Open Canvas; Empowering the Homeless, Disabled & Trauma Affected Artists

Open Canvas is a Melbourne based philanthropic organisation that focuses on empowering artists who have experienced homelessness, a disability or some other adversity that has prevented them from being able to exhibit and sell their work. We caught up with founder Daniel Rath to discuss the ins and outs of Open Canvas, and exploring the heartfelt stories and art of a few of the artists that Open Canvas represents.

How did Open Canvas start?

I would frequently walk past a homeless person on my way to work in Melbourne CBD, who was creating beautiful art, and around the same time I also came across an online story of another homeless artist in the CBD. The public were asking where they could buy the art, and this really lit the spark of an idea to use art as a force for meaningful social change; as a way for homeless people to earn a livelihood from their innate talent. After speaking with organisations engaging with the homeless, it became apparent there were more talented artists who’d experienced life on the streets. These artists often find it near impossible to reach a broad audience with their art – not being connected, lacking money for art supplies and not having relationships with art galleries – are all factors working against them. That’s where Open Canvas helps. We get the art online, we promote it, and we seek out other opportunities for artists to use their talents and services.

Art can be a tough sell, so the idea of putting the art on products such as tea towels, greeting cards, phone covers is a way for customers to support what we do in different ways, and for the artists to earn multiple revenue streams long after their original piece of work is sold. The initial focus was on homeless artists, but we soon discovered other artists who benefit from what we do – such as those who’ve experienced a disability, addiction, domestic violence and the like. We’re now branching out into craft as there’s some wonderful items being produced by our artists such as clothing, accessories, knitted items and the like.

Where do you find the artists to represent?

Generally we reach out to like-minded organisations engaging with people who have experienced major adversity; organisations that see compelling value in empowering their clients by tapping into the skills and talent they have in their own to hands – rather than being focused on the ‘hand-out’ side of things. We also have artists reaching out to us directly who’ve heard about our work and the opportunities we provide.

Art can make an incredible impact on some people’s lives, for some it is a vital outlet for survival. Have you considered the immense impact that Open Canvas has had on some of the artist’s lives that you represent?

One of the things that keeps us motivated at Open Canvas is experiencing our artists’ reactions to finding out their art has sold. The financial benefits for the artists are obvious, but for most of our artists it’s about so much more than that. It’s about knowing that something they’ve created is appreciated by someone else, that someone else believes in them and appreciates what they’ve made with their own two hands. It’s immensely empowering for a person who has experienced major adversity and who may never have sold their art before. At the opening night of our first exhibition it was such a moving experience to see our artists have their works up in lights, to have their time in the sun, and to shine. We’re incredibly fortunate that we’re able to help make a difference in this way.

How can we help create awareness about Open Canvas and assist in such a positive movement?

The best way to help is to buy something from the Open Canvas website, – the majority of proceeds from purchases flow back to our artists. Promoting and spreading the word about the work we do is a big help, as is introducing us to artists, people and other like-minded organisations. We don’t have all the answers, so we love having conversations with people who can impart knowledge and skills to help us sustain the work we do. Even just following us on social media is a huge help to us!

Maxwell Frank

The symbolism in Maxwell’s art speaks of his challenging past, the fleeting beauty and fragility of the present, and the promise of a bright future. Maxwell is a self-taught artist who was born and raised in Clunes, Victoria. Maxwell moved to Melbourne when he was 15, where he found artistic expression in graffiti. It was around this time Maxwell started drinking heavily, beginning a journey into addiction, rehabilitation, relapse and periods of homelessness. These are all reoccurring themes in his earlier works.  During these challenges, Maxwell’s art was a coping mechanism and a form of salvation. “I drew to keep sane. It was a way to cope and a bit of a map for what I wanted to do next. When I was drawing, the vision wasn’t clear at first, and I felt like all the mess in my subconscious was pouring through, then I’d put aside what I was working on and realise the artistic release had got me through”.

Maxwell Frank Open canvas
Maxwell Frank for Open canvas

Maxwell doesn’t view his journey as a negative one – more so a journey which has enriched his outlook on life and his creative vision. Today, Maxwell has turned a corner in his life and is well on the road to recovery. He is able to tell his story with more clarity; the figures he now draws are a part of him and have become more than just pictures on a piece of paper; they are fragments of himself, have walked the path that he has walked on, and live to tell a story of his past, present and future. On his aspirations for his future and his art, Maxwell says “it’s a bit cliché but I want what a lot of other people want – a house and a family. I don’t want to be famous from my art … but I do want it to be appreciated, and I think that’s why I try to refine my skills every time I draw. I don’t know who that appreciation will be from –  other artists, the public, my peers – I just like to show what I’ve been through, and the more eyes the better”.

Maxwell Frank 'Swimming Pool' for Open Canvas
Maxwell Frank ‘Swimming Pool’ for Open Canvas
Maxwell Frank 'Swimming Pool' for Open Canvas
Maxwell Frank ‘Antiseptic’ for Open Canvas
Roderick Holt

Rod’s artistic talent was first discovered in prison, but his love of drawing started from an early age and continues to be a big part of his life and spirituality.  Rod grew up with his adoptive family in Queensland. At the age of 12 Rod was placed in juvenile detention and remembers being moved between juvenile correction facilities and home until he was 21. After working in various jobs for several years –  including in a timber yard, on a cattle station, in a bakery and as a truckie’s offsider – Rod was jailed for five years. It was during this time that someone observed Rod drawing and invited him to the prison’s art class, where he learnt from his fellow inmates and teacher Howard ‘Joe’ Butler, and developed the tile or cracked earth effect in his paintings.

