We caught up with Ruth Rogers, owner and Creative Director of The Canvas, a new cafe and creative venue at 42 Hanbury St
What inspired you to start a cafe and creative venue like The Canvas?
I founded a positive body image charity called Body Gossip in 2006. I wanted to get people talking about their bodies, so I invited everyone in the UK to write their story about their body. I've turned real people's stories about their bodies into live theatre plays, short films and we've also published a book of over 300 body stories. The idea is to encourage and reasssure people who watch or read the stories that we are all normal, and there are thousands of different ways of being gorgeous.
But way back in 2007, no one was sending me any stories! I thought, 'I need to do something that will capture people's attention', so I decided to take my white living room sofa to the Edinburgh Fringe festival in August 2007, and invite passers by on the Royal Mile to write one sentence about their body on the sofa. I didn't expect the amazing result - some of the comments were just so unbelievably brave, articulate and powerful; I thought there was something so interesting and revealing about inviting people to write on an unusual canvas. It does something to people, they really take it seriously, and it's like they want to leave a legacy and write something beautiful. So I now have seven sofa covers, all filled with people's body comments.
So it was the Body Gossip sofa that gave me the idea for The Canvas. Here, we invite our customers to share their thoughts and opinions on the walls of the venue, and we ask questions that are designed to remind people when and where they are happiest. I guess it's like Twitter, but it feels more everlasting: online comments can be transitory, but when you write on the walls here, you know that when you walk away, it will stay there.
The cafe side of it came from wanting to provide a place where people could feel at home and cosy. We sell really wholesome, hearty food, that’s really healthy but it doesn’t make you feel like you've just had a bowl of lettuce! You leave full, and yet you've eaten great, healthy food.
The creative side of The Canvas is happening because I’m also an actress, and I know how excited I get when I hear of a place that has buckets of space for people to create work. I'm going to be developing Body Gossip live performances here, and we will also hold our Education workshops here. Plus, other charities and social enterprises are coming here to hold talks and workshops, for example Tender Domestic Violence, CoppaFeel! and Home Start. I’ve always been an ideas person, but I’ve never had a place where I can make my ideas happen before.
How did you get the chance to open The Canvas?
I was fortunate enough to be granted a social enterprise donation from Investec bank. They give start-up capital to five new social entrepreneurs in east London each year via a brilliant charity called Beyond business. So last year I applied, was short-listed, then wrote my business plan, delivered it to a Dragons Den-style panel of judges, and was so excited to be granted the funding.
Describe to someone who doesn't know anything about The Canvas, why should they visit it?
At The Canvas, your thoughts are valued and celebrated. On social media, everyone is encouraged to express themselves, but online comments can be transitory, and short-lived. The Canvas offers you a canvas for your thoughts and ideas, and they'll last for a long time, and so many people will read them. Plus, it is really warm and friendly here at The Canvas; I don’t want to be one of those east London places where you feel you are annoying the staff when you walk in and ask for something! Our staff are so friendly and chatty, and I hope everyone feels like they have found their happy place when they come here.
What events do you have coming up and what was your inspiration for these?
I want The Canvas to be somewhere where people leave feeling better about themselves. Here, that works in stages: the quickest stage is to eat or drink something yummy here, or write or read something inspirational and memorable. The next stage is that you come to an event that makes you feel better about yourself. The events range from free mindfulness and self esteem classes run by charity Inner Space; The Canvas choir which meets fortnightly and is open to everyone;Body Gossip will be hosting workshops for young people and also their parents in body confidence and self-esteem. We're holding a Christmas Burlesque night on 12th December hosted by Ophelia Bitz, and we're showcasing student short films on 26th November. Finally, we are also working with local charities, offering them free space so they can hold their own events, coffee mornings, meetings and talks.
Can you explain a little more about Body Gossip, the charity you co founded?
Body Gossip is a positive body image charity that campaigns through Arts and Education to promote diverse beauty, and the thousands of ways to be gorgeous. Our award-winning Education programme teach young people to be the best version of themselves, by educating them about the tricks behind advertising. Many, many companies within the beauty industry are making us feel ugly so we buy their products; if we realise that, and become savvy consumers, we wont be lured in by the adverts. We'll spot that the model's airbrushed, and we'll know why, (to make us look in the mirror and think we aren’t good enough so we buy that product). We teach young people, and adults too, that rather than comparing themselves to an airbrushed 'perfection' that doesn't actually exist, they can instead see fashion, and beauty, as fun and a way to rock everyone's unique brand of gorgeous.
Body Gossip's Art Programme celebrates the real stories of real people's bodies, by performing live theatre shows and making short films written by the general public. Last year, we spent two weeks devising a new play at the Southbank Centre, and this year the Body Gossip Arts Programme is re-launching again from its new home at The Canvas.
So what is next for The Canvas?
We have another space out the back which is pretty big, and at the moment is a large store room. Next year I'm renovating it and turning it into a theatre and event space.