BRADENTON -- The homeless men and women who walk along 17th Avenue West near McKechnie Field are nameless and, to most of us, almost immediately forgotten once passed by.
To Bradenton watercolor artist Ben Love, they are Bill, Manny, Humberto, Otis, Scottie and Cowboy -- real people who for six years have stopped by the 17th Avenue apartment Love shares with his wife, Jacki, and 5-year-old son, Max, long enough to get a bologna sandwich, a cup of coffee, some spare change and pose for a photo.
Love, who was homeless himself not long ago, renders those photos into watercolor paintings that seek to reveal and seal their dignity.
"Any artist can paint sea shells," the 60-year-old Bradenton native said. "I'm doing something different."
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Since the couple moved into the apartment in May 2010 after being homeless on and off for five years, Love has painted more than 60 portraits of the homeless.
It's something he believes must be done.
"They are the first to help you when you need something to eat or find a place to sleep," Ben Love says of the homeless. "They were the first to help me."
A member of ArtCenter Manatee, Love has donated some of the portraits. Most, which range in price from $400 to $800, still hang unsold on the walls of his home. He doesn't seem to care too much they are with him. It's almost as if Jacki, Max and Ben are giving the homeless a foster home until they can find a forever home.
Will people want to hang the homeless in their home? Jacki Love said she doesn't see why not. She says her husband's paintings can "talk to you if you listen."
"When you look at them, you feel something," Jacki Love said. "He has so much feeling behind his paintings. Regardless of what people may think when they look at his paintings, I hear them talk."
'Painting the blues'
Many of the homeless Ben and Jacki knew when they met in 2001 are dead and buried in paupers graves. For some, their image in a few brush strokes on one of his sheets of watercolor paper is about all the proof left that they existed.
"There's a lot of the homeless in his paintings that have passed on," Jacki Love said. "And a lot of times when the homeless die, they don't do anything for them but bury them. There's no service. It's pretty sad really."
When Ben and Jacki met in 2001, they were both drug users. The drug abuse caused them to lose their home in 2005. At first they lived in a car, then a two-man tent, then a tent big enough for a blow-up bed and finally a tent with a tarp and little stove with a propane tank.
By 2010, the pair were off drugs, Jacki was pregnant with Max, Jacki had gotten a job as a supervisor at a retail store and they moved into their apartment. Jacki and Ben Love have both been sober since Jan. 16, 2010.
"I was tired of getting high and seeing my friends die in the streets," Ben Love says. "I talked to Jacki who was pregnant and we decided when the baby was born I would take care of him at home so I could paint."
Jacki points at Scottie, a man in a wheelchair in one of her husband's paintings.
"That man in the wheelchair is now passed on," Jacki says. "So there is still a part of him here. "
Ben Love is asked how he would describe his pictures.
"A man once said to me, 'You paint the blues,'" Love said.
Losing it all to drugs
Ben Love worked for a telephone company in Tallahassee and earned $60,000 a year before he started doing drugs.
"With the addiction I lost it all -- slowly," Love said. "I was riding a girl's bike to get to work."
Returning to Bradenton in 2000 to care for his ailing parents, Love continued painting but addiction took hold.
He has a rich family history here. Love's uncle, William "Buddy" Lowe, was the first black police officer in Bradenton. Michael Lowe, Love's cousin, was the first black fireman in Bradenton. Garry Lowe was the first black police chief in Palmetto. Clarence Love, Ben's father, was the first black councilman in Bradenton.
Jacki Love is also creating her own legacy. Being clean for six years, she now inspires others with her story of overcoming addiction, including serving as a guest speaker at the Rotary Club and local churches. On a mission to give back, Jacki also volunteers every Friday and does laundry for the homeless at Turning Points where she first received assistance.
"I remember what it was like not to have clean laundry," she said.
Love's artwork can be found on his Facebook page: facebook.com/Benjamin-LLoveartist.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.