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Two artists show lives of the homeless through their exhibit

Life’s a game.

Sometimes it’s Risk, sometimes Worst Case Scenario.

And sometimes it’s a game of chess, played by a solitary soul sitting in a vacant storefront.

Those people are the inspiration for “Third World America” at the Eden Art Studio and Gallery through early January, which explores homelessness in Las Vegas while trying to reduce it.

Artists Justin Lepper (the gallery’s co-founder) and Daniel Miller may take different approaches to the subject, but their focus remains the same: reflecting the humanity behind the homelessness.

“I’m hoping these images just help people understand,” Miller says of his subjects, who are “in a place all of us could be in.”

He’s standing in the gallery, flanked by 22 haunting images of homeless Las Vegans — but not the one who inspired this series of paintings in the first place.

Miller found his inspiration for “Third World America” when he was driving downtown to attend the opening of another Eden gallery exhibit of his work.

Driving past an abandoned commercial building on West Charleston Boulevard, he noticed a cart and a sleeping bag in the foyer — along with their owner, who was playing chess by himself.

Miller “was so struck” by the image, he says, in part because “I was just so used to looking away” — and in part because “I was taken with this guy,” who was so engaged in his game, despite the fact that “he may have lost everything.”

Miller saw it as a painting, although he hasn’t painted that particular scene. (Yet.)

Instead, the passing glimpse inspired him to start painting the homeless from photographs he’s taken.

One, “Sleeping Under the Neon,” captures several subjects, sprawled on the pavement near the Plaza hotel-casino on Main Street. Others — “Shoeless in Vegas,” “Faceless,” “Somebody’s Dad” — depict individuals. Some are in action, some in repose, but all radiate desperation.

Initially, Miller approached his subjects, gave them $5 and asked to take their pictures, but the direct encounters triggered an unexpected reaction.

“They become self-conscious,” he explains, “and start posing.”

So Miller bought a longer lens and photographed his subjects from a distance, reasoning “if I could do this and give the proceeds to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, I’d be helping” in a different way. (Both Miller and Lepper have pledged 50 percent of their “Third World America” proceeds to the alliance.)

Lepper gets much closer to his subjects for his works, which juxtapose board games — from the classic ( Life, Operation) to the suddenly timely (1989’s Trump: The Game) — and cardboard signs made by homeless people asking for help.

“Hungry Anything Helps … Thank you … ” reads one sign, which Lepper has attached to a board from Big Business: The Newest National Money Game.

A Las Vegas-centric combination, “Everyday is Ben Franklen Day,” features toy money and tiny craps tables.

Lepper’s favorite pairs a homeless veteran’s sign with the board for A Line in the Sand: The Battle for Iraq, a game about the first Gulf War.

Another, “Nightmare,” features a Wonder Woman figurine — representing the former life of a 72-year-old subject who “was Wonder Woman” at one time, Lepper explains. “I like that it tells a story.”

Lepper introduces himself to his subjects and offers them money for their signs — along with water, cardboard and markers to make new ones.

Initially, Lepper offered $5 for each sign, but press coverage of two previous exhibits devoted to the homeless prompted some to increase their asking price to $20 — a dollar more than what it costs “to get a place at The Salvation Army,” he explains.

From a 13-year-old in a wheelchair to an unemployed nuclear physicist, “these people have burnt themselves into my head,” Lepper admits. “A year later, I’ll see the same man — in some cases (there’s) revitalization, and in others, deterioration.”

Given “Third World America’s” sobering subject matter, “it has been a bit of a challenge” to pursue the project, acknowledges Miller, who’s represented elsewhere in Las Vegas by such large-scale sculptures as the Fountain of the Gods in the Forum Shops at Caesars and Mandalay Bay’s guardian dragons. (His other commercial credits include such movies as “Stargate,” “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” and “The Rocketeer.”)

But “every time I paint one of these, I wonder who would ever want one,” he says of his paintings of the homeless, some of which he hopes wind up in “a corporate environment.”

Miller’s also planning to paint more depictions of the homelessness — but with a different approach.

Unlike the current, observational works, he plans to “distill my own impressions and what it must be like,” Miller explains. “I’m not homeless, but I can empathize and get a sense of the vulnerability” of Las Vegas’ homeless population.

He’s also in the early stages of discussion regarding a mural project on Foremaster Lane, off Main Street, that will reflect one Las Vegas corner of “Third World America.”

As for Lepper, “I think I could do this the rest of my life,” he says. “I say causes pick us, we don’t pick them.”

For more stories from Carol Cling go to reviewjournal.com. Contact her at ccling@reviewjournal.com and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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