The feel good factor

Here Comes the Sun, Projects, quilts, Whisper to me alone

Hands sanitised, masks on, socially distanced, we sat and talked, we all took small steps together out of lock-down, a lock down state of mind as much as a physical one. ‘S’ explained how nervous she’d been coming in on the bus, going into the unknown- for all of us, it was the first time in a group workshop for many months.

Phil and I have enjoyed keeping busy working since the beginning of lock down, connecting with people, finding ways to support creativity via postal packs, the phone, and on-line. Today was something different, something very special, creating work for the collaborative quilt ‘Here Comes the Sun’, part of the Whisper to Me Alone project. The host venue was Back on Track, it’s an inspirational Manchester charity that supports people who have been homeless or had mental health problems.

Our theme is the sun, a symbol of hope and re-starts, of warmth and comfort, of gift giving, as one participant described; “The feel good factor”.

A seemingly innocent and simple theme, it still leaves plenty of room for the imagination: “You don’t see dawn in the city, you don’t see sunrises, the blocks get in the way.”

Then the joy of putting our ideas onto paper started, the artistic play. I took in one of my favourite materials, oil pastels and ‘Brusho’. Brusho is a fabulous highly pigmented watercolour powder, you mixed with water, or sprinkle. The magic of creativity with your hands soon took over, creating a hushed room, heads down concentrating, the outside world disappeared.

20 fabric packs were laid out for our group to choose from. One at a time we walked with favourite paintings in hand to find the fabrics that matched the colours, texture and mood of the paintings. One of the group had experience of embroidery, the others- this was something new.

There is something beautiful about the simplest of stitches, running stitch, it’s where most of us start off when we learn to sew, it’s probably the stitch that you started with at school. When you’ve got the right needle and a rhythm going, there is something almost mediative in the repetitive nature of stitching. Then comes; choosing colours, textures, thread thickness, stitch size, pattern- when written down or spoken these creative decisions are complex, however when we make them, they are often instinctive.

The group left with their hands full of threads, fabric and paintings, and full intentions to return in a few weeks for our follow up session. Returning to share and celebrate their sun embroideries, and welcome new participants to the making of Here Comes the Sun.

Thank you so much to everyone who came along to my first group session of Here Comes the Sun, and to Back on Track, who as ever made me feel so welcome, and everything so easy for me.

Lois Blackburn

Here Comes the Sun is part of the project WHISPER TO ME ALONE. It gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. The poems, songs and artworks will be launched as a twitter poem later in September. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

Singing melodies into a mobile phone

poetry, Whisper to me alone

Songwriter Matt Hill:


For the last few weeks I’ve been writing songs from the remarkable work that has sprung from the WHISPER TO ME ALONE project. I’ve been presented with poems, spoken word pieces and other sets of beautifully-expressed words.  My job is to try and find the music in them, to tease out melody and emotion and to find my own connection to the words so I can sing them convincingly. 

As a singer and songwriter my job is all about finding connections. Songs that connect the singer and the listener. Melodies that connect the head to the heart. When I’m co-writing with people I am used to having that connection eyeball to eyeball, like I have done on previous arthur + martha projects like Moving Panorama https://arthur-martha.com/portfolio/moving-panorama/. But in a time of Covid-19 those usual connections have been severed. 

Instead I’ve had to delve deep into people’s words, looking for meaning and expression. Phil Davenport from arthur+martha, who is leading WHISPER, has been there for the creation of the words and so he’s been a valuable source of information. Phone calls have been made to speak to the writers themselves so I can find out more about their lives and the words they’ve written. 

Those phone calls have been an adventure I wasn’t prepared for. I’ve spent time singing melodies into a mobile phone with people I’ve never met. Along the way I’ve been schooled in Norse mythology, learned things I didn’t know about garden wildlife and had some wonderful nostalgic trips down memory lane to a Manchester that was free and easy and not locked down. I’ve even picked up the guitar and strummed down the phone, attempting a remote jam session. But whoever I speak to we always acknowledge just how weird and strange these days are, as we sing and laugh down a phone line, despite having never met in person. Both of us trying hard to find that connection. 

Matt Hill is a singer-songwriter and a freelance creative artist who uses songwriting as a way to connect with people.  matthillsongwriter.com The street art photograph at the top of this blog is by Sue Dean, taken on her mobile phone.

