Retired SU professor sheds light on Syracuse homeless through art

Retired SU professor portrays Syracuse homeless through art

Jerome Witkin visits In My Father's Kitchen every Friday to draw portraits of Syracuse locals in need.
Published: March 18, 2019 | Updated: March 23rd, 2019 at 10:21 am

While walking around the Hawley-Green Historic District this past winter, Jerome Witkin ventured down a street that was unfamiliar to him – Hawley Avenue. There he came across In My Father’s Kitchen, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping Syracuse’s homeless population, and decided to go inside.

He sat and talked with a couple who revealed that they were heroin addicts. Witkin asked if he could draw them.

“I like drawing people,” Witkin said. “They need to be seen. When you draw people, you expose their soul and it calms them down.”

Witkin went to In My Father’s Kitchen every Friday for nearly three months and drew five portraits of people he met there.

Former SU art professor Jerome Witkin next to his painting.
Witkin stands next to a few of his drawings of people he met at In My Father's Kitchen.

Witkin is a world-renowned figurative painter and a retired art professor who taught at SU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts. His paintings cover historically significant topics, including the Holocaust and 9/11. His art is displayed in museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

“My father was homeless, if only he had a place like this place,” Witkin said about the non-profit.

Witkin started at SU in 1971 and taught for 46 years. He said he’s using his retirement to continue doing what he loves and spends time in his studio every day.

John Tumino, founder of In My Father’s Kitchen, said that Witkin would stop by on Friday afternoons with his charcoal pencils and sketchpad and draw people.

“This is a place where, when I see these faces, they’re giving me not just their face but their sorrow and their anguish and their uncertainty and it’s wonderful,” Witkin said.

Tumino said that he was fascinated by Witkin’s ability to talk and draw someone for about 30 minutes.

“The fact that he was giving someone dignity and value while he was engaging them,” Tumino said. “And then when they got to see the work he did it blew them away and always brought a smile to someone’s face.”

Witkin and Tumino became friends as Witkin continued to visit and draw people each week. Witkin had an idea for a bigger piece of art about the work being done at In My Father’s Kitchen.

“Jerome was very humble and really interested in the work that we were doing here at In My Father’s Kitchen,” Tumino said.

On Saturday, March 9 Tumino unveiled a print of Witkins’ new artwork. The print of the original piece, which is over eight feet tall, displayed one image cut into three parts. The top portion shows Tumino outside In My Father’s Kitchen, opening his arms to a man a passing by. The middle section shows three tents where homeless people lived. Witkin described the bottom section as the woman being brought to the light by an angel.

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Tumino unveils the new artwork at In My Father's Kitchen

Witkin talked about finding In My Father’s Kitchen and the inspiration behind his new piece.

“This painting could have only been done by my coming here,” Witkin said. “The goodness of this place is unbelievable.”

Tumino explained that In My Father’s Kitchen is about building relationships with people, and providing food, clothing and other necessities while they get back on their feet.

“We build trust with people which allows them to tell us their story behind the cardboard sign,” Tumino said.

“This is a picture that I think depicts salvation and aid from people like [In My Father’s Kitchen],” Witkin said.  “To know that you’re restored is to me far better than totally white paintings that people yawn at.”

ArtRage, a social activist art gallery also located on Hawley Avenue, will be displaying some of Witkin’s contemporary art in the fall of 2019. More information about Witkin and his paintings for sale can be found on his website, jeromewitkin.com.

Avatar for Elizabeth White

is a staff producer for The NewsHouse and magazine, newspaper and online journalism graduate student at the Newhouse School. Also, she is an editor for Medley and Equal Time magazines.