A Place To Call Hope
Headline illustration by: Elena Nazarova
Marice Cumber uses art as a tool to give back hope to those who’ve lost it — the people without a home. Read more about how she does that, the extraordinary initiative “Accumulate“ and discover more about “The Book of Homelessness” — the first graphic novel created by homeless people.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself — your education, background and your interest in art?
Yeah. So I had studied Fine Arts for my degree, which is the worst degree if you want to go and get a job and the only thing you can do is make your own job. So I started my own business when I was about 23, incredibly young. I ran that for about 15 odd years and it was very, very successful. Then I went into education and tried to change creative education so that it includes enterprise skills within the curriculum, which is very core to what I believed in. I set up large projects related to that and carried on teaching and working in university until about 10 years ago, in 2010, when I really withdrew. I was super stressed, overworked, feeling empty and was absolutely burnt out. As I drove to work one day I just thought that I literally couldn’t get physically out of the car, I was unable to work, exhausted and stressed, and I made the decision to drive home, leave work and repair myself. Then I spent a year, sort of lying on the settee, watching videos cause I was sort of at the end of my most high-powered career. I mean, I just threw it all in. It was in that year that I made a decision
I also wanted to do things which are much more grassroots because I was literally involved with running the business of the university, rather than being able to concentrate on the face to face contact time with students. That really made me want to do things which were much more meaningful, much more impactful. And then in 2011, I helped to set up the local arts festival. I live in an area which is quite aspirational — full of cafes, hairdressers, estate agents. But in the middle of that area there is a hostel. And that hostel is for people who are homeless, there are about 170 people living in that hostel. I’ve lived in the area, called Crouch End, for about 15-16 years and I’ve never once realized that there was a hostel right next to my kids’ school. It didn’t even clock in my head, because I was on a different wavelength. So, I connected with that hostel and I suggested that we do something together, do something creative with the residents that live there and whatever we produced was going to be shown at the Crouch End Festival. I told them there was no doubt the work was going to be shown because I’m the director of that festival and they’re not going to have to pass any thresholds to be involved. And that’s basically how it came about. It was in that terrible year that I had this amazing project connecting the roots of my career, which were creativity, education and enterprise, and it all came together in this project.
When did the Accumulate initiative begin?
It was literally a few years or so after I stepped out of having that very high-powered job. I did a call-out to the local community suggesting that we do some creative workshops in this hostel. And I think things are very, very different now in relation to community engagement — 8-9 years ago people weren’t so conscious as they are now. Anyway, I emailed the whole mailing group and only one person got back to me. He was a photographer who had previously done some work in community engagement and youth clubs. Let me just say that photography is not my background at all, my background is in design. So I thought “Well, what the hell, nobody else has come forward. So we must cope with this.” We set up this really makeshift photography studio in the canteen of the hostel with a sheet as our backdrop. We had one camera, one set of lights. If you could see what Accumulate does in a workshop now it’s like a million miles ahead, so much more advanced. It was really primitive in the beginning, I suppose, but what I witnessed was a huge sense of empowerment, a huge sense of connection, of pride and self value. Amongst those residents that took part the energy level was off the scale and, bear in mind, that hostel is one of the worst hostels I’ve ever worked in. It’s really depressing but all of a sudden it had this real buzz and I thought to myself, ‘Well, that’s just brilliant. This is it. We’re on a roll. We’re starting’. And that’s how it started.
What exactly has changed about the organization since you established it in 2013 and has the way society perceives homeless people changed?
There’s a lot of grassroots initiatives out there and that’s fantastic, we’re really all trying to make a difference.
COVID is democratic, it doesn’t matter what your background is or how much income you’ve got, you can still be really affected by it. That is also coupled to people who have lost their jobs and their income. And what we’re finding in the UK is that all of a sudden you’ve got the middle classes going to food banks where they can get free food. Normally, it’s people really way down the scale, economically. Now you’ve got this new wave of people who have been made redundant or have lost their jobs. It’s really hard to get a new job and they’re struggling on state benefits. So there’s that. And I think there is a big wave of consciousness, which is sort of funny in a terrible way. Let’s say you were running a charity, which was dealing with, I don’t know, heart conditions or something else, which is a more mainstream sort of charity, you have seen your income really reduce because there’s no marathons to run for, like the Stroke Foundation, or the Heart Foundation. Homelessness, however, has risen in awareness. So we, as an organization, have managed to increase our impact because of that. I don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t had the COVID year but we’ve been super proactive, really innovative in how we approach and deliver our activities. Homelessness has increased, it’s more widespread. It’s also more hidden.
