Manchester’s Unsung Heroes: Mustard Tree manager leaves life of drugs to mentor homeless with art therapy

By Gabriella Swerling

As homelessness figures continue to soar, with an increase of almost 10% in Greater Manchester last year, it appeared to be one of the only growing businesses during the recession. 

But spending time on the streets, in shelters and behind bars has not deterred one man from devoting his life to helping those who suffer as he once did. 

Just off Oldham Road lies a street full of secrets. On that street is a place where dignity, faith, grace, joy and truth are not just values that reflect off a painted canvas, but emanate, filling everyone inside with a glow of silent, selfless goodwill.

As you walk upstairs a giant, psychedelic portrait of Jimi Hendrix gazing at its admirer through knowing, hallucinogenic eyes.

This place is the Mustard Tree. It is a place that creates the sense of home for the homeless, downtrodden and displaced.

Caring 52-year-old Graham Hudson is Mustard Tree’s Creative Programmes Manager. He uses an informal mode of art therapy to encourage his students to rebuild their lives. 

“They know that they’re not all going to be artists – but all of them are going to have to go on and continue with their lives afterwards,” he said.

He cites the example of one student, Gina, whose life was full of self-loathing and misanthropy, insisting that she couldn’t paint.

She began to change so much through her artistic endeavours to the point where not only did she become a volunteer supervisor at Mustard Tree, but she was chosen to exhibit her work nationally. 

“Socially, she’s a completely different cat – she came to us all defensive and now she understands empathy,” he said. “She cares – and she’s just one!”

In the last 12 months, Graham has seen more than 1,000 attendees through his creative programmes. 

He understands that people are naturally fascinated with his story of previously homeless man dedicating his life to helping the homeless – but doesn’t want to dwell on it. 

“I do see people’s lives being changed – people who were destroyed. But I’m just concerned with what’s still left to do,” he said.

SWAPPING PRISON FOR PICASSO: Graham Hudson in his workshop

Even as a child Graham was a gifted artist, receiving straight A’s in Art – when he showed up. 

He is surprisingly frank about his previously traumatic life being born into a family business of drugs and violence.

At nine-years-old, he was already holding other kids up at knife-point behind the Apollo. At 13 he became a father and by the time he was 14, he had two children. 

An accomplished martial arts fighter, he held up the protection side of the business, whilst selling drugs with his older brother Keith. They both carried guns. 

“Keith was my hero when I was a kid,” he said. “He had the clothes, he was handsome, he got all the girls – he was cool but he was bad.” 

Despite the pay-offs, the high-risk lifestyle began to take its toll on the family. “It was a real dog eat dog world,” he said.

Keith and Graham served 16 and 20 years in prison for a variety of offences including robbery, violence and firearm possession. 

His father and brothers were all heavy drinkers. At eight-years-old, Graham had his first drink which proved to be his vice in adulthood. He later experimented with psychotic drugs and amphetamines to the point where he was ‘hanging on by a thread’. 

All at once, his life seemed to spiral out of control.

In 2008, Keith lost his battle with cancer at just 54-years-old.

“Keith was my hero and he died in my arms. It was really sad.”

As Graham’s alcoholism and drug abuse worsened, he split with his partner and went into town drinking. Four months later he was still there, and found himself street-homeless and ‘utterly depressed’.

“That next drink is a survival tactic,” he said, with a far-off reminiscence of darker days. 

Who are we to judge homeless people who spend their little monies on drink or drugs? We go home at night to a warm bed, and a possible glass of red. What’s the point in critiquing if we’re not trying to find a solution?

“What do you expect? It’s like an anaesthetic, it numbs everything. It kept me alive – if I didn’t have drink, I could have killed myself.”

Now at 14 months sober Graham said: “I really feel I’ve beaten it this time.

“It wasn’t my fault I was born into a family of criminals,” he said. “I was just a kid, it was all I knew.”

Now fathering a total of ten children, the youngest being a ten-year-old strawberry-blonde called Sophie whom he adores, Graham feels he has finally redirected the course of his life. 

