Swan-building

poetry, Whisper to me alone

When my brothers and sister and myself were little, mum would sit us round the kitchen table with bits of cardboard and paper and paints. We’d splash away together, making pictures, or building space rockets. It was her method of crowd control, it stopped us from arguing and getting into mischief. Mum would be there keeping an eye on us, while making the tea. 

They were some of the happiest times I ever experienced; a feeling of purpose and a feeling of belonging.

That memory flashed into my mind during the ICM workshop I was invited to last week. They’re a group of artists who hook up together every week to be in each other’s company while they create artworks. At the moment they meet on Zoom, because of the Covid restrictions.

The group was led by Dylan, who suggested swans as this week’s theme. (It’s important to know that Back on Track and ICM are based in the wonderful Swan Building, in Manchester.) While people drew swans, they chatted in a gently distracted way and I wrote down the sentences that jumped out, arranging the words into a poem. It was a wonderfully peaceful way of working together, full of little anecdotes and jokes and all the while the drawings came alive on paper.

Last swim of the day. Group visual poem 2020

Maybe because my own recollection of childhood was sparked, I particularly noticed people’s stories of their childhood — their encounters with swans, geese, and of course the ugly duckling story. Somehow the poem reflects the journey of the ugly duck, the journey we all make forward from childhood, trying to reach our full potential. 

After the poem was written and read back, Dylan was kind enough to make it into a visual poem of a swan, which you can see above. What you can’t see, but can only imagine, is the sweet-natured atmosphere of this group, who welcomed me into their little gang and for a while treated me as one of the family, while they made art together. 

Swan lovers. Anonymous 2020

Several organisations work together to support the art group:

Inspiring Change Manchester is a Lottery Funded Learning Programme. We work with people experiencing Multiple Disadvantages, who face barriers to accessing support and may be isolated within society. We follow a No Wrong Door approach, supporting people through a Multi-Agency Partnership that strives to be Asset Focused, Psychologically Informed and Person Centred. We are working to create System Change to tackle inequalities and improve people’s experiences in accessing the support they need.

Dylan Gwylim represented Self Help Services who are the partner providing the mental health element of the ICM project https://www.selfhelpservices.org.uk/

Paul Crudgington represented Back on Track www.backontrackmanchester.org.uk Several Back on Track learners have been involved with WHISPER TO ME ALONE.

MASH is a charity providing a range of confidential and non-judgemental services to women working in the sex industry in Greater Manchester. 

The arthur+martha project WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people in Manchester during lockdown. The project centres on journals of writing, art and song lyrics.

Last swim of the day. Anonymous 2020

The state of things

Here Comes the Sun, Necklace of Stars, Projects, quilts, Whisper to me alone

“..I’m glad you like it as it was a joy to stitch. Your idea just sparked something inside me, making me want to do some stitching which was very welcome as I’m finding it difficult to settle to anything at the moment.”

Participant, Here Comes the Sun

 

Sara Scott Sun2

Sara Scott, Here Comes the Sun

 

I’m beginning to hear recurrent themes in the feedback to our two current projects Here Comes the Sun and A Necklace of Stars.  Many of our participants are finding it difficult to settle to anything. People describe having fuzzy heads, being overly tired, difficulties in even making even small decisions.

 

“What’s stopping me? It’s the state of things, I’m normally busy, involved with other things.  Normally I paint and paint and sew and sew, but I haven’t in ages. It’s been very, very strange. I can go outside, and talk to my neighbours, and clap for the NHS, but it’s the first time in my life I’ve been like this. I need something to give me a kick up the backside.”

Participant A Necklace of Stars

vintage dyed pillowcase

Here Comes the Sun. Vintage pillowcase, dyed, ready for embroidered poetry.

 

But counter to that, I have had heard from many other people saying that doing something creative is helping them re-focus and spark something in the brain. How interesting our brains are!

For many it has given a prompt to create something with embroidery for the first time in many years and connect with different generations of the same family:

“Thank you so much from my daughter and I for encouraging us to dig out my late grandmothers stash of embroidery threads to choose some sunny colours for our sun quilt squares. My grandmother was a very enthusiastic and skilled needlewomen and she would have loved the idea of this quilt…. (about her daughters embroidery) It is a while since I picked up an embroidery needle and as my stitches show I am more than a little rusty (for which I appologise) I have, however really enjoyed focusing on something creative during these strangest of times. We look forward to seeing the finished quilt.”

Participant, Here Comes the Sun.

