Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Elise Hill aka Lee Rogers, artist and homeless person

Photo credit: Julie Glassberg for The New York Times

Photo credit: Julie Glassberg for The New York Times

Photo credit: Karen Gehres

Begging Naked, trailer for a documentary about Elise Hill, 
artist and homeless person

                     click this link.

In the late 1980's and 1990's I used to street vend on West 53rd Street, near the Museum of Modern Art. I was one of the few female vendors, who worked there regularly. One of the other women vendors was an extraordinary person, named Elise Hill. I think she calls herself Lee Rogers now, mostly.

Elise was - and still is - exceptional in every way. She came to work in beautiful, hand embroidered clothes that she'd made herself. She had a really cool folding table, which served as her artist's easel, while she sold her artwork. In those days her work was almost exclusively paintings of cats, one of which I bought and gave to a friend. I wish I'd bought more. She also created small pins of landscapes and beautiful jewelry.

After a couple of years of seeing her regularly selling on West 53rd, one day I didn't see Elise for a long time. We met by chance on the street and she invited me to see where she lived, which really surprised me and felt like a compliment because Elise usually kept to herself. She took me to see her place, which seemed to be a dumbwaiter shaft at the top of the building. It was inconceivable that a human being could live in such a miniature place in New York City. But she had transformed this impossible place, which she said she was paying $600 a month for, into a home and artist's atelier.

She showed me some of the art she created that she did not sell on the street. They were incredibly beautiful drawings and paintings of fairy tale worlds, of nature, portraits and animals. Breathtakingly lovely. Now, looking at her images of the life she led as a stripper and prostitute I am amazed how not beautiful they are, how ugly really, which maybe expresses how she must have felt about that aspect of her life, although when she told me she worked as a stripper, she seemed matter of fact and okay about it as a way of making a living.

When I've seen Elise a couple of times at the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park in the last couple of years, she has drawings she sells for about $100 or so dollars of birds. She has become renowned for her images of birds. They have the beauty of her old paintings. Elise regularly sits quietly and privately at a table in the cafeteria section of the boathouse and is known by many people, who visit her and buy her drawings there. I don't know how she's managed to survive living in Central Park during the last brutally cold winters but she has and looks well. She is a gifted artist, courageous too. I wish her every happiness and well being.

Photo credit: Karen Gehres
"After Audubon, an Artist of the Park
Character Study


To survive on the street, Lee Rogers has developed a niche that is a far cry from the typical panhandling or bottle redemption.

She spends her days painting small, detailed watercolor studies of bird species she spots in the Ramble, Central Park’s wooded avian haven, where she also refills a network of feeders.
Ms. Rogers sells her paintings — like the one she was working on last week of a great horned owl — by word of mouth to the regular birders of the Ramble. She also takes commissions from nonbirders who spy her painting at her regular work spot in the Boathouse cafe at the Ramble’s eastern edge. She recently sold a local dog-walker a whimsical rendering of three tufted titmice gathered at a child’s feet with a park scene in the background.

Ms. Rogers picks nighttime sleeping spots near the park — usually the steps of churches like St. Jean Baptiste on East 76th Street or Madison Avenue Presbyterian at 73rd Street — but now with the colder weather, she said, she has migrated to a nearby women’s shelter.

This allows her to arrive early at the cafe, a less expensive part of the restaurant that is base camp for the regular birders, who can be recognized by their cameras, binoculars and bird books. Ms. Rogers’s only bird-watching equipment is a sketchbook that she takes into the Ramble to make pencil drawings of birds, and notes about their colors, to inform her small, neat paintings, nearly pointillist renderings.

Occasionally, she allowed, she may stop a birder for a quick photo consultation when stumped on a particular feature, as she did recently to more accurately depict the eyes of that great horned owl she saw in a tree on the point that juts into the lake across from Bethesda Terrace.

One Wednesday morning after a breakfast of coffee and oatmeal, she settled into her corner atelier: her small, square table in the corner of the cafe surrounded by large windows overlooking the Ramble and the lake, with a radiator at her feet.

“I just can’t sit in a Starbucks and paint this stuff,” she said. “I have to see trees. I have to be in the element and in the moment.”

She pulled out a modest watercolor set from her backpack and set it down, along with a brown paper package holding a dozen paintings and sketches in progress. There was a half-painted sketch of two downy woodpeckers fighting over a peanut, and one of a northern saw-whet owl — spotted in the Shakespeare Garden — being pestered by a group of jays.

She pulled the plastic lid off her coffee cup, to serve as a palette. Then she moistened her brush and began applying shades of brown to the feathers of an owl depicted against a stylized backdrop of oversize autumn leaves.

