Creative passage from street to home

29th September 2000 at 01:00
A college and a charity are working together to take art to the homeless people of Bristol, reports Martin Whittaker

IN a former life, Rebecca Benjamin was a self-employed jeweller. That was before her marriage fell apart and she found herself living on the streets in London.

Rebecca, who is quietly-spoken and articulate, says in her teens she studied for a degree in three-dimensional design.

"Being homeless was the last thing I expected to happen to me," she says.

Amid the daily grind of finding shelter and something to eat, her creativity was often the only thing that kept her going.

"I was always sitting in cafes scribbling - I got through a lot of fag packets and biros."

Today Rebecca, 43, is turning her life around. Last February she moved into a bedsit in Bristol. And now instead of being called homeless, she can call herself an artist.

Some of her pastel drawings featured in a recent exhibition of paintings, ceramics and sculpture by homeless artists, staged by the City of Bristol College and the charity Bristol Cyrenians.

The college and charity have worked together for the past five years to offer a range of subjects and skills to homeless people.

The charity's main drop-in centre, which has art and craft rooms, is visited by 20,000 homeless people a year.

Sarah Minns, the charity's chief executive, says it is worth the effort. Such provision gives them life skills such as turning up on time and working as a team. It also boosts confidence.

"I think it's made a huge difference bringing tutors to the people rather than expecting people to go to the college.

"As a charity, we have been trying to enable people to develop as much in terms of their skills and their confidence as we have in their housing and healthcare issues.

"It's not just about getting them a flat, and it's not just about addressing healthcare. It's actually looking at the whole person.

"A lot of homeless people who do eventually get the flat they want, for a long time will feel isolated. They haven't got anything to do with their time.

"It can make all the difference if they're able to continue pursuing their art course, or to go onto do something else."

Bristol college art tutor Georgia Sherman teaches four different groups of artists across Bristol.

"Mostly, homeless peoples' lives remain unseen, and so this exhibition is a way of describing marginal lives to the public," she says.

"It's a really good way of getting their work seen. But the creative process is also important.

"Relationships are formed, and the centre provides a space for them to come regularly, where they can get on with their own work."

Another of her students, Michael Gash, aged 48, is exhibiting his work for the fourth time and sells a lot of his art.

When he made his first sale, he went out and blew the proceeds on drink. Now he prefers to buy paint brushes and books.

"He's still an alcoholic, but he's also known and respected within his community as an artist. It's really moving that he's known as an artist rather than a drunk," says Ms Sherman.Fellow student Emma, 27, also has work in the exhibition. Her contributions often reflect her own battle with drug addiction - one painting depicts a bar code and a syringe in silhouette, with the words "damaged goods" stamped over it.

Emma says: "The centre allows me four to eight hours a week of pure escapism from it all - one of the few hedonistic pleasures I still indulge in these days."

Bristol college does extensive work with community groups and charities to try to reach adults excluded from education and training. Its partnership with Bristol Cyrenians has become close - deputy principal Prue Taylour now sits on the charity's board.

She says the homeless are the hardest group for a college to reach. "It's unbelievably difficult," she says. "It's very rare that somebody's just homeless.

"You're talking about people who are multi-disadvantaged, often with mental health problems, or they may be drug or alcohol abusers.

"All these other factors have to be taken into account. And it's very difficult interacting with a group when you don't know from one day to the next who is going to turn up.

"But often these are people who are very intelligent. They just need to be given a chance to rethink their place in society."

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