Joe Foster’s cardboard

Joe Foster is a portrait painter who calls the Smith’s Falls area home. His subjects are those individuals who no longer have a place to call home.

Joe paints his portraits on cardboard, something that gets tossed out all the time and can be found discarded in alleyways. This was not lost on Joe who found beauty in the tiny tears and imperfections of a cardboard surface; a surface, he feels, suited to the faces of the homeless.

Joe is a beaming bear of a guy with a bear’s laugh who took an early pension from a factory job in Perth due to an injury. It seemed like half the patrons at the Tim’s where we met knew him, but his deep connection is with the clients of the Smith’s Falls mission where he and his wife Nicole Foster volunteer.

After 20 years of making a meagre living painting landscapes and commissions, Joe had found his niche. “I know them by name and rush every Monday and Wednesday to see them and talk. To find out what are their concerns and desires. What bothers them and what makes them happy.”

Joe has a unique vantage point from which to understand the homeless, mostly men who have fallen by society’s wayside, but a soup kitchen is its own temporary society in which hierarchies form. There are the regulars, and then there are those who the regulars regard as taking too much. Joe sees the irony of how a community that is usually snubbed on the street has its own class system. “Some things don’t change due to financial wellbeing. There are those up on the top shelf and there’s a ladder there that others will never climb. So how is that different from society at large?”

A portrait begins with a friendly conversation followed by a photograph. The final work is symbolically framed in gilded gold by a man of faith who recognizes that while “society has passed these people over, God has not. He still sees the beauty in every one of them.” The subject receives an honourarium of 20 bucks and a portion of the sale goes back into the mission.

After only a year of portraiture, Joe has already produced about 30 works and collectors are lining up. Buyers want to know the whole story behind those faces, and there are great stories to share.

“Cockroach Pete is actually a man named Percy but because his room was overrun with cockroaches we started calling him cockroach Pete. Then one day he shows up with a custom printed shirt with the name Cockroach Pete written across it. Funny guy and now a good friend.”

Then there was that guy who was just passing through town and “stopped in for a bowl of Nicole’s soup and some conversation” recalls Joe. “He went on to tell me he spent his whole life avoiding hard work and his honesty made me laugh.”

Joe Foster (CENTRE) with his wife Nicole and the gang outside of the mission in Smith’s Falls where they both volunteer.

The community that Joe has embraced at the mission gives unto him as he has given unto them. The back injury that ended his employment at the factory still limits his abilities, but Joe can always count on the mission folk to return love and fellowship. They are there for him when heavy lifting needs to be done or when wood needs to be stacked in the fall. “I was kind of the old mindset of ‘well if they’d just get a job’…but really, there are some that just can’t hold down a job. They need support for their meds or whatever. They have no one. I have a family, and I have them”.

Joe will soon return to landscapes, those known so well to his portrait subjects. “Keep your babbling brooks and apple orchards but give me a back alley with a rusty fire escape and I’m there!”.

Joe Foster’s profile and portfolio can be seen at