Artist Manny Doublin is painting a series of portraits of local homeless residents.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NATE ABBOTT
Emmanuel “Manny” Doublin Sr. looks a bit uncomfortable at his easel at CREATE Center for the Arts in Palm Desert, where he’s finishing a portrait of a homeless woman who he met while painting a public “art bench” in downtown Palm Springs. Short in stature, amply inked, and tough as nails, the fledgling artist reveals he’s in pain. He has wedged vertebrae in his back and a shifted and arthritic hip that makes one of his legs longer than the other. He doesn’t stand or sit very long in any position.
In December 2020, while Doublin was riding home from work on his Yamaha YZF-R3 motorcycle, a car veered into his lane near the intersection of Gene Autry Trail and Highway 111. “I flicked my high beams to let him know I was on a bike,” he recalls. “We were both doing about 45 or 50 miles per hour. I hit my brakes and tried to swerve out of the way. I knew in my head it was too late.”
“My legs flew up in the air, and I remember feeling like I was in the bullfight in one of my paintings — like the matador being hit and tossed by the bull. When I was on the ground, the wind was knocked out of me. I tried to lift myself up, but my arm was hanging sideways, and I fell back down. All I could think about was my daughter [Izabelle], who was at home.”
They had been making up for lost time. When Izabelle was only a few years old, Doublin was sent to prison for 10 years after being convicted of assault with a deadly weapon (a firearm) — an incident he describes as “the biggest mistake of my life. … I was 20 years old and had enlisted in the Marines. Two weeks prior to walking into Camp Pendleton, I shot a man.
At the state prison in Corcoran, a psychologist helped Doublin create “a plan to become the father that I wanted to be and also a positive influence in the community.”
He has followed the plan brilliantly since his release in 2010.
Doublin, who grew up around low riders and later took interest in working on Hondas, enrolled in the automotive program at College of the Desert. To earn his degree, he needed credits in arts and humanities — a requirement that reignited his passion for drawing and painting. In high school in the ’90s, he always doodled and was often asked to make posters. He even ran with the tagging crew EK, short for Evil Kids. “They were out of Orange County and had a little bit of notoriety out here,” he says. “Everybody had skills or else you couldn’t be part of the group.”
The first time he stepped into the art building at COD, he says, “My heart sank. I thought, ‘Oh, I made a mistake. This is what I’m supposed to be.’ But I had already done all this work to be a mechanic.”
Doublin was grateful for his employment at Pep Boys and Cardiff Limousine & Transportation but also determined to make a life in art. At COD, he took traditional drawing and painting classes and then studied abroad, living in London and visiting Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. In Paris, he went to the Louvre and was drawn to “The Raft of the Medusa,” the famous 1819 oil painting by Théodore Géricault depicting shipwreck survivors starving and adrift on a raft. “The feeling I got was of desperation, loneliness, being abandoned,” he recalls. “I really loved the feel. I love to feel my way through things.”
By then, Izabelle had left for San Francisco State University to earn a bachelor’s degree in political science. After graduation, she remained in the city for a few years to work for political campaigns and nonprofit organizations.
When she returned to live with her father in Thousand Palms a couple months before the COVID-19 lockdowns began in 2020, Doublin was working as a technician at the Porsche dealership in Rancho Mirage and completing his art degree at COD. He also took classes at Palm Springs Art Museum and the CREATE Center, where he’s now the venue’s first resident artist.
He was on a bright path when the car swerved into his lane that December. He suffered many broken bones and 18 months later — after several surgeries and relearning to walk — still experiences excruciating pain. “Some days are so bad,” he says. “Sitting down, I’m in pain. Standing too long, I’m in pain. Sometimes at night, it feels like a bad toothache that just radiates.”
But Doublin’s spirit never wavers. A year into his recovery, fellow artist and mentor Susan Gresto encouraged him to apply to the Palm Springs Public Arts Commission’s art bench program. He was accepted and assigned to paint a concrete bench near the corner of Indian Canyon Drive and Ramon Road. It was a turning point for Doublin.
“The bench is a story about my accident,” he says. “I wanted to express what it felt like through symbols and colors.”
While working on the project, he met many homeless residents in the area. “They were breaking bread with us,” Doublin says, noting he was in a wheelchair at the time, working with Gresto’s assistance. “There was a lady sleeping on the bench who didn’t let anybody touch it. Another lady, she had cancer and doesn’t have family out here, so she ended up homeless. It broke my heart. She reminded me of my mom. I’d look all over, and I would find her, or my sister, at Martha’s Village.” (His mother has schizophrenia and now lives in a conservatorship, and his sister lives with his younger brother. Doublin also has a son with schizophrenia in a program in San Francisco.)
After completing the bench, Doublin started painting portraits of several homeless individuals. He’d ask permission and often offer money to photograph and sketch them. He intends to sell the paintings to raise awareness and money to help organizations such as Martha’s Village, FIND Food Bank, and others that serve homeless and mentally ill people in the Coachella Valley.
Next, Doublin wants to paint the desert landscape, sometimes including the makeshift structures created by homeless residents. “I feel like they are living art or assemblages of a subculture blooming in our fields, providing shelter to some of the less fortunate.”
His recovery continues slower than he’d like. But he now has a prosthetic under his foot — “It’s basically a shoe lift” — to even the length of his legs. And the public bench he painted in downtown Palm Springs serves as a constant reminder that there are rewards for talent, determination, and kindness.