A lost family

Projects, War Widows Stories

Last Friday I was lucky enough to attend The War Widows’ Stories ‘in-conversation’ event at The National War Memorial Arboretum, Staffordshire. Hosted by Dr Nadine Muller, with expert guests Irene Shiels and Sue Stout who shared their personal, frank, moving, at times funny, always informative, accounts of being a war widow.

Giving us the long-view was Professor Andrew Hopper who sharing his fascinating research on widows of the English Civil War.

Nadine explained: No two stories are the same, there is not one stereotype of a war widow- but there are powerful connections, emotions, thoughts and experiences…

I hope the following give a flavour of the afternoons conversation- the real rewards come from being there- if you are able I urge you to come along to the next (and final) in-conversation event on 2nd November at the Imperial War Museum North. 

 

I was a member of the RAF for 17 years, but when my husband died I realised I was an associate member…and then they took the membership away. I had lost my family, not just my husband, but my whole way of life.  Irene

 

With poppies now on sale for the forthcoming Remembrance Sunday, we spoke of the how we remember…

It’s not November the 11th, it’s everyday.  Irene

You can either live your life, or slip down under it. Mary

 

They spoke of the power and support of the War Widows’ Association…

Never underestimate the power of the collective. Those people that you never wanted to meet become friends and family.  Don’t underestimate how much speaking to people who have the same experience has, how valuable that is. Sue

United we stand. That is what has brought improvements, not just financial- it’s what we can do if we all work together.  Irene

You can find out more about this important, fascinating project at War Widows’ Stories. 

War Widows quilt in progress

War widows quilt, work in progress- pieced patchwork, inspired by Crimea Quilts.

A blank canvas

Projects, War Widows Stories

Quilt ideas

I thought it might be of interest to record and share some of the creative thinking behind the project and the steep learning curve as it progresses…

At the start of the project I am faced with a blank canvas. No colours, fabrics, set themes, images, words are decided upon, the artwork can go in any direction. But I don’t want to go and meet my fellow collaborators with nothing, I prefer to go with a framework, ideas that can be discussed, elaborated on, edited or even teared up. So the fun begins.

fabric samples

Sampling for the War Widows’ quilt

Everything starts with the war widows themselves. Thankfully a lot of interviews and background material has already been gathered by Nadine Muller and her team. For me the artwork is another way to communicate the stories. So what might war widows’ want to communicate? And how do we celebrate their stories, their lives? their individualality? They have been left out of the history books, out of the museum collections, this quilt and poetry collection aims to make a small contribution to addressing this, it’s a domestically sized artwork with big ambitions.

Some of the most successful artworks I’ve collaborated on in the past are the ones that play the materials and techniques against the subject matter, for example in the artwork Fresh Air and Poverty, a quilt illustrating how the World Wars impacted poverty and strife, I choose sumptuous fabrics, associated with wealth and splendor, silks, satins, velvets, colours associated with royalty. I aim to make artworks that make you look twice, surprise and gently challenge. So this time I’m taking a selection of fabrics that have been worn by the armed forces, masculine, formal, speaking of authority. I bulk buy 50 shirts, and carefully take them apart, as I’m doing so the material whispers to me, some still smell of their last owner, are stained around the collar or cuff, some have a name written in marker on a label or hem. The structure of the shirt suggests things, the shoulder epaulet when removed from the shirt, becomes a decorative edge for the quilt. The shirt pockets could hold secrete messages, love letters…

I’m looking for inspiration for the quilt technique, something that is relevant and meaningful. A memory comes of a quilt seen at the Quilters’ Guild. ‘Crimea Quilts’, quilts were made by soldiers, sailors and regimental tailors, at around 1860-1880s… from military felted woollen fabric. The romantic story is that these were made by convalescing military men in their hospital beds. The actual history is rather fuzzy around the edges, we don’t know who taught men these skills, or exactly where they were made. Each quilt is unique, but many share a similar look. They are a intricate, beautiful, ambitious artform and seem a perfect starting off point. I start collecting images.

inspiration and ideas

Sampling, ideas and inspiration for War Widows’ Quilt

Each element of the artwork is thought through. I take to my first meeting with the War Widows’ Association the fabrics, images of the Crimea Quilts and suggestions for the sizes of the individual pieces we work on. Phil Davenport (the lead writer) has been talking about letter writing as part of the inspiration for the poetry collection. I’ve taken that idea and run. I’ve sampled tiny postage stamp size squares, patchworked together.  I’ve used the size of airmail letters and envelopes as templates for fabric rectangles, these I hope will be stitched onto with words or images.  I suggest the war widows write and stitch their names and the husbands with their date of birth and perhaps their husbands date of death.

