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.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.
Main image: David Tovey, by Clare Hand