'A Great Disparity': Artist Michael Weems Tries to Make Life Just a Little Better for the Valley's Homeless ResidentsWritten by Brian Blueskye
Michael Weems is an artist with an impressive collection, a successful gallery, and a renowned résumé in the art world.
As of late, however, he’s had a focus beyond art: Helping the homeless. He’s asking his fellow Coachella Valley residents to assist as well.
Weems recently talked to the Independent about what led him to leave the corporate world and become an artist.
“I’ve been an artist for about 20 years now,” Weems said. “I had worked as a financial manager with AT&T back in Washington, D.C., for about nine years, and I was downsized with about 15,000 other people. When I was downsized, I visited a friend of mine on my first-ever trip to California. When I visited her in San Diego, she took me to a psychic who said to me, ‘You’re not going to be in the corporate world any more; you’re going to be an artist, and really well-known.’
“I thought it was the craziest thing in the world, because I had never taken an art class before, or done anything artistic since junior high.”
The psychic’s vision wasn’t crazy after all. He bought a home in Baltimore after leaving Washington, D.C., and began to paint his own works to hang on the walls in his home. His friends saw them, he said, and began asking if they could buy them.
He eventually took a job with Tiffany and Co.
“I wanted to work in jewelry, but they made me work in tabletop,” Weems said. “I worked with dishes, china, crystal, silver and things like that. They said, ‘If you do really well in this department, we’ll move you over into fine jewelry.’ I worked my butt off—I learned how to set a really beautiful table—and they moved me over to fine jewelry, where I stayed for about six months. And then I quit. It was so boring selling overpriced jewelry and diamonds to very wealthy people as opposed to selling a beautiful tablescape.”
He realized that his interest in tabletop visuals and art went hand in hand, and he eventually combined the two—which is evident when you see his dishware in the Michael Weems Collection. He also taught himself how to edge and cut glass.
“My crystal was the official gift of the George W. Bush White House,” Weems said. “The president would travel around the world to see Jacques Chirac, the king of Saudi Arabia, the president of Japan, and they would give my work as the official gift. It was so much of an amazing thing, because I had only been doing it for a couple of years.”
After moving to the Coachella Valley, he went on what he called a “meditation” in the Whitewater area. This led to another new idea.
“I came upon this old truck that had gone down a wash,” Weems said. “It was all rusted and had the most beautiful patinas on it. Right there and then, I knew I was going to work with vintage cars and metal.”
He patented the concept that is displayed at Autoerotica of printing graphic images and putting them on parts of vintage cars. He also began crafting jewelry and light fixtures with the metal from the cars. His pieces have become well-known—and he plans to open another gallery in London.
Weems is blessed with success and a life of creativity—and he recently began to notice what he called “a great disparity.”
“I get to sit in the gallery where there’s air conditioning; there’s water; there’s food; and I have everything I need here,” he said. “The gallery has done very well over the past couple of years, and I saw the huge disparity between me, sitting in this gallery, and people walking outside who are so hopeless, sad, hungry and hot. I’ve been given these gifts to make things—people buy them, and they love them—so I need to pay that forward. I took one day’s sales from the previous month, and I went out and bought items to put in bags.”
Residents who belong to the Palm Springs Neighborhoods Group on Facebook responded to a post Weems made asking for suggestions as to what to put in the bags. Items usually include water, protein bars, aspirin, socks, underwear, sun block, dog food for those who have pets, a frozen washcloth, and other items that are prepared by volunteers who also help Weems distribute the bags.
“A lot of people wanted to donate and somehow get involved,” Weems said. “It was wonderful, because the need was more than my money could (provide). It went far, but not as far as the need went. People also donated all sorts of things that are needed by the homeless.
“We’ve probably given well over 500 bags since we started in the late spring. It’s very clean and simple: I just want to help people where they are. When I drive home at night, I take four or five bags with me, and if I see someone on the street, I get out and give them a bag, saying, ‘This is for you.’ That’s my place. I don’t involve religion in it. I don’t ask people to try and pray, and I don’t try to win them over to Jesus. That’s not my place.”
Weems has received a warm reception for his efforts.
“A lot of people paint them as drug addicts and being really mentally unstable, but many of the ones I’ve encountered aren’t like that at all,” Weems said. “The people are so kind, and some have asked me, ‘Oh, you look really hot and thirsty. Do you want one of the waters in the bag?’ They ask me about my jewelry; they ask me about my gallery, or how I like living in the desert.”
However, not everyone has approved of Weems’ efforts. He cited one member of Palm Springs’ business community, whom he declined to name.
“One of them told me, ‘If you give out poison, I’ll donate, because we don’t need these people here, and it’d be better off if they were dead. Let me know when you do that.’ I’ve also had people come up to me in local restaurants when I’m having dinner, and they’ll make jokes about it. They think there’s some magic network with homeless people, where they’re going to call their sister in Cincinnati and have her and her nine kids and five dogs come live here in the streets, because I’m giving out Costco water and socks.”
He said socks and sun block are the items he needs the most.
“Out of everything we put in these bags, they love the white socks,” he said. “They’re so appreciative that they’ll dig past the water, the food, the aspirin, the powder, and they’re like, ‘Oh my God! Socks!’ It’s like Christmas—fresh white socks. Sun block is also huge, and I’m running out of that.”
He plans on making his efforts a long-term project, and he’s created a GoFundMe.com account where people can donate.
“People ask me, ‘How can I help? Here’s my credit card. Charge me.’ I couldn’t do that through my business, so I set up a GoFundMe.com account,” he said. “There’s been a great response to it.”
Weems said he understands that not everyone can give money. People can offer their time, too.
“Just come by the gallery,” Weems said. “I’m here 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Tuesday and Wednesday, and all they have to do is just stop by. I’ll show them how to prepare the bags, and based on where they live, they can help me put bags together, and they can take the bags out around town.”
The Michael Weems Collection/Autoerotica is located at 384 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. To donate, visit www.gofundme.com/bwlwb4.