Meet Mr. Roger Powell, a Living 'Work of Art'

Homeless man paid to roam gallery alongside Picasso and Pollock

A little over a year ago, Roger Powell might have been found under a pile of blankets and a cardboard box on the streets of central London. One of thousands of homeless here, Mr. Powell's future looked bleak.

Now the one-time dropout can wax philosophical about past hardships. His face, framed by a tousled ginger beard, cracks into a boyish grin as he ponders his dramatic reversal of fortune. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure I'm not dreaming," says Powell, chuckling.

In a fairy-tale twist, Roger has gone from being a homeless tramp to become a controversial work of art, displayed alongside Picasso and Turner at London's prestigious Tate Gallery. "Actually, I'm getting quite interested in art," says Roger in a lilting Welsh accent that hints at his provincial origins. "Picasso's done some pretty good stuff, but I don't think much of that bloke Jackson Pollock. If I were an artist, my pictures would probably look a bit like his," he muses, thumbing through a dog-eared sketch book containing some of his own tentative images.

For Powell, who says he became homeless after being unfairly pushed out of his job as a gas-station attendant in London, being a work of art is now a full-time job. He usually arrives at the gallery at around 11 a.m. and stays till 5 in the afternoon. "I earn a few extra bob at the weekends selling papers, and I've even been on some working holidays overseas," says Powell, who's been "shown" at galleries in San Francisco and Washington and will be traveling to Moscow and Israel later this year.

The man behind Roger's extraordinary metamorphosis is millionaire British advertising guru Tony Kaye. Once homeless himself, Mr. Kaye agreed to make Roger a work of art by paying him 75 ($115) a week to roam the Tate Gallery plus 60 toward his rent until either of them dies. Kaye has fixed Roger's price tag at a lofty 850,000 for anyone who wants to "buy" him as a work of art.

In a nation where some 43,000 families are living in temporary accommodations and home repossessions are running at the rate of 1,000 a week, Kaye's "homeless art exhibit" has drawn welcome attention to a pressing social and economic issue. "Even though it might look a bit patronizing, it is raising the profile of the homeless issue," says Billy Mckenna, a spokesman for Shelter, a British charity focusing on homelessness.

While Powell's PR impact is undeniable, his value as a "work of art" is nevertheless the subject of debate. No stranger to controversy, Kaye earlier drew criticism for another living exhibit entitled "Don't Be Scared." Intended to dispel some of the myths surrounding AIDS, Kay paid four HIV-positive people to sit naked on a sofa in public view.

KAYE'S work has put him at the epicenter of an artistic debate. Some critics have called his creations "documentary expressionism." Kaye has dubbed them "Hype Art." However they are described, the works of the maverick artist have added to the polemic over the boundaries of what is art.

If Roger Powell's transformation into a work of art appears simple, Kaye's into an artist has been less straightforward. Viewed as an upstart by many, Kaye's credentials look flimsy. Before his breakthrough filming television commercials, Kaye, who has no formal artistic training, was refused entry into every photography and art course for which he applied.

That unorthodoxy has earned him bitter enemies. "It's a gross piece of impertinence for Kaye to claim he is an artist. He is nothing," said art critic Brian Sewell in an interview in The Times of London. "It's the equivalent of someone who can't play the piano announcing that he's going to play [in concert]. If he were a musician, he'd be hissed out of the hall."

Best known for his eye-catching advertisements, such as a "Twister" ad for Volvo that sparked a 20 percent rise in sales, Kaye seems desperate to break out of the commercial mold and be recognized as a true artist. A flamboyant self-publicist who openly admits to having an ego the size of the Empire State Building, Kaye once published a full-page ad proclaiming himself to be "the greatest British film director since Alfred Hitchcock" - this before he had made a single film. "I don't think it's that extraordinary for someone with an advertising background to become an artist," Kaye says. "Andy Warhol did it, and I'm a bit more successful at advertising than he was."

Roger Powell, for one, doesn't doubt Kaye's sincerity. "Tony just wanted to put things in perspective," he says. "Make people think about our attitudes toward art. I mean if we took a Picasso off the wall in the Tate and left it out on a park bench in winter people would be outraged. 'How can you do this to a painting,' they'd say.

"The truth is we spend millions on housing art, but there are thousands of homeless people sleeping out every night and nobody seems outraged."

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