She asks about $100 apiece, “enough to tide me over for a week,” she said, adding that each painting takes about that long to complete, with all the painstaking layers of detailed colors.

“As soon as you start doing things faster, you lose the joy of it,” said Ms. Rogers, whose hearty mountain-woman look contrasts with that of the polished urbanites and tourists who tend to ask for directions and inquire about the latest bird sightings.

Her long braids spill out from her green birder’s hat, down over her wool sweater. Her long green shorts give the appearance of lederhosen over her long underwear. She wears thick leggings and heavy boots. Her crooked walking stick leans nearby.

Ms. Rogers, whose speech has a hard New York-accented shell that often gives way to a Southern twang, said she grew up in Virginia but would not give her age or many details about her life other than saying she has been homeless for many years but has avoided drugs and alcohol. Her face is smooth and her eyes are clear. Painting here is her escape from life on the streets, she said.

“This is my spot — I can exist here,” she said. “I stay in the park to avoid the urban sector, which is where I get anxious.”

The cafe allows her to paint there because she is neat and polite, she said. “Also, I paint the owner a Christmas card every year,” she said, giving a chuckle as she returned to her brushwork, filling in the fine filigree of the feathers from memory."

The Begging Naked documentary FaceBook page

BEGGING NAKED began when Elise Hill asked fellow artist Karen Gehres to record her life on videotape. With straightforward honesty, Elise recounts how at age 15 she left an abusive home and wound up on the streets of New York as a prostitute, stripper and drug addict. Her sense of humor and striking face just barely conceal her pain. Years later she entered rehab and started selling her art, but soon returned to stripping, recreating graphic images from the clubs she worked in.

An excellent blog page about the film, Begging Naked, with a couple of Elise's paintings.

Photo credit: Karen Gehres
Curtsies and Hand Grenades
Blowing shit up, looking cute, writing about movies.

The very moment Elise was evicted from the miniature space in which she lived for years, the moment Elise became homeless, standing outside what had been her home with whatever possessions she could salvage in a short time and attempt to take with her. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015
"Female Filmmaker Project: Begging Naked (Karen Gehres, 2007)

***note:This film was not part of the scheduled 52 movies for this project, but after viewing it I decided to review it for this project***

More than anything I think this film cements the importance of sex work as a viable job for some women. Legislators and lawmakers that are so protective towards these women do more harm than good, by cutting off their source of income as they find their way onto the streets without a job. That is the case for Begging Naked's Elise Hill whose life begins to unravel after Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani wiped out the sex shops and prostitution that used to make up the culture of 42nd Street in favour of the now disneyfication of the area. Elise Hill's life wasn't pretty when she was stripping for a living, but it was still a life worth living, and in putting her out on the streets she was cut off from a world she had much to give to.

Elise Hill was a runaway at age 15. Her household was physically abusive, and she ran off to New York to be an artist. She wanted more than anything to go to art school, and found her way into sex work once she arrived. She struggled for a very long time, and started using heroin to cope with her life, but she came to a realization during those difficult years, kicked those drugs and put her way through art school by selling paintings on the side. When the film begins it's seven year journey she goes back to stripping at the age of 30 to support herself, but continued to paint. She was an artist first and foremost and took great pride in the work she was creating, which at this time was portraits of the slimy men and beautiful women of these clubs. She had great compassion for her friends she was painting, and in 1997 seemed to have her life put together even if she was living a very small life. Regardless it was a happy one. Then the streets she grew up on were painted in a different kind of capitalism and she lost everything.

This eventual spiral is what makes up the majority of Begging Naked's narrative as the camera mostly just follows Elise around from place to place as she attempts to sell her art, as her life begins to come apart at the seems. It's a difficult narrative to take in, because all of this was preventable, but in trying to clean up the streets of New York City, Giuliani only crowded them with good people. 

Elise was one of those good people, and it's downright tragic to see her lose control of her mind towards the end of the picture. She struggles with feelings of paranoia mostly, and begins to think that the CIA are listening in on her, but she finds a kind of solace in that belief as she begins to jot down everything in a journal. She thinks they are listening and one day what she's writing will be available for everyone to read, because they will post it on the internet. In a way this film is that journal, and director Karen Gehres gave her that wish.

