Melton “Gator” Gaiger prefers searching for the picture-perfect moment rather than wait for it to come to him. Gator, who was homeless for five years and is transitioning into an apartment in Little Haiti, called himself an adventurer who possesses a unique ability to spot indifferences.
“Everyone doesn’t see what I see,” the 55-year-old said.
As he scoured Downtown Miami and Wynwood with his cameras, he captured photos of the Miami skyline to sunflowers outstretched in a bucket. It felt exclusive, he added, to have his photographed art displayed during Miami Art Week.
Gator was one of the eight people selected by the Smile Trust, a nonprofit fighting against homelessness, for the “Smile Fuh Me” project. Within the project, friends and members of the homeless community received $500 stipends and disposable cameras to capture South Florida through their own lens. Of the hundreds of photos taken, twenty-five were edited and displayed Sunday evening in the courtyards of the N’Namdi Contemporary Fine Art art gallery in Little Haiti.
Smile Trust co-founder Valencia Gunder noted that certain populations and forms of art are excluded from Miami Art Week, and at the inaugural “Smile Fuh Me” exhibit, sponsored by the Miami Foundation, she wanted to spotlight the work of one of the most vulnerable communities.
“When you ask people about Miami, they’ll say Miami Beach or Wynwood or Brickell and all these things and that’s Miami too,” Gunder said. “But we live on the other side of the causeway, right, the real Miami and they [the homeless] get to see Miami, raw and uncut. That’s what y’all see in these photos.”
About 60 people jived to Afro beats, snacked on conch fritters and admired the photographed art, with some photos featuring a lone cat or a bridge lit with blue lights. At least five of the photos were sold by the night’s end. Both framed and canvas artwork ranged from $500 to $1000. For each photo sold, 50% of the profits went to the Smile Trust and the remainder went to a sustainability fund for the artist to direct toward meals and housing.
“I wanted to make sure the unsheltered felt like they were artists,” Gunder said. “They are commissioned artists, that’s what they are during Art Basel, and I want them to be respected as such.”
Elaine Williams grins next to two of her artworks, entitled “forgotten pictures.” One featured a man waxing his car, a cigarette dangling from his lips, and the other displayed two men posed in front of an apartment complex. Williams, who moved from Savannah to Overtown with her family at age 6, said she wanted people to never lose sight of their roots.
“My momma always told me don’t forget where you come from and don’t act like you’re better than nobody because you’re not and that’s how I was raised in the household,” the 65-year-old added.
Earlier that Sunday, Williams clutched a handful of hoop earrings and a cigarette as a professional stylist swirled her baby hairs and combed her pink highlights. Through a sponsorship with the Ladies of Hope Ministries, an organization working to end poverty and incarceration of women and girls, four of the eight participants were able to take clean showers, received new clothes and a full makeover in preparation for the exhibit.
Williams has never been homeless, she noted, but for about 27 years frequented Northwest 6th Street and parking lot 16 near Southwest Second Street in Overtown — where many homeless people found solace and developed strong bonds.
“I never looked down at anybody,” Williams said. “I don’t care who it is, like I say, I can be out there just like everybody else.”
Williams recalls when people would step off the curb, afraid to walk by them, avoid eye contact and take unsolicited photos of them on the sidewalk. Filling two disposable cameras, Williams regained her autonomy and took her own pictures that were featured during Miami Art Week.
“Everything I see, everything I touch is beauty,” Williams said. “Even when I talk to people, their personality, even in a picture — I just got a heart, that’s just me.”
Amarnauth “Indian” Ramnaraime, walked eagerly around the courtyards pointing out his “Junk in the Trunk” artwork, which displayed a yard of junk cars behind a wired fence among other work. Indian said he hoped the exposure of his art will help him find a job. For about eight years, the 58-year-old lived in the streets of Overtown, in front of a now permanently closed Macy’s on East Flagler Street.
With the help of Smile Trust and Citrus Health, the lead agency in the Housing Assistance Network of Dade Program, he has lived in Hialeah for the past three years. Of his $1,100 monthly rent, Indian only pays $256 a month, with financial assistance from Citrus Health.
“I’m happy,” Indian said. “I’m happy I’m in a good place.”
Throughout the night, curator and artist Octavia Yearwood asked guests to raise their hands and make $50 to $300 donations to the Smile Trust. Yearwood said she views art as a tool for healing and enjoys investing and aiding others as they undergo creative exploration.
“The moment you give a person an opportunity to create is when you really see who they truly are,” she said.
Throughout her photo editing sessions, Yearwood added, she wanted each person to lead and exercise their creative freedom at full capacity. She hopes that the unsheltered individuals will look back at this moment as the highlight of their year.
“People think that because a person is unsheltered or… a person lost a limb or whatever the case may be,” Yearwood said, “that there’s some part of them that is no longer able to transmute that energy — even in loss — to something beautiful.”
Miami Art Week has largely centered around Art Basel, which features a luxurious collection of modern, contemporary, and innovative work by veteran and emerging artists. As celebrities and tourists descend to South Florida for art exhibits and after parties, Yearwood said people neglect to recognize the homeless epidemic. In recent years, art week has blossomed into a community-wide celebration highlighting local talent and Black artists, but has left the homeless community behind.
The July ban on large feedings, which prohibits the distribution of food for more than 25 people in a public space, and the outlawing of homeless encampments in late October have created additional hurdles for the homeless community. As a result, the Smile Trust has introduced bail funds and legal services if homeless individuals are arrested.
Smile Trust co-founder Valencia Gunder said they’ve continued to host homeless outreach events, despite the ban — such as Smile Day every third Sunday in Overtown where they provide toiletries, clothes, shoes, meals and hot showers for the community. Through the “Smile Fuh Me” art exhibit and the Smile Trust, Gunder hopes to give others an inside look into the imaginative minds of the homeless as well as use fundraisers to foster stability within their lives.
“Miami is bigger than just the beaches, bigger than all these businesses, bigger than the sunshine,” she said. “People make Miami, and the unsheltered make Miami. They are a part of our fabric.”
If interested in purchasing any of the photographed art, call the Smile Trust contact number at 786-877-7826.