Feature: Man in the van

Published December 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 11

by Dwayne Pride

Undeterred by the loss of a job, Oregonian Aaron Heideman turns his van into a home to canvas America.

Artprize is a national contest for fine artists and emerging artists from all around the world. It is said to be one of the largest prizes that an artist can hope to win to get recognized for his or her craft. All of the winners are chosen by the public. The top prize is $250,000. For most, when they think of somebody that would be part of a contest like this they would not think of a poor man,  a homeless man, as one of its participants. Artist/ driver Aaron Heideman aka “The Man in the Van” proves this theory wrong.

“I don’t want to panhandle,” reiterates Aaron Heideman.

After losing jobs during the recession his life was more than just a struggle. He hit rock bottom. But he took a creative angle on his situation and found some freedom from a 9 to 5 with a road trip that would eventually take him through at least 30 States in America. His mission: to make an enormous tapestry of people’s experience of the recession. State by state, city by city, he collected words.

His project started out in Medford, which he calls home. Driving through places like Portland, Fresno, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Denver, he met all types of people and had them share their experiences from a sagging economy and what it has done to their lives.

People wrote their individual stories on rolls of 50-foot waterproof, tear-proof white tyvek paper.  All he asked them was,  “How has the recession affected you?”

People participate in the “Man in the Van” project, photo by Aaron Heideman.

"There is no recession."                                                                                                                        As people pass by he hands them cards that say: “Help A Homeless Guy Make Art. History.” The card is how he starts every meeting with individuals before they write their stories on the van. TELL ME YOUR STORY, is written boldly on the side of the van to entice the public to participate in what he is offering them, a way to vent their feelings. People stop with a variety of comments.

“There is no recession, that’s a myth,” one man says as he refuses to take a card. “The only reason people think there is a recession is because they say there is one.”

Heideman says he is amazed by how many people blame Obama for all of the country’s problems. Despite his views, though, he has tried to keep his project open to everyone. “I’m not a Republican. I am not trying to be political. It is not about what I have to say, it’s about what Americans have to say. I would like to have as many perspectives as possible. The object is to stay neutral,” he says.

About five percent of the people that walk by the van take the card from him and disagree and keep on moving. By the end of his stay in Denver, he came up with approximately 137 stories from people that just wrote what they felt as he stopped them, or they stopped to see what all of the commotion around ‘the van’ was all about.

Some guy named VonHellFire ’09 on MySpace writes, “Thug Life” hoping all of his criminal endeavors will pay off. One man writes, “I sold my body!” Another person after responding to an onlooker’s comment of “get a job” writes, “give me one.”

A New Stage
The project is putting Heideman in a new stage in his life. A better understanding. He has never made a living at art before, but has been doing it since he was 18 years old. Most of his work has been two-dimensional oil paintings. Some galleries in Seattle have displayed the paintings. He was supposedly the youngest artist to ever display his work in the Woodside Braseth Gallery.

Before starting “The Man in The Van” project, Aaron was working on a screenplay. He eventually scrapped it, deciding that “The Man in the Van” project was a more motivating way to express himself. He wants to try to build relationships again, so why not just start with the general public. “I wanted to be less selfish… have empathy,” he said. By letting others write he thought that he could reach out more to people. “This is much more rewarding.  I don’t want to become a preacher. I don’t want to be political. The real goal is to get people out of their rut.”

Since his visit to Denver, he has traveled the country in the van experiencing setbacks along the way. Sometimes he thought that he would not make it. But he never gave up. After reaching his destination of Grand Rapids, Mich. to be part of the Artprize competition, things did not end up quite as he had planned. “The Man in The Van” did not even place in the top 100.

“That’s okay. It wasn’t about winning a big prize…. I’ve been able to inspire a lot of people, and spread a message of empathy and compassion,” Heideman says about his trip.

Now, after a long road, Heideman is trying to get on with other parts of his life. He is moving to Seattle after a new found sense of adventure. He has had a few offers from movie producers to discuss “possibilities.”

Aaron says, “I’m also hoping to write a book about the whole experience (including actual transcribed stories), but that’s tough right now because things are a little stressful.  I’ve been living in a van for over one year now, and I’m ready to move on with my life.”

He goes on to say, “It’s amazing what kind of rewards come when you have the courage to serve others.”
I guess that winning is not everything.