Mary, embroidery

Mary’s and John’s names, DOB and John’s DOD. Work in progress

Our first meeting is a wonderful mix of laughter, lively discussion and food. Lots of food. The fabrics are examined and given approval and as I hoped spark of conversations. The ironing of those shirts, the men inside them. I am reminded not to leave anyone out- I put on my shopping list red fabric to represent the War Widows’ Association and tartans, how I love tartan.

workshop

Impromptu embroidery workshop

I am rather taken a back when members of the War Widows’ Association don’t just want to write their signatures and DOB, but they start to stitch, it’s 10 oclock at night and we are having a  fabulous impromptu embroidery session.  Un-finished work is carefully wrapped to be completed on train journeys home, in precious moments of peace.

I couldn’t have asked for more. Time now for more sampling, cutting out and preparation of hundreds of rectangles and squares of fabric. I might just have to get the iron out.

Lois Blackburn

 

Questioning the past

Projects, War Widows Stories

Talking with members of the War Widows’ Association at a formal dinner turned out to be a very informal affair, with much laughter and camaraderie. But it also produced a set of fascinating questions, devised by the women themselves, for us to ask as our work with the project War Widows’ Stories gets underway.

As we discussed these questions, little moments of people’s stories were shared. The shock of being told that your partner is dead, the impact of this violent news on everyday normality, that can never again be quite normal. The fear of telling children their father is dead — how to pass on cruel news kindly. Being a victim of gossip. Being angry because you’ve not been told the truth about the death. But most of all, how to get life started again.

Many people said, “We just got on with it.” But each and every one had a different way of doing so.

Here are the questions, some direct, some provocative, many very thought provoking. Perhaps as our project continues, we will find some answers. As well as more questions… 

As a war widow, what are you supposed to say, and what would you like to say?

Is the title war widow offputting? Even the term widow? How would you like to be known? Relict? Dependent? The last three digits of your husband’s service number?

Do you feel that people are on eggshells around you? They really want to ask: “Why are you a war widow?” What happened, and how would you like to tell it?

What didn’t you get told about your husband’s death?

We are trying to get to unknown history. How do we read between the lines of given history? The official version versus the spoken story, versus reality?

What are the words and images of your inner life? What symbols fit you? What phrases stay with you? What remains unspoken?

What is an object that symbolises your experience for you?

Why do you think people see widows as a threat to other people’s relationships? Have you been seen as a threat?

Was your grief ever used as gossip?

Was there a day when your burden suddenly seemed lighter?

survived with a little help

Trying out ideas for the War Widows’ Quilt.

 

History from the inside

Books and publications

THE WARM /&/ THE COLD

History from the inside

“Testimony forged into art…” Ian McMillan

A unique, many-voiced history told in poetry and art made by homeless people, older people (many with dementia) and young offenders launches at Manchester Central Library on 10 June 12-4pm. The event is part of Manchester Histories Festival 2018 Celebrations Day.

THE WARM /&/ THE COLD is an illustrated poetry book by many authors. Hundreds of marginalized people have collaborated to makepoems, artworks, and quilts, ceramics – all adorned with their life stories. Arts organisation arthur+martha have worked for several years with diverse communities in North West England: an alternative history of British life, insider stories that find nothing new in austerity, but have plenty of survival tips.

alice and cut up

Artist Lois Blackburn: “Sometimes you’ve just got to pin your heart on your sleeve and say who you really are. We’ve been privileged to share these moments with the people who’ve contributed, its history told with inside knowledge. On some days this project has been heartbreaking, but many times it has also been a joy.”

Embroidered into quilts, written onto tourist postcards, made into tattoo designs, and ceramics designs, and printed as posters, these poetic testimonies stretch outside the usual arena of literature, to include people whose words and very existence are often unrecorded and ignored.

