Zakia and Carlton have been collaborating on their beautiful mosaics
People come to West London art charity 240Project to work on their art. The lure of hot and healthy meals and bottomless tea and coffee is also a draw. But, for most, it is the magic combination of creativity and community that entices them to the large hall above the Latymer Community Church in West London. Since 1998, the 240Project activity centre has been helping vulnerable and excluded people, including many who have experienced homelessness.
Every Monday to Wednesday, it offers them the space and materials to create art. Alongside this, there are regular classes in portraiture and drawing, mosaics, music, creative writing, plus yoga sessions, cranio-sacral therapy, reflexology, nutrition workshops, a steady supply of hot drinks and a hearty lunch. There are also weekly wellbeing trips on Thursdays, which range from ten-pin bowling to tours of high-end Mayfair galleries.
“I don’t know where I’d be without it,” says artist Mango, who sells his paintings via the Big Issue Shop, as he takes a break from producing his latest work. “This place basically got me off the street and saved my life. I’m part of the furniture here now. It’s a home from home.”
When The Big Issue arrives, 240Project has only been open for 15 minutes. It’s a cold autumnal morning but the room is already abuzz. The big, airy community hall has one wall decorated with paintings, collages and mosaics created here. There are 16 artists already hard at work, with more filing in and setting up – each with their own workspace. Some are collaborating, sharing ideas, critiquing each other’s work. Others are immersed in their own creations, barely acknowledging the roomful of like minds.
Simon Parker, the 240Project co-leader, welcomes us in and surveys the scene proudly. This place improves lives, changes lives, saves lives, and he knows it. But 240Project’s future is under threat. A redevelopment beneath the Westway, to create much needed homes in the area, has left this London art community urgently seeking new premises.
Latymer Community Church is set to be demolished then rebuilt as part of a development that will include 25 homes (half of which, at least according to the plans, will be for social housing and key workers) but no large community space for 240Project. The irony of a charity set up to help people experiencing homelessness being itself made homeless is not lost on anyone here.
“The project, at the moment, is under threat. And I don’t use that word lightly,” says Parker. “If we don’t find a building, it could mean we can’t function in the future.”
From the window, Grenfell Tower dominates the skyline. Since the devastating fire in June 2017, this community, this area of London, has come to represent the housing crisis in this country. Lives lost, ruined and endangered, safety compromised, profit prioritised. 240Project has been on the front line of the fight to help people caught in the political crossfire and failed by what remains of the social safety net. When the Grenfell fire tragedy happened, 240Project once again leapt into action to serve the community.
“We were a base for getting supplies out to people,” says Parker. “And three of our members were affected directly by being in the building at the time.”
I’m biased, but I think this is a wonderful space where people who don’t really fit into the mainstream of society, people on the margins, can come
Simon Parker, co-leader, 240Project
We head to a side room to talk further with Parker, a playwright who runs the creative writing workshop and reading groups, as well as managing 240Project alongside comedian, writer and illustrator Richard Todd. Todd pops out of the kitchen for a quick hello, before returning to cook lunch (6,500 hot meals were provided here for vulnerable people in the last 12 months alone). Everyone chips in. Today’s meal, we are told, involves broccoli. It smells great.
“I’m biased, but I think this is a wonderful space where people who don’t really fit into the mainstream of society, people on the margins, people who have been homeless or suffer from mental illnesses or are recovering from addiction, can come,” Parker says. “They’re fed and we provide a range of activities. The raison d’être is to build their confidence, to show that there is something meaningful and worthwhile in the things they produce and the things they say. It’s creating a space where they’re allowed to express themselves – set against the outside world where they don’t really have a voice and don’t feel they’re listened to, or even seen at times.”
Outside this space, the artists who work at 240Project also lack the cultural capital to wander comfortably among other, more privileged artists. A recent visit to the Gagosian Gallery in Mayfair was not as fun as it should have been.
