Geraldine Crimmins is a big name in the art world of London. There’s her art, which is first rate. And then there is the force of her personality, which is quite something to behold. For her latest trick, Crimmins has galvanised a community of outsider artists with a history of homelessness, found them a space to work and formed the Drummond Street Artists. Now, this loose collective of talent that Crimmins mentored and helped find a place to work, have their very first show.
The opening night of the DSA exhibition at the Old Diorama on Drummond Street, where the artists meet each weekend to work, socialise and shelter, is buzzing when The Big Issue arrives.
The artworks are eclectic, colourful, impressive. And the artists? They look proud as punch.
Like some of the artists she works with, Crimmins has her own history of homelessness and addiction.
“I started painting in prison and sold a few pieces. That got me the bug. After I came out of prison, I was clean, I got my health back, but didn’t know how to re-enter society. So I volunteered at Crisis at Christmas and because I was ex-homeless I was able to go to classes there. I got my drawing skills up, took some courses, did a BTEC, then got myself on my feet. And I met a lot of other artists.
“I was offered my first exhibition up in Turnpike Lane and Channel 4 saw me in The Big Issue and wanted to interview me. It got about 750,000 views because they put a headline on saying, “She spent £2,000 a week on drugs”. But the comments were positive. I sold more pieces and got a residency here.”
For Crimmins, the exhibition is the culmination of months and years of working with marginalised artists. She formed the Drummond Street Artists in January after realising that there was a huge gap in provision for precariously sheltered people at weekends.
“I met a guy through The Big Issue and he bought a few paintings from me over the years,” she continues.
“He gave me a commission, which kept me going over lockdown. When I met him to give him the painting, I mentioned I had been volunteering, running a mentoring group. He offered to sponsor it – I hadn’t realised that he was a philanthropist!
“But I didn’t want to set something up in competition to other projects. So I came to the director here and asked if there was something we could do at the weekend. Because there are other workshops for marginalised artists but nothing like this at the weekend.”
She gives a flavour of the way the Drummond Street Artists work. It is inclusive, collaborative, lively – with DJ Geraldine playing the music while the artists create.
“It is a workshop. We provide all the paint and the paper. It is naive art. And some are really skilled. Half of them are professionals. And I try to help out the beginners, like Bahja. We give people a space to come and create.
“A few are street homeless and the rest are in hostels. Dan is living in a tent outside London with his dog – he’s been attacked twice. He doesn’t paint but comes to the group. I’m careful with the funds entrusted to me. But they get Pot Noodles, tea, coffee, crisps and biscuits.”
Now the work they’ve been producing is on show. And as well as hopefully selling a few pieces, the artists are reaping the rewards for Crimmins’ tenacity.
“I’m good at organising. I’m a bit bossy! But I remember when I did my first exhibition and I couldn’t believe it. Someone took my photograph. And it’s that self-confidence you get. That is huge.
“I know some of them will sell pieces. And selling is important. But somebody came in to the workshop crying their eyes out the other week. They went in, started painting and absolutely smashed it. They made two amazing pieces of work and left laughing. And that is what it is all about, really.”