One of the delights of the projects is the way news spreads by word of mouth. Having a project to work on gives us all opportunities to think, talk and focus on something different with friends and family, an escape from the news, and Covid. 

Have shared widely, and this has kick-started a WhatsApp group, as I was asked to set up a crafty one a couple of weeks ago. We can encourage each other daily in there and do other bits and bobs too.

Participant, Here Comes the Sun

What a beautiful idea. I’m definitely going to do this, and share with friends

Participant, Here Comes the Sun

 

Catherine's sun

Catherine Tombs embroidery for Here Comes the Sun. 

But there is always more sharing to do, the more people engaged in our projects with different perspectives on life, the more exciting and greater the depth the project our project gains.

Everyone signed up to our project A Necklace of Stars is currently housebound. Many where before the lock down. So far we have worked with people aged from 65 to 90. Many haven’t done any embroidery since school, but some are very experienced and confident in the creative arts. Everyone has a unique way of looking at the theme of the stars, everyone a story to tell.

Phil and I continually look at ways we can make the projects accessible to everyone, whatever their circumstances. Thanks to support from Arts Council England, we’re thrilled to be working with Booth Centre to invite people who are, or have been homeless to join in. They are being invited to draw suns that our volunteers will stitch on their behalf, a kind of art commissioning without any money changing hands. In addition I will be sending out packs of needles, threads and materials to people at the Booth who want to have a go at sewing themselves. I’m so thrilled to be working in this way and can’t wait to see how it progresses. 

Sarah B's sun

Sarah Burgess, embroidery for Here Comes the Sun.

Todays blog was written by Lois Blackburn, lead artist arthur+martha

A Necklace of Stars is a collaboration between housebound, isolated older people in Derbyshire,  arthur+martha,  Arts Derbyshire   DCC Public Health and Derbyshire County Council Home Library Service. 

Here Comes the Sun, A quilt in the time of Covid 19. Part of the Whisper to me Alone project.

King of Flowers

A Book of Ours

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Today we were visited by Professor Jeffrey Robinson from Glasgow University, who came bearing questions – and that of course leads us to question ourselves. What is this stuff we are making…?

A BOOK OF OURS is an in-between thing, constructed of artwork, poetry and music. And yet it is only itself when all of these come together.

The original books of hours in medieval times were also multipurpose. They were used as a text for prayers, a manuscript for singing from, and a spiritual guide that depicted visions of the important saints, angels and devils to dodge or make friends with. Such a book would be left open on an altar for marking out the whole day in churches, abbeys, monasteries, and in palaces. 

Because we have decided to copy the format of the old books of hours, it makes sense that we also have images, words and music in our book. But there are other reasons too.

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Some of the makers are most confident telling their story through words. Others struggle with literacy and are more comfortable representing their lives on a page through images. For others again, it’s the combination of word and image that is crucial, both together. And now we are working with songwriter Matt Hill, the music is yet another means of reaching out…

Combining sound, colour, and verbal description, gives a huge range of expression — and that’s what you need if you’re trying to capture the essence of you. Particularly to describe your inner visions, perhaps when under the influence of substances, or when the emotions that drive your life are waves so colossal that they can only be shown by overloading all systems of communication.

Or simply to inscribe joy, as a flower.

The faces of strange hauntings fill the medieval books of hours and the imagination of the whole medieval world. Call them devils or angels, gargoyles, fairies or bogeymen, they are most definitely around. Perhaps they are forever part of human experience whatever name you give them.  They peep out of the page corners from old manuscripts, they’re in paintings too, and in churches, as carvings or sculptures. These photos that I took in Saint Laurence’s in Ludlow show the carved wooden seats for the choir. There you’ll find mermaids, witches, owls, even the pagan Green man. He peers at you curiously, as if you’re the mystery. And from his mouth comes new growth, a poem written in leaves.

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Sing Lullaby

A Book of Ours

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Brother James, Brother James
I am you, I am you
Roof and food and family, roof and food and family
I need you, I need you.

Brother Ladbrokes, bother lad brokes
Stop robbing me, stop robbing me
I have a got an acca, give you a smacka
Then I win, no cheating.

The Frere Jacques Variations

 

We returned to the Booth Centre today for our last big run of workshops on the Book of Ours project.

Over the last year, this blog has documented our slow but steady progress as we’ve made an illuminated manuscript together, a book designed to outlast all our lifetimes. It’s been a dream project for Lois and I, and one that’s brought delight and sometimes shared sadness, as our scribes and artists — many of whom have lived experience of homelessness — make this work.

