LOS ANGELES — When he heads to the beach from his Santa Monica, Calif., home, Stuart Perlman wears paint-spattered jeans, a plaid shirt over a T-shirt and a black wool Stetson to shade his bearded face.
With one hand he rolls a plastic crate piled high with paints, brushes, a portable easel and a yellow-and-white-striped beach umbrella. In the other, he totes plastic bags filled with containers of homemade pastas and soups, gifts for his “regulars.”
Perlman is a psychologist. In his spare time he paints faces of individuals that most people look past. As he paints, occasionally against the backdrop of a beach-side knife fight or drug deal, he slips into the role of itinerant therapist. “I want to hear about your life,” he says. Before long, the posers reveal details of lost loves, thwarted dreams and battles with addiction.
Take Daniel, whose portrait conveys weariness and loss. The onetime workaholic’s world crumbled a dozen years ago when a drunken driver killed his wife and children.
Or “Doc,” whose image suggests anxiety and struggle. The former mental health care worker gave his worldly goods to a daughter seven years ago and headed west from Arkansas.
These wandering souls have reminded Perlman of life’s fragility.
“People are people,” Perlman said. “We’re all them, and they’re all us. We’re all one thin line from being traumatized and homeless.”
Perlman took up painting seriously about five years ago after his father died. He took art classes at Santa Monica College and a YWCA.
With a budding artist’s perspective, he began to scrutinize the homeless people he encountered near his home and his West Los Angeles office. In their weathered faces, he sensed stories that needed telling. As a psychologist, he thought, he could reveal these forgotten souls to others as a reminder that “there but for the grace of God go I.”
Perlman, who counsels trauma survivors, had to spend months persuading distrustful people to sit for him. “They thought I was a cop for the first few months,” he said. “Now, I’m a little bit of a celebrity among the homeless.”
That could have something to do with his paying them $20 each to pose. He also gives $10 if they create for him an original poem or painting.
He has completed about 65 18-by-24-inch paintings; each took 15 to 25 hours.
Perlman usually starts a portrait at the beach and finishes from photographs at an easel in his kitchen.
Perlman, 58, has undergone more than three decades of therapy to address his own harrowing childhood. Although he was part of a “nice, Jewish family,” Perlman said, his parents often lashed out at him and his four brothers and sisters.
“I was traumatized, cruelly beaten and smashed up, yet deeply loved and taken good care of,” Perlman said.
“My parents would have given their lives for me, but they were the people most likely to kill me,” he said. “It’s that combination that makes me who I am.”
In Perlman’s home office, portraits are stacked in cubbies and against walls. He regrets ever having ignored the transients he has come to know. “They’re some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in my life,” he said.
The high regards are mutual.