There’s a whole new wave of people now who have come into the demographic of what homelessness is. When COVID first started, there was this huge initiative to get everybody off of the streets and into emergency accommodation. So, the government got hold of all of the disused buildings, hotels were being transformed into shelters. People were off the streets and now they are back on the streets, and it’s even more significant. If there are people in the streets and they were, let’s say they were begging, not the greatest way forward, but if that was what they were doing, there’s nobody to beg to because there’s nobody in the cities or travelling to work. This makes the homeless even more vulnerable. So, there’s much more community response to homelessness. If homelessness is rising, and there’s no more accommodation, that means there’s going to be more people and it’s getting more and more difficult to count how many the affected are.
How did you come up with the idea of “The Book of Homelessness” — the first ever graphic novel created by people affected by homelessness?
What we have done at Accumulate over the years is courses and workshops and these have resulted in an output that could be an exhibition, with art on the wall, a fashion show or a magazine. The emphasis has always been on the work people produce in these workshops because they attend them in order to be creative, not to talk about being homeless. Let’s say I am going to a workshop in ceramics. I’m there because of ceramics. I’m not there because I’m a female of a certain age, with a certain background, I simply want to study ceramics. And that’s the same thing with Accumulate, people are there because they want to do something creative not because they are homeless. Back when we could still go to coffee shops I had a meeting with a graphic novelist called Hennie Beaumont and we came up with the idea of this graphic novel and what I wanted to happen was for the people who are homeless to tell their own stories in their own way. It’s their journey and we didn’t want to create a weird sense of hierarchy by telling stories that were not ours to tell, which was the driving force for the way we executed the project.
I could have gone and asked for funding but then I would have no guarantee because we could have easily gotten rejected. That’s why we decided to crowdfund The Book of Homelessness. It was a lot of money that we had to raise because it’s not a cheap project to run. We got the money in November 2019, which was like £18 500. And then we started the project in January 2020. At first you don’t really know how many people would turn up because it is the first one you’ve done, so you are reaching out to a lot of hostels. We started the project and I said, “You can write about whatever you want. You can write about what you had for breakfast, it’s irrelevant, it’s your book and these are your stories. It’s called The Book of Homelessness but it doesn’t have to be about being homeless.” That gave a sense of freedom and it also gave a sense of trust that we weren’t there to exploit these sad stories. In addition to that every person who contributed is getting paid for every book that’s sold, so they’re getting quite a lot of money since we’ve sold so many books, which is quite brilliant. That’s how we basically started the project. The first month was quite intense because you had to teach people about writing, drawing, sequencing and what makes a story. We had to look at poems and all different types of narratives to get people thinking. They didn’t have to write a physical, an actual story, they could just put one word if they wanted to put one word, it was just really, really open.
About six weeks in or something, we did this intense week of getting to the story. We did a lot of live practices, a lot of different types of exercises, all this sort of stuff. During all that everybody really came together, wanted to achieve and to write their own story. That’s how we’ve got the stories, because of that incredible bond between the participants. There was also incredible trust between the participants and the tutors and we had a lot of tutors involved in that project, which is why it was so expensive. Everybody wanted to do their absolute best, they were so committed to each other, as well as being committed to themselves to make this book happen. It was almost like a youth club sort of atmosphere, where people would come in, they’d go to their special table where they sat with their friends. We would have lunch together and it was a really lovely atmosphere and that continued all the way through until March. We were right near the end of the project and the government forced lockdown literally about a week before we were due to finish everything.
Were there any people that had been involved in art prior to the project or were they all new to it?
We have some people who were naturally very, very talented and obviously had been engaged in creative activities prior. And then we had some people who couldn’t draw but they wanted to be there because they knew that the purpose was really meaningful to them. So, yes, we definitely have this cross section. For example Mitchell, he’s incredibly talented but he stopped drawing because he got into drugs and completely left that outlet behind. The Book of Homelessness, however, enabled him to have a reason to restart. Amalia is also another one. Then you have people like Jade and Nicolette and Zoe. If you look at their drawings, they’re incredibly naive but they still wanted to draw their stories and they’re very, very beautiful. Nobody really joined because drawing is really good for their well-being, it wasn’t anything to do with that. However, being involved in this project did make them feel super good. They felt so positive and they kept engaged with Accumulate because they enjoy being creative. Even the ones that started off saying, ‘I can’t draw’ are now coming regularly to the Accumulate sessions because they offer so much more to them. Earlier this year we awarded scholarships to six Accumulate participants, so they could progress their creative education at Ravensbourne, which is a small creative university. I think 3 out of those 6 people came from the Book of Homelessness project and the other three came from other projects we were running.
