Sunday, 5 April 2015

The Canvas

Your happy place.
What does it feel like? What does it look like? Better yet, why is it happy?
I know a happy place in Shoreditch, in East London. It’s fairly new but already it has been honoured with the title of London’s first Happy Café by Action for Happiness – and it’s easy to see why.
The walls are a blank canvas for your thoughts, ideas, secrets and stories. As you walk through the door you are greeted with a pen to scrawl your heart out. Each day there is a range of events guaranteed to lift your mood (science says so!) including yoga, meditation, choir singing, inspiring films, live workshops, TED talk screenings, comedy shows and much more, and a menu filled with wholesome and ethically-sourced food to nourish your body with all the good stuff.

Welcome to The Canvas, a social enterprise committed to improving the self-esteem and confidence of the community.
“It’s a place where people can express themselves, be inspired by others and become part of an ever-evolving piece of live art,” shared the owner and Creative Director Ruth Rogers.

The story of this café and creative venue all starts with a white IKEA couch – yes, you heard me correctly!
Ruth, an actor and puppeteer for 13 years has always been intrigued by our relationship to ourselves, and more specifically, to our bodies. In 2006, she set up Body Gossip, a charity focused on positive body image and wanted to get people talking openly and freely about their bodies. Secrets and inner feelings shared in a safe and anonymous space is what she was after. At Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007, she plonked her sofa in the middle of the Royal Mile in the old town and invited people to write one sentence about their body on the piece of furniture.
The Canvas Cafe, London.Photograph by Felix Clay
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“It was a hit! People shared their body stories and it was a really cathartic process for many. The sofa represented a space for passionate, brave and honest communication and it inspired conversations,” she shared.
“I remember a daughter writing down how she felt and her mum commenting: ‘I didn’t know you felt that way’ and another lady wrote ‘Fingers crossed!’ to which her friend asked what that meant. She confessed she was pregnant after three miscarriages. She was going to tell her friend that afternoon but instead, she chose to tell the sofa first.”
The exercise was repeated another six times at various venues in the UK (a new white couch cover for each time!) and the response was the same. People were craving a place to express themselves authentically. 
NOT VIA A FACEBOOK POST OR A TWEET, BUT IN A LIVE AND REAL SPACE THAT OPENED UP OPPORTUNITIES FOR COMMUNITY AND CONNECTION.

“Social media is a very transient way of communicating but writing and experimenting with your feelings on something tangible has proven to be really liberating,” Ruth said.
For four years she mulled over the idea of opening up a public space to take her sofa exercise to new heights. In 2013, she presented her concept to Investec via the Beyond Business social investment programme and was awarded a grant to kick-start her project.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing at the beginning. I’d always been an actor so I did what I knew best: I acted and improvised. I played the role of owner until my knowledge and experience caught up with me,” she mused.

Ruth’s simple desire is to make people happy and she realised the best way to do that is to set up a space where people can live in the moment. “All of our activities, whether it’s writing, singing, listening to a joke or participating in a workshop encourage you to be present. This is where happiness is found, when we are fully engaged with the here and now,” Ruth added.
Hooked on the idea of empowering people’s words, Ruth admits she is a questioner. “I question everything. I love talking to people and hearing about their lives. I would tell a person on the bus by deepest darkest secrets without a worry. That’s who I am. I wear my heart on my sleeve.”
“Further to that, I think humans are amazing and The Canvas has reaffirmed this faith for me and I hope it has for others.”

“Every day I read words about new love, why grandparents are special, the perks of living in London on our walls. There has only been one penis drawing which we have now turned into a beautiful tree!” Ruth laughed.
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The Canvas Cafe, London. Photograph by Felix Clay
This year will see The Canvas expand as it turns its storage room into a theatre and opens up an outdoor garden area where local artists can display their work.
And in five years time, who knows, there may be another Canvas somewhere else in London or another city in the world, distinct with its own personality.
To find out more about the activities at The Canvas and how you can get involved, head this way.

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Leah is a passionate storyteller, a multi-skilled communications specialist and a devoted human rights activist. She writes to ignite meaningful connection, to arouse curiosity, to push boundaries, to live large, to speak up, to create change.

She is deeply fuelled by a desire to create ideas and build visions to make this world a better place. A place where we can each equally follow our dreams - regardless of the place we were born, our religious affiliations, our sexual identity, our access to education. Everything in fact to do with the status quo. After studying the causes of conflict and division in society, Leah now uses storytelling to unite people, to create community and to open opportunities for collective action. 

Her website, Paper Planes Connect, is a place to celebrate our difference and to unite in our sameness.


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