Meet the Santa Ana Artist Who is Helping the Homeless, One Painting At a Time

Brian holds the 30 x 40 canvas, standing a few feet away from James and Charley.

“Are you ready?” Brian asks, as he reveals the painting.

“Oh, that is gorgeous,” replies James.

“It’s you and your pup, man. Do you recognize yourself?”


James, holding on to Charley, his rat terrier pup, gaze at the portrait in silence. His friend, John, pats him on the back. “That’s beautiful, brother.”

Brian places the canvas on the ground, “Do you want to sign it, James?”

“I’ll let Charley sign it first.”

We’re outside on 4th Street in downtown Santa Ana, California, between Main and Bush, visiting James, a homeless man Brian befriended more than a week ago while on his way home from work. Charley presses his paw on an ink pad and creates his mark above Brian’s signature. James signs his initials afterwards.

Brian Peterson shows James and Charley the finished painting. Photo by: Hong Le
Charley signs the painting. Photo by: Hong Le
Peterson wants his subjects to sign the paintings as well, since they are a part of the art. Photo by: Hong Le

A pedestrian walks by, curious about what was taking place. Brian explains to her, “I paint their portraits and sell the paintings, using the money to help them.”

And that is exactly what Brian Peterson’s ongoing “Faces of Santa Ana” project is about, in a nutshell. The 28 year old, when not at his full time job as a car designer at KIA Motors in Irvine, helps the homeless through his paintings. Since the project’s inception two months ago, three of his four paintings sold, and he’s opened up an Etsy shop where he sells prints online as well. Recently, Peterson devised a social experiment, providing mini prints to his homeless friends, allowing them to sell the mini prints. All donations go directly to them.

We met up with Brian at his apartment, which he shares with his wife, Vanessa, at the Artists Village in downtown to learn more about “Faces of Santa Ana.”

Brian Peterson in his home. Photo by: Hong Le

What is “Faces of Santa Ana?”

Faces of Santa Ana is a project I started with multiple reasons. First, I’ve been taking a deeper dive in my Christian faith. I started reading a book called Love Does and the author challenges us to let your love take action. I decided to address Santa Ana’s big issue which is homeless population down here, and device sort of a plan to paint them, tell their stories and sell the pieces for charity, and give back to them.

You’re working with Home Aid Orange County, a nonprofit organization, to figure out how allocate these funds. How’s that going?

We haven’t worked out all the details yet, but Home Aid is a real estate investment company that buys buildings to create homeless shelters. They work closely with Mercy House, a huge organization in Orange County that help out with homeless people. Our next step with Home Aid is to schedule a meeting with Mercy House to get those funds allocated, to actually tackle each one of these subjects and take that thousand dollars I’ve raised and put it to good use. So, we haven’t used any of the money made yet from the sold paintings. Meanwhile, as I sit and weather the storm for those guys. I’ve been selling prints online, with those prints I can get them $50 gift cards. I already gave out a bunch of gift cards every time someone buys a print online.

Who was the first person you talked to that started this project?

It was the first guy I ever met on the street in Santa Ana. His name was Matt, and I pass Matt, I don’t know maybe seven or eight times before I actually spoke to him. Because I had to really build up the courage to go and speak with him. I’ve been telling my wife Vanessa for a while that something is on my heart to speak to this man. I don’t know his name, I don’t know what he is about, but he was interesting to me.

I put my bike on the sidewalk and we spoke a good thirty minutes… We sat there and actually ate together and had some Gatorade, so it was great.

And around that time I was probably midway through the book. I guess the book was changing me without me even knowing. At the first moment I walked up to Matt, he was sitting really quietly on the sidewalk. I put my bike on the sidewalk and we spoke a good thirty minutes. He spoke about his future, his past, we spoke about God, and we spoke about his hopes and dreams. We sat there and actually ate together and had some Gatorade, so it was great.

How was his reaction to you?

What’s funny is that I think people nowadays when a stranger comes up to you, you immediately put your guard up. What I am finding is that these guys and girls are just here for conversation because they don’t have the daily interactions like we do. You know, they don’t have family members, co-workers and people to talk to regularly, so when a complete stranger approaches them, it’s like the light of their day. They are like “I can tell you how my days has been because no one else has asked me.”

Matt was Peterson’s first subject. Photos courtesy of: Brian Peterson/Faces of Santa Ana

After this conversation with Matt, what happened afterward? 

After meeting Matt, it kind of inspired this project in a lot of ways because I didn’t know what I wanted to do for the homeless. Until after I spoke with Matt, Matt was my first step of faith, like I set the first step and I said, “Ok I am going to talk to him.” I didn’t know I would paint him, I didn’t know I would sell his painting, but I knew that I wanted to help. And after speaking with him, and realizing that he has a wonderful personality like his exterior apparent is completely different with his heart, that inspired me to find a way to tell his story. And I haven’t painted for seven years, and that was the moment I finally found my subject matter. I told myself, “I am going to pull out that canvas I had stashed for seven years, and I am going to paint on it, and I am going to tell his story.”