Several of the most famous medieval illuminated manuscripts contain musical scores. Today we brought music into our workshops for the first time with singer and songwriter Matt Hill, who fitted melodies to some of the poetry from last year — and invites new songwriting.

Singing together can be a joyous thing. It can also be challenging to those of us who don’t have an easy relationship with pitch, following a rhythm or remembering a melody. Added to that is the embarrassment about singing that many people carry from their schooldays. And yet it was by singing a children’s song that we began to open up.

Brother Stephen, Brother Stephen / Where are you, where are you? Hair like copper wires, hair like copper wires / Where are you? Your eyes were blue… Matt delicately built the confidence of the group, bringing everyone who wanted to join us into the ring of music and charming songs from us — some moving, some humorous but all of them made together, out of our own voices. One instrument made of many people.

Esme, Esme, Esme, Esme
I love you, I love you.
You are my sister, you are my sister
You my all, you my all.

Love and peace, love and peace
Here to stay, here to stay
Everybody’s laughter and forever after
God I pray, here to stay.

Matt made it look easy but there’s a lot juggling required to bring together a group of people with complex needs, energies, backgrounds, states of intoxication, states of mental health.

So we played music — and it felt like play, not work. Songs flowed, rapidly finding their form. For instance, The Frère Jacques Variations. From being a distant childhood memory, it refocused into a song about memory, connection, and a picture of our city now, the lives it contains and the earth of Manchester itself.

In the afternoon the session quietened as they often do, became more meditative, more inward. Still the songs came, but this time more as individual statements. One of the most powerful lyrics was a simple, heartfelt goodbye to someone. It was written with tears as accompaniment this time, rather than Matt’s guitar. After it was done, the writer looked me full in the face for the first time that day and said. “I feel lighter.” If nothing else had happened that day, it would’ve been worth being there, for that moment alone.

Sister City, Sister City
Are you sleeping, are you sleeping?
Underneath the concrete, underneath the concrete
Is the earth, is the earth.

Brother-sister, brother-sister
We need you, you need us
To get us through this, to get us through this
You need us, we need you.

The Frere Jacques Variations
With contributions from James, Keith, Lawrence, Flora, Debbie, Gary and Mo

She of a golden heart

A Book of Ours

The last session for now at Back on Track, and it’s sad to go. The group bonded together and launched themselves into making their mark on the big blank pages of A BOOK OF OURS. Over the last six weeks they have found ways to inscribe their identity, the fingerprint of themselves, using poetry, art, calligraphy, colour, design. Their work has been subtle and beautiful. Often it has been bravely revealing too. As we say goodbye to them there is a wrench because it feels like there is still so much more to be said, so much further to go with these artist-writers.

During the course of our three hour session, pages are inscribed, some illuminated with colours so vivid that they conjure a different world and way of seeing. Lawrence has devised a wonderfully elegant page for his description of his “favourite sin”, greed. The poem that it contains celebrates greed in a manner that would make Mrs Thatcher proud, and then halfway through the whole thing is reversed and the greedy “I” becomes the need of us — and “us” is homeless, penniless.

Meanwhile Chris has evoked a spell for meeting your own Death face to face, using an old Icelandic line. The piece is written in runes just the way it would’ve been hundreds of years ago. It is an ancient text in style and yet it also challenges the very idea of illuminated manuscripts, which vikings were famous for burning.

M has echoed the warmth of the sun in his carefully chosen and inscribed line from the Office of the Dead. This is a long poem about dying, but also about new beginnings and his page contains the green of new growth.

Finally Shannon has celebrated her mother in a page that glows with gold and with affection. Truly it is infused with love for Clarissa, she of a golden heart.

There’s always a lot of work going on behind the scenes in these workshops. Lois and I will have planned for it go in many direction, following people’s mood. Then on the day, alongside us are the volunteers, who gently support, encourage, lend their specialist skills and observe. Today, for instance, Gary is working on the subtle details around a capital letter. It’s a Miniaturists’ heaven he’s creating, a tiny nighttime planet hanging on a letter, with attendant owls. And as we work, Jess is carefully observing the session, making notes on the interactions, on the tiny moments of connection and disconnect that join us all together.

Crosstown Traffic

A Book of Ours, Projects

 

Our new volunteer Gary writes about the most recent illuminated manuscript workshop for the project A Book of Ours, at Back on Track:

Everybody is serious today. There’s only one more session at Back on Track, and pieces need to be finished in time. People very quickly sink into their own projects, painting, drawing, writing, calligraphy; everybody working quietly either with Phil, Lois or Steven, or just getting on with things by themselves. Mark opens the window because it’s so warm in the room, and you can hear the gentle hum of traffic outside, birds wishing it was spring.

