Recently I have been given the opportunity to explore making art on the streets around the Parson Cross area of Sheffield. The plan is to produce a series of images in the area for Advent to explore the idea of hope and life emerging in the ordinary places where we all live and work. Little did I realise how profound an experience this would turn out to be.
This is what happened when I began to paint on the walls of a derelict Bingo Hall on a roundabout near the heart of the estate…
The image is by no means finished yet, and time will tell how it turns out, but more important to me is the experience of the process of creating something in such a public space. Whilst I have made art on the streets in the past it has always been on my own paper, on an easel – a creative space that I own and I control, even if I can’t control the public space around me. This was different though, I have never felt genuinely scared making art but I felt real trepidation as I sprayed the paint onto grey breeze blocks.
For some time I have thought that when we act courageously and creatively we open up the potential for love to break through into the world (Jesus called it the Kingdom of God) but I hadn’t realised how vulnerable and exposed it would make me feel.
As soon as I began to paint then cars on the busy roundabout began to honk their horns. I faced the wall, not wanting to see the expression on their faces. But when I eventually plucked up the courage to turn around I saw that the drivers were giving me thumbs up as they went past.
And then the passers by, mostly young men as it happened, who would approach me to say how great it was that someone was doing something like this, or that I should add a ganja leaf to the design, or concerned that I might get caught. Taking the creative risk can draw out so much goodness in people.
A teenage lad, on his half term break, came and watched me for a while. We chatted about his life and he eyed the paints, it was clear he was itching to have a go. In the end I let him and he cut out a small heart stencil and sprayed 3 red hearts connected together in one corner of the image and he told me that this was ‘the second best thing that’s ever happened to me’.
At times police cars cruised around the roundabout slowly and eventually a community support officer approached me to ask what I was doing. I explained the project and that I had permission to work here and he told me that they’d had a few calls from people concerned about what I was doing.
As I reflect on how different people responded it was the young men in their late teens and twenties who came and spoke to me in support, middle aged people mostly scurried past with their heads down, I wonder who called the police? I’m not criticising those who did, it’s good that there are civic minded people about, but it is interesting what actions (and what kind of art) attracts or alienates different types of people. The Officer took down my details and it was one of the few times in my life when I have emphasised the fact that I am a Reverend! He was a good man and we chatted about the community.
Late in the afternoon, as the image began to come together from the random lines and colours, a couple stopped to chat. I don’t recall mentioning to them that I worked for the church but the man showed me a rosary round his neck and said he was a Catholic although he hadn’t been to church for years. The woman was pregnant with her fourteenth child and worried about the future, they wanted me to write their names on the wall and pray for them. I told them that this picture was my prayer for the whole community. Then I pointed to the pattern that the lad had stencilled earlier in the day and told them that those three hearts would be the prayer for the two of them and their unborn child. They were deeply moved and grateful and I was left dumbfounded at how simple symbols and actions can have such a profound effect on people.
Thinking about that afternoon I am in awe at the depth of humanity I encountered and how my fumbling act of creation somehow made the space sacred. I had the sense of participating in something much bigger than I am, something way out of my control. Call it what you like; as a person seeking to follow Christ I might call it the Spirit of God, but those words are so frail and inadequate to encompass the reality.
In the Old Testament, God speaks to Moses from a burning bush and tells him to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Next time I am out at Parson Cross to finish off the painting on that shabby building, in the midst of the detritus of the street, perhaps I should do it in bare feet…