Michael Crossan is an incredibly talented artist who has been volunteering his time, expertise and art supplies to the Centre every Monday. He leads an art class (for which there is now a waiting list!) which has quickly become our most popular activity. You can see his art and read a little more about his practice on his website. Read on to hear about his own experience of homelessness and the transformative power of art.
Michael: I’m an artist, based in London. My past is quite varied: military, homelessness, alcoholism and then a Masters degree in Fine Art. So there, that’s it. That’s quite a long introduction.
Natasha: And an amazing one. So, can you give us a little bit of insight into your artistic practice?
Michael: My practice is based, whether I like it or not, a lot on my past, and what’s going on socially as well: how we rely on social media to communicate with each other. We’ve lost the interaction to sit down and talk to each other. But going back a little bit, my art practice is really based on my ex-military background and my two years being homeless, feeling alienated. Well no not alienated, feeling lost. Living on the streets you start to feel as if you’re invisible. You’re not really, but you feel like people just don’t see you, don’t communicate with you. So I brought a lot of that into my art, especially when I was doing my degree. I felt it come up, I felt it surface, in a good way, and I wanted to get it out into my artwork.
Natasha: Can you tell us a bit about how you transitioned from that moment of being homeless into your art degree?
Michael: It’s a strange thing. You couldn’t pinpoint, or I couldn’t pinpoint, one particular moment, but the reason I became homeless was through mental health. A lot of people don’t want to say that. There’s a stigma about mental health; you think if you say you’ve got mental health people think “he’s a crazy man, stay away from him.” but it’s not that. I think everyone suffers in some way from mental health, and we’ve got to break that stigma. The change for me was realising I couldn’t spend the rest of my life living the way I was, and I started to speak out a lot more, talk, ask for help, and there were people there saying “we’ll help you to help yourself.”
Natasha: So, this is while you were living on the streets?
Michael: Yes, this is why I was living on the streets.
Natasha: Who were these people who reached out to you?
Michael: There’s this organisation called Saffa, which is a military organization, which deals with the homeless and vulnerable military people. They help you transition from being on the street to living in a hostel, but a hostel in the way that you’re self-supporting but there’s support there if you need it. They help you transition from a street to a hostel to a flat. So I went from the street to a place called Belvedere House in East London where I started to get myself together. I did a couple of rehabs and detoxes to deal with my alcoholism, and then I went on from that to do a Fine Art course for two years at City Lit in Holborn. The tutors at the college said to me, “look, you should do a degree. We’ll talk to our colleague and get an interview set up for you.” So I went to the interview with UAL (University of Arts London). I went to Wimbledon.
Long story short, I got a place at Wimbledon on a two-year Fine Art course, and I loved it. From that point, I started realising how much potential there is in art for me: for developing my own confidence and helping others. I’ve done a lot of collaborations, and I enjoyed working with other people. It seemed that I had something to offer. From finishing the course to doing the degree: Grayson Perry presented me my degree down at the Southbank, which was good fun. I went on to do a level 4 teaching course. I intend to go on and do further qualifications in teaching. It means I can do the voluntary work I want, and I could also do some paid teaching work. I’m at two centres at the moment, here at St Cuthbert’s and another one down towards Hammersmith, Baron’s Court. That’s how I got from the street to where I am now.
I’m hoping people that who find it hard to talk about their problems or whatever, they put it onto what they’re doing, be it on paper or sculpture.
Natasha: What do you hope to accomplish with the art classes that you’re doing here?
Michael: I’ve been coming here for maybe over a month now. I know people are at different levels, different places. Some are homeless, some are low income, all vulnerable in their own way, and I can relate to that. I can understand them. It’s enjoyment, first of all. Art is very enjoyable in any form, be it painting, printing, writing poetry and music, dancing or whatever. But the other thing you get out of it is it’s very therapeutic, whether you aim for that or not, it relieves a lot of tension; it means you can forget about things for a little while, without realising it. I’m hoping people who find it hard to talk about their problems or whatever, they put it onto whatever they’re doing be it on paper or sculpture. Whatever it is they’re doing, it comes out eventually.
Natasha: Did you go to Baron’s Court or St Cuthbert’s Centre when you were homeless?
Michael: When I first moved to Chelsea, I moved from the military hostel in East London. I moved from there to this fantastic postcode ‘SW6’. I used to go to a Centre called The Firm down on Lily Road, but that was a day centre. I went there because I had just moved for the first time into independent accommodation after almost five years without being self-supporting. I went there to have that anchor, and I liked what was happening. I liked how the staff were interacting with all the people. I was doing my degree at the time, and it gave me the push to think about teaching and where I’d like to work after the degree. I decided that I wanted to teach at these centres, just continue doing it, because the Centre is for anyone. There’s not enough of them about, even for people who aren’t doing art, just for coming and socializing. I enjoyed myself, that’s what I got out of the centres, and that’s what I hope other people do as well.
