We would like to wish all and everyone we’ve met and worked with a happy winterfest and an even happier new year.
It’s been a strange and sometimes fearful year, but it’s also been full of the hope that comes with making art and writing poetry. Here are some images from our last workshop of the year, at The Booth Centre where the BOOK OF OURS illuminated manuscript is being made. These pages have been made by over 100 people with experience of homelessness.
Despite the difficult circumstances that many of the makers live in, their pages shimmer with colour and passion. The photos from the day, were taken mostly by volunteer Sue Dean. Among the original poems and songs, is a quote from a medieval nun called Hildegard, being carefully scribed by Roy one of our regular group members: “I will have a tent… decorated with the Sun and bright stars. Angelic glory will be in it… I will be a companion of the angels…” It’s a mysterious quote, but it sticks in the mind. A tent decorated with the sun. Perhaps it is about seeing the deeper value of people — whatever their place in society, or the world — and also finding the the treasure of our true selves.
Or to put it another way – wherever you are, may sunshine find you.
The BOOK OF CHANGES project is funded by the Heritage Emergency Fund, supporting homeless and vulnerable people to participate in making the arthur+martha illuminated manuscript BOOK OF OURS. This project is partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.
It’s been over 1/2 a year since my last visit to The Booth Centre in Manchester. So much is different, so much the same. The same friendly welcome on arrival, but with temperature checks and contact tracing, and due to current guidance, much fewer people in the centre. The staff and volunteers are well organised, everywhere is sparkly clean, the atmosphere calm and purposeful.
My two workshop visits are to create art and poetry for Here Comes the Sun, quilt, part of the Whisper to Me Alone, project. On a large table, I display a small selection of the 90 embroidered suns that have been made for the quilt, fabric packs and art materials. We’re trying new ways of working with the Sun quilt, a face-to-face and remote working, learning much as we go. One of the beauty’s of the project is how immediate it is to understand- the sun is symbol that is familiar in every culture, it’s approachable and accessible to everyone. The subject matter can be treated as light as a feather, or analysed in depth.
Roy (pictured above) approached his embroidery with his usual gusto, his resulting painting is rich and complex, he’s going create a stitched version next week.
One of the embroideries I brought in to show to the group was designed by Sue Dean, who in happy coincidence was there in the centre. She had previously created a series of sun paintings, which had been stitched by volunteers. She had seen a photo of the finished embroidery, but not the embroidery in the flesh, her absolute delight in seeing the embroidered version was obvious.
For some of our group, there isn’t a safe place to go home to and sew, so their paintings and materials are stored for next week. Others leave with packs of materials, creative ideas and promises to return next week.
And I leave with a belly full of good lunch, and a sense of relief, hope and optimism. It’s the Booth Centre way.
Thanks so much to Merida Richards for allowing me to work alongside her pottery session. I look forward to hearing more about her work with the fantastic Venture Arts next week.
“..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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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 projectA 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 Burgess, embroidery for Here Comes the Sun.
Todays blog was written by Lois Blackburn, lead artist arthur+martha
Asking for help can be the most difficult thing. It seems simple, but there’s a million reasons not to, infinite excuses.
“You’ve got to be ready to ask,” says one of our regular group who’s come through addiction and out the other side.
“It’s not easy, admitting you’re weak,” observes someone else.
“But is it really weak? Everyone needs help, it’s human,” says someone who’s just got a new flat. “I’ve been living out on the street, I needed a lifeline.”
It’s a morning of dancing around these tiny self-made mountains, delicate but terrifying.
Then in the afternoon we start with tears, as occasionally happens. The person next to me is literally shaking. Eyes dark with worry. Tears flood and emotion floods the room. Somehow these tears liberate everyone else, bring them closer to their feelings. And so we write together.
It’s a brittle atmosphere like a family argument, a storm waiting to burst. There’s sadness and anger, lightning strikes of shouting. Then between it all poems grow. People write about letting in simple pleasures. They talk about sunshine, the silliness and joy of just being. Little lines that are fought for so hard, shared and appreciated. Then shouting stops, the tears ease off, we have a strange peace.
