DALLAS — A dozen pieces of cardboard are sprawled on an art gallery floor in a hopscotch pattern.
It looks like child’s play, but the situated squares also bear prominent passages penned by homeless people looking for assistance.
“Anything Will Help”
“Out Of Work”
“Stranded & Hungry”
Artist Willie Baronet watches as the attendees skip across his exhibit in their sock feet.
“There is a moment when they realize they’re stepping on a homeless sign, and they have this visceral reaction,” Baronet, 54, said. “The symbolism of that to me is profound. I believe we all sometimes step on the homeless metaphorically without meaning to.
“I find it odd that somebody would think that stepping on a piece of cardboard on a gallery floor is a big deal when they might be willing to ignore a person day after day.”
There was a time when Baronet avoided homeless people or concocted stories in his head as to why they were begging — anything to justify his own discomfort.
But his mindset started shifting in 1993 when, on a whim, he began buying and collecting signs from homeless people on street corners. Two decades later, Baronet has amassed hundreds of the signs.
“I don’t want to stop,” he recently told Yahoo News. “This keeps me connected in a way I want to stay connected.”
On any given day, Baronet rolls down his car window at a red light and pleasantly asks in his soothing native Cajun dialect, “Hey, will you sell me your sign?”
His offers, initially met with surprise, often induce smiles and engaging conversations.
“They’re me, I’m them, and this is all really just about human beings connecting and resisting putting somebody in a box because of their circumstances,” he said.
Baronet first asks how much a person wants for the sign and negotiates from there. Most go for about $10, and he estimates he's spent $7,000 on signs over the two decades.
His collection comes in many forms: colorful, crumpled, heartbreaking and hilarious. He has his favorites, but he admires each piece as a unique artifact.
“Sometimes it’s the writing, what they say,” Baronet said. “Sometimes it’s the way they do their lettering. Sometimes it’s typos. I’m interested in the expression that goes on.”
It wasn’t until 2009, after he had sold his successful ad agency and began working on his Master of Fine Arts degree, that Baronet finally saw his hobby as art worth sharing.
“You’ve got to do something with these,” a professor once told him, Baronet said. “It gave me the confidence at that point to take it very seriously.”
In recent years he’s created sculpturelike exhibits such as the homeless hopscotch as well as a colossal wall collage and a room filled with signs suspended chest high by fishing line.
“I know this makes some people uncomfortable,” Baronet said. “Sometimes I like creating art that furthers that.”
In July, Baronet will embark on his biggest endeavor yet. With the help of a friend, Baronet plans to drive from Seattle to New York City to buy signs and connect with homeless people in 24 cities.
“It’s scarier to be open to a conversation and hear their truth,” he said.
Several years ago there was a one-legged woman standing at an intersection in Austin, Texas. Before he reached her, Baronet says, he “crafted this big victim story in my head.”
“But she was powerful,” he recalls of the woman who had been injured in a boating accident. “When I had a conversation with her, she was funny, charming and confident.”
Baronet paid $20 for her sign, which read "On My Last Leg."
The Dallas resident is the first to admit that he’s not a researcher or an expert on homelessness.
“Most of my knowledge is just from what I’ve uncovered and my gut intuition,” he said. “But I say 99 percent of the people I run into have a legitimate need.”
And, yes, he’s aware he could be getting scammed or funding bad habits.
“I don’t think it’s up to me to pass judgment on somebody for how they make their living and what they do with the money they get,” Baronet said. “It’s fine if people decide that they don’t want to give money. It’s fine if I don’t want to give money. But if I do give money, I don’t give it with strings attached.”
He will chronicle the 31-day “We Are All Homeless” journey so he can later produce a book and documentary film. Baronet, who also teaches advertising at Southern Methodist University, is raising funds to help with expenses but says the road trip will happen regardless. “We’ll cut as many corners as we can cut,” he said.
“My point is not to make money,” Baronet said. “Material stuff isn’t my sort of thing. My point is to put the art out there. My point is to start conversations and raise awareness. My point is to keep learning about me. And that’s a selfish point.”
Growing up, Baronet was the oldest of eight children in South Louisiana. He remembers winning a coloring contest in the second grade and always enjoying drawing, “but I think I baffled” my parents, Baronet said.
“We were a poor family, and art was not a thing,” he said.
As they struggled to make ends meet, Baronet said, his dad at times took out his aggression on the family.
Years of being drilled to keep his nose “to the grindstone and don’t think too much of yourself” likely contributed to his delay in becoming an artist.
It wasn’t until he opened his eyes to the unfair circumstances that the homeless are sometimes born into that he was able to confront his own unstable upbringing, he said. “My dad didn’t know how to support me,” said Baronet, who now has a healthy relationship with his father.
His mother, Dorothy Baronet, was 64 when she died of lung cancer in 2003. It was then that he sought to fulfill his dream.
“I believe her death was very much a clarifying event for me in ... that I don’t have forever,” Baronet said. “It was pretty clear that it was time for me to do what I was most afraid of, which is the art.”
He beams as he recalls his mother’s Cajun cooking, teddy bear collection and gift for storytelling.
“The creative mojo came from Mom,” Baronet said. “She really had the juice.”
Now he laments that she’s not here to witness his new passion for storytelling — sharing the struggles of thousands of homeless people.
“She would be proud,” Baronet says, wiping away tears.
Follow Jason Sickles on Twitter (@jasonsickles).