The gallery in Crisis’ Winters Rough Sleepers Centre above illustrates the work of a specific community. Those taken into this accommodation over Christmas week were the rough sleepers who did not have any alternatives and would have spent the week on the streets were it not for the work of Crisis – the UKs leading charity for single, homeless adults. It was a great privilege to volunteer this year as an Art Activity Leader. The men and women who worked at the art table came from a wide range of backgrounds, and had completely different expectations from their time being creative. Some clearly wanted escapism and were drawn to the art table all day, every day – one in particular had art training and it was very familiar to him. Others came infrequently and enjoyed the companionship of those at the table. Lots were drawn in when I offered to cast their hands. This became a highlight of the week for me: largely because it is such a physical activity: it requires touch and is reliant on a degree of trust. In addition to this it is about ‘becoming’ Art: there is the implication that the model is, in their existence alone, worthy of being regarded Art; worth capturing and admiring. Eight men agreed to let me cast their hand and they chatted whilst I made a mould of their hand. Some felt they could open up to me and talk about their frustrations. Others expressed that their week at Crisis was about ‘forgetting about everything else’ so they were more interested in asking questions and finding out about why I like Art. The casts were made within the day much to the delight of the models.
I recognised two conflicting emotions battling it out during this experience. One, that I felt ‘at home’ and that I could easily spend my free time working in such a capacity: facilitating (as I do in my everyday career). There is a peacefulness and shared experience in this which I find genuinely therapeutic: I am needed, I am helpful, I am giving. Then I remember the tutorial I had in which I agreed that I needed to lose the moral responsibility and I wonder whether I am still entrapped? I thrashed this out as I took the tube across London to my Crisis shifts, reading about Art and Mindfulness, and struggling over whether I was going backwards instead of forwards. Yet, without this experience I would not have come home to my canvasses, full of emotion, full of hope and sadness, brimming with tears and longing to do more, furious at a system which lets the most vulnerable down so much, tortured by the life they will return to and the experiences they have been through, in love with the pleasure of connecting with these homeless men and women, touched by their generosity. As I sat on the floor in my studio with music playing and canvas before me, I was probably never more able to bring those emotions to the surface through paint. I feel that the gentle, funny, talented, happy, brilliant homeless people I connected with during my shifts, as well as the generosity and humour of the volunteers, gave more to my practice than I ever gave them.