Natasha: Definitely, and in terms of our guests here, our artists, what kind of an environment are we creating? What’s excited you?
Michael: Excited me… well there’s one particular artist, Guan. You could talk about this man for ages. He’s very, very talented. I still take college courses, to learn from other teachers. In the University where I go, I’ve spoken to them about this place and they’re very interested in some sort of collaboration. I spoke to Ali about it further down the line; they do classes for people on low-income, and they do some free classes. I’d really like to suggest Guan, if he’s up for it, to see if he’d like it. Because I think it would help develop his artwork. He’s got the talent; he’s got the skill and the temperament for it. He loves it. And there’s also Monica, she’s very talented and Paulo and Jean. Jean does those therapeutic colouring books, and she’s always says to me, “I don’t want to do anything else, I don’t want to do anything else,” but we’ve done some projects like boxes, and at first she didn’t want to do it until she did, then she loved it. We did some tiles, and she definitely didn’t want to do that, and then she loved that. It’s nice to see people coming our of their comfort zone a little bit and enjoying different things. That’s what art’s about.
When I first came, I was told that the group was about three or four people. There wasn’t much going on. Now, there are more people showing interest, and we’ve got about ten or twelve people. On a good day, we can get maybe thirteen or fourteen people at different times coming and going. So it does show that people are getting interested in it. The more you show interest in what they’re doing, the more they come and the more they get out of it. That’s why I like to get their work up on display and get it framed.
Natasha: What materials do you put down on the table on a free day?
Michael: On a free day, we have the whole spectrum. We have wax pastels, paints, pencils, coloured pencils, charcoal, graphite sticks, watercolour paper, plain paper and, if they want to do some sculpture, we’ve got clay. We can’t use anything that’s heavy, we can’t use anything like oil, because it would stink the whole hall out, but if there’s something that we don’t have that they would like, within reason, we can get it for them.
Natasha: How do you get it?
Michael: I’ve got a good network of friends, and I go and make people feel uncomfortable in shops for donations.
Natasha: So, you are responsible for all these materials being donated?
Michael: Yeah, and shops- local shops. I used a lot of these places when I was doing my degree, and I still use them for my own practice.
Natasha: Can you describe some of your own work?
Michael: My last big project was two years ago. I did a year-long exhibition at the National Army museum all about art in military history through the ages. My next big project coming up is with the Royal sculpture society. I’ll be doing two workshops for the military about PTSD and rehabilitating people. But I’ll keep this going at St. Cuthbert’s. I think it’s got something, and it’s going to grow.
Natasha: We really do too, it’s so amazing seeing how excited people are to go on the stage. On Mondays, you’ve really transformed it; it’s clear that something’s being made here. What is your process when you come to set up, and when people arrive?
Michael: One Monday we’ll do a free-day where people can come in and do whatever they like, and the next we’ll do an organized project. On a free day I’ll still be there to teach if someone likes. There’s one chap who has just joined, and I think his name’s George, and he want to learn portraiture. Monday, I showed him how to do proportion and drawing with a grid, and it’s to help him develop his skill of proportion for the human face. Even though it was a free day he wanted to do an activity. Zainab, another very talented artist, wanted to know about proportion and figure drawing. We don’t have any figures or life models (yet!), but using a small wooden figurine I showed her how to do proportion and how you measure it. The others were doing painting and so forth. But people are always asking questions like: “what happens when I mix these two colours?”, etc.
It’s really nice to show people that you’re interested in what they’re doing. That’s why I like to get the work framed. Ideally, I would love to get an exhibition, get a space. I’d love to get the work really presented, framed and mounted. Make sure everybody’s happy with what we’re showing. When I first came to St. Cuthbert’s, it was described to me as a massive church hall. And I thought, okay, you just go there and get a cup of tea or something. But when I came down, and when I see it; the energy is phenomenal, the way the volunteers and the guests are really happy to be here. They don’t feel like it’s a handout, it’s more like a meeting point, a community. And the way the chefs prepare a three-course meal for 60 people. And the fact that they can shower, get their haircut. It gives people a great boost. It’s the atmosphere you can feel as soon as you get in. I won’t get on my soapbox, but as Centres are being closed down because of a lack of funding, it’s increasingly rare. I know sometimes you’re running on a shoestring, and you’re finding it hard to keep going. It’s not just the energy of the place when it’s set up, but the energy and enthusiasm of the staff, because it’s so large and open, everyone’s together.
The energy is phenomenal: the way the volunteers and the guests are really happy to be here. They don’t feel like it’s a handout; it’s more like a meeting point, a community.