The most striking aspect of this film is it's depiction of homelessness not as something that happens to specific people, but a thing that can happen to anyone. Gehres' humanity towards her friend comes through as she doesn't paint Elise as a tragic figure, but one of perseverance. We see the moment she gets kicked out of her apartment, but it doesn't end with a cut to black and then her on the streets. We see Elise fight for her possessions that she holds dear and the cat that's been living with her, whom she loves. She takes her paintings as well, because this is her lifeblood and later on even when she is on the streets she is creating art. It's good art too, as her paintings symbolize a confidence in portrait as she painted a type of person who isn't shown as beautiful very often: the women of the capitalist sexual world who are doing jobs just to get by. She has a kinship with those women, because she is one of them, and Gehres respects that. The movie states that her art today resides in a stocking room warehouse collecting dust, and Elise is still living in Central Park.

Posted by Willow Maclay"

Roger Ebert's wonderful review of the film

By Roger Ebert
"A reader, Jim Leff of New York, sent me a DVD of "Begging Naked" and strongly suggested I look at it. I did, and found it an amazing documentary about an extraordinary person, made with complete access to its subject over a period of 20 years. I immediately contacted its director, Karen Gehres, inviting her and the film to this festival. She told me, to my amazement, that the film had found no distribution.
I find it fascinating both from a personal level, as the life of this woman, and on a social level, as observations about art, the sex industry and the road to homelessness. What makes it invaluable is that Elise Hill is an intelligent, articulate and perceptive observer-- and that she and Karen Gehres were talking together over so many years without this film even necessarily in mind.
Begging Naked Movie StillHere is what Gehres writes on the "Begging Naked" website (Click on "About" for info, and on the other links for Elise's Paintings):
I became friends with Elise Hill while working at a paint store in 1989. We were both artists and became best friends. It is that close friendship that made the filming of this difficult subject possible.

Elise had always wanted to write her autobiography. In 1996, I was given an internship at Film/Video Arts. Elise asked me to videotape her stories "for the record." I had full access to production equipment. It was during my time at F/VA that I began shooting "Begging Naked."

It began as a study of Elise's life. She wanted to tell her story of being a 15-year-old runaway to NYC, where a pimp quickly picked her up. She became a prostitute and heroin addict, all the while doing her artwork. Her dream was to go to art school. Eventually, when no whorehouse wanted her, as her "teeth were about to come out of her skull,” she entered a rehab. Out of rehab, she put herself thru art school while selling her artwork on the street.
She was a street vendor outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in front of the Art Students League. When she decided to go back into stripping at age 30, the story went on an unpredictable course. Over the next 7 years, Mayor Giuliani wiped out the sex businesses on 42nd Street leaving Elise unemployed. Elise began to spiral mentally out of control, stopped paying rent and was eventually evicted. She now lives in Central Park.

All of these events have been documented in "Begging Naked." The events in Elise's life have dictated the 9 years of production. We experience, in front of our eyes, the very moment Elise becomes homeless. I believe this is one of the most important parts of the film. It unflinchingly shows how a person can end up on the street. They don't just sprout there. Everyone out there has a story.
"Begging Naked" brings up many issues simply because Elise lives them. Elise is homelessness. She is the relationship between sexuality, human fulfillment and identity. She is the runaway, the abused, and the mentally ill. Most importantly, she is the Artist."

"Begging Naked": Nine Years in the Making

November 4, 2007 | By Leah Hochbaum Rosner

Evicted: Karen Gehres thought Elise Hall had a film-worthy past. When Elise lost her apartment, the story changed dramatically.

Evicted: Karen Gehres thought Elise Hall had a film-worthy past. When Elise lost her apartment, the story changed dramatically.

When artist and newbie filmmaker Karen Gehres turned her camera on her friend and fellow painter Elise Hill, she thought she’d capture a few cool stories about Hill’s past as a runaway, a heroin addict, a stripper, and a prostitute—all while learning how to use her shiny new film equipment. Then Hill lost her stripper job as part of the Times Square clean-up orchestrated by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, started behaving in an erratic manner, got evicted and began living in Central Park. Very quickly, Gehres realized she’d be making a very different movie from the one she’d originally envisioned.

The resulting documentary, Begging Naked, which chronicles Hill’s nine-year descent into paranoia and homelessness, is currently making the festival rounds, having recently played the Hollywood Film Festival, the Chicago Underground Film Festival, the Woodstock Film Festival, the New Orleans Film Festival, and Manhattan’s E.vil City Film Fest, where it was named “Best of Fest.” The movie, which is still in search of a distributor, will soon make its way to the New Jersey International Film Festival as well, where it will have three showings beginning November 2nd. The Independent recently spoke with Gehres about the trials and tribulations of shooting her first film, the pain of watching her friend’s life spiral out of control and her hope that Begging Naked will somehow get Hill the help she so desperately needs.

Why did you decide to make Begging Naked?