Help is too big to put in words
Naked in a big world
Myself to get off the drugs
Help is too big to put in words
Myself to get off the drugs
Mum and dad and me
Naked in a big world
Help is too big to put in words.
I’m touched beyond words by these words. Their makers are so proud, yet embarrassed, yet delighted. There’s a shy grin.
“Maybe I’ll be back next week,” says a new member of our ongoing little club.
“Was it a bit much?” I ask another regular. He shrugs.
One of the most interesting conversations I have had about joy came from talking to somebody about anger. We have been making work about joy that morning and he entered into it with delight. Then he had the phone call. Everything changed after the phone call. He was seething, he was fuming, he wanted to go to war. And then we talked about the possibility of holding two emotions at the same time, about how happy he had been earlier in the morning. And what a contrast those two things were, both in the same person. And we started to think about whether joy was destroyed by anger, or could coexist with it.
This week at the Booth Centre the poetry is built up from that foundation. How do you protect your joy from the assaults of the world? Or, as Mathew put it, when describing how to survive insults:“It’s water off a motherf***ing duck’s back. Quack quack.”
And then we came to the question of how long joy can last. Can it be prolonged? And Joan suddenly talked about trying to catch the snow when you are a child. That image filled my head, The dancing snowflakes and the swirling kid and the upheld hands and the breathless anticipation. Joan took the idea and gently placed that it into this:
Into my heart
Joy is like making a snowman.
Seeing the faces of our children
As we make a snowman together.
Choices like love, trying to hold on
To snow as long as we can.
When angry, I’d rather hit a wall.
Kiss and make up, bring joy back.
In the afternoon we were joined by Andrei. He wrote three pages of questions to ask Joy. We selected some of them to make this poem but as he said he could’ve kept going and going and going. It’s a big subject, joy and the lack of it.
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?
This workshop was part of the project A Book of Ours, creating an illuminated manuscript with people who have experienced homelessness or at risk of. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Booth Centre is here to bring about positive change in the lives of people who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness, to help them plan for and realise a better future.
As I get near to the Booth Centre, the morning shift are walking there for breakfast. I see familiar faces as I’m cycling along. I join the hustle bustle in the canteen for a catch-up chat with Paul and a rapid cup of tea. Five minutes later upstairs, Lois and I are pushing tables around the art room, taking out the work from previous sessions, getting ready for the first workshop of the autumn season.
Kate comes busying past, smiles. “Hooray! It’s the arthur+martha time of year. We’ve missed you.”
The beautiful pages are spread out on the table again, it’s weeks since I’ve seen them. And I’m suddenly amazed. These fragile marks on fragile paper — the colours shiver with intensity, the words weave their charms and tell of their sadnesses.
And then Sarah is in the room again, and Lawrence, and here’s Keith and here’s Chris, then more familiar and new people. Smiles are exchanged, there are hugs, some handshakes. Here we are, the team is here. People’s faces expectant, a bit giggly, slightly nervous. Once more we will lose ourselves in inks and pencils, stories and poems, we will dive deep into our lives, into our memories — these are the materials that make A BOOK OF OURS.
Today we’re starting a new section, titled simply The Joys. It’s a catalogue of the things that bring us pleasure, the great big life-changing moments, and the little cherries on top. As people begin working, they apply colours or write with relish.
There is also continuation of what’s already been started. Some of the pages take many hours of delicate work. Gary’s piece shimmers with hundred of tiny coloured dots, like a pointillist painting. It’s the August page from the calendar and the the dots evoke bright swirls of summer flowers, light on water, the dazzle that comes from looking into the sun. Gary smiles to himself as he works, a private joy.
And the final days of December are slowly being shaded in twilight colours on the last page of the calendar. Night clouds drift through the words, a little winter spirit grins, a line of pine trees melt into purple dusk. Mathew has put hours into this page, a labour of love. As he paints new layers, I notice people drift over quietly to peep at what he’s making.
