Bright mornings start with darkness

A Book of Ours, Projects

 

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“X was sleeping rough last night, came in here soaking and shivering. You can’t solve all of people’s life problems but you can give them a chance for just being. Just sitting and being. That’s what I saw him do today in the workshop, he was writing a poem, but also sitting quietly with his thoughts. Looking around a little, listening. Being a person.”

(Karen, Project Worker at The Booth Centre)

 

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These images are pages from a book made by people who have experienced homelessness, and/or had mental health problems. A BOOK OF OURS holds within it life events, celebrations and memorials, wishes, prayers and curses. Dreams.

The style of the book is based on medieval manuscripts known as Books of Hours. The first section is the calendar, other sections include the prayer cycle Hours of the Virgin and the memorial Office of the Dead.

 

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Over the last six months the Book of Ours project has grown into a wide-ranging exploration of history, of self, of what it means to be heard — and what it means to be ignored. It is a statement to say, “we are here.”

“The workshops, making the illuminated manuscript, have been the favourite thing I’ve done here at Back on Track. For me they’ve meant more than anything else, they’ve put me in touch with my own history. These memories stirred up and made new.”

(Anonymous)

 

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May calender page

We chose medieval manuscripts to give us a form, and to inspire us because they’re among the first history books, and this is the beginning of homeless history in a written form. Medieval manuscripts were the property of influential people, decorated with rich colours and goldlettering. We want to give this history the same treatment, make it the kind of book you can’t ignore. It’s a next step on from our history of British homelessness The Homeless Library in 2016 and links to projects such as The Museum of Homelessness.

The calendar pages are intricate tellings of the significant life events of nearly 100 people, intertwined with imagery and symbolism. It is a catalogue of tiny events, at first glance. Every day is a line of six words; read together they make a year-long poem that is a multi-voiced telling of the lives of groups. It is plum-full of the little things that make life rich with human encounters. Birthdays, weddings, the birth of children, falling in love. It also tells the story of sadder life events: bereavement, illness, addiction, violence. And yes, people commemorate the times they became homeless. They also talk with great power about the help they’ve received, especially from our host venues the Booth Centre and Back on Track.

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All of the workshops start with a table loaded with prints of illuminated manuscripts from different world cultures. We also bring in information and workshop exercises that are full of references to mediaeval illuminated manuscripts. Whether it is writing or creating art, all of the making is in dialogue with this rich heritage, which reaches back hundreds of years. It also connects to more contemporary culture, with the influence of graffiti shining strongly on the work and the echo of poets like Charles Reznikoff.

A significant partner in the project is the John Rylands Library in Manchester, which  hosted a highly successful research trip, designed for participants to encounter original manuscripts that are hundreds of years old. The group were not only intellectually engaged, but also moved, in some cases to tears.

“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… with lots of different things happening at once – poems, drawing, writing, calligraphy, a wide variety. Like us.”

(Johnathan)

Calender Year, Johnathan

 

This passion shows itself again and again — for making, for sharing, for diving deep into the art and the poems. Each page contains delight in colour, in wordplay, in storytelling and in turning the vast (and sometimes traumatic) life experience of everyone sitting around the table into a document that is as varied as the makers.

“I’ve got my wild days. But here I’m chilled out and I let the quiet in.”

(Roy)

Rich in colour and detail, full of compassion, but also shot through with despair, with anger, sometimes incoherent, sometimes speaking in tongues of fire. It’s an extraordinary experience to witness this book come together. Moments of gentleness and reflection sometimes erupt into fury, or weeping, or laughter. And the pages bear so many tales, bare so many souls, it’s a book that needs repeated readings, to fully take it in. And to get an inkling of the many layers of significance. We’ll end with this observation from Karen our regular project worker at The Booth Centre:

“One of the men sat next to me, he’s got a lot of things going on, sleeping on the streets at the moment. He’s had an amazing day. You could see how relaxed he was, how focussed… What you’re getting in this session is people who never join anything, ever. It is brilliant to see them getting involved, and it has a knock-on effect on how they engage with other services here and start rebuilding their lives, letting in the positive.”

(Karen, Project Worker, The Booth Centre)

 

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A BOOK OF OURS is supported by the HLF. Our hope is that this project helps to show the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as “homeless” when they are so much more. 

 

 

Part of something beautiful

A Book of Ours, Projects

“I’ve turned something nightmare-ish into something else. That experience of being homeless, which I’ve never talked about. A lot of my friends didn’t know it was happening. But now those memories have become part of something beautiful. At first after the workshop I felt emotional, then over the week the feeling changed and I thought, “Wow!”

