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Man Hopes to Turn Life in Van Into $250,000

When artist Aaron Heideman lost his job at a paint-supply store, he decided it was time for a change.

Man in Van
Photo by: Aaron Heideman
Man in Van

But his was a little more radical than most: He sold all of his possessions and started living in a van.

It started as research for a screenplay he was writing about — you guessed it — a man living in his van. (Sorry Chris Farley fans, it wasn’t down by the river!)

This was in the fall of 2008, just as the financial system was melting down in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse.

As the recession rippled through the economy, he decided to shift his focus.

"I realized that writing a screenplay about myself was self-indulgent," Heideman said. "It was therapeutic and very cathartic, but I realized that I needed to ... stop worrying about myself. I decided that my way of turning around my situation with the recession was to do something for others," he said.

Then, he heard about the ArtPrize art contest in Grand Rapids, Michigan, created by Amway heir Rick DeVos, which promised to pay $250,000 to the artist whose work gets the most votes — one of the biggest art prizes ever awarded. The prizes for the rest of the top 10 range from $7,000 to $100,000.

So, with $300 in his bank account, Heideman embarked on a cross-country “Man in a Van”tour, collecting people’s stories about how the recession has impacted them by having them write their stories in Sharpie on a 50-yard roll of sturdy paper — that's the size of half a football field.

The outside of his van reads: “How has the recession affected you? Tell me your story.”

Man in a Van Project
Photo by: Aaron Heideman
Man in a Van Project

He started in Oregon, where he’s from, then on to some of the hardest hit states, including California, Nevada, Florida and Michigan, his final destination, where the winner of the contest will be announced.

He’s collected all kinds of stories, including one from a real-estate agent who used to make six figures, but made just $6,000 last year.

One person wrote: “Faith is like film—it’s developed in the dark,” and another said, “I used to shop at Nordstrom ; now I shop at Goodwill.”

“I love that I’m able to collaborate with the entire country to create this piece,” Heideman said.

His financial situation got pretty hairy on the road, as did he, without a regular bathroom to shower and shave. He parks on the street and sleeps in the back — he says he’s only had four showers since July 1! (For the record, a shower at a truck stop costs about $10 — too much for this recession budget.)

To keep the gas tank and his belly filled, he sells “Man in a Van” T-shirts out of the van and on his Web site, www.themaninavanproject.com. He also stopped at food banks.

He says he decided from the getgo to not panhandle but people have, surprisingly, just handed him money along the way.

There were quite a few times when the van broke down and he wasn’t sure how he was going to be able to go on. One of the most generous groups he met along the way were mechanics: From Colorado to Georgia, mechanics offered to fix the van for free, only charging him for parts.

“The kindness of people has been really surprising,” Heideman said.

If you’d like to see his 50 yards of recession stories, they’ll be on exhibit from Sept. 23 to Oct. 10 at the Grand Rapids Community Foundationin Grand Rapids, Mich., one of more than 100 venues where the more than 1,200 entries will be displayed.

Man in a Van Project
Photo by: Aaron Heideman
Man in a Van Project

The goal of the contest is to turn the city of Grand Rapids into an art gallery, and Heideman’s recession stories will be among them.

Some of the other entries reflect human struggles during this recession, including one that focuses on the increasing importance of garage sales in Michigan families’ budgets.

Voting is open to the public — all you have to do is register at one of 14 ArtPrize venues in Grand Rapids. For more information, visit www.artprize.org.

So, what has Heideman learned to appreciate the most from his experience in the van?

You might think it was a hot shower, but he’s transcended the stench of poverty, saying the thing he’s gained the most appreciation for is humanity.

“I appreciate people. I appreciate personalities,” he said, adding that it’s shown him a light at the end of the tunnel.

“This experience has changed my life. I have become so much more empathetic. I have learned the art of listening. And I have learned how to problem solve and survive,” he said. “Because of that, I’ve been able to continue my journey. I think that’s the way out of this recession.”

Of course, along with the wonderful side of humanity, he’s also seen the skeptical side.

There has been some controversy as to whether or not a guy in a van collecting handwritten stories of human hardship is art.

He says there’s no question it’s art.

“It’s life. It’s ‘emotional realism,’” he explains. “We are in trying times and there are so many problems and issues on every level of humanity … I hope to use my art to serve people.”

Picasso once said, “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth.”

Heideman says, “I think of this project as just simply cutting to the chase” — the truth.

His brother references a different artist: “It’s certainly a better way of lending an ear than Van Gogh did!”

He may be homeless but you can still be friends with him — on Facebook — or, follow his adventures on Twitter. Plus, check out his photos on Flickr.

For a homeless guy, he's pretty wired. Imagine what he could do if he won the $250K!

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Questions? Comments? Write to ponyblog@cnbc.com.

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