PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The beat-up 1989 Dodge van carries a sign with a question: "How has the recession affected you?" Along the side, a request: "Tell me your story."
Scrawled in marker across the orange paint are hard-luck tales: "My grandma lost her house and my dad is working less hours," signed Peoria, AZ. "I lost my job, my home, my car & was homeless for 6 months. This was the first time in 27 yrs I was out of work," signed Sue W.
The man behind the wheel is Aaron Heideman, 29, an artist from Grants Pass, Ore., who in the past year began sleeping in the van on a mattress he bought for a six-pack of beer and lost his job at a paint store. He hit the road July 1 with what he calls "The Man in a Van Project," angling for a $250,000 prize at an art fair.
"I just want to give people a voice," he said during a stop in Rhode Island, the 20th state he stopped in during what he calls a nationwide conceptual art piece. His media, as he describes it: a 50-yard roll of Tyvek, a Dodge van, and a homeless man (himself). His final destination is Grand Rapids, Mich., home of ArtPrize, where he plans to display his project in September and October.
During Heideman's stops, he unscrolls several feet of the roll, lays it in front of the van with a couple of Sharpie markers, and encourages passers-by to pause for a minute and add their thoughts.
"I lost my job 10 month ago, and I'm still unemployed. I don't have family here and I need help," signed Denis Chavez.
"My parents are always fighting about money," wrote Melissa Curry, 17, of Johnston, R.I.
Heideman estimates that thousands of people have written messages on the banner and van.
"I like the fact that this is a way for regular folks to tell a story," said Aaron Phaneuf, 32, of Newport, R.I., a fundraiser at Brown University, after he wrote a note about the difficulties he's had raising money these days.
Roger D'Ambra, 25, lost his job at a grocery store 5 1/2 months ago and has a 4-year-old daughter to support.
"I know 1,000 people out there hurting," he said after writing a message. "Maybe this will actually help."
Some messages are hopeful.
"All my college savings were in the stock market. But I'm not giving up. I've cut back on a lot of things I thought I could never live without and I'm a better person for it. DON'T GIVE UP AMERICA!" signed Melissa Charette, a student at Johnson and Wales University in Providence.
"Started my own business," reads another.
"I am a professional musician. People need and want my music more than ever," signed Michelangelo Carruba.
Heideman said one of the things that's struck him the most is the positive outcomes people get from their new circumstances.
"A lot of people are getting closer to their families, and they value community more than ever," he said. "People are learning what they need to do to turn their situation around. It seems that people are focusing less on money now."
Heideman tried to stop longer in states hit hardest by the recession: Rhode Island has the country's second-highest unemployment rate, at 12.7 percent, for example. But he says he found hard-luck stories even in states like Maryland and New Jersey that he had planned to skip.
Along the way, a belt on the van gave out, and a water pump. He's run out of gas on occasion. He's also run out of food, and money, and had to turn to donations from strangers to get by. He's been lucky enough to find people who have fixed his van for little or no money.
To save cash, Heideman eats a lot of refried beans, cold and straight from the can. He buys them with jalapenos because the beans taste hot that way.
Now, his alternator is on its last legs. But he's got about $500 in donations, made through his Web site, and thinks that should be enough to get him to Pittsburgh, where he plans to be on Monday and Tuesday, Indiana, Chicago and Michigan, where he plans to make several stops before ending in Grand Rapids by Sept. 15.
There, he plans to wrap his Tyvek banner around the Grand Rapids Community Foundation building and ask people to lay flowers next to it as a "memorial to the recession."
ArtPrize will be decided by voters who attend the event, which runs Sept. 23 through Oct. 10. Prizes range from $7,000 up to $250,000. More than 1,000 artists have entered, and Heideman knows his chances are slim.
If he does win, he plans to share his prize with some of the people who helped him along the way. In particular, he wants to help the Victory Assembly of God food bank in Brunswick, Ga., which supplied him with food and gas when he ran out of money after he had to stop at a hospital because of a severe sunburn.
If he doesn't win, that's OK too.
"It makes for an excellent resume," he said. "It makes for an interesting story."