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2012, Class Work, Passions, Social Issues

Beyond the Brushstrokes

By Matthew Dusenbury

Great artists sign their work.

At the New School of Colour, an art class that operates out of the Ark Aid Street Mission, a young woman is putting the finishing touches on her latest painting. It is a breathtaking landscape of lush-green foliage. A stream flanked by rocks cuts through the centre of the canvas.

There’s just one problem. The woman is unsure where to sign her name, or if she even should at all, as the painting is actually a replica copied from an instructional book.

It’s at that moment of uncertainty that Marshall Custus, a 49-year-old with ink-covered fingertips, pokes his head over her shoulder, and points to one rock in the lower right corner of the painting.

“There,” he tells her. “Hold on.”

Custus disappears for a moment, re-emerging a minute later with a fine-tipped brush. He hands it to the woman, who signs her name on the rock in green oil paint.

“Over time, your work will become unique,” Custus tells her. “And this,” he says, pointing to the signature, “is important for identity.”

Marshall Custus
Photo by Matt Dusenbury
Marshall Custus holds up a drawing of the kitchen where he works.

For Custus, the bi-weekly art sessions are as much about the people as they are about painting. The relationships are an invaluable asset for someone like him who has spent much of his life on the street, on the move, and in disarray.

The New School of Colour was founded by Jeremy Jeresky in 2010 as a way of using art to reach those living with homelessness in the city.

Custus has thrived at the school. So much so, in fact, that Jeresky now considers him his “second-in-command.” It was a place where Custus could not only be artistic, but also help others who had the same aspirations, and life experiences, as himself.

“This place has been so incredibly awesome. For instance, a lot of people here have self-esteem problems. But they leave here with a greater sense of value.”

Custus’ journey to the school was a long one. A self-described army brat with an affinity for music and drawing, Custus spent his childhood following his father for his military career, moving every few years to cities in Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta.

“After a while, you learn not to dread (the constant moving),” he said. “And it gave me a sense of adventure.”

This pattern continued, and Custus ended up in Germany where he began acting out and got into “an awful lot of trouble, mostly out of boredom.” He was then sent to a private school in Belleville, Ont. but was expelled after the first year. When his parents told him not to call home, he had nowhere to go.

So, Custus then came to London where he spent his first few nights in the city on the street.

“When I first came to London, I lived in a cardboard box in Harris Park. It was okay, it was warm,” he recalled. “But I had to get a job. I had to get a place to live.”

Custus spent the next few years in the service sector, working as a dishwasher and then a short-order cook in kitchens around the city. In 1985, he got a job with London Machinery.

Just two years later, however, the company was restructured and Custus was laid off.

“Financially, I didn’t survive that,” he said. “And I lost the drive to do anything.”

For years, Custus was caught in a vicious cycle of poverty, living under bridges, doing anything he could to get by. He lost contact with his daughter and slept on friends’ couches.

The worst blow, said Custus, was to his self-esteem.

“I just sort of existed.”

But despite the years of hardship, Custus never lost his creativity. Even while living on the street, he would draw little sketches of things he saw.

“Because everything was falling apart, I had free time on my hands. And drawing was my interest,” he said.

Custus’ harsh living conditions lasted years and eventually took their toll. What he thought was just a bad cough turned out to be a case of pneumonia, and he went to the Men’s Mission for help. It was there he met a woman who encouraged him to pursue his artistry and told him about the New School of Colour.

“‘There’s this guy doing a grassroots thing at a soup kitchen,’ she told me. “It’ll do you some good.’”

Intrigued, Custus decided to visit the small art studio where he met Jeresky.

Jeremy Jeresky
Photo courtesy of The New School of Colour
Jeremy Jeresky, the program facilitator for the New School of Colour.

A graduate of Western University with a Master of Fine Arts, Jeresky founded the New School of Colour in 2010 as a way of using art to reach those living with homelessness in the city.

“Many art schools are closed off, not social,” said Jeresky. “I take exception to that. With this (the New School of Colour), it’s open to everyone.”

Jeresky imbued the school with a philosophy of social engagement, making it a space where people can be themselves, and feel safe from criticism.

“It’s actually like a family,” he said. “This is a space that’s non-judgmental.”

Beyond the brushstrokes, that sense of community is the real power behind the New School of Colour. For Abe Oudshoorn, an assistant professor at Western University and founder of the London Homelessness Outreach Network, the school provides people with a way to define themselves outside of their living conditions.

“The arts are a way for people to connect, a way they feel they’re adding to society and culture,” said Oudshoorn. “For a lot of people, everything else is just survival, but life is art.”

Though statistics vary, Oudshoorn estimates that on any given night, there are about 2,000 homeless in London, including those in temporary arrangements. And although political solutions are necessary, a big issue is reversing the stigma that people in poverty or on the street are there by their own doing.

Community programs like the New School of Colour are in a unique position to change that.

“I think it does a lot to change people’s perception (of homelessness). Art is a brilliant way to capture imagination and change the stigma.”

Abe Oudshoorn
Photo by Matt Dusenbury
Abe Oudshoorn believes art programs like the New School of Colour provide a sense of community for the homeless.

“This is a one-of-a-kind place,” added another participant at the school, who wished to remain anonymous. “The opportunity to create and learn with other people – it’s incredible.”

By providing a space for creativity and community for people living with homelessness, people regain their sense of value. At least, that’s how Custus sees it.

“It’s not like the street down here,” he said. “Being in this environment, it helps you.”

Now, two years after he first connected with the school, Custus is looking to jumpstart a new career. He is working as a cook at a hotel and beginning a chef apprenticeship at Fanshawe College in the fall.

But, he said, he will make time to come back to the New School of Colour each week, to work on his drawings and catch up with friends. The school has been an instrumental force in his life, and he’s determined to keep it.

“It’s a big change from a few years ago, when I thought I didn’t have a lot of worth,” he said.

“Sure, I need a job. But I plan to get to the point where I have a day job and art is the real focus. That’s my signature.”

About Western Journalism

We're members of the University of Western Ontario's master of arts in journalism program. Our blog represents a common theme in stories through our third term.

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