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Changing lives at a brush stroke

Exhibition of work by homeless men and women at Hampstead School of Art, after consultant persuaded cafés to show­case canvases

21 September, 2017 — By John Gulliver

Richard James Lawler with his artwork Tears for Grenfell

ON my first local paper in West London, decades ago, I wrote a feature on a terrace of rat-infested, rancid houses called – Paradise Row. Today, society is diseased by homelessness.

On Tuesday I attended the strangest art exhibition of canvases by homeless men and women, all finding solace and a refuge in their works.

That is what many artists seek and find but for those who live on the street their new-found passion has helped to change their lives. Tossed about by one injustice after another, their hori­zons would have grown dim without their art.

None of those I met at the Hampstead School of Art, where the show will run until October 13, had ever picked up a brush or a canvas until they dropped in at one of several projects in central London and discovered a hidden talent.

The exhibition is called Café Art largely because of the imagination of one man – a successful consultant, Michael Wong, who stumbled on their works and, using his energy, drive and network­ing contacts, persuaded cafés in London to show­case the canvases. Prices are in the hundreds, and those that sell boost the lives of the homeless. For a few, that has meant the start of a new life, off the streets and “benefits”.

James Gray with his paintings Acrylic City No.5 and No.6. James, from Bloomsbury, was among the big winners of the Café Art Competition, winning a free arts class every week for 12 weeks

Michael, a pharmacolo­gist, who runs courses teaching doctors how to “communicate” and relate to patients, talks quickly and passionately, about his medical training at London University, the difficulties doctors face, the side effects of drugs and the fears of patients, his love of England – he was born in Malaysia, the family from Canton – and how he wants to give something back to this country. I could tell many of the homeless milling around knew him and felt comfortable with him.

In the middle of our conversation a tiny elderly woman, with long grey hair, hardly five feet tall, says Hello to him, and he breaks off and envelops her with a warm embrace. Earlier, she had told me she lived in Ladbroke Grove, and had been “tumbling down” until she took up art.

The exhibits are of astonishing quality but one poignantly reflects the tragedy of Grenfell – a small mosaic of pebbly-sized eyes, sad and accusatory, by a middle-aged man who once owned a shop until some­thing happened – and then his life changed. But now I sensed there was a feel­ing of tranquility in him.


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