Gary Harrell Artist Spotlight

By Clare Walker, JAC Intern
Gary Harrell with JAC founding director Wendy Jason at the opening of Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration in Cincinnati, OH

Gary Harrell is a JAC network artist, formerly incarcerated artist, and co-founder of Shower Works, a non-profit based in California which aims to bring free, warm showers to the unhoused community of Sacramento, CA. Recently, JAC got the chance to speak with Gary about his work, art, and life experience. Continue reading to learn more about Shower Works and ways to support Gary’s mission, to view his art, and to read some of the wisdoms we gathered from the conversation.

Shower Works

After his release from San Quentin in 2020, Gary Harrell got a job in San Rafael working in a construction yard. But this meant an hour and a half commute to and from work each day. So when someone suggested he look for part-time work in San Francisco, he took the suggestion and never turned back. 

Gary soon got a job with San Francisco Pit Stop working as a monitor for public restrooms. Pit Stop is a program devised by San Francisco Public Works to bring clean and safe public toilets, as well as used-needle receptacles and dog waste stations, into San Francisco’s most impacted neighborhoods. Each unit offers running water, soap and hand towels and is designed to allow individuals to take care of their daily bathroom needs with privacy, dignity, and comfort. However Gary soon realized that something was missing: the ability to shower. Over the course of his time at Pit Stop, he decided the mission needed to be taken further:

JAC: Will you talk a little bit more about where the drive for this project comes from?

GH: It’s giving back. I was there and seeing how people need to use the bathroom. It came from Pit Stop. My work was monitoring the bathroom. And through that it was coming to me more and more. This is what I need to do. I have to give people the opportunity to shower, get a good haircut, and get a suit. So they can have the opportunity to go to work.

Example of a future Shower Works unit

Gary, along with his co-founder and wife Shirley Alexander, dubbed this new mission Shower Works. Out of around 6,000 individuals living unhoused on the streets of Sacramento, CA on any given night, only about 1,400 people can utilize the city’s shelters or restrooms, leaving over 4,500 persons without access to hygiene services or restroom facilities each day. As a result, those experiencing homelessness are forced to use public restrooms in restaurants and local businesses in an effort to try to stay clean and maintain some semblance of dignity. “Shower Works hopes to change this by setting up designated mobile showering stations to allow our unhoused community to restore their humanity and go on with their day.” To Gary and Shirley, “It’s about giving everybody a second chance at a first class life.” This is because Shower Works is based in a dream much larger than just a warm shower: 

GH: It’s not only a warm shower, it’s people getting an opportunity to be heard. When you’re doing that you’re doing social work. Some of these people have never really been heard. When you know someone’s listening you feel better…and it’s important that it’s disenfranchised people serving disenfranchised people because when they hear about me they think, ‘damn I can do this because he did this.’

As Gary knows well, “The hardest part is just getting started.” But this won’t stop him from trying: “As long as I’m breathing air, I’m going to be doing something to try to help the people. They don’t have to know that I did that. I just have to know that it’s done…there’s a lot we can do if we just change a little bit” 

Please consider donating to Shower Works’s mission today. Help bring Gary and Shirley’s dream to life. 

A Multimedia Quote Gallery: Gary Harrell’s Wisdoms

GH: I love art. And I do collage. Because it’s part of art and people think it’s not but I show them it is. People get so caught up in their own world, in their own mind, that they start telling themselves a story and they believe it. Because art is learning how to communicate with people. Artists learn how to communicate and navigate talking to people. And it exists in all forms of life. To me.

GH: That’s what they are: the system. And they have a job to do. And it’s not to be our friend. It’s to incarcerate us. So you have to make a conscious decision to do something with the rest of your life or not. You could continue to sit in the same stuff you were sitting in before you came to prison or you could change your mindset and do something constructive and productive. I made a conscious decision to do that.

GH: When you were in grade school, you didn’t see any black carpenters, black truck drivers, black plumbers or electricians. We need to put other people in those professions so they can think they can do it. If all you see are dope dealers and pimps, guess what? You’re gonna become a dope dealer or a pimp. That’s why I always say if you knew better, you would do better.

GH: Silence is betrayal and when you see somebody getting treated wrongly you have to say something. If you don’t say anything you’re just like the rest of them. I’m talking about really doing something to change lives. If you change one life in your lifetime, they’re going to go on to change someone else’s life in their lifetime, so that means that you’ve created something that’ll last forever.

To view more of Gary’s work see his portfolio here. Visit Gary’s website here! And learn more about Shower Works and support Gary and Shirley’s work here.

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