I’m painting squares of black ink for Chris to try out as backgrounds for his amazing runic lettering. You’d think black was black, but no, there are lots of different shades, textures, depths, to play with. Chris opts for the blackest, and his red runes really shout from the page.

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Across the room, Lawrence is working on ‘Greed’ – Steven with his new lightbox helps focus and trace the Gothic script to tremendous effect. The finished page looks amazing, small imperfections, smudges and idiosyncrasies adding spontaneity.

Shannah and Mark can mostly progress their work alone: Mark’s calligraphy skills are growing fast and Shannah’s poem ‘Clarissa, Mother’ is simply beautiful as she scribes it. The letters make bright paths on the page.

The quiet and concentration is only broken briefly when Phil mistakes NWA for Madonna, and the room cracks up. It’s an easy mistake to make.

Later, as I sketch Jimi Hendrix as a saint, with an enormous afro halo, I wonder what miracles he performed in order to be sanctified. The song ‘Cross-Town Traffic’ runs through my head and mixes with the sounds of construction work and car engines coming through the open window.

Then suddenly time is up, and we’re all snapped out of our individual bubbles, to share with the group what we’ve been working on. Every piece is so completely different, but linked by experience, the experience of being human I suppose, and we’re all very rightly proud of ourselves. We leave the window open for the next group to listen to the hum of the traffic.

This arthur+martha project is based on the making of an illuminated manuscript  A BOOK OF OURS, at Back on Track, the Booth Centre and other support centres in Manchester. It gathers 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.

We are often helped by skilled volunteers who bring varied life experiences and insights.

A BOOK OF OURS is supported by HLF.

 

 

Hello to love

A Book of Ours, Projects

Stephen Raw was our expert guide today, leading us into the complex mystery that is calligraphy, particularly the discipline of the medieval script.

 

“It’s the curse of making the word visible,” as he says cheerfully. “How do we see our thoughts? What colour and what shape? And how do we get that onto paper? That’s where it takes the time…”

 

All of the group plunged into that inky ocean to make their pages of calligraphy. Like learner swimmers, they started cautiously but were soon splashing about, making a glorious mess and making beauty, often on the same page.

 

caligraphy practice

 

Chris developing his Viking runes, stretching out across the page. T at first wrestling with the lettering, and then tracing and retracing, selecting the best letters, seeing the page transforming to her touch. M working long and hard at the correct order of setting each letter down in the right proportions — and then suddenly a phrase has landed in the middle of its page, scripted so beautifully it’s a poem in its own right. Hello to love.

 

Chris

But today contained other kinds of writing too. For one of the other group members it was an opportunity to write about experiences of homelessness, to write at high speed, with a simple biro. To put those experiences down on paper, and to consider them for the first time. Sometimes putting experiences down on paper can be like putting down a heavy weight. Afterwards comes relief. The memories are part of this project too and in due course they’ll find their expression somewhere in the pages of the illuminated manuscript A BOOK OF OURS.

Slowness is the beauty and the curse of getting words down on a piece of paper. We speak very quickly, and think even more rapidly. Writing down those words is a long process, which can be slow, frustrating, exhausting. But that’s also the beauty — working and thinking in slowmotion. There is time to enjoy each stroke of each letter, the choice of colour, the density of the ink, the music and meaning of each sentence, each word. And perhaps with this, comes more understanding.

Lawrence looked up from his paper, hands blotted with ink.

“I love all this,” he said.

 

 

With thanks to everyone at Back on Track and to all the National Lottery players and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

These letters with a pen

A Book of Ours, Uncategorized

img_3653“Making these letters with a pen, working in slow-motion, it felt so therapeutic. Usually I’m on a computer, but computers aren’t everything. I could feel myself relax as I worked. And my head cleared and ideas came through. This is what education should be.”

This was our first workshop of 2020, the first of the new decade. We have shifted the venue to Back on Track, a centre for people who have been through difficult times (including homelessness) and are coming back to education. We invited them to contribute to A BOOK OF OURS, an illuminated manuscript that touches on their shared experiences.

Normally it takes a couple of weeks for a group to gel, but today people seemed to click instantly. There was a shared humour, around the room little jokes got picked up and carried on. People who are normally quite suddenly had a lot to say. And the intensity of their concentration as they worked was almost touchable. 

