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

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.  

 

The big book of homelessness

A Book of Ours, Projects

Press Release

The big book of homelessness

People who are homeless in Manchester will make a medieval-style illuminated manuscript, describing their lives, in a 2-year project by arts organisation arthur+martha that has just been awarded funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Homeless lives don’t appear in any history books, but the Quilt of Leaves project aims to change that, with nearly 200 participants constructing their own accounts of homeless life throughout the year, with artwork, poems and songs to illustrate it.

rose print

‘Flower’, mono print on recycled book. Molita M. Part of the ‘Homeless Library Project.’

Artist Lois Blackburn from arthur+martha said, “These stories are part of our wider society, they just haven’t been heard yet. We feel that people with lived experience of homelessness have a huge amount of insight to offer us all. We’re delighted that we’ve received this support thanks to National Lottery players. We can’t wait to get started.”

Philip Davenport from arthur+martha adds, “We chose medieval manuscripts to inspire us because they’re among the first history books, and this is the beginning of homeless history in a written form. Those medieval manuscripts were the property of influential people, decorated with rich colours and gold lettering. we want to give this history the same treatment, make it the kind of book you can’t ignore.”

One of the main partners in the Quilt of Leaves project is The Booth Centre, a resource centre for people who are homeless and at risk of homelessness in Manchester where many of the workshops will take place.

we accept the little

‘We accept the little we have.’ mono print on recycled book. Anon. Part of the ‘Homeless Library Project.’

Notes

About the Heritage Lottery Fund

Thanks to National Lottery players, they invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about – from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife. www.hlf.org.uk. Follow us on Twitter, Facebookand Instagram and use #NationalLottery and #HLFsupported.

About the Booth Centre

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)

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

 

Our ladies of the War

Projects, War Widows Stories

The Union Jack Club in Central London is a quiet pivot at the centre of British history. It is the club where people connected to the armed services traditionally come to stay when they’re in the capital. These doors have admitted corporals and Queens, generals and ghurkas. When you enter, you see wooden panels carved with the names of the heroes and (rarely) heroines of a hundred-plus years of wars. Colonial wars, anti-fascist wars, Cold War, the War on Terror, civil strife in Ireland, strikes against Iraq and Afghanistan. There are paintings of men on horseback, men in helicopters, jets, tanks, camouflage and bright red cavalry tunics. The library has deep green leather seats, and around you are the books that tell of these wars, titles like The Fall of Berlin, Rat’s Tales, Raiding the Reich, or No Time to Wave Goodbye.

breakfast

But we are not here to talk about battlefields, we are here to talk about their consequences.

Lois and I are staying at this iconic club to meet the group of women who run The War Widows’ Association, women whose remarkable lives bring a different perspective to those same battlefields.

Among the medals and the honour calls, they’ve also displayed great bravery in the face of conflict — but their stories are unheard, do not exist in the museums, are not recounted in the histories. And we are very privileged to be invited to take part in the first-ever gathering of their stories. Being arthur+martha, our contribution to this wider War Widows Stories will be a collaborative quilt and poems, that complement the oral history recordings and wider research currently being made by Dr Nadine Muller.

But today is a day for hellos, getting to know faces and gather ideas to fuel this longer conversation. The occasion right now is an evening meal for the regional managers of The War Widows’ Association: the big, bustling group is full of energy, jokiness, and a vibrant camaraderie as we sit down for tea. The cliche of widowhood is somber and soft-spoken, however this evening was spent talking loudly, eating heartily, laughing loud.

And yet, as we talked, other resonances came into the conversation— flashes of sadness, anger, my own memories of growing up around soldiers, and my mother who is also a widow. And suddenly this space, that seems so certain in its carved memorials and its place in history, is full of questions. And we wonder how to speak about it…

Philip Davenport, Oct 2018

 

Lois Blackburn introducing the art making to the War Widows’ Association. Photo courtesy WWS.

arthur+martha give thanks to our supporters for this project Arts Council England, the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, Liverpool John Moores University, Royal Museums Greenwich, the Imperial War Museums, the National Memorial Arboretum and the Heritage Lottery Fund.  

Listening to the Unheard

The Homeless Library

The Homeless Library is about to hit the road again, this time we are off to Brighton for an exhibition of The Homeless Library is the iconic Brighton Dome Tues 3rd July to Sunday 22nd July.

The Homeless Library is a collection of handmade books, created by people with lived experience of homelessness. The books include interview extracts, poems and art describing their personal histories and those of the people around them.  Much material was placed online, in blogs and a free ebook. The Library exhibition launched at The Houses of Parliament and the Southbank and toured nationally, with homeless people reading their poems and sharing their books.

We are also delighted to be taking part in the Listening to the Unheard, Practice that works. A free event at First Base Day Centre, 10.00am to 5pm. The workshop will share experiences of Travellers and rough sleepers in Brighton and Hove and offers for discussion conclusions and content based on field research with Irish Travellers and rough sleepers.

As ever when packing up the The Homeless Library for the exhibition, different books jump out to me. This time it was ‘Just me in my sleeping bag’ made by Nicola. (Pictured here) Around 1 in 10 homeless people are women.

Top Kid

moving panorama

I am delighted to share our first film from the Moving Panorama performance at People’s History Museum with the Booth Centre as part of Manchester Histories Featuring Roy Johnson, Matt Hill/ Quiet Loner With artwork led by artist Lois Blackburn…. Look out for more films in the next while…

A TOP KID (Lyrics by Roy Johnson, music Matt Hill)

 Fightin a cause,                            on no ones bid
A union boy fought                      for an xtra quid
Shouted in the bosses kipper     he no hid
Ended in the big house,              2 years he did


Campaigned for the workers, stood up for the men

Like others had before him and like others will again

His name was Ricky Tommo and we’ll remember him

He’s a top top kid, He’s a top top kid, He’s a top kid

A mixed race lad        a freed slave Dad
Worked as a tailor     when times waz bad
Three times he wed   three times a cad
Van Diemans land     His end waz sad

Campaigned for the workers, stood up for the men

Like others had before him and like others will again

His name was William Cuffay and we’ll remember him

He’s a top top kid, He’s a top top kid, He’s a top kid 

BRIDGE
Top top kid                         Top top kid

Top top top top, top top top top kid

Top top top top, top top top top kid

A Glazgie boy             Jock waz a rock
Morning Star              rolled up in iz sock
What a man                like a barrel and a lock
Hated the bosses       with their shares and stock

Campaigned for the workers, stood up for the men

Like others had before him and like others will again

His name was Jock the rock and we’ll remember him

He’s a top top kid, He’s a top top kid He’s a top kid

[Bridge to playout]

Cover photo, thanks to Jenny White.