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, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. The poems, songs and artworks will be launched as a twitter poem later in September. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

A river crying

poetry, Whisper to me alone

My last Whisper workshop at the Booth Centre, a remarkable place which offers advice, activities and support to homeless people in Manchester. I’ve been here on Wednesday mornings for the last five weeks, making poems with people. As they take part in the arts activities, I work alongside, writing down the stories they tell me. Sometimes it’s easier for people to talk while their hands are busy with sewing, or pottery.

This week I spend time with S, who wakes up with a poem in his head pretty much every day. He told me that his grandpa was a singer and so he is used to words carrying more than every day meaning, they can also be music, love tokens, or religious texts.

For S, the Psalms from the bible are everyday reading. I’m not a religious person, but I grew up with the Old Testament and the Psalms in my ears, and their subtle rhythm runs through a lot of what I write, even now.

S told me that he often has a phrase running around his head and he’s got to write down, to quieten it. The line that he showed me is the refrain in the poem down below, the crying rivers. As we spoke, of the conversation broadened out to the world he sees around him right now. For him, the pandemic is a biblical plague, a visiting of justice.

I read the poem below to him and he said, “Exodus. It means come forth.” And so that became the title.

As I’m finishing up this blog, I’m sat in the Booth by the piano. The place has been cleaned up ready for tomorrow and there’s a quiet buzz of conversation between two of the volunteers. Someone is whistling and banging a mop bucket. Outside, the rain is droppping in biblical amounts and I wait for my moment to cycle home.

Exodus, come forth
 
First will be last
And the last first
Whatever is for you
Receive it
The lonely rivers cry to the sea
Wait for me, wait for me
 
Don’t hold onto
An argument like it’s yours
Let go
It has no worth
The lonely rivers cry to the sea.
 
I don’t think the world will ever change
There is evil, destruction
All of King Pharaoh's
plagues
The lonely rivers cry to the sea
 
Do you remember the first stars in the sky?
Remember your first step on the Earth so fair?
Say you don’t remember, but you were there.
 
Lucifer will rob you blind
Will feed you on death
The plague of frogs of locusts
Leave them behind
 
Let my people go
Let go, it has no worth
 
The lonely rivers cry to the sea
Wait for me, wait for me.

"S"
Photograph by Sue Dean, 2020

I’d like to thank Merida Richards for allowing me to work alongside her pottery session — and for being so encouraging of this collaboration.

The long twitter poem Whisper2meAlone will begin transmission soon; it will include excerpts of the poems and writing from the project as well as songs and hand-drawn emoticons.

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. The treated photo is by Sue Dean.

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

Lockdown, Me

poetry, Whisper to me alone

Like a wolf
A wild dog sat in lonely lockdown
Another day goes by.
To some this is loneliness
But to me, joy.

Gives me time to reflect
Sitting here, pen in my hand
And my old Number 7
Jack Daniels, jotting down
Thoughts and
Reading aloud:

To the heavens
Ploughing down rain
To some this is hell
To me this is heaven.

So thanks to the gods
The old gods and the new
Brood of the trickster
We are the tales you’ll be told.
Another day, lockdown me
Life still rolls on
By Ragnarok set free.

Kris

Photograph Sue Dean. 2020

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. The lockdown photographs of Manchester that illuminate this blog were by Sue Dean, using her favourite camera, her phone.

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network. During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.

Smiley shoelaces. Photograph by Sue Dean, 2020

Social dancing

Whisper to me alone
Social Dancing. Photograph by Sue Dean

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations.

Phil writes:

The isolation that has come with lockdown has forced many of us to look at ourselves and try to understand some of our dilemmas. It’s brought the good and it’s brought the bad. For some it has felt like a prison sentence. For other people it’s been a kind of opportunity. Anastasia points this out:

“I’ve had the chance to slow down, to quieten all the noise around me. To still the voices of busyness and make myself be calm. I’ve been thinking a little bit zen these days. Taking time to exist. It’s a choice isn’t it, what you do with this moment. Maybe I’ll learn from it.”

