Art inspired by hardship and disadvantage now a force for change

Bev Rymer is one of the many artists who has been able to sell her work through Open Canvas. Source: James Sampson

It's like the Big Issue but for artists, says the Melbourne-based social entrepreneur behind the initiative providing an outlet for the disadvantaged.

Danny Chilcott was raped, kidnapped and tortured as a child and suffers from bipolar disorder and the chronic lung disease, asbestosis.

A former heroin addict, his traumatic past has left him with little means to make a living.

"I had no help," he says. “I didn’t know how to read or write till I was 25, you know.”

But Mr Chilcott, 50, has just sold three of his oil paintings for $450.

Bev Rymer, also a child abuse survivor, transforms broken pieces of materials into art, which she also sells.

A recent sale of two of her pieces helped fund a trip interstate to her mother’s funeral.

She dreams of one day opening her own upcycling business.

They are two of 19 artists - all of whom have experienced homelessness and hardship at some stage of their lives - whose artwork is currently being featured at fortyfivedownstairs, a gallery in Melbourne’s CBD.

Danny Chilcott
Danny Chilcott with some of his artworks on display at 'Between the Lines' exhibition..

Art as a platform

“Between the lines” is the inaugural exhibition of Open Canvas, an initiative of Dan Rath, a Melbourne-based social entrepreneur who aims to give artists who have experienced homelessness, disability and other forms of adversity a platform.

“I want to empower disadvantaged artists,” says Mr Rath, who was driven to start the enterprise Open Canvas after seeing the artwork of a homeless artist near Melbourne’s Parliament Station on his way to work.

“The artist used to sell his wonderful work for a few dollars,” he says.

Mr Rath, who says art should be inclusive and not exclusive, likens Open Canvas to the Big Issue - a publishing venture to help homeless people become self-sufficient.

“I used to see a vendor sell the 'Big Issue' and linked the two,” says Mr Rath.

“Why can’t I convert this idea in to an artistic pursuit?”

Open Canvas
The 'Between The Lines' exhibition.

Overwhelming success

The results are already promising. The exhibition has drawn more than 300 people in its first three days, with many of the exhibits already sold.

“It’s been crazy,” says Mr Rath. “We have sold pieces that were not displayed in the exhibition. We have sold merchandise and we have received so many orders.”

Sales included all of the work of Mr Chilcott and Ms Rymer, neither of whom have professional training.

Mr Chilcott picked up a paintbrush almost by accident, having daubed a few strokes on a friend’s abandoned canvas a few years back. But he remains coy about his artistic skill, despite completing more than 70 paintings.

“I don’t like my paintings,” he says. “But people like it and that gives me hope.”

Mr Rath, and his wife Jessica, both work in public policy. But the drive to create an online platform for disadvantaged artists of Melbourne kept them up for hours over the last two years.

From the gallery to online

They ended up putting a lot of their own money to kick-start the initiative.

They hope to take their social enterprise beyond the confines of the gallery by selling the prints and merchandise of disadvantaged artists online.

“If an artist cannot afford a canvas, or a disability is an impediment to practising art, getting repeat sales from one art work is really a great opportunity for them,” says Mr Rath.

Open Canvas plans to distribute 70 per cent of the profits from sales to the artists themselves, with the remainder invested in the not-for-profit venture to fund materials and run workshops to help the disadvantaged or homeless to learn art and become self-reliant.

Pieces from a recent workshop on Lino cut prints are on display in the exhibition, including the work of Chera Lee Conrad, who spent five years living in a van with her cats, Beanie and Meme.

Ms Conrad’s first work from the Lino workshop called Ka –Moho-Alli’I – reference to Hawaiian god of sharks was well received and there have been multiple orders for the print.

Worldwide trend

Open Canvas is not the only art enterprise helping the homeless. Art Lifting is a USA-based mission created in 2013 by Liz Powers who was 18 when she secured a grant by Harvard to create art groups in homeless shelters.

The company, which started by exhibiting works of four homeless artists, now supports 72 artists and has extended to 11 US states.

Café Art, which started in the UK in 2012, spread to Sydney three years later. It invites cafes to display on their walls the work of homeless artists.

Last year, with the help of Fuji Australia, homeless people were invited to take pictures that represented their lives, with 20 prints selected for display in a Newtown café.

The photographs feature in My Sydney Calendar of 2017.

“Between the Lines” runs until February 18. fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne

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