet the glamorous actress and painter Kate Capshaw, considered cinema royalty for her marriage to director-extraordinaire Steven Spielberg. But Capshaw is not in Georgia to talk about Hollywood. She’s there to discuss Unaccompanied, her new exhibition at Columbus State University’s Bo Bartlett Center. 

The exhibition is comprised of portraits and life-sized busts of homeless children and adolescents that live on the margins in Los Angeles, Chicago, Fargo, Minneapolis, San Francisco, St. Louis, and New York.

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Approximately 4.2 million children experience homelessness in the US each year, around 700,000 of which are unaccompanied minors, according to the bipartisan policy research center National Conference of State Legislatures. The exhibition’s title comes from the official government name for those minors and young adults: unaccompanied youth.

Capshaw met her subjects primarily throuh youth development organizations like The Door in New York and The Night Ministry in Chicago. Many bounce around foster homes and avoid being out in daylight. Those that do venture out during the day often pass unnoticed or, more likely, ignored.

Celestina (2017)

Capshaw’s works then are an act of noticing, of registering these forgotten children as worthy of depiction. In each of the paintings, typically, a young boy or girl gazes directly at the viewer or slightly to the size. Behind them is a great mass of dark, near-black negative space, as if they are  stepping out of a shadowy place, but haven’t decided if they are able to move all the way forward, to be completely seen. Towards the bottom of the frame, their clothes slowly fade away. Not into the void behind them but into runny drips of fading color. T-shirts disintegrate and melt into their logos. Patterns dissolve into clothes and hair. 

“Rich people always ask, ‘what can I do to help? Where do I send money?’” Capshaw told ARTnews. “And I always tell them. Keep the money and foster a child. That’s the best way to help. Community is everything. I couldn’t have done this work without the help of a wonderful community and there are thousands of kids out there that just want somewhere they can feel safe.”

Up close, Capshaw’s paintings reveal themselves as dramatically different — some splotchy, some smooth, others with a pixelated nature. Those differences are easy to explain. Capshaw during the four years it took to make the works on view was growing as a painter. This is her first show, and she only began studying drawing, painting, and portraiture in 2009. And, yes, there are those who will cast judgement because Capshaw is famous, married to Spielberg, and has only been painting for a little over a decade, because this is her first show. They’ll wonder, fairly, is this rich 69-year-old woman taking advantage of those less fortunate to ramp up her profile? 

Kourtney (2019)

But the subject matter is dear to Capshaw and for good reason. Behind the actress who starred in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a woman born in Fort Worth and raised in Ferguson, Missouri. She earned a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in special education and spent timeearly in her career setting up individualized education programs for students with learning disabilities in rural Missouri. More importantly, she’s familiar with “the system,” slang for the foster care system in the US that often swallows children whole. In 1989, two years before Capshaw and Spielberg married, she became a foster parent and adopted a son. After they wed, they adopted another. In total, the couple have six children.

Of course, that doesn’t explain why Capshaw, who lives between Los Angeles and New York, has a show in a small campus town in Georgia. But there is a direct path.

Unaccompanied began as a series of alla prima studies that hung in the Hope Center in Los Angeles. After a chance encounter in 2016 with Astrid Heppenstall Heger, a pediatrician and the founder of the Violence Intervention Program, Capshaw found that she’d discovered a place to focus her artistic energy. The studies were done with the help of social workers and youth organization. Subjects, all of which Capshaw calls by name as she walks around the gallery telling their stories, were found in shelters or youth homes, and chosen by professionals in the field. They were told to wear whatever they felt comfortable in and given food and drink. Some appear in t-shirts, others with button-downs. Some chose to wear clothing that represents their culture. Sessions took place over an hour, at most two, in whatever space was available, usually an unused office or storage area with no natural light. The works were hung free of charge at the newly-opened youth center. Soon, Capshaw began working on more formal versions with the help of iPhone images that she asked if each subject if she could take during their session.

The portraits were seen by Dorothy Moss, a curator of painting and sculpture at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, and gallery director Kim Sajet who encouraged Capshaw to enter the prestigious Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2019. Capshaw was a finalist. The competition winners and finalists’ work went on tour, during which Capshaw’s portraits caught the eye of Michael McFalls, the director of the Bo Bartlett Center. McFalls invited Capshaw to show the series at the gallery.

Andy (2017)

Capshaw worked with the following organizations for Unaccompanied: The Door (New York), Epworth Children & Family Services (St. Louis), Homeward NYC (New York), Larkin Street Youth Services (San Francisco), The Link (Minneapolis), The Night Ministry (Chicago), Pine Ridge Girls’ School (Porcupine, ND), United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (Washington, D.C.), Violence Intervention Program (VIP) Community Mental Health Center (Los Angeles), Youthworks (Bismarck, ND).

While the exhibition closes Friday May 12, Capshaw says there are plans to eventually bring the show to New York.

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