The weight of an angel’s wing

A Book of Ours, Projects

We’re making pages for an illuminated manuscript at the Booth Centre, a centre for people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. The original medieval illuminated manuscripts from 500-plus years ago were full of prayers and holy days and feasts, as well as smatterings of current events. Our new book reflects the diverse lives of people who’ve experienced homelessness, drawing on their lives and insights, replacing religious rituals with their day-to-day. And decorated by them with images and colours, to become rich with the details of their world. 

Calender Year, Johnathan

Calendar year, ‘A Book of Ours’ Johnathan Phythian

This week we’ve again been working on the calendar, always the first section of the medieval books that give us inspiration. Each day in the year has a special significance for particular people, be it a birthday, a personal tragedy, a breakthrough, or just a quiet moment of pleasure.

Our calendar is incomplete, however it’s starting to gather a remarkable patchwork of experiences together. Each description has to be a maximum of six words. It’s an art to describe a significant life moment in only six words, but many of the group have already risen to the challenge. Dotted among the personal writings are fragments of our wider history, especially the medieval history which would’ve impacted in the original manuscript makers.

August

August calendar page, ‘A Book of Ours’ Gary Cundle

Here is our work-in-progress August, each day it’s own little story of commemoration:

AUG

Aug 1

Leave windows open for my Angel.

Aug 2

Scared shitless, heartbroken then released.

August 3rd

Started coming Booth Centre.

August 5th

Two cakes to blow out. Me/sister.  

August 6th

Booth Centre helped me get a place

Aug 11 1999 (eclipse)

Let daylight come down on Earth.

August 13th

Day of marriage. Celebration. Soul partner.

Aug 22 1485

Dick Tudor 3, found under carpark.

June, (John)

What can’t easily be described is the intensity of each of our workshops. The absolute laser-like engagement of our writers and artists as they write their lives. For some people this is the only moment in the week away from intimidation, violence, drugs, despair. For others it’s become a social space where friendships are growing and trust is slowly forming. The saddest image I’ll take from today is of one of our most involved participants. Though he’s sleeping rough, he is always immaculately groomed, bright with enthusiasm for making art. Today, however, his eyes were shuttered by drugs, his voice blurred and his head nodded. But still he fought his way through the chemicals towards us, slowly, so very slowly, making his mark on the page.

July (Johnathan)

July, from ‘A Book of Ours’, Johnathan Phythian

Our new arthur+martha project is the construction of an illuminated manuscript at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It will gather together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials — all in one book, giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more.

 

Supported by HLF

From my heart and soul

A Book of Ours, Projects

I work from my heart and soul. That’s why I get so tired, I put everything in.

Everyone has their own reasons for joining in and for leaving. Some people get worn out by the afternoon. Some of them have been up drinking since daft o’clock.

The arthur+martha sessions are different. They’re very constructive, with lots of different things happening at once – poems, drawing, writing, calligraphy, a wide variety. Like us.

Johnathan

A couple of observations about yesterdays session at the Booth Centre from Johnathan and project worker Karen.

Lawrence’s calendar page for ‘The Book of Ours’

I always knew it would be therapeutic, but it’s my first experience of actually doing it, and I’m loving it. I didn’t want it to stop today, it was so relaxing. Im getting to know people in a different way, you can really talk with people, it’s lovely and relaxing.

It will be good, I know it. People just need to turn up and fill the book. They are the big idea.

Karen, project worker at The Booth Centre.

This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It will gather together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials, all in one book, giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more. Supported by HLF.

Trickling from the stream’s my dreams

A Book of Ours, Projects

There are no ordinary days at the Booth Centre, the homeless day centre where our workshops are currently based. Within the space of one day, or even one hour, there might be laughter, sadness, fury, tears, joy  and today was no different. This was the fourth workshop of a major new project, making an illuminated manuscript with people whove experienced homelessnes, a book that will include over 100 makers and stand as a testament of ignored, misunderstood lives.

Many people who join in with our sessions are at an extreme, a point where life has spiralled, and emotions are bubbling close to the surface. Sometimes its possible for that emotion to fuel artmaking or writing, which in turn allows self-exploration, or lets people reach out to others. But making such work can be gruelling, there needs to be help at hand so that the journey has an ending. Today, it felt as though some people were walking along the very edge of themselves, trying to find a way through darkness. For others, it was possible to put trouble aside and welcome brightness.

 

A Book of Hours, from the John Rylands Library collection

 

 

The cliche of homelessness is that its a drab, black and white world, a gritty documentary with a downbeat ending. But in the artwork and writing for this project weve looked for inspiration to colourfilled medieval illuminated manuscripts. And in response people have identified the technicolour in their lives, saturated them with golds and greens and reds, as well as seeing the shadows. One piece of writing from the morning workshop starts with, A sunny and warm-full day… In another we meet, the darkness of me.

