Art with Heart: Open Canvas

This article was first published on Matters Journal on April 18, 2018. Image of Charmaine Tracey at Open Canvas’ inaugural exhibition, Between the Lines, at fortyfivedownstairs by James Labagala.

Walking to work one morning, Daniel Rath saw a homeless man painting. Interested in his work, he struck up a conversation with the man about his art and life. That brief encounter inspired Rath to establish Open Canvas, a social enterprise that empowers artists who’ve experienced homelessness, a disability, or other adversity to exhibit and sell their artwork and art-related merchandise.

Rath recalls the encounter that spawned Open Canvas with a distinct smile. “Near the artist was a vendor I also regularly chat with who sells The Big Issue. Big Issue vendors, who experience disadvantage, earn an income through the magazine. It struck me that there could be a similar opportunity for homeless and other disadvantaged artists to tell their story through art, and earn a livelihood from their talent,” explains Rath.

“Around the same time as meeting the artist, I came across a few other similar organisations around the world helping disadvantaged artists, like ArtLifting in the US. I thought that there was a real place for an art-based social enterprise here in Melbourne.”

Rath established Open Canvas in 2016. Its point of difference is that they help artists create the products themselves, supporting them both through the creation process and by having someone buy and love their work. Artists receive 70 per cent of the profits from each item sold.

“Being an artist is tough at the best of times. When you throw homelessness, disability, mental health, addiction and social isolation into the mix, it’s even tougher. The artists we help produce wonderful art, but they often don’t have the financial or other means to get their art seen or ultimately sold. Some don’t have an internet connection or a mobile phone, some can’t afford art supplies to practice their craft, and some have piles of art stored under their beds.”

Rath says: “Open Canvas helps provide art supplies, digitises the art, and publishes it online, holds exhibitions and brings the art – and the stories behind it – to life.”

Charmaine Tracey is one of the artists who works with Open Canvas. She was introduced to the social enterprise by Australian artist Max Robinson, who designed Australia’s $10 note in 1993.

The 69-year-old’s art is as colourful and unique as the life Tracey’s lived. A natural storyteller with an infectious laugh, Tracey, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, says, “My art is something I have done since I have been able to sit down on my bum.”

A self-described “bush kid”, the Royal National Park in Sydney’s south was Tracey’s childhood backyard, playground and an inspiration for her art. It was also an escape from a tough family environment that saw her leave home at 13.

“It’s not every day that the court gives permission to a 13-year-old to leave home. That just shows you what I was battling up against,” says Tracey. “But I never became cynical. I worked in a factory but I couldn’t get accommodation because they wouldn’t rent to a single girl in those days. I lived in a graveyard because it was the safest place. There was no one to help. I just did what I did.”

While she didn’t go to school, Tracey is a keen learner. She is a self-taught artist who also educated herself on how to read and write. “I always had the attitude I could do anything. If I wanted to know how to do something I could learn by just watching.”

Tracey has an upbeat outlook on life, despite the adversities she’s faced. She has lingering injuries from breaking her back in a car accident when she was 27 and, more recently, osteoporosis, meaning she often works from her bed in her home studio.

“I’ve done all kinds of things in my lifetime,” she says. A go-getter who’s lived a life full of adventures, she holds a taekwondo black belt, trekked to Everest Base Camp after recovering from her accident, and was a professional stuntwoman in Australian TV series The Aunty Jack Show. For seven years, Tracey went to the desert to camp alone for weeks at a time (trips which inspired her ‘Desert Dreaming Series’). While, aged 60, she relocated from northern New South Wales to Melbourne.

While Tracey predominantly paints large-scale watercolours, each of which can take up to six weeks to complete. She also carves, weaves, spins, and illustrates. She says her art is “colourful” and about “making people feel good”, and hopes to one day host a retrospective exhibition of her art.

Tracey says highlights of working with Open Canvas include her art being shown at one of their exhibitions at Melbourne gallery fortyfivedownstairs and selling a piece at a charity auction for homeless initiative Project New Dawn.

For Rath, his joy comes from telling artists their work have sold. “Hearing the artists’ reactions can be very humbling and so very satisfying – it’s what keeps us going. Despite many of our artists being financially disadvantaged, a sale means so much more to them than just the money; often this is a secondary consideration. To the artist, it’s about knowing that someone out there appreciates what they do, and it’s a validation of their talent. It’s very much about dignity and purpose.”