Steve and Andy

The book launch links to a song and visual performance at The People’s History Museum on Monday 11thJune, lunchtime 12-1 with artist Lois Blackburn (arthur+martha)  singer songwriter Matt Hill/The Quiet Loner, of the new work ‘Moving Panorma’.

Poet Philip Davenport: “Our work follows an ancient tradition of passing on people’s history through poems, songs, artworks and stitch. It also continues the work of people like Ewan McColl and Charles Reznikov, who shared people’s words in the form of poems and songs, as a form of protest. The launch coincides with our 11th birthday as an organisation — and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the moment.”

naughty boy

The illustrated poetry book has been funded by the National Association for Literary Development and gathers hundreds of the collaborators within its pages. It also includes a Foreword by Ian McMillan and Afterword by Jerome Rothenberg; the project was helped by poets Stephen Emmerson, Dr Scott Thurston, Steve Giasson, Rebecca Guest and copland smith. THE WARM /&/ THE COLD has been made possible by longstanding arthur+martha partners The Booth Centre homeless day centre.

 

Launch date: Manchester Central Library, 10 June 12-4pm

Book price: £10

 

Sushila

 

Notes for Editors

1) This event is part of Manchester Histories Festival 2018, the 5th edition of the Greater Manchester-wide biennial festival with the theme protest, democracy, and freedom of speech. Delivered by Manchester Histories the 2018 Festival will offer a long-weekender of music, film, debate, talks, performance, walking tours, arts and more. Visit http://www.manchesterhistories.co.uk

2) The Booth Centre brings about positive change in the lives of people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, and helps them plan for and realise a better future. They do this by providing advice to find accommodation, education, training and help to secure employment, free healthy meals, support in tackling issues with health and addiction, and creative activities to boost confidence and self esteem. The Booth Centre is an independent, registered charity (no. 1062674)

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Performance

moving panorama

At this weeks session we once again took a duel approach – some people worked on a new scroll for a song called ‘Top Kid’ and others took part in rehearsals for the forthcoming performance.

Lois is great at encouraging people to be comfortable making art and I’m always amazed at the results. This week was no different as people took inspiration from a book of Trade Union Banners and started created beautiful text and scroll work. People become very focussed with their heads down and utterly absorbed in their art making.

painting and rehearsal

My part this week was to play some of the songs we’ve written and to help the people who are going to perform when we play at the People’s History Museum on June 11th. My first task was to set up a microphone and amplifier so we could practice getting used to singing into a mic. In the past when working with non-musicians I’ve seen quite confident people dry up around microphones. To hear our own voices amplified loud and clear can be an unsettling experience and people will often back away from the microphone.

For this reason I wanted to get our performers used to it and I came prepared for some gentle coaxing. I need not have worried! They all stepped up and were natural performers, with no fear of the microphone. It was a real joy to hear people get involved in helping to sing the songs and a real positive energy began to fill the room.

performing group

This was also our first chance to perform alongside our Panorama frame. It was interesting watching people as we performed and Lois cranked the scroll handles. We want our audience’s visual focus to be on the frame and the beautiful scrolls we have created. The songs and music forms a soundtrack to the visual, as they would if you were watching a film. But naturally when we see live performers singing and playing, our eyes are drawn to them. It was a valuable session in learning this and now we are thinking about how we can arrange ourselves physically so the frame and scrolls are firmly centre stage and the key visual focus of our performance.

This session was one of the busiest yet. We also had film-maker John with us to document the project and interview some of the people who have been taking part. With John filming, our artists drawing and painting and our performers singing it made for a lively and energetic session.

Art and Music?

moving panorama

How does visual art and music work together? Complement? add something? Make you look or hear something new? Its a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot with our current project ‘Moving Panorama’.  Today I’m sharing some of these thoughts- take a look at the value of choice, creative stimulation/inspiration, and performance.

Matt and Roy

Matt and Roy, working on a song for Moving Panorama

Being able to offer a combination of visual art,  song writing and performance, means that our group has far more choice- if they are not in the mood to try one thing- they can concentrate on another. We all come to creative activity with one burden or another- it might be that you’ve been told as a child that you can’t draw, or you lack in confidence, or maybe you have never learnt much reading and writing, or maybe you are just not in the mood- are suffering from lack of sleep, or mental or physical issues.

