Terry Houghton created art with whatever he could find when he was living on the street — bits of metal, scraps of wood, the leg of a plastic doll.
In his work, the scraps became collages sprawled across the canvas. A piece of glass could be a halo around the head of Christ. A bit of wood could be connected to an illustration of a human heart.
Houghton’s work was obsessive, according to his friend and fellow artist Carola Penn. She believes it might have helped to keep him alive when he was living on the streets of Portland.
Houghton died around 2012, after he fell off a park bench where he’d been sleeping downtown and hit his head. There was no obituary or memorial service. For years, his art sat in Penn’s basement.
Seven years after his death, Houghton’s art is out of the basement and on display at the nonprofit Street Roots, as part of the monthly First Thursday art celebration. It’s the first known time that Houghton’s work has been shown in Portland.
Penn told OPB’s “Think Out Loud” that this is what Houghton would have wanted.
“I think he felt he had something to say to people,” she said. “And he did.”
Penn said she first met Houghton in the 1960s, when he was a young artist in Berkeley. Houghton was a longtime friend of the man Penn would eventually marry. Even back then, she said, Houghton would create art with anything he could find.
“He was doing things like painting on the burlap walls where some of these guys were living and writing poetry and using whatever materials he could get,” Penn said. “He didn’t have a lot of money, so he was always scrounging for whatever opportunity there would be to draw or paint or write poetry.”
Houghton eventually moved to Portland, shortly followed by Penn and her husband. The couple lived with Houghton for a few weeks, and would see him on and off throughout the years after.
Penn doesn’t know exactly when Houghton lost his home, but she believes that he was homeless for periods of time throughout his life. He struggled to hold down a job, she said, and had issues with alcohol and other drug use.
After he was evicted from his home, Houghton asked Penn if he could store his artwork in her basement, until he could move it elsewhere. But he never found another place to keep his work, Penn said.
In the later stages of his life, Houghton would often come to Penn to ask her for help.
At one point, he stayed with her for a few weeks while he was homeless.
“He was fairly ill at the time,” she said. “It was hard to tell what exactly was wrong with him. But I think he was in a pretty desperate situation.”
The last time Penn saw Houghton, she said he was wandering downtown in a stocking cap, looking for a place to stay. She was heading to a concert by the pianist Lang Lang at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Penn bought him a ticket to the show. Afterward, she took him back to her house, gave him dinner and a place to sleep. The next morning, he asked her to drop him off downtown.
Later, she learned he had fallen from the park bench and wasn’t expected to survive.
Though his work wasn’t displayed in Portland during his lifetime, Penn said she hopes that people can see Houghton’s art now and understand that those who are homeless are more than a stereotype.
“There’s all kinds of brilliant people who may be living on the street,” Penn said. “It’s really important to see them in that way and give them an opportunity to be themselves.”
Houghton’s work was displayed at Street Roots on Thursday, Feb. 7. Proceeds from the sale of his work will go to Street Roots.