“Walking in with a group of people you wouldn’t normally see on the streets of Mayfair, it was the contrast of London’s worlds – bringing these people in past the Bentleys parked outside,” says Parker. “The initial looks of horror from the people on the desk… I, perversely, enjoyed the contrast. The ‘fuck you’ to the idea of looking down on people.
“But when we came out, three of our members said they felt really uncomfortable and not welcome.”
The Big Issue has a long-standing connection with 240Project. Not least because the artists who work here provide so many pieces for our Street Art pages. This works for everyone. We get lively, original works of art to share with readers, the artists get a huge shot of confidence.
Parker talks about 95-year-old Rene Robbins, who travels for more than an hour, on three buses, to get here. “Imagine travelling so far at that age. But, she feels safe here, she knows the people, it shows the sense of community she feels here. And she makes amazing work. She’s had work in The Big Issue.”
“Seeing your name or your picture in a printed magazine is a truly uplifting experience,” says Parker. “Once again, people who don’t have a voice, don’t have visibility, are suddenly given a sense of self-worth, a sense of importance. They get paid for it as well. And although monetary value is not the most important, it gives something back to them.”
Zakia Choudhury is collaborating on mosaics with fellow regular Carlton. “This is a community. For local people. It gives me strength, takes away my stress, and all the beautiful things inside me come out,” she says.
“We make so many creative things out of little or nothing. When one of my works was in The Big Issue I felt like I was floating in the sky. Another one is in the Queen’s Jubilee Exhibition all year.”
There is palpable positivity here. It is easy to see why people who may feel lonely, marginalised, a little lost or in need of a boost choose 240Project as a friendly, home-from-home space in which to find community, inspiration and purpose.
Carlton has been coming here for 16 years. He bounds in with a huge mosaic of London Bridge, made from found materials. His pride is obvious – and well placed. “I come to 240Project for therapeutic reasons and to help people out, as well as to share the love of what I do,” he says. “Our work involves recycled goods. The wood is all recycled, the mirrors are recycled. We find things on the street and make use of them. We share the love, we share our experiences, and we bounce off each other.”
Lui Saatchi is a relative newcomer. He began coming to 240Project four years ago. “I started coming for my mental health. I started with the music class, then tried the art class and it has become a joy. It is a fixed routine for me. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays I know I will wake up and come here and work on my art. It gave me a purpose,” he says. “Today I am painting a rooster. About three years ago 240Project took us to North London for a wellbeing trip. I was walking around the park, and I saw the zoo – there was a rooster. I painted it and it sold. So I did another one last year, which also sold. My second rooster was in The Big Issue as well.”
Exhibiting and selling artworks is another way 240Project boosts self-esteem, mental health and community engagement. “It gives me confidence when I sell one,” says Michael Crosswaite, another 240Project regular who has contributed to The Big Issue’s Street Art pages. He is currently painting a psychedelic landscape. From day one, says Parker, there was “a commitment to art as a pathway to finding a better way of living”.
Art has transformed the life of John Sheehy. He is hard at work at his regular table. A prolific artist and an unassuming presence, Sheehy has experienced periods of homelessness and mental ill health. However, since finding a creative outlet thanks to Big Issue encouragement back in 1999, Sheehy’s skills have been recognised. He has exhibited at Somerset House, The British Museum, The Royal Academy and across Europe.
There is real talent here. And it is nurtured, nourished and encouraged. But what does the future hold?
“From May next year, we ourselves could be homeless,” says Parker. “And if the organisation can’t take care of those people that really need it – the marginalised, the lonely – in a way that this space does, it would be a terrible shame. I don’t know any other organisation that provides all the things we do for a group of people who are so in need of that safe space and somewhere to feel valued.
“It’s really urgent that we find a space, with or without the council’s help. Or, if anyone is super rich and wants to buy us a building, we’ll take that.”
If you can help find 240Project a space, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org You can buy selected works by some of the artists featured at Big Issue Shop
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