Roderick Holt for Open Canvas

Two more stints in jail followed, during which Rod continued practicing art and refining his style. In between stints Rod remembers painting pictures for his landlord as payment for rent. Rod is from the Kunja Aboriginal people. The snake and goannas in his work represent his father’s totems. Rod’s technique is to generally put down a base colour, followed by a sketch and then a top layer of paint. He likes to work in stages; “I look at it, stand back, new ideas come … I work out the colours and what I need to do with them.” Art is a spiritual pursuit for Rod. “My paintings are totem-style paintings of my heritage on my father’s side. It’s like my religion. When I was in jail we had pastors and preachers and I’d be sitting there painting, and when they asked what I was doing I’d say ‘this is my religion, this is what I do’. Painting keeps me calm, away from the bad stuff in jail … it’s a bit of an escape”.

Roderick Holt 'Great Spirit Snake' for Open Canvas
Roderick Holt ‘Great Spirit Snake’ for Open Canvas
Cheryl Widlend

For Cheryl, “art is a healer, a therapy – a soft place to land”. Cheryl started her journey into the world of art though fashion. Living in apartheid South Africa, Cheryl forged a path for herself as a pattern maker and fashion designer. During this period of her life, Cheryl experienced repeated mental and physical abuse and violence. At the age of 33, Cheryl and her only child moved to Brisbane, where she started CMW Designs and The Art of Fashion. When the global financial crisis hit, Cheryl lost everything, including her house and businesses, after which she declared bankruptcy. During this time she also became very ill, both mentally and physically, and moved to Melbourne in 2009 to start a new life.

Cheryl Widlend for Open Canvas

Cheryl’s artistic practice on upcycling materials to create works which are painted, woven, and sewn “with strokes and threads of love” developed during her studies at university and continues to this day. In 2013 Cheryl’s child, who is transgender, attempted suicide several times. After a breakdown, and suffering from trauma, anxiety and depression (something she has lived with for many years), Cheryl’s journey into homelessness started. During this time she stayed with her daughter’s friend and also in squalid conditions in a rooming house. Cheryl eventually found accommodation with Womens Housing Limited, where she founded an arts-based initiative focusing on women, particularly women who are tired, broken, homeless, and/or socially and financially disadvantaged. Today, Cheryl’s hope is that her story of resilience, strength and hope in the face of adversity will inspire and help others.

Cheryl Widlend 'Faces of Change' for Open Canvas
Cheryl Widlend ‘Faces of Change’ for Open Canvas
David Parkinson

Determination and grit are two traits David Parkinson has in spades. You wouldn’t know it by looking at his work, but he didn’t even start practicing art until he was 40. David left school early and became a jeweller and picture framer by trade. Having always had an interest in art, and wanting to further his education, David was attracted to a Screen Print Design course offered at RMIT. His key influences are graffiti, street art, tattooing and comics. He first exhibited his work in a Melbourne gallery in 2009. Shortly after the exhibition, David was hit by a delivery truck while crossing the road. He was left with broken bones and an acquired brain injury. As a result, David today lives in constant pain and receives a disability support pension.

David Parkinson 'Birds 2' for Open Canvas
David Parkinson ‘Birds 2’ for Open Canvas
David Parkinson 'Birds' for Open Canvas
David Parkinson ‘Birds’ for Open Canvas
Patrick Francis

Patrick Francis, who lives with autism, is an award winning artist and his work is included in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW. His work has been displayed in numerous metropolitan and regional galleries. Patrick’s subject matter draws on images of art history classics, pop culture, film icons, as well as facets of his daily life, including his sporting and community interests. Inspired by Michelangelo, Goya, Raphael, Velazquez, Van Gogh, Rubens and Gorky, Patrick enjoys interpreting the work of the Masters with his characteristic bold, impressive colours and simplification of the illustrative plane. His work recalls the intensity of modernist movements like Fauvism and German Expressionism, stripping back the image to its main components, distilling portraits into purer forms of representation, focusing attention on key elements loaded with emotive value.

Patrick Francis 'Katie' for Open Canvas
Patrick Francis ‘Katie’ for Open Canvas
Patrick Francis 'Tony' for Open Canvas
Patrick Francis ‘Tony’ for Open Canvas
Rodney Mallee

Art is Rodney’s life; it’s a way for him to escape and it makes him feel happy. After he left his family home, Rodney lived on and off the streets for eight years. In between being homeless he found temporary shelter in public housing and crisis accommodation, started using ice and heroine, and was raped twice. To get by, Rodney begged, sold his art and scrounged. Although Rodney was scared while homeless, he also describes feeling alive during this time; and also that his prayers were often answered. Rodney has had no formal artistic training.  His linocut print, City Sunlight, was produced at an Open Canvas workshop – it was the first time Rodney had ever attempted this challenging medium.

Rodney Mallee 'City Sunlight' for Open Canvas
Rodney Mallee ‘City Sunlight’ for Open Canvas
Rodney Mallee 'Thunder Dome' for Open Canvas
Rodney Mallee ‘Thunder Dome’ for Open Canvas

Follow Open Canvas on Instagram and their website

Interview with Daniel Rath by Sara Nicolette.


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