But today was also remarkable for another reason. In the afternoon we made out first research visit with the group to John Rylands Library to see some original medieval manuscripts firsthand. These handmade books are one-offs, hundreds of years old. To be allowed this close is a rare chance to really encounter books that are artworks of amazing power.

 

Chris at The John Rylands Library

 

Our guide was the friendly and immensely knowledgeable John Hodgson, who is Joint Head of Special Collections. As he led us to the Victorian interior, John paused briefly and in that moment the booming traffic, and seemingly time itself, dropped away. A tremendous sense of peace wrapped around us. We went forward into this amazing public treasure house, marvelling at the carved pillars, the statues, the knowledge, as G said. He took us around the building first of all, which is an architectural beauty of pink sandstone, full to the ceilings with vast bookcases containing vast books.

And then to the books. Nobody quite expected what happened next. As John slowly, slowly, leafed through a 500 year old medieval Book of Hours, the group hushed. The pages were iridescent with blues and reds, and burnished gold. We looked closely, saw the writing of people hundreds of years dead and yet who still spoke to us through these pages. I noticed that two of the people in the group were quietly crying. Still the pages turned, the Hours of the Virgin, which celebrates each part of each and every day, The Offices of the Dead, a section of commemoration. The intense colours burned with a passion for living, for finding the deepest joys in life, and sharing them, and for acknowledging grief and pain too.

 

A Book of Hours, in The John Rylands collection

 

I suddenly needed to sit down, found I was breathing too fast, Id become dizzy. L wiped his streaming face and beamed the broadest smile I think Ive ever seen on him. Chris, whod gently joked with John through the tour, stopped the wisecracking and simply repeated over and over, Its lovely though, innit? Just lovely.

We sat and had a coffee together afterward and quietly went our separate ways. I waved to the guys across the street as they disappeared into the bustling city. 

 

Thanks to everyone at John Rylands Library, especially for John for taking such great care of us all, sharing a glimpse of the amazing collection and helping to inspire our project.

This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It will gather together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials, all in one book, giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as homeless when they are so much more. Supported by HLF.

 

Let daylight come down on earth again

A Book of Ours, Projects

“One of the men sat next to me- hes got a lot of things going on, sleeping on the streets at the moment. Hes had an amazing day. You could see how relaxed he was, how focussed…

(Karen, support worker Booth Centre)

 

Today was our second day into our new project ‘A Book of Ours’, making an illuminated manuscript with people whove experienced homelessness.

Not only are we trying to make an artwork, we are also constructing an atmosphere that people can relax in and learn to trust. Its impossible to let your imagination play if you dont feel safe, or sense youre unwelcome, or being judged. People living on the streets or in hostels often tell us that a quiet space thats safe is a rare luxury amongst the mayhem, violence, stress. One of the pleasures of this session was to see people dancing away in their imaginations, in the company of others.

The morning session was boisterous and loud, an energy blast. We invited people to make short poetic pieces about their red letter days. Days when time went fast, or slow. G wrote a typical day in a prison cell, the sounds, smells, the boredom and fear. R described the loss of a relative, a long, slow, sad day. C wrote about the amazement of seeing an eclipse, as a child (a little excerpt from that is the title of this blog). Someone else described urinating in the church font, as revenge against a bullying priest. For someone else again, today was his red letter day, his first day in the Booth Centre, a day full of relief but also trepidation. These descriptions were boiled down to a few words and will be written into the calendar framework that we are devising for the first section of this ambitious book.

The theme is time and how we value certain moments of it. Or dont value them. Heres a Brilliant Job day, in precisely 12 words: Started work, didnt realise my day was over til someone told me.Rachel

Alongside the writing, pages of sumptuous lettering were appearing as the makers became immersed in their work. Suddenly, the paper was transformed into colour and glorious flowing lines. When we came back after lunch we were surprised and delighted to find that many of the morning group had returned. People had got a good meal inside themselves and this helped fuel them into the afternoon. Heres our support worker Karen again:

Can be a full stomach makes the difference. People having lunch and coming back up to do more doing full day…I spoke to a few people while they were in the workshop. All seemed to really, thoroughly enjoy it. The fact people came back from lunch, after working all morning is unusual, important. Its a nice space to build up rapport. People get to know parts of themselves and share in a way that they wouldnt necessarily share downstairs.

One of our guides on this project is the poet William Blake, his extraordinary visions were recorded in poems and artwork. His kindred spirit in our group is Lawrence whose wondrous outpouring of word/image brings delight to us all, despite his occasional grumpiness. Once again Laurence took flight up into the colour and light and others followed him in a swirl of colour and poetry and (always) humour.

