If you go to Positivenote.co.uk, you can watch David Tovey and Mitchel Ceney painting together to the soundtrack of Bach’s Mass in B minor. As some of the country’s best choirs, soloists and orchestral musicians performed a series of virtual “Breaking the Silence” concerts during Eastertide – made possible by CCLA’s Catholic Investment Fund with the aim of getting musicians and music back into churches during the pandemic – David and Mitchel wielded their paintbrushes as part of the project. “[The artwork] was planned and unplanned,” explains Mitchel. “I’ve been to prison a lot and the rosary beads with the ornate cross is a recurring image in prison. I’ve been asked to draw it and design tattoos for people.” David adds: “Some of the lines of the piece are written into the picture, painted over, embedded for life in the picture.”
David and Mitchel are both artists who used to be homeless. Speaking to me over Zoom, they both attribute the discovery of art to their recovery and rehabilitation and both are now trying to help others do the same.
David Tovey was homeless for the last time in 2014 after 17 months of being on and off the street. He had had a successful career as an army chef, had cooked for the Queen and later run his own restaurant before his alcoholism and a series of major health problems, including a stroke, cancer, an HIV diagnosis and a heart attack – all before the age of 40 – left him unable to work and living on the street, eating out of bins. At one point, he was sleeping in a car while having chemotherapy. He was frequently suicidal and made attempts on his own life; luckily, he was stopped in his tracks before what would have been the third and most lethal attempt by a kindly park attendant who genuinely seemed to care that he should continue to live.
As his physical and mental health started to improve, David regained his confidence and realised that he could channel the creativity he used in cooking into art. “This is why I went through the mess,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out I could do anything else [apart from cheffing]. I didn’t realise that so much of my career as a chef crosses over into art. I then used art to help me with my recovery, to get me employment. I started doing street intervention work, guerrilla theatre, protesting without being aggressive.”
One such artwork was Man on Bench Fairytale, a show inspired by the park warden who saved his life, which got him noticed. In 2015, he did a podcast with the Economist about his work which was listened to by 5.5 million people.
David’s life looks very different today. “Art has not just saved my life, but transformed it,” he says. “I have had shows at the Tate, in New York, Australia, Liverpool, Canada and I’m working in America now. I know it can do it for others.” He now spends time helping people in a similar situation to the one he was in. He does this by organising a festival, the One Festival of Homeless Arts, and running art workshops for the homeless, including one at the Passage, the homelessness charity founded by Cardinal Basil Hume, where he met Mitchel Ceney.
Mitchel, 36, had been homeless for a number of years. He had spent much of his childhood in care because of problems at home, “not being able to be around members of [his] family”. “It [being homeless] was happening to me on and off, I was used to it,” he says. “Sometimes I would get out of the situation, get work, sometimes it would get worse, I would get into drug addiction.” And so the cycle went on.
After what he describes as “a particularly chaotic period”, Mitchel ended up at Passage House in Westminster. He was brought there by St Mungo’s who had found him on Rochester Row in Victoria where he would often sleep in a church doorway. They assessed him and within 24 hours found him a room. “It was big change,” he says, “as I had been sleeping on buses, the train, a fire escape in Barking where we’d get left alone, go out and take drugs and shoplift every day. Going from that chaos to having my own room in Passage House – I couldn’t believe it.”
Although he was still drinking and using drugs, Mitchel started to settle down after moving into Passage House. On the days when he was awake during the day he would wander past the art room where he would see David and other residents drawing, eating doughnuts and drinking proper filter coffee. Mitchel had always drawn, done spray painting and graffiti, but he never thought of himself as an artist. “The only thing I had confidence in was my ability to take drugs,” he says. “It was really good to talk to someone about art, and also what they had been through. David gave me hope that if he’s sorted his situation out then someone who’s been through similar stuff can too.”
When David first came to Passage House, he was shown a small red tub with some felt tip pens and a few scraps of paper. “It broke my heart,” says David. “So I called on my friends to give me art gear and I got so much I divided it between two hostels. I started volunteering. It’s not about me teaching: I create a space where people can come and feel comfortable and do some drawing, chat, drink coffee, eat doughnuts. Sometimes we don’t do any art, we just talk. If you can concentrate for two minutes a day just doodling then you’re not thinking about the terrible things happening in your life.”
Mitchel attributes his recovery to David’s art classes which were so effective for him that he is now himself running art workshops for homeless people at the Barbican. He also won a scholarship to do an art and design access course, which he finished. “It was a bit of a struggle,” he admits, “as I’m not the most academic of people, I still have mental health hang-ups, I’m not always on time. My goal was just to finish it. The only course I’ve ever finished was in jail; I don’t have any school qualifications. I passed and that’s a really big thing.” Mitchel is now off to Ravensbourne University to do a course on illustration for communication, and has moved out of the Passage to live in a shared house in west London.
For Mitchel and David, the painting they created together is an affirmation of what they have been through and achieved. The artists had just two hours to paint. “It was difficult, but you can do something amazing in such a short time,” says David. “We’ve done that in our lives. We’ve gone through years of challenging circumstances. We’ve both dealt with trauma, but through using art, we’ve transformed our lives at a quick pace, engaging with something that’s not normally on offer. That’s why I’m so passionate about art being incorporated into homeless services.
“This is not just a picture, it’s a picture that’s been created out of trauma.”
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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