I met Elise in 1989. We’re both painters and she walked into a paint store I worked at on 13th Street in New York. We hit it off immediately and became really good friends. Over time, I found out about her background as a runaway and a stripper and about her drug use. In 1996, I got an internship at Film/Video Arts, [a non-profit New York film school and media arts training program]. I had access to film equipment, which I was learning to use. Elise saw me fiddling with it and said I should practice on her. She said she knew she was never going to write her autobiography, but she wanted to tell her stories. I didn’t even have a tripod. It was the first time I had ever pressed record. I thought it was just going to be a few stories about a teen runaway and how things went badly for her—but it turned out to be so much more. I met her after a stint in rehab, after she’d cleaned herself up and was selling her artwork and jewelry on the streets. She was really burnt out from doing that, though, so she soon decided to go back to stripping. Shortly after that, Giuliani came in and started wiping out 42nd Street, and in the process, he wiped out a way of life for a lot of people, including Elise.
Is that when things started going downhill for Elise?

Yup, that’s when she really started losing it mentally. She said the CIA was coming to get her, the mob was after her. She stopped paying rent because the guy she was subletting from was in on the conspiracy too. She ended up getting evicted and that very day she put together a cart and went to a church and slept there. She lives in Central Park now. She’s still doing amazing artwork in the park, though.

What does she do with it?

I sell it for her and give her the cash. She doesn’t want to hear about having a bank account because then “they” will come get her. Prices range, but I sold one of her pieces for $1,000. She can really make money last. I’m scared every time I give her the cash. I’m afraid people will know she has money and kill her for it. She’s not a wallflower, though. She’s a big girl, five-foot-ten, knows martial arts. She had a boyfriend who was a Vietnam vet. He taught her a lot about survival.
Have you tried to get her some help?

Many times. But she’s got her routine down and it’s hard to get her to go anywhere. The minute she hears that a place might have rules or a curfew she won’t do it. She doesn’t want any restrictions. She wants her freedom. So she’d rather take her chances out on the street.

What was it like watching a close friend go through these things?

It was exhausting. In the beginning, it was fantastic because it’s so much fun spending time with Elise. She’s very funny. Never feels sorry for herself. And it was great for her because she was getting down all the stories she knew she’d never get to tell otherwise. But when things got bad, it was really hard to listen. I didn’t just show up for this job—I’d known her for years. It was frustrating because I couldn’t stop anything from happening.

The film took you nine years to complete. Why so long?

Easy. When we started, I never knew these things would happen. It was just supposed to be an exercise in learning how to shoot. Things unfolded quickly, though, after that. Every time I thought it was the end of the story, it wasn’t. I couldn’t foresee that she was going to get evicted, that she’d live on the streets. She was an artist who danced. It was never going to be a story about homelessness. And then it was.

How much footage did you have after shooting for nearly a decade?

Surprisingly, not a crazy amount—maybe 70 hours. It was manageable. And I got it down to 73 minutes. We didn’t shoot every day. I don’t like overdoing it. Plus, it was shot on whatever camera was available at Film/Video Arts each time we wanted to shoot. So some of it is shot on High 8. Some of it is on Super-VHS. But so far, audiences have been telling me they can’t tell the difference—that the story is the important thing.

You’ve been making the festival rounds these last few weeks. How many did you apply to before you landed your first one?

I can’t even tell you how many festivals we were rejected from. There was so much rejection, you can’t believe it. But I learned a lot. I learned to never apply to a festival before a film is done. I learned how hard it is for a first-time filmmaker with a first-time movie to apply. The Nantucket Film Festival was the first festival to say yes. Once they said the movie was okay, other festivals seemed to think it was okay too. Thank God for Nantucket. If not for them, I’d probably still be floating in space.

Do you anticipate getting theatrical distribution?

I certainly hope so. There have been a few offers, but I don’t want to jinx things until they’re finalized.

Has Elise seen the film?

No, I’ve asked her many times. She loved being in front of a camera. She saw it as a way of getting her conspiracy stories on tape. But I think she’s a little scared to see it because every time I ask her to watch it, she says: “I want to see it in a real theater in New York—none of this festival crap.”
When all is said and done, what do you hope Begging Naked will accomplish?
I’m hoping that something good comes out of this for Elise—something bigger than selling a couple of her paintings here and there. I want her to be somewhere safe, somewhere she can have her freedom.

Leah Hochbaum Rosner is a freelance writer living in New York City.

Her friend through thick and thin

When Karen Gehres started taping her pal Elise Hill for a video biography, 
she didn't expect a tragedy.

October 17, 2007|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

Her name is Elise Hill. She is in her 40s and has been homeless since 2001. She spends her days in New York City's Central Park and her nights on the sidewalks.

