AT THE age of 18 Chester artist Stephanie Burton was thrown out of the family home by her alcoholic mother and found herself living on the streets.
Hungry and fearful of random gang attacks, she failed her A-levels and eventually found a part-time job and accommodation in a bedsit.
Life was bleak, but she refused to give up and through hard work secured a place at St Martin’s School of Art in London.
Fast forward 32 years and Stephanie, now 50, finds herself happily married with two teenage boys, having held numerous exhibitions and painted personalities including the late Sir Patrick Moore.
She is now hoping to raise awareness of the issues faced by the city’s homeless and raise money for the charity Chester Aid for the Homeless (CATH), which runs the Harold Tomlins Centre refuge.
Stephanie has spent the last year painting homeless people in Chester, and is launching a portrait exhibition and film about their lives this month.
She told the Leader it had been tough gaining the trust of vulnerable people, but her personal experience had allowed her to make bonds.
“Being alongside the homeless of Chester brought back lots of memories but I was able to use these memories to empathise with and care for the people I have met at CATH and I hope they have felt this too,” she said.
“Painting the homeless was wonderful. I was not sure if they would let me look in their eyes. Eyes reveal everything about the person and when you stare in someone’s eyes that you don’t know, it can get uncomfortable. But they let me look at them and opened up about their lives, and they love their portraits.
“At first they were suspicious of what I was up to but soon they began asking me to paint them. I hope people who see their paintings will see what I see in them; a lot of sadness and despair but also a sense of humour. I think the film reflects this too.”
The film portrays a day in the life of five homeless people she had painted, Luke, Norman, Chris, Nigel and Steve, real people currently living on the streets of Chester.
The exhibition, ‘Face in the Street’, will see anonymous volunteers dressed in black ‘morph’ suits carrying the portraits around the city’s streets for people to see.
Stephanie said she could not have undertaken the project without the support of staff at CATH, who provided a safe environment to meet and paint the homeless people.
“The charity does a great deal for the homeless in Chester,” she said. “They are the first point of contact between a homeless person and the services they need. I wish I had had CATH to turn to when I became homeless.
“The worst thing about being homeless for me was being alone with no-one to help, and the fear of starvation and being attacked or of having to live on the street. The fear and the sadness stays with you a long time, and now I am happily married and have a lovely home so my story has a happy ending.”
The portraits and the film will be showing at the Wesley Centre between Monday, June 23, and Saturday, July 19. The film will also be playing at Chester Library for the same period of time.
Stephanie will also be painting the public at the Wesley Centre for a small fee, some of which will go to CATH.
“I hope this will raise awareness of why people become homeless and what it’s like for them,” she said.
For more information visit www.theportraitartist.net
See full story in the Chester Leader