“Out there I am surviving, in here I am living,” says John Prastitis about his work with Margate’s Stretch Outsider Gallery on the project Prison to Pavement.
John, 52, has been homeless since being evicted via a section 21 order from his Cliftonville home on January 15.
Since then he and his girlfriend have sofa surfed, slept under bridges, been burnt out of the boathouse at Palm Bay and had windows smashed while they were inside an old caravan at the rear of Dreamland.
The former gallery assistant, who has contact with homelessness organisations Porchlight and RISE, said: ““I literally haven’t been able to go home since January 15.There is nowhere to put anything, I can’t just lay down and sleep or have something to eat if I feel like it.
“I can’t have a cup of tea and watch TV. You are just walking around, there is nothing to do all the time. It is tiring getting through the day. Where does it end, with me under a train?”
But John, who came to the isle more than four years ago because of talk about the burgeoning art scene, has found a lifeline with the Prison to Pavement project after going into the gallery’s former home in The Centre with a piece of his work.
Dean Stalham, who heads up Stretch Outsider gallery with Carlotta Allum and is chief curator for the new project was impressed.
He said: “The art produced by our street artist John has proved yet again the talent and the passion for the arts that exists within the margins of society. This is art as opportunity.”
Dean discovered art in prison where his work won awards and acclaim – getting his name and artwork ‘over the fence.’ On leaving prison he founded his own organisation Art Saves Lives. He also worked for the national prison arts charity, the Koestler Foundation, alongside big names such as Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller and Grayson Perry.
He is currently leading workshops for the latest project with an exhibition due to open at the new Stretch Outsider base, thanks to Margate Art School, at the former Woolworth building in the High Street.
John is now part of that project and will be representing the pavement as a voice for those on the streets.
In the build up to the display, taking place from August 16 to September 1, Dean and fellow artist/writer and former inmate Eve MacDougall have been working with John at a unit in The Centre as he creates new pieces.
John, who has a degree in fine art and spent some 12 years as a gigging musician, said: “I am not the sort of person to ask for help but I have been getting a lot of encouragement and Dean and Eve recognise that I have got something , it isn’t out of pity or charity. This gives me the space and time and facilities to do something I would not be able to otherwise because of my circumstances.
“Painting always changes and being homeless has had an impact, it makes things look different.
“A piece that was abstract I then saw as a house with a black line forming a roof. So now it is figurative not abstract. It is evolving.
“It is about structure and no structure, having structure now feels quite alien to me as I am not used to it.
“I want to come out of this feeling that I have grown and progressed and am not stuck. When you are homeless you are stuck all the time. So, artists like Tracey Emin are Stuckists (art movement which promotes figurative painting as opposed to conceptual art) but I am anti-Stuckist, I don’t want to be stuck, I want to keep going.
“Homelessness is a central issue and this is about documenting it but also giving me a feeling of being alive.
“Out there, homeless, you are surviving but there is no proof you exist. In here I am living, I have structure and beauty and proof of being alive.”
John has also created a book of poems, using a piece of discarded cardboard as the cover, and will be running art sessions at Drapers Mills school during this year’s Summer Kitchen free meals and activities project.
Eve, who was sent to an adult prison aged just 15 for breaking a baker shop’s window, is a writer and mixed media artist. She lives in London and works with the Together for Mental Wellbeing trust and has worked with Dean over the years.
She said: “Dean invited me down to work with John. It has been a great privilege, John is a really good artist and teacher and really represents the pavement part of this project.”
Eve has now promised to help John with his aim of publishing a book. Ward councillor Helen Whitehead says she will help John with his housing issue.
The Prison to Pavement exhibition opens on August 16 from 6.30pm to 10pm, and every day after from 3pm to 8pm until September 1.
The opening night will feature live music by a band from Standford Hill prison in Sheppey and special guest Donald Waugh – of Bugsy Malone, Grange Hill and Cats – and director of leading charity Pavement to Catwalk .Donald was homeless for some 14 years.
The exhibition will feature works including those by by Chris Wilson, Steven Ellis, Jeremy Deller and a private collection of prison art and soap sculptures from Matthew Meadows (author of book ‘Insider Art’). Outsider Art charity Outside In will also display a selection of works from their former-prisoners.
There will also be bags for sale designed by prisoners on the Makeright Design programme from the Design Against Against Crime Research Centre at Central Saint Martins, UAL and a music packed after party for attendees of the exhibition opening.
From Prison to Pavement highlights a huge crisis not just in Thanet but across the UK.
The response to a Freedom of Information request from Revolving Doors Agency last year revealed that between April and June 2018, 813 people released from prison went straight to rough sleeping, another 2,179 were registered as homeless ‘other,’ 1,844 went to ‘unsettled accommodation’ and the destination of a further 2,207 prison leavers was unknown.
The reality of this is being creatively expressed in the Prison to Pavement project which has been funded by the Arts Council England.
Cliftonville resident Dean, who is curating the programme, is an established playwright and his most recent ACE grants have been for successful play runs, but this is a return to the world of visual art where he has also made a name, as an artist but also as curator.
Stretch director and former prisoner Carlotta Allum (pictured) first approached Dean on the back of his art connections and work. Carlotta delivers award winning digital storytelling projects in prisoners and hostels, giving people made vulnerable by society a chance to tell their story creatively, as well as trying to practice some painting when she has the time.
Dean and Carlotta have been working to highlight the links between homelessness and prison and also give underrepresented people a platform to express themselves artistically.
Carlotta said: “Thanet still has some of the poorest wards in the country and the homeless and crime problem is all around us, especially where we have been in The Centre and on the High Street.”
Stretch Outsider will oversee a collaboration with Porchlight, Ageless Thanet and Campaign Kent to use visual arts to help people express their stories in different ways.
The exhibition includes at least 40 art works from those who have experienced prison, homelessness and mental ill health. There will also be talks and public events.
The remit of Stretch Outsider Art Gallery is to champion artworks and art practices that sit outside the norms of the conventional art world. Stretch is an arts charity that has been working predominantly in the criminal justice system for more than 15 years.
Find more at www.stretch-charity.org/
Dying on our streets
Shocking data released in February by the Office for National Statistics shows there have been 7 identified deaths of people who were sleeping rough in Thanet between 2013 and 2017. Estimates, meaning those who died on the street but may not have been registered as homeless, for the same period show eight deaths.
If you are concerned about someone who is rough sleeping you can notify streetlink at www.streetlink.org.uk
Call 24 hour free Porchlight phone helpline 0800 567 7699 or from a mobile on 0300 365 7699.
Wednesday 9.30am-12pm Margate Gateway
Tuesday 2pm-4pm GAP Baptist Church, Broadstairs