When a great artist adopts your town and takes up residence to create some of his greatest works, many would assume it will be a boon to the area and certainly bring a tourism boost. However, when Lenkiewicz arrived in Plymouth, it’s unlikely the residents could have envisaged what was about to happen.
When you are as prolific as Lenkiewicz, you need somewhere to store all that work, and so he set about finding warehouses and galleries. He had about nine in Plymouth, but they didn’t just house paintings, they also became known as “The Cowboys’ Holiday Inns,” due to them attracting a growing number of Plymouth’s homeless.
This was to become Lenkiewicz’s trademark, and it’s probably what more people remember about him than is paintings, certainly those living near to his many properties.
In fact, his charity towards vagrants was to colour his art, as well as his exhibitions, which would often take part in the same warehouses.
One such exhibition in 1973, to the theme of Vagrancy, included paintings inspired by and including many of the people who took up residence in his properties.
Lenkiwicz wasn’t the type to let his subjects hide away, however. Much to the surprise of the great and the good assembled, he had the vagrants appear, and in some cases reveal, the paintings of which they were the subject.
This subtle civil disobedience would appear to have been designed to make a very obvious point and to highlight the issues that many towns and cities try to hide. Certainly, when promoting a tourist destination, it’s not in the authority’s interest to advertise the fact that so many people are sleeping rough.
That Passover dinner where the local rabbi saw fit to gloss over the plight of those left behind by society appears to have had a profound effect Lenkiewicz, and he was determined to highlight it to those who could do something to address it.
It’s here where we see the activism at the heart of everything he did.
Many artists will suggest that the content they produce is a rallying call against those in power, or an attempt to highlight an issue, but not many would make their point in such elaborate ways.
Lenkiewicz could use his formidable reputation as a great (and bankable) artist to attract people who normally wouldn’t be aware of Plymouth’s issues. Their life and that of the vagrants he saw to help would not have cause to meet, and so he forced that meeting.
And at this particular exhibition, he made his intentions perfectly clear. At one point, he addressed the crowd to explain to them how many people were sleeping rough:
“We are gathered here to share a confrontation between the authorities and those who consider themselves vagrant, or who are considered vagrant. That confrontation is designed to establish that there is a vagrancy problem in Plymouth. … This week’s count is 54 people.“
Of course, like many of the exhibitions he held, those invited were extremely drunk and the night was ruined, possibly hardening the resolve of the authorities, but certainly making a point, one which he would continue to make throughout his career.