Lancaster artist produces portraits of city’s homeless

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A Lancaster artist has produced portraits of some of the city’s homeless people, saying he found the work “the most fruitful, productive, funniest and satisfying” part of his teaching career.

James Fox has been volunteering at Lancaster and District Homeless Action Service for the last two years.

The artist and part-time teacher at Ripley St Thomas Academy said that he started out helping in the kitchen, but was soon asked to deliver a few art and craft workshops for the clients.

He initially proposed making cards and gift items to sell, and said this proved difficult at first because he “had expectations of the clients that did not suit their sometimes chaotic situation”.

“I thought maybe it was my teaching method or the type of workshop that was being offered,” he said.

“But over time I realised it was dependent upon many factors, a lot of which were outside of my control.”

He described how he would begin the project on his own and clients would eventually gravitate towards what he was doing, and if they were interested and in the right frame of mind they would engage with the activity.

“There was no presumption on them whether they finished the work or even stuck to the task,” James said.

“This seemed to give them a freedom to dip in and out as they liked and for me to not feel pressured to deliver with a teacher/pupil based relationship.

“Over the period of about a year I built up a firm enough connection with some of the regular clients, and a friendly rapport developed between us.

“There was not only some good work being produced which we were beginning to sell, I also really looked forward to seeing the clients and catching up with them as I would any of my friends.”

James said he eventually broached the subject with a few of the regular clients with the idea of producing a series of portraits.

He said: “Initially, I felt the clients would find this process patronising or uncomfortable, and be apprehensive at maybe having their image shown in a public arena.

“But, to my surprise, most of the clients I spoke with thought this was a good idea.

“If we had not built a relationship through mutual interest and respect I think it would have been a different proposition.”

James took photos of as many clients as he could and then began a series of quick drawings using different techniques.

After that he moved on to working on a sewing machine using a free straight stitch to sketch with.

“This gave me a feel for the faces that I thought would work best for this project.

“Initially, I was going to work straight onto cloth as is my usual method, but after discussion with the sitters I thought it would be more appealing to them if I produced a large finished drawing that was an accurate representation of them.

“The fact that someone was spending time and care over their portrait we found to be mutually gratifying. This transpired to be a laborious task, with a lot of measuring, correcting and pondering.

The drawings produced were appreciated by the sitters and when shown to the group everyone became an ‘art critic’ in a friendly and humorous way.

“The drawings were then used as the basis for producing textile portraits.

“I wanted to try and keep the individuality of the sitter I had uncovered in producing the pencil drawings.”

James used a process of using netting cut into various sized circles and shades to build up the complexities in the textile portraits.

He said he settled on a process of bonding the net circles onto the cloth using a soldering iron to build up the required shade.

He said that in an era of austerity and “draconian changes” to the benefit system, with at least 32,000 recorded homeless people in Britain, this under-represented sector of society needs to be seen and acknowledged in whatever ways we can make possible.

He added: “My recent work showing some of the people at the forefront of this situation has not been produced to pile pity on them, although some live a pitiful life.

“I made the work to celebrate them as individuals who, when you get to know them, they can display a richness of human values and take the opportunity to laugh far more than a lot of people.

“Staff at the service say that when there is an activity like art being produced at the centre the place has a calmer and more pleasant feel.

“I have taught and delivered workshops from toddlers to pensioners for the last 20 years and I have found that working with the clients at the centre has been the most fruitful, productive, funniest and satisfying part of my teaching career.”

There has already been interest from other homeless agencies and James is hoping to show the portraits around school and public venues to help highlight the present homeless crisis.