Joe Foster paints the homeless

Smith Falls Ont., artist befriends his models

Artist Joe Foster was sitting in church one Sunday morning when the minister asked for volunteers to help pass out meals to the homeless at a local mission.

“I felt I needed to give back to the community I live in. And I thought this was something I could do,” Forster recalls. “But when I got there, I found out that what they needed was volunteers to sit and eat with the people. They were in need of conversation as much as food.”

So, he talked to the homeless. The more Foster talked with them, the more they became an important part of his life. Friends. The artist in him marvelled at the character he found in their faces.

“I love painting people with character and life in their faces and here I stumbled on a goldmine of subjects.”

“You can’t be a sometime friend

Foster earns his living as an artist in the hamlet of Smith Falls an hour west of Ottawa. Painting character studies is a hard sell with his customers. They prefer landscapes or abstract studies. But the faces he saw were compelling him to put brush to canvas and paint them.

“So, sales or not, I have decided to paint my new friends.”

To unlock their character, he has to prove he cares for the people he paints. When they need a lift, he drives them or takes them out for a cuppa.

“You can’t be a sometimes friend; you have to be their true friend no matter where you meet them. You can’t be their friend at the mission then avoid them when you see them somewhere else.

“I meet with them outside the mission and really count them as friends,” he insists.

A cardboard canvas, a gold frame

Foster paints his friends on cardboard. He admits that cardboard is looked down on as a canvas, but likes it nevertheless.

“Cardboard reminds me of them – gritty, urban and real … earthy and honest, not pretending to be something else.”

He then sets off each humble canvas with a gold frame, “so that the common becomes extraordinary through art.”

NFB artist Douglas Manning inspired him

Joe Foster grew up on a 200-acre Ontario beef farm. As a youth, he drew constantly. His subjects, quite naturally, were the animals his parents raised. But the budding artist never imagined he could make a living putting brush to canvas until, at 19, he met National Film Board artist Douglas Manning who had just moved in down the road.

“I went over to introduce myself and he showed me his gallery in his basement and I couldn’t imagine that someone could create worlds the way this man did.

“I went on to study with other teachers, but none had the impact Douglas did,” Foster recalls.

Foster  works in oils, sometimes acrylic, but he likes the slower drying time of the oils. They give him more time to manipulate the paint while it’s wet.

He works from life as much as he can but normally people don’t have the time to invest in working that way so he uses photo references.

Foster’s work hangs in the corporate collection of the Metro Toronto Zoo and in collections as far away as France and South Africa.

But the needy have become his favorite subjects to work with.

“I know them by name and rush every Monday and Wednesday to see them and talk. To find out what are their concerns and desires. What bothers them and what makes them happy. And hopefully I can pour into them and make their life a little easier for a couple days.”


The artist’s work will be on display at the Atomic Rooster on Bank St. in Ottawa in April. There will also be a summer showing in Guelph. Ont. A portion of the sales will go to the Smith Falls Mission.

For more information about the art work of Joe Foster, email the artist at