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How one man escaped homelessness through drawing – and his bull terrier muse

John Dolan spent almost two decades in the “revolving door” between homelessness and prison. That changed when he adopted George in 2009. 

Animal rescue: but in this case it was dog that saved master, says John Dolan. Photo: Marcus Peel
Animal rescue: but in this case it was dog that saved master, says John Dolan. Photo: Marcus Peel

John Dolan seemed restless. He paced up and down the gallery, occasionally darting outside or disappearing downstairs without warning. At times I thought he might have settled, as he perched on a windowsill or lit another cigarette, but then he would be off again with George, his Staffordshire bull terrier, following patiently behind and me trying to keep my Dictaphone in range.

It wasn’t surprising that John was feeling on edge. He had just over a week to complete as many as 500 drawings of George before the launch of his exhibition on 16 July. The plan is that more than 1,000 sketches will cover every inch of wall at the Howard Griffin Gallery in Shoreditch, east London. The installation will be a fitting tribute to an animal Dolan says turned his life around. “It was all down to the dog,” he reminded me several times.

Dolan, who is now 43, spent almost two decades in what he describes as a “revolving door” between homelessness and prison. That changed when he adopted George in 2009. Caring for the dog gave him a new sense of purpose and a reason for staying out of jail. He started to draw, something he hadn’t done since school. The first picture he sold was of George, for £20.

With time, the pair became a familiar fixture on Shoreditch High Street. John drew street scenes and sold the pictures for £20 or so. When passers-by were abusive, George would bark at them as John had trained him to do. He showed me their secret signal: he pointed his finger and George yelped. “Then I’d say, ‘I’ve never seen the dog behave like that before. You’d better step away.’ ”

In 2011, the publishers of Shoreditch Unbound asked if they could print some of John’s work in their book, which celebrates East End cultural life. Other commissions followed, and after meeting Richard Howard-Griffin (who runs the Howard Griffin Gallery) he began collaborating with high-profile street artists including Stik, Thierry Noir and ROA. In 2013, he held his first solo exhibition at the Howard Griffin, where he sold some of his drawings for more than £2,000 – an impressive rate of inflation for any artist.

Predictably, a book deal ensued. Discussing his life with a ghostwriter was “like therapy”, he says. But John and George: the Dog Who Changed My Life is too sappy for me. I prefer his direct storytelling, which veers wildly from soaring self-confidence – “I thought I’m a naturally gifted artist so I might see if people wanted to buy my art . . . within a few months I was published alongside Tracey Emin” – to heartbreaking, matter-of-fact descriptions of living with mental illness and addiction.

Dolan is still adjusting to his new life. A few days before we met, he’d joined a gym. He is reducing his methadone dose, because he needs to be clean to travel to Los Angeles for his first US exhibition later this year. Although newly reunited with his family, he felt unable to spend Christmas with them. “I’ve been out of the system for so long,” he said.

Sometimes you can still see John sketching on his old patch of pavement in Shoreditch. He was trying not to sell any more drawings of George before the show, but on occasion, if he felt “sympathy” for someone, he might relent. (I suspect this happens often, because he insisted that I take one home.)

Leafing through some of his ink drawings of landscapes, I told him I wasn’t entirely convinced by his story. Surely his artistic talent – and not George – is the reason for his success?

“Nah, if it weren’t for the dog I wouldn’t have picked up the pen.” And then he was off, maybe for another cigarette, or to sketch a few hundred more Georges before bed. 

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