Rosa Jones recounts her experience of discovering Art in the most unlikely of places
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 23 December, tired, hungry and mostly alone. They all knew they would have to leave again in one week. They waited in long lines for meals, sleeping side by side under heavy blankets, rows of strangers in an orderly file. They had their nails cut by strangers and feet washed by unknown faces, the highlight being their shower in the crowded gym hall. They were offered the daunting opportunity of full medicals, inundated with admin about housing, CVs, and benefits. As one part of many needed, yet overwhelming and sometimes undignified, services, I admit I was fully resigned to the ‘Arts and Crafts Class’ being a flop. I looked at the materials on offer and thought these grown men and women would laugh off such a patronising activity. However, I couldn’t have been happier to have been wrong.
Sure, 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. Yet, 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. They found art in the most unlikely of places.
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 striking I could only sadly accept their creations could be inspired from pure imagination, or perhaps resilient memory. One African friend illustrated his heritage through a stunning array of deep pinks, reds and oranges on top of which he picked out beautiful women at work in hot fields. He never spoke about his history, perhaps assuming a young student volunteer would be unable to relate to him, but little did he know his work gave me the chance to understand him.
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 or heard. So many renowned artists argue that they don’t produce work for it to be liked by the public, yet when it then enters auctions at extraordinary prices, or drums up endless debate and controversy amongst contemporaries, such an argument seems slightly insignificant. The homeless man who paints at a school table with a donated paint brush expressed a determination to express himself regardless of recognition. 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, and that the best art knows nothing of addresses or wealth.
To see artwork produced by charities and homeless projects take a look at ‘SMart Network’ (Socially Marginalised Art), ‘Art Space at The Connection at St Martin’s in the Fields’, and ‘Homelessness and the Arts’.bookmark me