A onetime heroin addict who worked as a stripper and prostitute, she is also an accomplished painter, sculptor and maker of costume jewelry who was evicted from the home she had known for two decades -- above an elevator shaft in a converted maids' quarters on the roof of an upscale building in Midtown Manhattan. The rooftop was her artist's loft.

Her poignant story is captured in a feature-length documentary titled "Begging Naked," by director and writer Karen Gehres, who spent nine years chronicling Elise's story, beginning with her friend's love of painting, to her work in a brothel catering to well-heeled clients, including members of the United Nations, to her gradual descent into paranoia and mental illness.

"It's been horrible; it's been horrendous," Gehres said in a recent phone call from New York, reflecting on the emotional toll a decade of filming Elise has taken on her.

Many times, Gehres said, she wanted to stop. But "I didn't know how it was going to end," she explained. "Every time I thought it was over, it wasn't over."

When she proposed finding a place for Elise to stay, she was met with resistance.

"She has all these conditions on everything, or paranoia about going anywhere," Gehres said. "If I had money to put her in a place where she didn't have to pay rent, I would love to do that. That's a goal. Just get her out of there." But Elise would claim "either the mob is after her, or the CIA is after her."

The documentary will be shown Sunday night at the ArcLight in Hollywood as part of the 11th annual Hollywood Film Festival. The festival opens today and ends with a gala at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Monday honoring actors Richard Gere, Marion Cotillard, John Travolta, Casey Affleck, Ellen Page, writer Diablo Cody, director Marc Forster and others.

Carlos de Abreu, the festival's founder and executive director, said "Begging Naked" is part of this year's festival theme of "giving voice to the voiceless."

Other films include Teddy Leifer's "We Are Together," a look at a 12-year-old and her friends in a South African orphanage who overcome tragedy through singing; Johnson McKelvy's "Kabul Girls Club," a film about women in Afghanistan's capital who form the first women's soccer league; Sara Bavar's "Generation Tehran," which focuses on young people living in Iran; and Aida Schlaepfer's "Gangs of Baghdad," shedding light on a little-reported side of life in Iraq's capital.

Gehres said that every place "Begging" screens, people ask if they can purchase Elise Hill's arresting artwork.

The director said she has put her friend's paintings into storage, selling only a few pieces to provide Elise with enough cash to live on. "She doesn't trust banks," said Gehres, adding that she is reluctant to sell many more paintings, believing that in time the art world will discover Elise's talent and the prices could soar, allowing her friend to get off the streets forever.

A freelance field producer, Gehres met Elise in 1989. Both were painters, and Gehres was working in an art supply shop.

"Elise walked into the store where I was working. We just started talking. We just clicked. She was bright and funny and talented. But she decided to go back to stripping, and I was really upset."

Gehres didn't start shooting her film until 1996. She was taking video arts classes at the time and had access to a camera. Elise told her, "Come on up and practice on me. I'll never write my autobiography, but we can at least get it on tape."

Elise was living a block from Carnegie Hall inside an apartment building. "Basically, she lived on the roof above the elevator shaft," Gehres said. "It was very long and narrow. It kind of felt like a boat. She carved out these little round windows herself because there were no windows. She lived there 20 years."

Elise came from an upper-middle-class family in New Jersey. Why she left home is a bit unclear, but Elise talks on film about a fight she had with her dad. "She landed in New York -- literally walked over the George Washington Bridge, walked downtown to Union Square Park, which had the nickname 'Needle Park' back then," Gehres said. "It was filled with pimps and heroin pushers. She was young, just a teenager. She met a guy and got hooked on heroin."

Gehres said Elise went into rehab and weaned herself off heroin, but she kept working the streets. Her descent into mental illness occurred gradually.

"She said the only time that she was ever medicated for anything was when she was in rehab," Gehres recalled. "That is when she was 17 or 18 years old. When the paranoia kicked in full force, she stopped paying rent. The guy she was renting that place from -- that little shaft -- had had enough."

One of the most painful scenes is the day of Elise's eviction, when she wraps herself with layers of clothing, puts her cat into a carrier and struggles with her belongings on the sidewalk.

Elise can be found most days at Central Park's boathouse.

Despite Elise's plight, Gehres is hopeful for her friend's future. "Knowing Elise, anything could happen."

A few more links about the documentary, Begging Naked

Photo credit: Karen Gehres


  1. This is a beautiful film about a remarkable woman. To see her life and her mind unravel is shocking, yet her ability to go through it with grace - yet with much delusion and confusion - is an experience that haunts me.

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