The workshops, making the illuminated manuscript, have been the favourite thing I’ve done here at Back on Track. For me they’ve meant more than anything else, they’ve put me in touch with my own history. These memories stirred up and made new.”

 (Anonymous)

 

The manuscript making workshops at Back on Track have been a delight and a quiet haven for making. Every week our little gang of participants has gathered to painstakingly add the next words, the next artwork. Each page carries the imprint of hours of concentration. These tiny six-word inscriptions are often thought over long and hard. And then the writing is itself an exploration. For some, writing is done without hesitation, a skill completely taken for granted. But for others in the group, the act of writing is a challenge that needs to be met and overcome. The minute incidents on the page, the slips, the smudges, the shaky lines, show the struggles.

 

“I’ve never written like this before. Never had the time, or had these great pens. I like choosing the colours and then I get started. I take it slowly, slowly and the words come. Look at me now, I’ve learned from it. Better now than I’ve ever been.”

Patrick

 

Many of the pages contain the work of several people, layered together. Their words sometimes connect up, to make unexpected and moving narratives. A celebration of autumn leaves falling leads into the death of a beloved father. An account of being homeless, living in a car, leads into a line about the seasons being on the move. 

The artworks are especially enriched by collaboration, weaving of colour and image and symbol. Today in our last session, a small insect was drawn onto a panel of gold and fruit made awhile ago. It was the tiny missing element that made the whole page come alive. A careful use of muted red brought the black and grey of a winter’s page into sharp relief.

Jan detail

As we’ve worked on the Book of Ours, people have found their preferred method and style. And they’ve brought their own ideas. A knowledge of Viking history, a church oriented childhood, a feel for colour, an eye for design. And as we’ve seen above, the experience of being homeless. All these things have been brought to the Book of Ours and it is richer for it. And we’re grateful.

Today was the last workshop at Back on Track for this term. It’s been a pleasure and we are already looking forward to the next.

 

Would I change anything? No, it’s been alright, in fact it’s been really good. When you’re here for the next workshops, I’ll be here too.”

 Chris

Chris

 

Workshops took place at the Booth Centre day centre supporting people who are, or have been homeless, and Back on Track; a charity that supports people who are going through recovery or rehabilitation, having been through problems including homelessness and mental health. Partners: The Booth Centre, Back on Track, John Rylands Library, the British Library, Glasgow University and Abbey St Hildegard, Germany. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

July- Lawrence

Listening for pleasure

A Book of Ours, Projects

The making of the Book of Ours is a favourite moment of the week. On Wednesday we were based at Back on Track It is impossible to predict what will happen next. Some days, like today, it brings together people in extraordinary closeness and kindness. Other days, the gates of mayhem open, letting anger and despair pour through — and we work to stay afloat.

We are helping to document the lives of people who are up against it, people who’ve experienced homelessness, supporting them as they filter their experiences through artwork and poems. The book starts with a calendar, a whole year with six words dedicated to describing each day. The days that people write and draw about often delight in life, particularly times of new growth. The days that children were born, the flowers and budding trees that mark the start of Springtime, times of recovery — and always the great joy of sunshine. But they also talk of deaths, of times spent living on the streets, of addiction, of violence, of incarceration.

Today’s was a day for Springtime. The gentle pleasures of a garden being jump started by daffodils, the trees returning to life like old friends. A grandfather busying among the flowers. It was a quiet session, punctuated by people making little affirmations of happiness. Two of the group members said they were surprised by how energising the work was, how it brought pleasure rather than tiredness. And listening to them was, in turn, a pleasure in itself.

Sue

Sue working on the September page of ‘A Book of Ours’.

 

This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, at Back on Track, the Booth Centre  support centres in Manchester. 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.

 

Now is the hour, even in sun, even in shower

A Book of Ours, Projects

Booth Centre, 16th May 2019. A Book of Ours

As our group work together, we’re starting to see changes in people. For some, the workshops have allowed them to set free abilities they have kept locked away. They’re coming back week after week, building on what they find within themselves. For example, R poured herself into a long piece of writing, that faces the demons in her life. Last week she started new work, a sequence of short prose pieces that reflect on the different stages of the day, each with their rewards or challenges. These pieces are so deeply heartfelt, so honest and well-observed, that they still the whole room. Everybody listens, everything becomes quiet as she conjures with her words.

And the beauteous, gold-tinted pages of our book have given space for artist Johnathan to fly. He’s combined the energy of graffiti with the delicacy of the original illuminated manuscripts. Drenched in colour, and in affection, his warm-hearted evocation of a mood for the words inevitably brings a cluster of people who want to see the latest piece. He basks in the attention, grinning ear to ear. But he’s generous, giving tips, encouragement, or sharing page space with others who are less confident, to give them a boost.

