I am a Christmas person. Always have been. In my family the Christmas traditions are set in stone. There is defensive finger-wagging if anyone is disparaging about our excessively tacky tree (with its 20 layers of rainbow tinsel and small, unidentifiable trinkets made by me at nursery, including devilish-looking angels which surely can now no longer be classed as decoration – oh, but they are) yet bemoan those who choose a fake one. “But that’s what it’s all about! The smell of pine needles on Christmas morning!”. Saying this, I do find that by around the 2nd Jan (and also intermittently throughout the period) I begin to get quite sick of the overwhelming tidal wave of food and drink. The complete and total excess. ‘But it’s Christmas‘ I hear you whine (lest the advertisers allow us to forget). Indeed. As if we save ourselves the rest of the year, living frugally for 11 months only to reward ourselves with two weeks of drinking wine like water and stuffing as many quality streets into our mouths as possible before the nephew nabs all the good ones. On the contrary, many of us do this continuously throughout the year too, which is why it’s so important to give something at Christmas that isn’t just about money, or self-indulgence.
Crisis is a UK charity which supports homeless people, helping them throughout the year at its Skylight centres and the seasonal week of one-off centres around the capital called Crisis at Christmas. I remember hearing about this as a child and subsequently being desperate to join in, the whole concept a fascination to my naive innocence. I envisaged the scene as an outdoor soup kitchen, as in American films set in New York. Smoky breath and drunken old men hunched in long coats. Finally signing up 5 years ago as a general volunteer at a day centre, the reality was dramatically different. One particular meeting will forever stick in my mind. On my second day at the Stratford Centre (the area rather less plush before Westfield or the Olympic Village) a middle-aged, yet rather dashing, tall man in a sharp suit walked into the centre, clutching briefcase firmly in hand. Looking as if he had meant to step into a bank and had somehow been incorrectly teleported, I assumed he was a volunteer arriving straight from work in the city. Later, whilst chatting, it transpired that he was in fact a guest. Having lost his job and been left by his wife (who kept the house) he found himself with nowhere to sleep at Christmas. He told me he had access only to the clothes on his back, hence the suit, and at my query about friends or family he replied he had a son but as the relationship was strained and not close, he couldn’t face explaining his position for fear of humiliation. Sadly this is not an exceptional story. Despite our often stereotypical beliefs, the causes of homelessness are rarely as cut and dried as we may think. Most of the people I have met at Crisis are more exceptional than those I meet on a daily basis; a civil engineer, a Russian historian, a horse racer and many others. Some have introduced me to books and music I would never have known existed. They have, in fact, enriched my life in many ways.
Being very familiar with the setup of general volunteering and the running of the centre at Bermondsey, I decided that this year I would be a little braver and sign up to lead a workshop in the arts and crafts room. As is my nature, I fussed and worried for weeks in advance, researching my topic and collecting items (art made from found materials), only to arrive and realise I had yet again underestimated the guests. They knew perfectly well what they were doing, most of them a lot better than me in fact, and although they were interested in my prints and ideas, the majority tucked straight in. My first day was on the 27th so there were some pieces which had been started but were incomplete. My shift was lucky enough to see the culmination of one talented guest’s stunning existentialist collage, and to get the full commentary on the detailed narrative behind it straight from the mouth of the artist himself. The work is a series of separate comments, bound by an overarching theme and brought together in a visual climax by a biblical Steve Jobs in the foreground. The message tackles the shift from traditional media to modern technology, how it is happening and what it means. Dali takes centre-left stage amidst a cacophony of contemporary motivational words signalling the push for moving forwards at breakneck speed into the new technological era. Where surrealism isn’t just for the few but daily viewing for everyone. Where montages of household pets and human objects fill every virtual wall. Where books make the leap from one world to another, (like Alice falling down the rabbit hole) via the e-book revolution. It is an astounding piece of insightful and intelligent creativity, undoubtedly worthy of gallery space.
A now part-time Trotter with one hell of a life story took his beautiful t-shirt painting to its second stage and laughed incredulously when I told him it is a rare talent to be able to capture such movement in paint, particularly when taken purely from memory. Meanwhile, an elderly Italian churned out beautiful watercolors at the drop of a hat, taking around 15mins to produce each of these stunning landscapes, whilst an oil painter wowed us with colourful pieces layered so deeply you could see the time invested seeping through its surface. Perhaps my favourite though, was the middle-eastern man boldly and confidently tackling a large-scale symbolic depiction of the Syrian bloodshed. As he worked he told me, rather bitterly, how he felt patronised by many people who think they are helping. Having been to art college and gained an MA in fine art, he neither needs nor deserves any condescension. His completed piece on the 29th was both a moving and brutal work; 10 feet of stiff, glued, Syrian newspapers splashed with bloody red ink and paint and left to drip down its length. Freedom is never free, he told me. Spoken from experience.
To find out more about Crisis and to watch the video of guest feedback from 2012 click HERE