By offering the choice of a visual art or writing or performing- we give people an opportunity to take a look at something might intimidate them, they can be joining in the singing and at the same time seeing that the art making isn’t so scary- or visa versa. There is never pressure to join in, we always welcome people just to sit and watch if they like- although this rarely happens for long. We create a safe environment for people to try something new, or re-visit something that has been lost.  And choice should never be taken for granted. Many of the people we work with have restricted choice in their lives- whether restricted by ill health, disability, or social and economic reasons.

One of the joys for me of working collaboratively is the inspiration of different artistic disciplines- working with skills unlike my own, looking at the subject with fresh eyes. It stimulates my artistic practice, makes me look again, think freshly. I witness this in the group with other people- for the last few weeks in our Moving Panorama session we have been working on 10 meter scrolls of paper, filling them with responses to the songs, as we draw/paint/write/print, we are referring to the lyrics.

Top kid artwork

artwork to be scrolled with the song ‘Top Kid’

The most exciting and stimulating experience, is when we get a live performance led Matt- we hear the song as we create the visuals. This artistic conversation is not just one way- the artwork created feeds back into the song- for example changing the order of the verses, inspiring new lyrics, thinking about rhythm and speed.

Then there is performance. We are still to try this out properly- the Moving Panorama frame is in production. The songs and the art each stand on their own, but I have a feeling when they are put together they will create something wonderful. We have experimented with hand rolling the scrolls whilst listening to the music- it appears to work-  there is a joy in simply watching our performers singing- and the songs are really, really good. The art complements, at times tells a slightly different story, showcases different skills, other ideas. We are yet to really discover the limitations and all of the joys, it might take another few years, and a few after that.

Join us at lunchtime on the 11thJune at The People’s History museum 12-1.00pm for a performance of Moving Panorama, as part of the Manchester Histories Festival.  A collaboration between The Booth Centre, singer songwriter Matt Hill/The Quiet Loner, artist Lois Blackburn/arthur+martha and the People’s History Museum 

Getting in the zone

moving panorama

Roy is someone who has really engaged with this project and has come back each week. Over the past weeks I’ve really seen him grow in his confidence as a writer. This week he told me how much he likes “getting in the zone” and he arrived at our session with some words he’d been working on following our visit to the People’s History Museum last week. He’d spent time looking at the sabres that were used in the Peterloo massacre and that had led him to write this.

Peterloo you needed a shield
Cos sabres the yeomans they did yield
They left a claret-stained Peter’s Field
But the working class will neva yield

Campaigning man – Sam Bamford
Marched to Manchester – what a hoard
To put his case to the manor lord
who sent in yeomans with sabre and sword
left lives and limbs hanging by a cord

As you can see here Roy is really drawn to rhyme and his poems have a distinct style in that he uses the same rhyme scheme for each line of his verse. This structure really works for him and he has embraced it, so it’s now very much his signature style.

As a songwriter rhyme is very important – the repetition of vowel and consonant sounds helps fix the melody. So for me it’s been great to work with Roy as his words fit very easily into melody. But such an approach to rhyme, also brings restriction, you are tied to the scheme and so your brain has to be able to think very creatively to continue to tell the story.

Johno and danny

Roy and Danny working on the ‘Dust’ panorama

Roy works quickly and has a fast brain which is well suited to this style but he’s also very willing to re-work. He’ll often hand me a piece, then take it back, scribble out and re-write. The great Paul Simon once said “A good song is not written, it’s re-written”. As the weeks have gone, that willingness to edit and adjust, has helped Roy mature as a writer and I think that shows here in his use of phrases like ‘claret stained’ and “lives and limbs hanging by a cord”.

Roy tells me he’s a big Clash fan so I’ll be listening to London Calling this week and hoping we can find a Strummer/Jones flavour to the next song we write.

roy drawing

Roy working on the ‘Dust’ Panorama

Matt Hill/The Quiet Loner writing about the arthur+martha project Moving Panorama, supported by The Booth Centre, The People’s History Museum and Arts Council England.