Sunday, 19 April 2009

The Price of Art

It's just after midday and I'm walking through the centre of Exeter on my way to an address about a mile away, to collect my last car of the day.

In the doorway of a large, boarded-up building a woman, obviously homeless, sits on a blanket on the ground, with a dozing brown dog on either side of her. There are a couple of other middle-aged and obviously not homeless women standing next to her, chatting and looking sympathetic. One of them hands her some money and then they move on. As I walk past I can see that she is drawing pencil sketches. There is one of a bird of prey on the pavement in front of her, and she is engaged in producing another, although I can't see what it is.

I continue to walk on, but curiosity nags at me until, after about a hundred yards, I finally stop, hesitate for a few moments longer, decide I can spare a pound or two, and then go back.

I approach her and then stand there, waiting for her to look up and perhaps ask me if I want to buy one of the drawings. But she studiously ignores me.

'Hi,' I say eventually.

I think she says 'Hi' in return but her voice is so quiet that I can't be sure.

'You selling those?'

‘Yes, but I haven’t got any ready now,’ she says in a sorry and still barely audible voice, ‘if you want to wait for this one…’ she indicates the picture she is currently working on, which I can now see is a horse.

‘What about that one?’ I ask pointing at the bird, ‘You selling that or are you keeping it?’

I can see that she is younger than I first thought, perhaps in her early twenties. Her face is heavily freckled and she is ever so slightly cross-eyed. She seems painfully anxious to avoid looking at me.

She indicates that I can have the bird picture if I want it.

'How much do people usually give you for them?'

'Between two and five pounds,' she mumbles with a shrug.

My back pocket is heavy with change and I pull the contents out, confident of finding at least three or four pound coins. But all I come up with is a handful of coppers and small silver.

'I'm trying to get enough to get somewhere to stay tonight,' she says, in a slightly clearer voice, with perhaps even a hint of confidence in it. I can now hear that she has that accentless middle-class accent which give no clue as to where the speaker might be from.

I've no idea whether she would put the money towards accommodation or nor, but I've had a good day so far, not needing to spend anything on public transport or even coffee, so I decide it won't be the end of the world to part with a fiver. I get out my wallet, only to find that I have nothing but tens inside. Would you ask for change?

I hesitate for a moment and then find myself saying 'I've got no change, I'll give you a tenner for it,' while the seasoned, penny-pinching plater within me looks on aghast.

'Are you sure?'

'Yeah, it's ok,' I reply, handing her the money.

'Thankyou!' she says.

I pick up the picture, thank her in return, and then depart rather self-consciously, wondering if she is watching me as I walk away.

I've no idea if she thought I was oddly generous or just odd, but hopefully she was glad I came by either way.bird-sketch

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