And the writers get busy, listing their joys. This project is inspired by medieval illuminated manuscripts; in those times, the number seven was considered to be a bringer of good things. Therefore this section is based around a group poem totalling seven verses, seven lines per verse, seven words per line. Here’s a verse with several authors:
Joy? Oh, you wouldn’t want to know
June joy, you’re the furthest from winter
Jeux (it’s French!) sit down with me
Mon deliciuex ami, do what you enjoy
Sun brings a good outlook on your mood
Togetherness, warm and loving. Jubilant feeling
You want to give love, bring singing.
As we work, I notice many little signs of acknowledgement and affection between people. The human need to belong holds us together — for awhile, we’re the department of joy. But as C observes, “This Joy stuff, it’s hard for people here to describe, yeah?” He looks at me hard. “Homeless people, they’ve not tasted much joy. You’re asking a lot, you know that?”
And within the poems there is often a mirror side, into troubled hearts. As we finish up, I read Chris’s poem, a witty little recollection of one of his favourite bands. But his final line jolts me, “Joy Division — last exit for the lost…”
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.
The last Booth Centre workshop of the summer for A Book of Ours. It’s been quite a journey, with many coming onboard. Some people have stopped by briefly and for others, they’ve travelled far and deep as they made the work. It’s an adventure into beautiful illuminated manuscripts and a journey into the self, determined by each person.
Some of these journeys have been stormy, punctuated by rage and tears. Today however, was a calm one, with a group of the regular makers finishing off pieces before the summer break.
A July page in the calendar was suddenly glowing with flowers.
November contained a memory passed on from Andy’s grandfather, returning from the First World War, one of the Pals Regiments that were so decimated. He finished the description with the single Latin word Amicus. It means friendship.
Anne Marie made a series of portraits of former Prime Ministers, and a ladybird. All of them joining their rightful place in the Book of Ours, which encompasses more and more of the history of the entire world as it grows. But most importantly it contains tiny fragments of the previously unwritten history of homelessness.
This is the story that isn’t shared, isn’t told, is kept secret and policed with shame. Or else it’s presented as the experience of individuals, rather than the truth — its an experience that’s shared by many, many people.
And on another page from one of the most prolific poets I’ve ever met, wrote about forgiveness. Much of his work is about anger and regret, but this one had a gentler tone and it fitted the mood of the day. He names the poems written for this project after blues singers, who themselves were often people with the experience of homelessness. Here is a section of it, to play us out.
Sonny Boy Williamson the Second
Ain’t no time, it’s irrelevant
“Love is in my heart, know we have to part”
Been up since 2 this morning
You got no possession, ain’t got no watch
However many t-shirts, you’re always cold
I’ve got blues in my head.
Sleeping under the Mancunian Way, like a cave troll.
A Book of Ours speaks of many experiences, the many facets of being a person, whatever your background, whatever your financial situation, however frequently you’ve found yourself without a home to call your own.
Strawberries still grow in the summer. The taste of a cup of tea still reminds you of comfort. Your football team still scored. The sunshine still warms your face. And the days become seasons and the seasons flow into each other, suddenly adding up to years.
All of these things are commemorated in the Book of Ours. In images that dance about the page and in little lines of six words. They are the gentle maths of the ordinary. Amid the accounts of homelessness, prison, violence, catastrophe, these things are a welcome anchor, holding the pieces together. Like gravity, like love.
This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, at Back on Track, the Booth Centre and other support centres in Manchester. It gathers 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.
In the quiet and safety of the Back on Track Centre, people busily scribe and draw into the Book of Ours manuscript. It’s going through subtle permutations, each week or so it changes, like light striking a picture at a different angle. Today it seemed that the individual lines — each so carefully composed and written into the calendar pages — started speaking to each other. The passing of a human life was suddenly next to a line about the passing of seasons. The skeletons of winter trees also echoed cold, skinny human bodies. And the changes of seasons connected to changes in people’s lives, as they grew into new possibilities, after the storms had cleared.
But the moment you’ll not see written in this book came at the end of the afternoon, when one of the scribes said, “It’s a relief to write this down. To put homelessness down on paper. To put down the weight. Get rid of the shame and just acknowledge what happened. I’m leaving lighter.”
This arthur+martha project is the making of an illuminated manuscript, at Back on Track, the Booth Centre and other 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.
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 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.