I never expected my experience working in a homeless shelter this Christmas to be of such visual beauty. Where on earth, in a cold city and a converted secondary school –bleak as a school building can be, would I find someone with the inspiration to ‘create’? Rightly or wrongly the argument has often been made, that art doesn’t come into a society until its members taste some amount of comfort and freedom- that when one’s fight is for their very survival, they find no time nor place for producing art. But what of individuals who know of this ‘comfortable’ society, but find themselves excluded from every benefit of it? Is this the experience that encouraged our homeless guests to produce art so engaging yet so humble?
200 weary individuals traipsed into the Crisis Homeless Shelter on the 23rd of December, tired, hungry, mostly alone. 200 knew they would have to leave again in one week. They waited in long lines for meals, they slept side by side under heavy blankets, rows of strangers in an orderly file. They had their nails cut by strangers, their feet washed by strangers, they showered in a gym hall amongst strangers. They were offered the daunting opportunity of full medicals, were inundated with admin about housing, CVs, and benefits. As one part of so many much needed, yet overwhelming and sometimes undignified services, I admit I was fully resigned to the ‘Arts and Crafts Area’ being a flop. I looked at the materials that were on offer and thought that these grown men and women would think I was patronising them. I couldn’t have been happier to have been wrong. Yes, some sleep deprived individuals sat at these tables just enjoying watching others draw and paint. They wouldn’t take part this time, but found a welcome break in seeing people take the time to do something so safe, so leisurely. But there were others who found- whether for the first time or perhaps from days that seem a world away now- that with their hands warm enough to take out of their pockets and their fingers free from their gloves, they could create something inspirational.
Some painted life exactly as they experienced it, with the harsh tones and blunt lines of a freezing winter night in London. Others created work so attractive everyone sadly accepted they could be painting only from imagination, or from resilient memory. One friend let me in on his African roots in a stunning array of deep pinks, reds and oranges on top of which he picked out beautiful women at work in hot fields. We never spoke about his history, perhaps he thought a lucky young student couldn’t relate to him, but his work gave me the chance to see it, and try to understand.
Nevertheless the homeless people who returned each day to that table did so only for themselves. No one has ever cared about their art. Their creativity is not seen and it’s not heard. So many of our famous artists argue that they don’t produce work for it to be liked by the public, but when it then enters auctions at extraordinary prices, or drums up endless debate and controversy amongst contemporaries, such an argument seems slightly insignificant. The man who paints at a school table, with a donated paint brush but a determination to express himself regardless, he paints for himself- for that catharsis that any of us who enjoy doing the same completely understand. The pride his face reveals when people appreciate his work is just a bonus. But this bonus has the potential to reconnect one with society, to realise that their art does matter. That they matter. That the best art knows nothing of addresses or wealth. The only hope of some of the artists I met was that one day they might own a wall to hang a frame on.
Anyone interested in art, take a minute to look at charities and projects like ‘SMart Network’ (Socially Marginalised Art), ‘Art Space at The Connection at St Martin’s in the Fields’, ‘Homelessness and the Arts’. They utilise the power of art as a vehicle to re-engage the socially excluded, and from having experienced it I now completely commit to the idea behind this mission statement. Let’s keep the creative voice a non- elitist, non- exclusive one, and see society rewarded with the the insight, challenges and beauty these artists provide.
by Rosa Jones