• Connecting communities though coffee and art

    One. I can mean many things, from 'one step forward', 'united as one' 'one for all and all for one". It is also the name of our 2013 calendar, featuring 12 artists affected by homelessness from 12 London homeless organisations, together in one beautiful publication, united as one.

    Before I write about One calendar, being launched at a café in Islington on December 6, I would like to start with a bit about where it all began, with Cafe Art.

    I first heard about Michael Wong in August. I was being interviewed for a volunteering position for St Mungo’s, explaining the Hope in Shadows calendar project I had managed in Vancouver for six years. St Mungo's head of communications, Judith Higgin, suggested I sounded so passionate about it that had I thought about doing something similar in London? She also suggested that I might like to meet Michael Wong who she explained had just helped get together a lot of London homeless charities’ art groups together in an exhibition called Without Walls.

    I met Michael a few days later in one of the cafes hanging Café Art paintings near Tottenham Court Road and he explained the story behind Café Art. Michael is very humble and does not like the idea of being in the spotlight. However, I believe that people need to know a bit about him, as he’s the reason for Café Art taking off so quickly, by personally connecting hundreds of people from the art groups, the cafes and the general public.

    A Londoner of Malaysian origin, Michael’s lived here since he arrived to go to secondary school in the late 1970s, and like many people he has made London his home.

    Why Café Art?

    It began over a cup of coffee, in a café, says Michael. He had signed up as a volunteer with St Mungo's with the intention of starting a 'healthy lifestyle' activity to encourage hostel residents to take up swimming, cycling and running. Instead, he had a call for this first session to help out in a hostel that was short on volunteers. In his exercise gear, he felt that he was 'all dressed up with no where to go', as it turned out to be an arts and craft session. And, he exclaims, 'I can't even draw!' He returned to the art class the next week and the following week, and continued to do so ever since. He had been amazed to see the incredible paintings and drawings produced. He said he got pure joy from seeing the artwork, but it was mostly put away after each session and he wished that more people had the opportunity to see the amazing art.

    ‘What about cafes?’, he thought. It would enable the art to be hung all year round, helping the artists, the cafes and the general public who could view and purchase the pictures. While many of the charities hold annual art exhibitions, there was no ongoing exhibition of art by people affected by homelessness, until Café Art filled that gap in the market.

    While the idea is a huge success, with many charities and cafes signing up and thousands of pounds worth of art sold (which goes directly to the artists), it does take a lot of legwork. Michael regularly hits the pavement to visit as many art groups for people affected by homelessness and as many cafes as he can find and there are now more than a dozen art groups and more than 20 independent cafes all over London. Michael also managed to upload as much art as he could to cafeart.org.uk.

    All pieces of art are for sale with the purchaser’s encouraged to meet the artists, and 100% of the agreed price going to the artist.

    The number of paintings hung varies in each café, from an entire café where every wall is covered, to a couple of pieces fitted in between other art. Michael can often be seen travelling around on the underground with a large black artist’s portfolio filled with framed pieces (The frames are now kindly donated by Ikea). He fits his 100% voluntary Café Art work into his regular schedule working in the pharmaceutical industry. He finds new cafes by just wandering around different parts of London and asking the owners. Most of them are close to Northern Line tube stations he explains because that’s his tube line.

    But his greatest joy in this very simple initiative is the boost in self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth it brings to all these artists when they know that their talent & creativity are being shared, celebrated and enjoyed by many more people. They now know that they are not alone in their path to recovery but that sometimes, total strangers are, in fact, friends.

    One calendar

    One calendar has been published to raise money for the many art group who run the art classes. If it is successful it will help us look into establishing a more permanent organisaton to support Cafe Art, which until recently was all the work of Michael Wong.

    The symbolism behind the calendar is that it unites many homelessness organisations together as the 12 artists featured come from at least 12 different art groups, although several go to more than one group. The name 'One calendar' represents many different uses of the words 'one' and can symbolise 'united as one', 'one community', and 'one step forward'.

    The design of the calendar was by Carter Wong Design, who donated their time and labour free of charge.

    Why have a calendar? The idea behind Café Art’s One calendar comes from where I worked in Vancouver from 2005 until earlier this year. The Vancouver calendar, Hope in Shadows, is based on a photography contest held every year in one of the poorest communities in Canada, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The Vancouver calendar was a huge success, earning thousands of dollars for the social advocacy non-profit Pivot Legal Society and also for vendors of the calendar, many of whom were homeless. Hope in Shadows is mainly sold on the streets, like the Big Issue is here in London, whereas One calendar is starting with sales at events run by other charities and in participating cafes. While there is currently no plan to start up a vendor programme for street sales, we will be trialling a programme whereby the artists can sell the calendar if they want to.

    The One calendar has also emulated one of the strongest parts of Hope in Shadows in that it focuses on not only the artwork, but the artist’s stories. The idea is to connect the artist with the reader in a way that promotes understanding and empathy.

    One calendar’s goals are to raise money that can be used to buy art materials or other supplies to support the art groups where the artists come from. Of course the calendar will also be available online.

    Paul Ryan paul [at] cafeart.org.uk

    Please come and meet us at the official launch of Cafe Art's One calendar on Thursday 6 December at Daily Grind cafe, 54 Duncan Street, London (two minutes walk from Angel Station), 6pm - 7:30pm.

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