Richard Hutchins: the homeless artist who became an Oprah-endorsed sensation

·5 min read

On 4 April 2021, Richard Hutchins, 62, watched as a blue truck pulled into the supermarket parking lot at Ralph’s in Los Angeles. Richard had been homeless for six years. He didn’t know it then, but that blue truck was about to change his life.

At the age of six, he worked in the fields after school in Georgia. He used the brown bags provided, together with twigs from the fire to create charcoal stickmen. His passion for art grew from there and he made his first major sale of $1,500 at the age of just 15.

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For Richard, art is a part of who he is. “When I paint I put my life into it,” he told the Guardian.

However, his career was interrupted when Richard was sent to Los Angeles county jail. He was later found not guilty of the crime of which he had been accused and released. Being in a cell for 22 hours a day didn’t stop him from creating his work. Richard would write letters to his friends and draw on the outside of the envelopes in pencil. Despite not having access to paint, a chance discovery one day meant colour could once again be introduced into his work.

Sitting on the top bunk bed which he used as a table in his cell, Richard discovered the dye on some Skittles and M&Ms had run due to some wasted water. He took the hairs from his beard and made a paint brush to dip into the newly created colours. After that, Richard used anything he could get his hands on to paint with, including coffee, toothpaste and toilet paper.

At first it was trial and error. He sent out around 15-20 envelopes everywhere each week, to friends or any addresses he could get his hands on. On the bottom of each envelope, he noted the days of his jail time. He even became a featured artist in a gallery in Pasadena, California, after sending some of the envelopes there.

After the exhibition he donated the envelopes to UC Santa Barbara library, where they can still be seen hanging on the walls. In total, Richard painted about 200 envelopes while in jail. Now, prints of these envelope paintings are selling on his website for around $700, with the originals going for around $2,500 each. Richard tells me that a friend of his is also making them into a book.

What touched Richard the most was witnessing his inspiration of others in the jail to take up the brush. While locked up, Richard’s fake name he had been using was discovered. Until that time he had painted under the name of Drew Hill, claiming the NFL player’s name.

After Richard got out, he worked for a time in a studio in California, this time under his own name. However, when a fire destroyed the building, Richard lost around 800 pieces of his work. Soon after this, Richard became homeless. By 2021, Richard was living in a shelter as part of a scheme in LA that was housing the homeless during the pandemic. He had been homeless for six years.

In that blue van in April was Charlie “Rocket” Jabaley, 2Chainz’s previous manager who has become known for his Dream Machine. After chatting, Charlie gave Richard his number and said to call the next day. Richard added: “You hear that so much and nothing happens.”

“That wasn’t the case with these two guys.”

Charlie answered his call and the very next day he took Richard shopping for art supplies, buying him $2,000 worth of canvasses, paints and brushes. Everything Richard needed to get to work.

This chance encounter at Ralph’s later led to Richard’s work being featured on the walls of Sofitel gallery in Beverley Hills. That night, Richard arrived to 500 people photographing him and shouting his name.

Luckily, a good friend of Richard’s, Keith Polk, had held on to Richard’s work over the years, including the envelopes. In the first 10 minutes of the launch of his website, Richard made $12,554.

Since then, Richard has sold $250,000 worth of paintings with famous buyers of his paintings include Oprah, 2Chainz and Steve Harvey.

However, Charlie said despite this amazing event, he doesn’t want people to think about this money as being money “raised”: “I want Richard to be respected as an artist”.

Now, Richard sits with Charlie on a call, telling me what he hopes to do next.

He believes it’s his job to change the lives of others too. He becomes emotional at moments: “There’re so many people that are hurting and dying on the streets that shouldn’t be out there. Especially the women and the kids.”

LA’s inequality is a well-known issue, and yet the situation is only getting worse. Right now, there are 63,706 people experiencing homelessness in the county. Skid Row, an area in Los Angeles, has drawn a lot of media attention over the years. Richard cannot understand why the plight of these people is still being ignored by the government, but he is determined not to give up: “Sooner or later somebody is going to crack. I’m not going to stop trying.”

Richard is moving into his new place and hopes to be Charlie’s neighbour one day. Charlie certainly hopes so, he tells me Richard cooks a good breakfast.

Charlie has a story to share of his own. He began his career by managing rapper 2Chainz but was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He decided to pursue his dream of becoming an athlete.

He adds: “All my dreams had come true so I decided to go and make everyone else’s dreams come true.”

Charlie wants to be part of a generation that changes the world. Now, Richard believes his mission is to help others. “I need to carry the torch so much needs to be done and I’m going to use my art to do it,” he said.

Richard wants to create real change for the homeless of Los Angeles. He’s been trying to get the attention of the White House and is currently in talks with financial advisors with the aim to create the Jess Hutchins Foundation, which he is naming after his mother.

“I’m going to do it. You’ll hear about it.”

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