As we came to the end, the group gently broke apart, saying their goodbyes, shaking hands, grinning shyly at each other. Then went downstairs and back into it all. Well leave the final word to Karen:

It can get manic in the Booth and I came upstairs into this session and immediately felt the vibe. It was just so settled. People getting into it. And me? I absolutely loved it.

This new arthur+martha project is the construction of an illuminated manuscript at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It will gather together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials all in one book, giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as homelesswhen they are so much more. Supported by HLF.

The tears are close to our eyes

War Widows Stories

We’d like to thank the War Widows’ Association in Northern Ireland for inviting us into their precious twice-yearly meeting and making time for us when they were meeting with old friends, planning events, and sharing news. To be present  in one of the meetings is a privilege. It’s a group of friends, but it’s also a group of people grieving. The tears are close to everyone’s eyes. And then there’s a layer of politics. And of history too, the resonance of war.

Alberta

Over sandwiches and a cup of tea we talked about the weather, about memories of childhood — and then suddenly we were discussing a man being killed and his child running away from the scene of the killing covered in blood and shattered glass. How do you say all this, how do you deal with all this? At the end as we were getting ready to leave, Alberta our host answered the question, “Hugs.”

And yes, love is one answer among the many we heard. One of the widows said, “Here people hug me. But when I get back home I’m on my own with my life again and I go on a downer.”

A lot of the groups we work with include people from all walks of life, they’re brought together by a circumstance, for instance people who’ve experienced homelessness, or dementia, or widowhood. They’re suddenly talking to each other, in ways that unlock great emotion, sometimes it’s compassion, sometimes it’s anger, sometimes joy.

Today we passed from table to table, introducing some art and poem ideas and simply talking. Although there is no “simply” here. To be a widow is not simple, it is as complex as every individual in the room, with their many triumphs and tragedies. And of course, a shadow presence is the word “Troubles”. The conflict that still echoes through this place, and through many of the people here. How to even begin to put such a knot of loyalties and grievances to rest?

 

Ann

The project that we’re collectively making is a quilt. Many of the squares that make up the quilt carry the names of the widows and their husbands, and dates of birth and death. Other squares are pockets, which are embroidered with a few words, giving a part of a story, or a line from a song. Within these pockets is memorabilia, things that quietly commemorate, poems, letters, scraps of cloth. They are both present and hidden.

Making art or poems together allows deeply layered conversations to happen, sometimes finding expression for what’s only partly known. It’s what needs to happen first. Today was not a day for making, it was preparing the ground. When people left the room, many of them took squares with them to work on at home.

 

Heaven is my home(ann)

What will come back, how will those extraordinary moments we shared be re-made in word and stitch? Anne and Margaret talking about faith and love — “Heaven is my home.” Or Violet, with her eyes sparking, as she sang a line of a song that her husband used to sing to her, “Send me the pillow that you dream on
So darling I can dream on it too…”

 

Thanks to Alberta and Mary for inviting us to Belfast. Thanks to everyone who attended the War Widows’ Association meeting for making us feels so welcome and sharing your time, your creativity.  

 

A book of ours

A Book of Ours, Projects

The first day of a new project brings many questions to the table. And this one was no different. We are making an illuminated manuscript with people at the Booth Centre, following on from our project The Homeless Library, which was the first history of British homelessness. It gave first hand accounts of peoples life journeys, often pivoting around homelessness, illustrated with poems and artworks and inscribed into handmade books.

 

 

This new project is the construction of an illuminated manuscript. It will gather together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials  all in one book, giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed, clumped together simply as homeless when they are so much more.

First job of the day was to re-acquaint ourselves with old friends. We worked at the booth centre for 10 years on and off, and some faces were very familiar. Laurence, with a twinkle, said, Everything gets put to one side for arthur+martha. Joan gave us both a hug. Danny ditto. As we sat down to work, Id the feeling that there was nowhere else to be sitting in the world that bettered this.

 

 

In todays workshop, we made a timeline of significant day and people wrote short 24-word descriptions of their chosen days. (There are, after all, 24 hours in a day.) We also did a little experimenting with calligraphy pens, with colours, with paper and with page layouts. Some powerful work was made, beautiful miniature narratives and playful page compositions. 

 

 

But some of the most important work was to ask questions. We are using mediaeval manuscripts as the basis for our book. These are the Books of Hours that celebrated the Christian calendar. So how do we adapt this template for our purposes? For instance, the medieval calendars were often written in black, red, blue and gold, with a particular meaning assigned to each colour. But what meanings did our group associate with these colours? Is red a colour of love, or a symbol of blood? Is black grief, or power, or…? And gold  is it the colour of money, or something less earthbound?

 

 

 

And as we talked, the shape of this book of ours slowly began to emerge…

With thanks to everyone at The Booth Centre for their warm welcome, the support of Lottery players and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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.