The writing and art is part of this process, it can be a tool for holding those reflections, so they don’t just melt away but are kept and thought about. Making a poem now is like no other time in people’s lives. We’re also experimenting with making poems over the phone, the author speaking lines down to the scribe (myself) and an edit agreed by reading it back.

It’s a whole different time
It’ll be unique in the telling
A different way of looking
We’re thinking the new thinking.

Anonymous

July 13. Photograph by Sue Dean

In reflecting the world through writing and art, we look at it more closely. This can be a celebration as well as a reckoning:

The birds tweeting
The squirrels hanging out — see!
Small bird, one of the tiny ones
The owl’s fascination
The great grey bird on the canal
Encounter in the kitchen, a Queen Bee
(Got to be careful with that one)
The squirrels drop round our way
For nuts and
Since we’ve kept our distance
We’re not so close to each other
But then. I look again and
There’s a hedgehog.

Alan

And in making things, we also make ourselves.

“I’ve loved having this writing and art, it’s keeping me going. It gets stuff out of my head onto paper. The art process helps. And when I lose making art, it feels like I lose myself some days. I hang onto me through the images and the writings. It’s all you’ve got sometimes…”

Anonymous

Selfie with mask. Adapted photograph by Sue Dean

The lockdown photographs of Manchester that illuminate this blog were by Sue Dean, using her favourite camera, her phone. WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network.

During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.

More than a watchman for the daybreak

poetry, Projects, Whisper to me alone

When I was a little girl I used to say, “I want to love the world better.” But it’s a job I cannot do. Sometimes I can’t even love myself.

16 years ago I got clean. I was using heroin and crack, introduced to them by an ex-partner. Even then I wrote every day, journals and diaries and books of all descriptions. Sometimes it was almost illegible. I did the cold turkey myself, writing every terrible day. My dad would say, “This is the book that will help the world, this will be how you love the world better. The story of how you healed.”

When you come off heroin, your body is all pain. You stretch and you bend and you twist, you twitch your legs, they call it Riding the Bike. Couldn’t sleep, I’d be pacing, I’d be looking at the sky. In the middle of the night I’d be looking out for that chink of light at the darkest time, just before the daybreak. When it finally came I’d think I’ve done another day, I’ve been clean.

I wrote about it every day, every detail. A whole book. Then one day I burned it all. Maybe the weight of those pages was too heavy.

Maybe you know that book too.

“A”

Drawing by Jasmine, from journal pages

 

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of many other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown. We’re using journals of writing, art, songs, phone conversations and embroidery.

Photo above: Featured embroidery, by Marylyn MacLennan for the quilt, Here Comes the Sun. 

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include The Booth CentreBack on Track, Bury Art Museum and With One Voice arts and homeless sector global network.

During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.

I class myself as invincible

Here Comes the Sun, poetry, Projects, quilts, Whisper to me alone

WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of many other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown. We’re using journals of writing, art, songs, phone conversations and embroidery. Here one of our Whisperers talks about being transgender and how attitudes have changed during Covid.

Jessica: 

“I class myself as invincible. It’s because I get so much crap every day, being trans. I am just being me, being myself, but they can’t stand it. I’ve been attacked so many times I can’t count. I don’t know why they can’t leave me to live my life, be the person I’ve always wanted to be ever since I was little.

“One thing I’ve noticed during the virus is people are more kind. They’re trying to stay calm, they’re trying to deal with this situation. It’s made them come out of themselves. They are listening to each other much more, trying to figure out what to do, how to survive. I notice these things.

Whisper to me alone – journal page by Jasmine

“It’s sad it’s taken the virus to make people more open-minded. I wonder if they’ll stay like that, or they’ll go back to what they were before? The traffic is coming back now, there’s thousands of cars on the roads, maybe everyone will go back to their old ways. Right now I’m not getting so much hassle and violence as I used to. I still can’t go out wearing a dress, I’ll get beaten up. But if I wear women’s jogging stuff, I can go outside and I don’t get too much abuse. Maybe they’re being kinder. Maybe they’re scared of catching the virus. But what comes next?

 

WHISPER TO ME ALONE is supported by Arts Council England. Partners include Back on Track, Bury Art MuseumWith One Voice arts and homeless sector global network and The Booth Centre.

During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.

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.

9182D83D-8957-4AED-B564-F54EF0D7569C

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.