“I feel I’m now in the best place I’ve ever been in, it’s finally sustainable. I’ve corrected a path and I’m here now. I don’t want to rest on my laurels; I’m excited by all the work to be done. 

“This is it,” he gestures at his studio around him; the books, paintbrushes, half-finished projects – all the kerfuffle and knick-knack paraphernalia that belongs in an artist’s studio.

Just as he finished his HND in 3D Art and Design he got sent to prison for five years for firearms. He kept sketchbooks in prison and taught himself to paint, before teaching the regular prison art classes. When he came to Mustard Tree, it all came back.

Graham cites Jimi Hendrix as his muse. He painted the divine canvas that hangs in the entrance, watching and assessing entrants with the godly wisdom that only rock stars have. 

He had his artistic epiphany at the tender age of nine. 

His brothers were all into soul music, and he couldn’t stand it. But his eldest brother Eric was a hippie, a real child of the zeitgeist.

“Eric would float out of the house from his top-floor bedroom with his long hippie hair, always playing mysterious rock music in his room,” he said.

“One time, when Eric was out, and I was brave, I snuck into his room and picked up the Electric Ladyland record which had 21 nude women on the cover. As a nine-year-old boy, I just thought Woohooo!

“As the first track And the Gods Made Love began to play, I was having visions – children, dying, love, religion, art, music… When it finished I just sat up and thought, wooooahhh what was that

“That experience changed my life completely. I suddenly wanted to find out about what everything was all about.” 

Real life-saving goes on here – not least the support to kick the habit, give up the bottle or have the courage to ask for help –- but real life-saving – holding the hand of people that have fallen too far and utterly given up. 

It offers more than just charity, hope and help, but a pragmatic and structured means for these cast-off, left-behind people to rebuild their lives and integrate themselves back into society – whilst encouraging pilgrimages of Manchester’s homeless every Friday night for the soup-run. 

But it doesn’t just dish out food on the streets, it invites them inside, gives them a chance to sit down in a warm place, have a conversation, use cutlery. The food is bounteous, homemade and delicious. It humanises them, treating them with the respect, dignity and kindness that they deserve. 

The charity also offers a 20-week mentoring programme, The Freedom Project, specifically tailored for people who have the most barriers to re-integrating back into society – people in desperate need, suffering with addition, post-incarceration, crime and mental health issues.

Dealing with the kind of people that the job centres, other charities, local councils and the government can’t handle, Graham explains that Mustard Tree welcomes those who feel lost elsewhere.

The charity has a 25% success rate of re-integrating these people back into society, compared with the government’s approximate 3% success rate.

With more than 350 new referrals every month, Graham estimates that with homelessness being such a growing industry, Mustard Tree will have almost 20,000 clients by the end of next year. 

Steve Sallon, who has attended Graham’s art classes, said of his teacher: “He’s just brilliant. Everyone gets inspiration from him, including myself.”

Matt Tierney, 48, who works with Graham, insisted on reading me out a list he has written of all the spiritual musing he has been conducting over the last few months. When he finished, he turned to Graham and said: It’s just occurred to me how much I owe you.”

Graham simply replied: “You don’t owe me anything, you owed it to yourself.”

He later wrote a note explaining that he didn’t want to think on-the-spot about how to describe Graham. This is what it said:

“I really had to think hard about this ’til eventually I just put the things that I respect about Graham… Gifted artist, manager and mentor. A devoted father with an inspirational energy that demands respect. Graham Hudson heads an art department that is continually growing and evolving into the future.”

Mustard Tree gets to the people who are hardest to reach and rejected elsewhere. The mustard seed has sprouted and grown and disseminated its message all over the city – it now has more than 17,000 clients in and around Manchester. 

Graham is very poetic. He speaks in onomatopoeic allusions – whispers, gasps and shrieks with a child-like passion, rather than structured adult sentences. He buzzes with energy, creativity, life and visions, all of which are expressed in his art.

As he shows me out, he catches me gazing at his portrait of Hendrix. 

Smiling, he explained: “Everything from that moment on in my life was a direct result of that experience.”

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