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HOLMBERG: Homeless artist draws on inspiration from strangers

Posted at 10:25 PM, Jan 02, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-02 22:25:31-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Albert C. Trower has been around. In and out of rooming houses and occasional jail cells for burglary, the 54-year-old drifter has grown fond of sleeping and living outdoors.

He doesn't call it being homeless. "I'm camping," he said recently.

The main label he attaches to himself is artist.

His nicknames are "Art-boy" and "Cartoon." He has a sweet portfolio of his hand-drawn depictions of celebrities and civil rights leaders, tattoo designs, his own cartoon characters and board games he has invented.

He is known in the Hull Street/Broad Rock area of South Richmond for his sign painting, murals neighborhood, and for being an untamed character.

Art has been at the center of his life practically from the start, he told me as we looked over some of his drawings.

"I was seven and watched my brothers draw," he recalls. "They'd look back and say, 'You'll never be able to do this.' By the time I was 9, I was running circles around them. I never lost an art contest."

But he has had a hard time coloring inside the lines when it comes to living.

His haphazard existence has led to the loss of two big portfolios, and the one he has now has been damaged by rain and rough handing.

But what remains is enough to testify to his gift. (Watch the video and see for yourself.) "He's an amazing artist," says Amy Waldrop of Mechanicsville, who met Albert when her contractor husband, Mike Gill, was working on a South Richmond house where Albert was doing gardening and odd jobs.

Mike Gill is the kind of guy who likes to lend a helping hand, but isn't big on handouts. He commissioned Albert to do a drawing of his wife's father for a Christmas present.

They were both so pleased, they hired him to do portraits of two granddaughters--depictions that are richly detailed and representative of the girl's personalities.

The couple strongly believe in Albert's gift. They have brought him a new sketch pad and pencils, along with making sure he has warm clothes and a good meal now and then.

Amy contacted me, hoping I could get the word out about this hidden artist on the streets.

She admits she hasn't had any experience with homeless people, and wouldn't know where to start to unravel the complex knot of issues that leads so many to live outside the lines.

But she and her husband believe an answer might lie in helping people like Albert use their gifts to find their way home.

"I'd like to see Albert get off the streets," she said. "To have a warm bed and have a shower every day, to be able to sit at a table beside and do his art."

Mike would like to see Albert "do the right thing and take care of himself, by using his art."

Albert Trower said he is very grateful for the inspiration and encouragement from these two strangers who have been touched by his art.

He's had plenty of chances before to step it up, he said. He'd really like to see his gift grow.

"My goal is just to be known all across Virginia," Albert Trower said, "because that's where I'm from anyway. And that's all. If it goes across the country, fine. I'll take the growth."