The extraordinary story of ex-homeless artist David Tovey

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Clare Hand on a man who went from sleeping on the streets to running fashion shows at the Tate


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David Tovey and painting
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wo minutes’ walk from Euston Station sits a flat that is the home and studio of artist David Tovey, who has also had a recent show at the Meanwhile Art Space.

For the past few years David has been building a reputation as a “social artist,” that is, someone who makes accessible pieces of art that confront pressing societal issues. Be it homelessness, substance abuse, mental health, terminal illness or suicide, he coats his canvases in chalk and paint in order to depict some of the most traumatic and stigmatised situations people can find themselves in.

David didn’t find his subject matter through a voyeuristic desire to explore the human condition: rather he is articulating parts of his own remarkable life story.

It started in 2012 when David – who was living the high-octane life of a professional chef – had a stroke. In the space of six months he developed neurosyphilis, was diagnosed with cancer and had a cardiac arrest. This near unimaginable series of events threw him into a massive bout of depression, a situation he tried to anesthetise by abusing drugs and alcohol. Before long, David was diagnosed with HIV.

“I remember saying to my mum, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done to somebody for all this to be happening to me’,” says David. “She told me that I was being tested, to which I thought, bloody hell, can’t they go and test someone else, I can’t handle anymore.”

“It all happened so quickly, none of it actually seemed real,” he continues, “soon I lost my business, my house, my partner and started living in my car.” He plummeted to rock bottom, and tried – on more than one occasion – to take his own life.

Aunt Jean painting
A selection of David’s work. Photo: Clare Hand
How does a person retrieve their desire to live when dealt such a hand? “To be honest, I’m still not sure how I managed to recover,” he says, “maybe pure stubbornness.”

There was a trigger moment, reminiscent of Clarence the angel’s intervention in It’s a Wonderful Life, were the bridge to be swapped for a syringe of crystal meth – and the angel replaced by a park patrol officer.

“The way I look at it, one guy saved my life. It was late at night and I sat in a park in Islington, actively trying to kill myself by overdosing on meth. A park patrol officer came over and said to me, ‘what the fuck are you doing, why are you trying to kill yourself?’ I don’t know if it was the way he said it or the situation – the park was locked and the officer wasn’t actually meant to be on shift that night – but his intervention made me come to terms with what I was doing to myself. He stopped me on that night and it changed my life forever.”

The park officer then took David to get some food, got him into a shelter for the night and gave him ten quid. “From that day I’ve been gradually building up,” says David, who regards that person’s random act of kindness as the catalyst behind his gradual recovery.

“Of course it hasn’t been easy, especially the psychological part. I still have dips, suffer from depression and have severe health problems that I have to deal with everyday, but I function,” he says. ‘Functioning’ being a serious understatement in light of the fact that David is currently writing an opera, runs one of the world’s two homeless arts festivals, has created fashion shows alongside multiple regular photographic and art exhibitions – not to mention regularly volunteering his time to teach art to the homeless.

“When I was on the streets, I used to constantly take photos,” he says in a tone that still rings with the utter disbelief at his own reality, “but I have effectively gone from being homeless in 2013 to having shows in Tate Modern.”

Art gave him a focus, enabling him to claw his way back to stability. “It’s so important – even if it is just drawing a stick man – to take time out and do something that isn’t thinking about the shit you’re going through in life,” he says.

David is a huge advocate for the constructive impact that art can have on the most stigmatised in our communities. “I honestly believe that if you want to get yourself off the streets, picking up a pen and paper or a camera and doing something creative is one of the best ways out of that situation. You’ve got much more chance of succeeding by doing something like that than of being accepted back into a more mainstream job, say as an accountant.”

That’s why David has spent the last few years relentlessly producing art, running workshops and telling his story over and over. “I was never much of a sharer but in recent years I’m constantly sharing my whole life story,” he says.

“Ultimately, I do the work I do because I want to empower people through art. I am not trying to make a political statement, not trying to give people shelter or fundraise; I am simply trying to empower individuals by giving them a space to create. And it really works: art changed my life. I would be dead if it weren’t for it.”

“I firmly believe that if I can do it, anyone can,” he says, with the conviction of a man who has been given a second-shot at life. One that he is going to use to change attitudes towards some of society’s most vulnerable.

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The people behind the paintings…

Danny

David's friend Danny
I wanted to show the illness in his face. Photo: Clare Hand
“Danny was one of my best friends who died in December 2016. He’d been homeless for many years but it just got to the point where he gave up on life. He got severely depressed, stopped eating and survived on alcohol alone. Before long his body shut down. For several months he went missing then eventually we found out he’d been in the morgue for over two months.
I painted Danny because I wanted to encapsulate and archive what a great man he was. For the last thirty years he’d volunteered at homeless centres, he was such a nice, solid guy who would do anything for anyone.

His life worked in cycles; when everything was looking up he’d volunteer, he’d have a flat, he’d have a support network, then he’d have a bout of depression and he’d end up back on the street. I wanted to show the illness in his face, the yellow from when his liver started to collapse, and the red from when his heart started to mess around too. You get all these different colour tones coming through which is strangely beautiful – obviously not for the person going through it.”

Self-portrait

It is impossible to complete a self-portrait. Photo: Clare Hand
“I realised it’s impossible to do a finished self-portrait. Painting someone else is different because it is how you see that person at that time, but because you see yourself every minute of everyday and your perception of yourself is forever changing, its impossible to finish a painting of you.”

Aunt Jean

I have such fond memories of her. Photo: Clare Hand
“This is my favourite picture I have ever painted. My aunt passed away eight months ago. She was the eldest sister on my mum’s side and was such a beautiful, strong lady. I have such fond memories of her but she got dementia and it ended up killing her, realistically she died years ago. I painted her last year, just before she died. I loved the photo it is based on, it had this irresistible softness that I had to recreate. There is a lot of love in this piece and it took so much emotion to create it.

I have to give so much of myself into my art; it is emotionally draining because I have to really feel it. I am not one of those artists who produces work all of the time, I am much more of a mood artist, who had to be absorbed into it. That is how I create better pieces of artwork anyway.”

Charlie

Charlie painting homeless Camden
Charlie couldn’t believe that David had painted him. Photo: Clare Hand
“Charlie has been on the streets for many years and still sleeps rough in this area. He is honestly one of the most adorable guys I’ve ever met. He is a brilliant poet, an alcoholic and he’s just so friendly, I love him to pieces.

He came to one of my festivals a few years back, wearing all his clothes that he’d been sleeping in for weeks and standing next to all these people in suits. For the duration of the night, he was beaming, saying he’s having the best time. He felt so accepted, just for being him. This piece is based on a photo I took at the event. The image kept coming back to me, and I knew I had to put it into a painting. I painted it on discarded bits of material, there’s some jumper there, a waistcoat above that and a jacket over there.

When I’d finished, I looked for Charlie for weeks but couldn’t find him, he’s sometimes difficult to hunt down. Then one day I was out with a friend and we spotted him, so we sprinted across the road and I showed him the piece on my phone. His face lit up, he said, “that’s me, that’s amazing,” and started balling his eyes out. He couldn’t believe that someone had taken the effort to paint him. He normally walks with his shoulders hunched down but after this he was basically skipping down the road. I wasn’t expecting that reaction and it made my day.”

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For more on David Tovey’s forthcoming shows, head to here

Main image: David Tovey, by Clare Hand


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