For others, starting to make art or writing is a chance to put down a burden. Last week, one of the group wrote a piece about sleeping rough, and finding help from a surprising place. He and the others sleeping on that street were regularly attacked, beaten, even set on fire. But a local gangster decided to set up protection for them while they slept. No reason was ever given, but it was a welcome gift — safety. Once he’d written the piece, he left and hinted he’d not return. It felt like he’d said the thing he needed to and was now moving on.

For others, the writing and art exposures them to the terrible internal critic many people carry within. Opening these doors, admitting these possibilities is just too hard. I can think of one group member who’s always poised on the edge, making rough notes, not quite able to jump in. And another who’s fighting a raging war with addiction and who comes up for air some weeks, makes some art or writes, then slips under the surface again. He wasn’t with us this week, but we said hello. I worry for him, hope he’ll be back.

And for others what we make is sanctuary. One of the group said today,

“I’ve got my wild days. But here I’m chilled out and I let the quiet in.”

Roy and poem

Roy with his poem/artwork page for A Book of Ours.

arthur+martha are making an illuminated manuscript, at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It gathers together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials, all in one book, (‘A book of ours’) 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.

Roy and poem:art

Surrounded in nothing but love

A Book of Ours, Projects

“X was sleeping rough last night, came in here soaking and shivering. You can’t solve all of people’s life problems but you can give them a chance for just being. Just sitting and being. That’s what I saw him do today in the workshop, he was writing a poem, but also sitting quietly with his thoughts. Looking around a little, listening. Being a person.”

(Karen, project worker at The Booth Centre)

April

Keith’s work in progress, ‘April calendar page’

The homeless resource centre “The Booth”, is a little outside the middle of the city, tucked down a backstreet amongst car parks, small businesses, a Thai takeaway, a couple of brothels. I’m on a bike and look carefully to dodge the broken glass on the ground, I’ve had too many punctures here already. I arrive in a rainy downpour, soaked to my shoes. 

But if the approach is grungy, the centre itself is an oasis. In the middle of concrete and coldness, you come into human warmth. A large cafe takes up the ground floor, it’s noisy, welcoming, edgy all at once. There is a scatter of people eating breakfast at the tables, many have rucksacks stacked up beside them and waterproofs drying, draped over the chairs. Many have faces that are marked by life outside, life lived hard. It’s quieter than usual, though still a bustle. I ask around to see if who’s interested in taking part in the art and poetry workshop and then go upstairs to prepare the art space.

At first the room is quiet, we’ve only got one participant. He sits down dejectedly and complains, “So where is everybody?” Lois and I look at each other, baffled. Usually the group is much bigger — it could be a difficult morning. We start to talk about his poems, he them writes continually, obsessively, trying to pin his demons to the page. His latest notebook is bulging with new work, he’s been up writing since 2am this morning. Still nobody else has arrived. Then magically more people have appeared. And more. We make a start, continuing the ever-growing art and writing.

Phil, Lawrence, Johnathan and Cloe

Philip, Lawrence, Johnathan and Cloe

We are working on a new section of the book called the Hours of the Virgin, which is a detailed look at the emotional and spiritual highs and lows each part of the day, from before dawn through to the last moments of wakefulness. In the medieval illuminated manuscripts that have inspired this project, each part of the day has its own significance and symbolism. The beginning full of possibilities, the confrontation with mortality at noon, which corresponds to the time of the crucifixion, the Vespers call for blessing of loved ones at nightfall, and then Compline, going into sleep.

Two people wrote about their days, the wrestling match with their past, the desire for sleep that never comes. As their words are read out, the room stills. There’s a quiet ripple of appreciation, and perhaps of understanding.

Still more people come, the busyness and quietness sometimes becoming an excited roar, and then dying away to the shared silence of making. The colours on the pages of this book glow, the patterns and images are complex, jagged, gentle. It’s difficult to describe the complexity and speed of a day in the Booth Centre — suddenly we’re at an end, when we feel it’s still the middle. Slowly everyone emerges from the shared dream.

We have a recap with Karen, the Booth Centre project worker who helps our afternoon sessions:

“What I liked was that people I wouldn’t have expected to come arrived and stayed — and enjoyed it. What you’re getting in this session is people who never join anything, ever. It is brilliant to see them getting involved, and it has a knock-on effect on how they engage with other services here and start rebuilding their lives, letting in the positive.”

We don’t always see these “knock-on effects” of what we do, so it’s good to hear this from Karen. But the abiding image I have in my head is of that room slowly filling with people, arriving in ones and twos, despite the weather, despite the everything else they deal with — brought together by the deep human need to make a trace of themselves, through art.

Keith

Keith working on Calendar page

 

 

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.

 

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.