A year in the making, "Hidden in Plain View: Faces and Stories of Homelessness," is community activist Erika Biddle's informal investigation into what lies beneath Key West's unofficial motto when it comes to the men and women who sleep outdoors.
"'One Human Family,' people have it stuck all over their cars," Biddle said. "What does it mean if there is this subculture? One Human Family has to embrace everybody who lives on this island."
The exhibit, which opens with a reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday at The Studios of Key West, is more than pretty pictures and emotional statements -- though there are plenty of both.
At a time when the city of Key West is relying on nonprofits to run its overnight homeless shelter, which is embroiled in a lawsuit filed by the nearby Sunset Marina condo association, and help people transition from street to apartment, the art show speaks volumes about lives that often fall out of the public's sight.
A tourist town by trade, Key West's mayor and city commissioners have tried to strike a balance between providing visitors with safe streets, free from aggressive panhandling and vomiting drunks, and care for the island's most vulnerable residents.
Key West last year installed tougher city laws for trespassing, outdoor camping and panhandling, following the steps of other Florida cities grappling with a visible homeless population.
"Hidden in Plain View" is decidedly nonpolitical, said Biddle, who in 2010 put together a calendar featuring notable Keys women of varied ages posing nude in the outdoors in order to raise money for community gardens.
After taking part in Key West's Occupy movement in Bayview Park last year, Biddle began asking questions of the people she met who rely on the soup kitchen, the nonprofits, the shelters and at times the kindness of strangers to survive.
The answers to questions such as, "What skills do you have to give back to the community?" and "What do you need to get off the street?" helped shape her show, along with the wealth of people she knows from all circles of the Keys since first arriving here in 1992.
"I don't want to rescue anyone," said Biddle, 60, after a late Sunday breakfast on her backyard deck in Old Town, with the exhibit's pieces filling her home. "I wanted to find the common humanity, the common thread. What connects us all. Everybody has a sense of beauty. It's not about victim thinking. It's finding what makes us tick."
Biddle, born and raised in Cologne, Germany, fled her home at age 14, choosing the streets over a family divided over clashing religions.
"I went out the back window," she said, matter of factly, while telling incredible stories about the men and women she has come to know in the Keys who are homeless, including a neighbor evicted over her collections of pets whose haunting watercolors of palm trees are a part of "Hidden in Plain View."
Biddle has kept in touch with the woman for years.
"I collect people," she said, smiling.
The exhibit includes a dozen paintings that were collaborations between artists such as Eric Anfinson and Lisa Esposito and the homeless; 24 black-and-white portraits by Sheelman; an installation of works by Monroe County school children; six quilts made from various T-shirts bearing slogans such as "If you were homeless, you'd be home by now;" and a 12-minute video made by Digital Island Media Group chronicling local nonprofits' services.
Biddle, who is active with the local environmental group Green Living and Energy Education (GLEE), has a record for making her ideas come to life.
Biddle's 2010 calendar sold out in less than two hours and made $8,000, enough to build the gardens meant to provide food for the homeless while symbolizing common ground.
For the art project, Biddle wrote her first grant application and scored $1,000 from the Florida Keys Council of the Arts, and another $1,000 from the Southernmost Homeless Assistance League.
Sloan Bashinsky, a blogger and perennial candidate who has been homeless, gave Biddle a $1,000 check.
The money is for the expensive mounting of photographs and other items, to keep the exhibit portable.
Biddle plans to take "Hidden in Plain View" on the road, to schools and other places, once The Studios show ends Dec. 14.
Each of the paintings, each a collaboration between an artist and a homeless Keys resident, is displayed as a page inside a "book," as Biddle calls the old wooden lobster trap that she turned into a case for the works.
To view the paintings, one has to open the book and turn the pages.
"It's all rough," said Biddle. "There is nothing slick in this show. You open the giant lobster box. It has a handle."
Key West artist Lenny Addorisio chose from a batch of poems that Biddle collected during her interviews with homeless men and women in Key West to come up with a painting in which a bleeding tree divides two worlds: one of a homeless man and the other of someone supposedly living in abundance.
At the top is M. Shane's poem, a bitter reflection on self-loathing.
"Filth on my clothes ... Just half alive," are some of the opening lines. "I know what you see when you see me/A dirty worthless burden."
But Addorisio gets the last words, in a playful turn. "Oooh the journey of life. OK maybe one more day."
Maybe people share the same fears, and know loneliness despite what they show the world, the painting suggests.
"We're just the same, we're a reflection of each other," said Addorisio on Monday. "Really, we're connected by energy and love. That dirty, ugly superficial stuff that we judge each other upon is really an illusion."
Addorisio, a New York native who has called the island home for more than 20 years, said he can be guilty of that superficial stuff. But the project resonated with him, as do the sights of the homeless men and women on the island.
"The truth is, there but for the grace of God go I," said Addorisio. "I don't know where I'm going to be in 12 years."