The last conversation I had with Drew Lindsay was the night before he died less than two weeks ago.
Staircase to heaven
We had been speaking about the Troyeville steps. Drew was inspired by Hackney, a project in England that does mosaics with homeless people and addicts. He hoped to mosaic the steps at the corner of Appolonia and Albertina Sisulu Streets in Troyeville in a project with homeless men.
Examples of mosaic staircases from around the world were also an inspiration to Drew and his co-workers on the project.
The men involved in the project are addicts; many addicted to heroin. During hard lockdown, they were starving beause they survive by reycling. Dylan Atkinson, a Troyeville resident who runs the Joseph Project in the inner city, was giving them food parcels. He approached Drew about teaching the men how to make mosaics. His plan was to continue to provide food parcels but in exchange the men would be required to spend a few hours a week making mosaics.
Characteristically, Drew welcomed the opportunity. He and his long-time friend, Antoinette Koekemoor worked with the men in the David Webster Park opposite the Spaza Gallery on Friday afternoons.
“There were cold days and there were windy days and there were awful days and Drew was there. He became a constant in their lives,” Dylan said. “They knew they would be treated with dignity and be called upon to express themselves and this gave them a voice. It gave them something that nobody else ever cared about,” he said.
“We did numbers, and then we did dogs – actually Jock of the Bushveld – and then I got them to do self-portraits,” Drew explained.
William was one of the men Drew thought had potential.
“He is on a different level,” Dylan said. “And I told William: When you are up and going I want to commission you to do those stairs. Drew’s ears pricked up and he asked what I had in mind.
“I had looked at those stairs many times and thought how cool it could be because as you come right from the Standard Bank Arena; as soon as you come around that corner, you look up and you see the bottom of Appolonia Street where the stairs are. And Drew got so excited about it and he just ran with it.”
To help the men develop an identity and become more visible (“Most of them are really hooded and hidden from the world”) Drew decided to give them each a trolley to which they could attach their self-portraits. It backfired when Drew tried it out with William. “I had the trolley made for him and he did a self-portrait and he sold them both. I heard this from the other guys. Then he didn’t come for about three weeks and then he reappeared and he was sticking to his story that it was stolen,” Drew said.
“When William left us, it really broke Drew,” Dylan said. “He decided to make trolleys for them so that each guy has got his own trolley because they are all into recycling. The first person he gave a trolley to was William and it seemed like the logical choice because William was showing the most promise. According to the other guys, he sold it the same day. It really set Drew back. William lied and then he lied again and the lie got more and more complicated and I think that hurt Drew as well. It was the deceit that really hurt.”
Take the first step
“I chose a Martin Luther King quote: ‘Faith is taking the first step without seeing the whole staircase’. I think it is also about the wide staircase, about the world, the universal idea. I still always believe in some sort of faith. That is part of my belief as well; to have faith and to have some idea of where you can step into, especially in Troyeville. When you enter Troyeville you have to have a lot of faith.
“It’s all about steps and walking. What I am going to do is make the first seven steps about the neighbourhood, and the next seven steps are the seven steps to heaven.
The project began to flounder, partly because meetings were rained out for a couple of weeks. Drew decided to speed along the process and bring in a broader group to complete the steps.
“We have made the lettering anyway so the community can finish the step. And then we can see the next stages. I am not sure about that story yet because they have disappeared. I am sure they will come back but it has been so hard because there have been two and then six and some really dodgy characters wanting to join. It is not solid enough yet.”
I am reminded of Led Zepplin’s immortal masterpiece Stairway to Heaven . There have been many interpretations of the lyrics, some rather sinister. I like the idea that our stairway to heaven is to realise the power of community, the need to live together, in harmony with one another, our souls, and our environment. I think Drew would agree.
“As we went along I realised it is a very slow building relationships and providing a safe space. It is a longer way to do it but I think it is probably more enduring. I have learned a lot from them and from giving the project,” said Drew.
Dylan said: “It is difficult for a creative living in Troyeville, living in the inner city to remain positive with the grind and crime and negativity and homelessness. I think I brought optimism and Drew brought pragmatism. As artistic and philosophical as he was, he was an activator as opposed to a daydreamer. So I would come with a daydream and he would take every one of my suggestions very seriously and start working on them in his head. It is like you drop a seed on the ground and the next thing you turn around and there is somebody nurturing it into a full blown fruit tree. That is what I am going to miss so much.”
The stairs will be finished
Dylan, Antoinette and other members of the Troyeville community are resolved to see the steps completed. The Sunday after Drew’s death a small group of friends met to glue down the first step.