Have any of those people now become renowned artists?
It’s early days but I think what’s brilliant is that actually Mitchell and Amalia have both received paid work as illustrators, so their work is being published elsewhere as well, which is amazing. Mitchell is definitely getting a lot of work. He’s blown away that he can actually earn money from doing his illustrations. He can’t believe that he went from sleeping in a tent, being a drug user and really feeling like he had no future to now earning money from his creative work and being at university. That’s a huge transition for him.
You start to feel better about yourself, you’ve got more self-esteem, you feel that you have more to offer, that you are more valued and you’ve got the confidence now. Those are all really, really critical assets if you’re going to move forward with your life and that’s what the Accumulate project is really about. It’s about enabling people to pivot and engage in this better future that they could possibly enter.
Art is often seen as a universal language. Do you think it’s also a way to bridge the gap between homeless people and the rest of society?
I think so. Traditionally you wouldn’t necessarily expect from people who are homeless to put on a whole fancy exhibition like a degree show, because people have their perceptions of what a homeless person is like. Another thing is that you can get only so many people to the private view, 150, maybe and in a few days it’s over, isn’t it? However, The Book of Homelessness is something that people can engage with in their own time, they can read, they can understand, they can learn from it. It’s long-lasting, it’s a testament or a statement piece. I never thought the book would be as much of a responsibility as it is but also I never thought it’d be used as a tool for education. So, it’s about education, educating the people that are reading it. They are really getting to understand the cross section of what homelessness is, all the different types of stories, all the different sorts of situations and experiences that are portrayed in that book. We’ve got people who are torture survivors, we’ve got people who have suffered abuse, people who have fled bad relationships. We’ve got a really big cross section.
Do you think art offers a sense of belonging?
The book itself looks like an art book, which is also part of it, it completely throws away what you might think you’re getting. You’re getting something of such beauty which actually tells such terrible stories. Accumulate has managed to create some sort of community because you’ve got physical, actual workshops, where people can connect with each other, they like each other’s work, they talk about their work and that’s great, you get a real buzz. If somebody says that what you’ve produced is good, that’s great because usually you’re not getting that at all, because of living in a hostile environment. You don’t feel great about yourself, nobody’s saying anything positive to you and then you come to Accumulate and people are willing to talk to you and engage with you about your creativity, not because you’re homeless and that’s really really different.
Do you think art helps the participants find their voice, both in art and in society?
Yeah, I mean, they’ve got the tools, it’s how they use them. You can do photography on your phone, you can film on your phone, you know. We’ve got people that still come to Accumulate maybe three, four years after they first engaged with it and that’s because it offers something different. I think people wanted to go out there and produce, create, act and now got the tools to do it. They know how to do it, they’ve got a network, which is really important if you’re going to survive in the creative industries, as you probably know. People from the project are constantly messaging each other backwards and forwards when they do something and they are really there for each other for support and advice. So, I don’t know whether I think art is a tool. It’s not necessarily a tool to make a career out of it but it’s rather a tool to actually progress in their lives. It’s about gaining confidence in yourself. It’s a bit of a journey to go on until you feel that you’ve got the skills, or you’ve got the ability to do this job, to do this bit of training or go back into education.
It also helps reduce anxiety and we’ve got people with PTSD on the project that have found a way to navigate that. It’s all super supportive and it breaks that cycle and helps people to engage in something which is rewarding and fulfilling.
You are working with about 14 hostels around London, right? What do you think the next step to making art more accessible to homeless people is?
Well, some hostels are more proactive than others. That can be to do with all sorts of things like dealing with lack of resources, lack of space, lack of funding. So, we’ve initiated a project with art kits that we sent to people in the post. In those art kits there are all the materials and the instructions needed for a specific creative activity, so they don’t need a facilitator. Anybody who wants to do something creative can do something creative through the Accumulate art kit project. That’s really made a big change because you might be the only person in your hostel that wants to do something creative and there’s no way they’re going to put on a workshop for you. But if they get the Accumulate art kit, they can easily do something creative, at least a 2-hour activity. We also have a community website where people can connect with us.
So what is the plan from now on?
My plan is to do the art kits and really expand on that. At the peak of COVID we were sending 550 art kits at a time, around 4 000 in total, which was amazing. We’ve also planned actual workshops and I think we will get away from more traditional visual arts and move more into the technology area. I’ve got this future Accumulate workshops list written on the wall and whether I’m actually going to do it, I don’t know, but that’s the plan.