Art paints a picture of life on the streets

AN Aboriginal woman walks into Ruah Community Service’s art group and sits down.

It’s been a tough week; already homeless, she’s sporting a black eye after being assaulted on the street, her partner’s in gaol and she’s got barely any money to feed herself.

But for the next hour she sits quietly and fills a canvas with vibrant colours, her images a swirl of optimism.

That, says group organiser Len James, is what makes the sessions so important to the homeless people that attend them.

“For an hour, you can leave all the stress and anxiety behind, and just pour everything into your art,” Mr James says.

The sessions also give participants the opportunity to display their skills; to show they’re far more than invisible people with nothing to offer.

• Len James and Ann Tew display their art at The Ruah Creative. Photo by Steve Grant

Mr James spent two years on the streets, and while he was recently housed, he says being retired makes it difficult to reconnect to mainstream society. Like the other participants, it provides him with an important place of contact.

This week Ruah took over one of Perth’s many empty offices, along Adelaide Terrace, to hold an exhibition of works from the group.

CEO Debra Zanella says the aim of The Ruah Creative was to give the broader community an insight into homelessness.

“In particular, the exhibition will tell the stories behind the estimated 1000 people who sleep rough on Perth’s streets every night,” she says.

“My hope is the exhibition will challenge community perceptions of homelessness.”

One of the initiatives for the exhibition was to give art group members a disposable camera. The resulting images are understated but speak volumes about the issues facing the homeless. There are almost no people, with the photographers capturing the safe, in-between parts of the city; while there’s a big focus on their few possessions and where they can be stored safely during the day.

Ann Tew came to Perth about year ago. Although housed, she’s vulnerable having spent most of her life living with family violence and mental health issues and spent some time living on the streets.

She’d been artistic as a child, but as life got tougher and more complex she gave it away.

Mr James says when she first came to Ruah’s art sessions, he had her pegged as a mediocre amateur, but as she came out of her shell, she opened up a couple of art journals and blew him away. Recently three of her works sold at an exhibition organised by a UWA students group.

Ms Tew says that’s given her great confidence and she’s now feeling more positive than at any other time in her life.


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