We saw smiles growing as they made their mark on the big white sheets of possibility. Slowly at first and then with greater and greater confidence, they began.

And to end it here, a piece of writing — still a work in progress — about asking for help. But it’s also about stepping into the new, about leaving the comfort zone. And it speaks for today:

Hard to ask for help. It’s a big step. That big mountain in your head. It’s the risk you take. You’re embarrassed, ashamed. A step into the unknown, pride stops you, all that dread. That big mountain in your head. It’s the risk. You’re embarrassed, ashamed. Expect yourself to know the answers. But you don’t, so then it’s a downfall. Step into the unknown — pride stops you. Hard to ask for help. And then you do and it’s fixed. And it’s amazing.

A joyous skyscraper

A Book of Ours

The Joys

 

2019 is coming to a close. We would like to send out our thanks to everyone who worked with us this year, met with us, shared lives and memories, were kind enough to give us your time.

For much of 2019 we’ve been making an illuminated manuscript at The Booth Centre, working with people who’ve experienced homelessness. It’s an attempt to represent their rich and varied life experiences in a book that has the intricate beauty of the medieval Book of Hours. We’ve used ancient bookmaking techniques to tell stories of now.

 

Chris2

 

We’ve also worked with the War Widows Association and Dr Nadine Muller’s War Widows’ Stories Project to co-create a War Widows Quilt, which gathers short stitched pieces by 90 war widows onto a quilt, that was first shown at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich during Remembrance weekend in November.

 

detail war widows quilt

 

Both of these projects, in their different ways, invited a very deep response from all involved. We know that this wasn’t easy at times and we want to acknowledge the bravery and trust that was given to us by participants.

Finally, to all, we wish you good tidings, good times, good heart. And, if possible, joy.

 

Joy

 

What is it? Euphoria, happiness — is it?

The Government doesn’t know what happiness is.

Can there be a joyous skyscraper?

Joy is not my fault or yours.

Is recording joyfulness a thing of joy?

Is there violent joy? A stomping yes!

And have you ever seen a bluebird?

 

Andre

 

Sarah Joan

My mind is slowly opening

A Book of Ours, Projects

 

James. JPG

12 December. The Booth Centre.

Today’s session in the Book of Ours project was not only our last one of the year, it was also the last time we will be in the Booth Centre until February. And happily it was a wonderful, productive day, full of concentration and gentle good humour. 

We’ve been researching the Suffrages, books of saints in the medieval books of hours, and rewriting them for this project. People have looked at medieval poems and then written about now — about people who have come to their help. Some of the poems describe personal encounters, others are about being inspired by an icon. It’s an instance of how engaging with heritage can help us to know ourselves. We now have the Saints Mike Tyson and Jimi Hendrix among our number. 

 

Born on Boxing Day

 

From darkness the lightning strikes light

Power and agility unchains your liberty 

Mike Tyson to some, to others Iron Mike

From darkness the lightning strikes light

Undisputed the world is yours truly

From darkness the lightning strikes light

Power and agility unchains your liberty.

 

Anonymous 

 

This suffrage for Mike Tyson is not only about boxing, it touches on racism and personal pride, on not compromising your inner self, on agility and danger. The piece is a triolet, a song-like poem form based on the older medieval rondel. Then in the afternoon the writer began transcribing the poem into the page setup designed for our saints, which is also based on medieval originals. And so he became an artist too.

Another of our writers described a woman who helped him at his most desperate. “It was my worst time. I was literally in a ditch, out of my head on substances. And she helped me, fed me for days, bathed me, got me on my feet again, ready to face the world once more. I’ll never forget, it’s moment that I always carry with me, how she helped a complete stranger. Me.”

He transcribed the poem onto the page and then began to illustrate it. He met himself again, in that moment. Saw it in the third person and was shaken, left deeply affected. And joyous too:

“I found arthur+martha to be an amazing experience. It is the first time I have expressed my emotions — it evoked profound feelings that I consider positive and a different outlet than that I would usually take to deal with my issues.”

Anonymous

As I left the Booth Centre today, our session support worker Louise told me that one of the participants had said, after making work with us, “My mind is slowly opening.”

It gave me the image of a flower opening, despite the rainfall, despite the desperation many homeless people experience, despite everything. 

And then my last encounter was with a person who told me, “I’m buzzing, I’m buzzing. I’ve just been given accommodation. I won’t have to sleep out tonight.” Gesturing at the downpour and the puddles. “Know what I mean?”

In fact, in some ways, it was a perfect day.