What’s your background in art? 

I’ve been an artist my whole life. I always draw, I always dabbled in painting, and in college I did study art. I went to the Cleveland Institute of Art. I had some painting experience in high school, and in college is where I really focused on my technique. It was around that time actually in freshman year in college I reached a turning point. I wanted to be a designer, I knew designing was the safe route to me. It is the way I know I can pay my bills. I had talked with my painting teacher, Lane Cooper, she told me that she believed I can be a great painter one day. But I chose to go into design. Painting, in general, was just in the back of my mind. I knew I’d come back to it, I just didn’t know when. This project had provided me with the when.

Painting in general was just in the back of my mind. I knew I’d come back to it, I just didn’t know when. This project had provided me with the when.

How do you approach each painting?

After getting to know them, I take a photo. I don’t have them pose for a picture. I tell them as we’re talking that I’m going to snap a few photos, because I want the most natural portrayal, the one that captures the emotion. I then make the photo black and white. I make it black and white because for me, as an artist, it gives me the opportunity to tell their story through color as well. Color can transmit emotion, some people like Darryl, his color is super bright, vibrant personality. The reason I chose warm tones for James and Charley is because James has the warmest and softest heart than any other guys I ever seen. So I want to transmit that. So for me as an artist I get the chance to tell their story with brush strokes, moves, and also color. I also use oil paints. It works better for me because it takes a long time for them to dry, so I can keep working until I get the emotion that I’m looking for. Oil gives me more flexibility. I spend about four hours after work, and it usually takes about three to four days to complete.

Peterson’s living room corner is where he creates his portraits. Photo by: Hong Le
After a seven year hiatus, Peterson was inspired to paint again. Photo by: Hong Le

Peterson and James on 4th Street. Photo by: Hong Le
James has been living on the streets for the past 20 years. Photo by: Hong Le

If you didn’t move to Santa Ana, this project might have never happened. You lived in Irvine before moving here. How has Santa Ana been like so far? 

We lived in Irvine, we used to come and party in Santa Ana. It is the closest area, and to me, is always the city that is most alive. There are always young people and Santa Ana has an art community that is uprising.

Santa Ana has an art community that is uprising.

Now that I moved here I realized it’s actually a really tight-knit community. A lot of people know each other and reach out to one and another.  A lot of success behind this project is just networking, in the sense that someone like what I was doing, they told someone else, then they told someone else.

Any places you’d recommend when a friend visits?

If I could have a reservation, I would take them to Playground. They definitely have to call me in like a month advance to tell me, so I can make the reservation. If it’s booked, I’d take them either to Little Sparrow or Chapter One. We frequently go to Lola Gaspar for happy hour as well.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of this project? 

The biggest emotional problem is I feel an extreme sense of obligation, because I tell them what I am doing, and they trust that I will help them, and now there is a lot of pressure on me to create a piece of art that someone else would want to buy.

I think there are good side effects of this too, even if you don’t sell that painting you are getting the word out. The initial start is the painting, and that creates the conversations, so regardless what happens, it’s already making a huge impact.

That’s what I am finding. The cool part about this project is that I don’t where it’s going, I don’t know the end result, I don’t know the finish line, but I am here going along on this journey. I learned a ton, in the two months I’ve been doing this. My goal was to sell work, get funds and help these people. I didn’t even think about the fact that I am inspiring other people along the way.

My goal was to sell work, get funds and help these people. I didn’t even think about the fact that I am inspiring other people along the way.

That’s what about it so powerful to me. It was the art breaking the gap. It was the painting someone liked the color, the subject matter, or the way it was painted that let them want to follow the account, and reach out to my new friends and say hello. I get messages from people every day, at least one a day, say I saw your social media profile, you inspired me to give the extra food to the homeless, you inspired me to talk to the man and women I drive pass every day for the last month. When I think about it, that was the greater impact. Now that person can go and inspire someone, this idea that inspired one person has a multiplying effect, that’s what’s truly special to me now.

Peterson, James, and Charley with the final painting. Photo by: Hong Le
Photo by: Hong Le

After our interview, and meeting James and Charley, the painting was sold to Michael and Doreen Peterson, Brian’s parents. “They actually fell in love with the “in progress” picture and wouldn’t let me sell it to anyone else,” said Peterson.

Gallery 211 will be hosting a continuous exhibition for “Faces of Santa Ana” on Saturday, February 6, 2016 from 5:00pm to 10:00pm. A portion of the proceeds from sold pieces go to rehabilitation efforts for homeless subjects.

Contact the writer: