Honouring Local Heroes of East London

Carleen De Sözer’s mural of Aaron Williams and Heather Peirce

Carleen De Sözer’s mural of Aaron Williams and Heather Peirce

Myah Popat

Local heroes walk among us, facing trials and tribulations, with the commitment, quiet confidence and courage to work for our communities’ futures. These heroes are the nurses, teachers and social workers who, despite difficulties, dedicate their time to making the world a better place for each and every one of us. They are the backbone of our society, and yet are often under-appreciated and underrepresented amidst the hardships of everyday life.

Paint the Change teamed up with the Linc Centre, a community space in Bow in the borough of Tower Hamlets, East London, and street artist Carleen De Sozer for a new initiative called “The Portrait Project”. The project commissions portrait murals to honour local heroes, drawing attention to the tireless time individuals dedicate to their communities. The Bow neighbourhood chose Aaron Williams and Heather Peirce — also known as “Lady Gayton", who passed away in 2018 — to be the subjects of the first portraits. Theirs will be joined by two more portraits later in the year.

The Linc Centre has been a space for the residents of Bow and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets for 21 years. The centre is now home to “Spotlight”, a creative youth service that provides arts programmes for young people between the ages of 11 and 19. Spotlight seeks to inspire the young people of Tower Hamlets to find meaningful expression through creativity, as well as provide support and mentoring to young people interested in the creative industries. Yemi, Spotlight’s Youth Worker in Charge, explained the programme’s importance: “It gives young people a safe place to try and better themselves… it is a place for them to grow and become young leaders.” She described the relationship between the youth workers and young people as special: “They have seen me transition and have seen that as long as you work hard, you can build your way.” 

A portrait of Aaron Williams, who was born and raised in Bow to a single mother who brought up Aaron and two siblings, welcomes people as they enter the Linc centre. Although Williams works across all six community centres in the Tower Hamlets borough, because he grew up attending this particular centre himself, Bow Linc is home. For Aaron, music is a method of self-expression and was his own personal “lifeline” — Grime artist Dizzee Rascal, who also grew up going to the Linc Centre, asked Aaron to be his Hype Man or back-up rapper, and Aaron’s world expanded. When accepting recognition for his own achievements, Aaron thanked Dizzee: “We have toured around the world together for about 15 years, and I know that if he didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

What Aaron offers to the community centre is more than just a creative outlet. Having experienced a range of cultures, sounds, stories and ideas touring with Dizzee Rascal, Aaron says he wanted to “come back and share it with my people,” and that he wants to help young people in his own community unlock their potential and sharpen their crafts. When asked about how he felt being honoured through the mural, Aaron responded through tears, “It is humbling, especially to be in the company of Lady Gayton [Heather Peirce].”

Heather Peirce (1930-2018) moved to Bow in 1981 at the age of 55 and was involved in a range of community projects, from being a board member of the housing association dedicated to developing community homes and businesses for Poplar, another Tower Hamlets neighbourhood, to fighting to protect Chiltern Green from redevelopment. She was known as a selfless person who was dedicated to empowering children; her son recalls her keeping the neighbourhood children busy by taking them to the theatre, amongst other activities. Heather recognised that there was a two-way relationship within a community — she felt a strong responsibility to help residents take care of their environment and believed that the environment had to, in equal measure, give back to the residents. Joining the Poplar housing board “to keep Poplar on their toes,” Heather was a pro-active member committed to improving living conditions and fighting anti-social behaviour. It is thanks to Heather that families are still enjoying Chiltern Green’s community space and children’s play area today. Heather’s portrait on the wall of the Linc Centre will continue her legacy of inspiring locals to get more involved in their community and demonstrating how one person’s commitment to their neighbours can transform a whole area.

Street painting sparks conversation about creativity and representation, and Carleen De Sozer began experimenting with it in 2016. “I decided it was time for me to stop being scared of being out on the street and allowing people to see me paint, or even allowing people to see me figure it out. And then one day I just had enough, and I was like, ‘I am doing this.’” A self-taught artist, Carleen shares her talent and skills with children in workshops across London. Carleen’s art is a staple feature of every community she paints in, but she finds street painting itself a way to connect to people: “It’s nice that complete strangers will come up to you and say, ‘well done,’ ‘good job’… Painting on the street has helped me become more sociable and a bit more understanding, so now I don’t judge people too quickly.” Carleen’s mural will live on as a beautiful daily memory of the work Aaron Williams, Heather Peirce and other community members have dedicated to Tower Hamlets.