Larry Vuckovich is a world famous jazz pianist who lives in Calistoga. Michael Koerber is a well respected painter in Petaluma who is homeless. They both share a passion for art and Michael is using his talent to get himself and his wife, Angie, off the streets. Larry Vuckovich is helping them by headlining a jazz concert at 7 pm., Aug. 22 at St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral, 90 Mountain View Ave. in Santa Rosa. Tickets are $30 apiece and can be purchased through Eventbrite at jazzart.eventbrite.com.
Michael Koerber, 61 and his wife Angie, 58 became homeless almost 10 years ago. They had raised families and worked hard their entire lives. Michael is an ex-Marine, proud of his time in the service. And throughout his life, he has always been an artist. He used his skills in the Marines, worked as a commercial artist when he left the service and was a popular street artist in New Orleans’ famed Jackson Square.
But when the recession started in 2007, people stopped buying portraits, commercial art jobs started to rapidly decrease. Michael and Angie moved to Florida where they could find work and affordable housing. Angie worked as a waitress and Michael bused tables, washed dishes and never gave up painting and drawing. He managed to keep selling some of his work. But as the economy worsened, Angie saw her tips getting less and less, her hours were cut back, and then she and Michael were laid off. They decided to come to Sonoma County to be closer to Angie’s grown children. They got jobs, but finding affordable housing was more difficult.
They had to choose between paying for groceries and a place to live or health insurance. They did not get insurance. Then Michael suffered a major heart attack. His stay in the hospital and care he needed once he was released, quickly depleted the money they had. They lost their apartment, paid to live in a hotel for as long as they could, and then lived in their car until it was towed six years ago.
They did not know where to go for help. They had been two independent and proud people who had always supported themselves, but now they were homeless, so they started living outside. The constants in their lives were the love they had for each other and Michael’s dedication to his art. He couldn’t afford expensive canvas and paints so he started creating art from found objects and donated art supplies. He became known as the “Hobo Artist” and his pictures are displayed in a rain culvert in Petaluma that he and Angie have christened the Gutter Gallery.
He paints in a variety of styles on glass as well as paper and canvas. His paintings are bold and colorful, full of energy and imagination, reminiscent of Marc Chagall, Willem de Koonig and even Van Gogh. His drawings display a meticulous attention to detail that calls to mind the work of Albrecht Durer.
He makes his paintings outside where his work is at the mercy of the weather and blowing debris, but he never gives up and people have started to notice and admire his work, bring him art supplies and buy his paintings.
Petaluma Police Officer Ryan DeBaeke, who heads up the city’s Homeless Outreach Services Team, brought Michael a set of paints. “I’ve developed a friendship with the Koerber’s,” he said. “They’ve figured out how to be homeless. They don’t cause any disturbances. They pick up after themselves. The businesses that they are near don’t have any issues with them. They’re good people,” he added.
In addition, Michael and Angie have become respected elders among the “homies” in their area. They are often consulted for advice, give help, especially to the newly homeless, and work to keep things safe and peaceful among a group of people with many different, difficult problems.
The nuns of Holy Assumption Monastery in Calistoga got to know Michael and Angie over the past year during their weekly visits to see their chiropractor in Petaluma. And each time the nuns came to see the chiropractor, they would speak with Michael and Angie. A friendship was born. “They are genuinely good, kind people who go out of their way to help other homeless people,” said Mother Melania, the Abbess of Holy Assumption Monastery.
The nuns grew to respect Michael and Angie’s kindness, cheerfulness and determination to change their circumstances.
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The nuns knew that homelessness brings a sense of loneliness that erodes the core of a person’s self-value. When you are homeless, a simple smile and a word of kindness can make a big difference in a day full of hardship.
“We do not go out looking for people to help,” said Mother Melania, “But sometimes people come into your life, not asking for anything. Michael and Angie came into our lives, and we wanted to help them.”
The nuns spoke with one of their parishioners, internationally acclaimed jazz musician, Larry Vuckovitch, about Michael and Angie. Their plight struck a chord with him. He offered to put on a benefit concert. “I know what it’s like for good people to become homeless,” said Larry. “I want to be part of helping them get back on their feet.”
Larry, who is in his 82nd year, was born in Montenegro, in the former Yugoslavia. As a small child he saw the Nazis take over his town and country. His family lost their home and successful business and after the war, the Communist leadership jailed his father for two and a half years because of his American citizenship and anti-Communist sentiment. When he was released, he moved the entire family to the United States where Larry was free to pursue his dreams of becoming a musician.
He has won acclaim from critics and jazz audiences for his deeply imaginative style and repertoire that have been heard at prestigious North American and European jazz clubs, concert halls and festivals. He is as equally at home in world music/classically influenced modal jazz, as he is with hard-swinging bebop, post-bop, contemporary jazz, and down-home blues. The New York Times said,
“Larry’s unique outlook and collection of influences set him apart from most pianists who are regularly heard in New York.” The Toronto Globe and Mail calls him “a musician who sits apart from the rest by virtue of his taste for both the exotic and the exquisite.”
Larry has worked with such masters as Philly Joe Jones, Dexter Gordon, Tom Harrell, Bobby Hutcherson, Charlie Haden, Jon Hendricks, Mel Torme and Tony Bennett just to name a few. He became a pioneer in the U.S. for combining the Balkan Folk influences with Jazz.
The benefit concert for Michael and Angie will take the audience on a musical journey for a night of swinging jazz, including bebop contemporary jazz, bluesy/funky sounds, Latin/Brazilian, Balkan Ethnic and other world music. Larry is excited to bring this concert to Santa Rosa featuring Sanna Craig, Larry’s wife, performing vocals and playing the bongos, and a young, phenomenal new discovery on the guitar, Kai Lyons.
Michael and Angie will be at the concert, and Michael’s art will be on display and for sale.
Tickets are $30.00 and can be purchased through Eventbrite by going to jazzart.eventbrite.com.