In 2005 I was in San Antonio doing an Art Pace residency. I spent a lot of time just walking around, often times with Katrina Moorhead who was also doing a residency. At some point while on one of these walks Katrina pointed out a woman sitting in a doorway of a church downtown highlighting every line of a bible with an array of bright colors. I was curious so I started up a conversation. Her name was Veda Epling, she said she was homeless and lived there in the doorway of the church. She told us she had highlighted about ten bibles already, she was about a third of the way done with the one she was working on. She said there was a system to the colors she used but it was hard to explain. I asked her if I could commission her to make me a highlighted bible, but Veda said she only gave them away and wouldn’t take money for them. She said that if I got her a bible and some markers she would make one for me when she finished the current one. The next day I came back with a set of makers and a couple of bibles I’d gotten from Half Priced Books. I asked her if there was anything else I could get for her. She reluctantly said that she would like a phone card so she could call her daughter. I went and got her a couple of phone cards.
During the rest of my residency I stopped by and visited Veda almost everyday. She told me a little about her life and asked me about mine. She ended up coming over to Art Pace for a couple of public events I did as part of my show The American War. I took some photos of Veda’s bible and showed them to some people. Everyone thought they were very beautiful. I was having prints made at Hare and Hound Press for my show, and it occurred to me that the bible pages might look good blown up as prints too. I mentioned the idea to Veda and she was interested so I arranged to bring her to Hare and Hound. Janet and Gary worked with her and we made a few variations on the prints, concluding that they looked best with the bible cover included in the image. I asked Veda if she would like to do a show of them and she said she would.
Then I had to leave San Antonio because my residency was over. At some point after that Hills Snyder asked me if I’d like to do a show at Sala Diaz. It seemed like a great opportunity to show some of Veda’s bible page prints. Since I was back in Portland, where I live, I asked Shelby Spaulding to go see Veda and see if she still wanted to do a show. She did and so Shelby borrowed Veda’s bible and took it over to Hare and Hound. Gary and I worked together remotely and selected the pages to scan and print, Veda had requested a few in particular too. Once the prints were done Gary took them over to get framed. Somewhere along the line Veda got a cell phone and we started talking on a fairly regular basis. She was excited about the show. A smaller set of the prints had been sent to France for a show there, but Veda wasn’t able to come out for that. Doing the show in San Antonio was important for me because I wanted Veda to see her work framed and presented in a gallery context. She liked the idea that people saw her bibles as art.
About three weeks before the show was going to open Veda called me and told me that the church where she slept and worked on her bibles had come up with a new rule that no longer allowed her stay there. She said she didn’t want to stay in a homeless shelter because of bad prior experiences, and that she would be fined by the city if she slept in the park. I asked her what she wanted to do and she said she was going to try to save up some money for a bus to Georgia. I told her I’d buy her a ticket if she would consider coming back for the opening of her show. She said she’d like to do that. We agreed to talk once she got to Georgia and would then figure out how to get her back for the show. I told her I’d also put her up in a hotel when she came back to San Antonio. A few days passed and I got a message on my phone from Veda saying things weren’t working out in Georgia as she had planned. She sounded upset. I was really busy with school, I teach at Portland State University, so I didn’t get a chance to call her back right away. When I did her phone was no longer in service. I flew to San Antonio, the framed prints were dropped off at the gallery and I installed them. Shelby and I took a look around the church for Veda but there was no sign of her.
Veda didn’t make it to the show at Sala Diaz, but a curator from the BYU museum, Jeff Lambson, heard about the show and bought all of the pieces for the museum’s collection. The museum paid me, and I then hired one of my grad student Connie Hockaday to contact shelters in Texas to try to find Veda. Eventually she was found and we made arrangements for her to receive the payment. When I talked to Veda on the phone she said she had given 10% of the money to the church near where I’d originally met her. She asked that money be used to buy sleeping bags for people who were homeless.