Bhavit: ‘I’m surrounded by such creative people’
The art group has given me focus, it gives me an opportunity to socialise otherwise I can be isolated. It challenges me as an artist because I’m surrounded by such creative people. After a traumatic history of homelessness I got a council flat a few years ago. Most importantly the group gives me an opportunity to exhibit. bhavit.art
Dave Sohanpal: ‘Art gave me some freedom’
I came here as an asylum seeker. In this hostile environment when you have no recourse to public funds, you are not treated as a human being. I was pretty much homeless and then we had Covid, so I was even more isolated. My GP suggested art therapy. Art has helped me have some autonomy. It gave me back some freedom. Because nobody could tell me what to paint. Art is a place where you lose yourself and also find yourself – it wasn’t therapy or pills, it was art that helped me to deal with the trauma. When you are an asylum seeker, your circle is so small. But now it is a bit wider because I have found a community of artists who have been through similar things and really inspire me. Insta: @davesohanpal1
Bahja Mahamed: ‘Art is literally my life’
I am honoured to be working with the group here at Drummond Street Artists. I’ve been coming since the beginning and I’m learning all the time from this amazing group of artists with different styles and different energies. They are like family to me. This painting is meant to be a strong rose – it represents breaking through hardship. Painting always helps me. If I don’t have somebody to talk to, I get a canvas and talk to my canvas by colouring it. So it is not just a piece of art, it is me talking to you. Art is literally my life. And Geraldine has made my art dream come true. Insta: @cali.bahja
Mary Vallely: ‘I turn my anger and pain into beauty’
For this chair, I was thinking about Van Gogh. But I didn’t want it to be like his work. And I wanted it to look like the floor was caving in. Working here helps my depression and anxiety. The space is good. The artists are great. And it is very free. So it is a beautiful community – bless Geraldine for starting it up. Everybody here has a history of homelessness. I was on the streets from the age of 14. Anyone can be homeless and anyone can have mental health issues. I use my anxiety to produce the work. All my work is colour. And the colour comes when I’m more depressed. The more angry and upset I am, the better my paintings are. I turn my anger and pain into beauty
Eugene Little: ‘There is a primal scream of people suffering in doorways’
I’ve got boxes of pictures of people living outside all across London, going back to the 1970s. I became homeless years ago myself and it brought me closer to them. You can learn from everyone if you really listen. There is like a primal scream of people suffering in the doorways. I’ve recorded terrible things. I struggle to open the boxes sometimes – I get so emotional because I remember everybody.”
John Sheehy: ‘My work is like the “dance of a damaged soul”‘
John Sheehy is an artist whose works have graced these pages over many years. He describes his work as like the “dance of a damaged soul” and has endured extended periods of homelessness since arriving in London from south-west Ireland in the 1950s. Since discovering painting as a means to express his pain – following encouragement by The Big Issue – Sheehy’s raw talent has seen his work exhibited at Somerset House, The British Museum and The Royal Academy.
“I’m a visionary artist. These paintings just come from somewhere. I don’t know where, so whatever the viewer sees, that’s correct.
My work is about passion and vision. I have to sign them straight away otherwise I won’t recognise my work – it’s like it is coming through me from somewhere else. Probably from God. Inspired by God and nature and the spirit of London.
“I made these works here. It’s good to have a place to go on Saturdays because there is nowhere to go at weekends. It gets me out and about, to do a bit of art, a bit of creation, and meet other artists. There is a lovely community here. There is tea and coffee, sandwiches and biscuits, and all the materials so I can follow my vision.
“It’s very good to see it up on the wall and be with the other artists. I admire their work. We all come more or less from the same boat. We are kindred spirits.”
Shakir: ‘This place has given me hope’
“I had lost contact with everyone, being housebound since having Covid and being hospitalised. I’ve been recovering for about 18 months. I did some detective work and found Geraldine’s details, because I knew her years ago and we lost touch. Once we were back in contact, she really pushed me. Initially I just liked being among other artists. I have nerve damage and suffer with fatigue; I only drew for half an hour and was knackered but that feeling of doing my creative thing again was amazing. This place has given me hope. Having my art exhibited has given me a lot of confidence.”
Michael Crosswaite: ‘Geraldine is a star’
I was reaching a point where things were taking off a bit when Covid happened. And it really fucked everything up for two years. Geraldine is a star to put this together and get a space for us to come. She has been good to me over the years and helped me sell lots of my work. Because I’m terrible at business. I know lots of the other artists from drop-in places, and there is a guy called Dan (a Big Issue vendor) who comes here with his dog. And the dog was terrified of men. I painted the dog, he is called Lancelot, and I finished it on the day of the Queen’s funeral. And you know the story of King Arthur – and how Lancelot fucks everything up at the end? So I called it Lancelot – the Destroyer of Kings and Queens.” Insta: @michaelcrosswaite
Lui Saatchi: ‘It’s a real communal feel’
I did a pheasant painting and a few landscapes. It is very nice to see it here – and I really enjoy coming here to paint. The atmosphere is very nice. It’s a real communal feel. This is a proper art centre, so it is nice to be part of the team. Geraldine is a really good artist and an even better human being.
Buy a Big Issue Winter Support Kit for £34.99, you’ll receive four copies of the magazine and vendors could receive immediate tools for survival plus access to vital training and employment pathways to escape poverty for good.