We learn from each other

Projects, War Widows Stories

Yesterday I had the privilege to join the Devon War Widows’ Association for a very special afternoon tea. Privilege may sound a strong way of describing it, but it feels very real. The meeting echoed others with the War Widows; a group of women who I’ve never met before, a short time describing the project, a while of quiet conversation and contemplation, then people start to open up. People share memories of their late husbands, of the drive for survival for themselves, their children. Of the mess of emotions, the hierarchy surrounding widowhood- husbands who died in conflict and those who died after as a result of conflict, campaigns for pension rights, for better recognition … and much else. And laughter to, and debates over which is the right way to make a cream tea- cream on first or jam?

Irene Wills beautiful contribution to the War Widows’ Quilt

Materials, instructions, treads and SAE for the making of the War Widows’ Quilt where handed out to everyone. And as I was starting to pack up, Irene C. who had been sitting next to me during much of the tea, leaned over and explained:

“This is the most interesting meeting I’ve ever been to. There have been things to think about, it’s made things seem real- Audrey whose 90, will have very different memories than someone younger, or those who husbands have died as a result of a conflict. It’s made me think about it in a different way, to re-evaluate how to think about war widows.

Having something to make, to do, (the quilt) makes you feel part of it- I’m proud of being a Plymouth member, but now I feel part of the wider group of war widows. We learn from each other.”

A big thank you to all the women of the Devon War Widows’ Association that made me feel so welcome and shared so much of themselves.

Skeletons

A Book of Ours, Projects

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.

 

 

The Deluge

Projects, War Widows Stories

War Widows Quilt

 

Deanna Selby

We were working at the National Memorial Arboretum, on a table loaded with quilt squares and art materials and the paraphernalia of writing. Outside the rain deluged, sending showers of droplets through thickets of trees.

Today’s workshop brought a remarkable little gang of people. Out of the awful situation of being widowed and grief,  friendship has come — an amazing friendship between them. They wouldn’t have met if it hadn’t been for shared disaster. The bond that they have is evidently special. When we met they were joking with each other, gently poking fun. But when they worked they were in earnest and they encouraged one another to open up and then shared their feelings and supported each other. A lot of friendships never get to that stage, walking with one another through the darkest times in order to get to the light. The gift that out of something terrible something special has come.

 

Norma

One woman had worked with us before and it was she who brought her two compadres. She brought them because they were her friends and she felt it might help them. And so we pitched into talking and making poems and making art and talking again. This was a conversation about loss that went very deep — you could see the pain on their faces as they discussed it. But they had hope, they trusted and understood one another, encouraged each other to experience the sadness, because it leads to release.

And then, gently, came tears.

It is always a matter of great delicacy when somebody cries in a workshop with us. Not because crying is in anyway wrong, in fact sometimes we welcome it. But it is also a sign that things are connecting very deeply, there’s a big upswell of emotion. This needs to be respected and acknowledged but not always discussed. Sometimes when there are tears, a little quiet is what’s needed next.

When she went outside for a breath of fresh air, her friend said, “She needed a cry and now she needs time alone.”

And she nodded to herself, as if recognising this fact in her own experience. Allowing space to grieve, rather than shutting it down.

Between working with our participants, we talked with interested and engaged members of the public. Many, many people came up to our little table to have a look and also to talk. They were full of compliments for the work and for the bravery of the women who made it. We are told that there were 600 visitors that morning, many of them passed by our table, many of them looked and listened — and shared their own stories, of times when they too were swimming amongst the wreckage.

 

All always learning

A Book of Ours, Projects

For our first workshop for ‘The Book of Ours’ at partner venue Back on Track, we revisited the calendar we started in the Booth Centre. These pages document significant moments in the writers’ lives. It’s a kind of group poem and like all poems it has rules. One line of the calendar is allocated to each day of the year and each line has to be six words. Woven around these words are thickets of images and colour that enrich the text and deepen the meaning.

 

Chris working on December page

It was a pleasure to show off the work we’ve done so far to a new group and even more of a pleasure to see them dive in themselves, writing a new layer of experiences. The pages of this calendar embrace delight and sadness, dark days and light. Today’s writings were jaunty. From shopping on a Saturday morning, to the joy of “dragon’s blood” raspberry sauce on an ice cream. From marking a 60th birthday (prize gift a potato peeler), to the little-celebrated drama of hailstones on a window.

 

 

Other days in the calendar touch on the harshness of homeless life. But today, we shared the charm of small things.

Sitting together, we chatted and the ideas slowly formed, words took their order. Next, the trying out of many pens to see which size and shape fitted the hand best. Then tryouts of the six word line, carefully inscribed to get the words fitting nicely into the space. Not too teeny, or scattered, not too squeezed. Then at last the commitment to the page, taking a place among the writings and drawing of all the other makers. The nervousness, the rush of excitement that comes with a finished line. Like stitches in a tapestry, the pieces slowly grow.

Afterwards, as we packed up the pages and paints and scattered writings, we asked Patrick how it had been:

 

“It’s my first time doing any of this sort of thing — enjoyed it. Art, poetry, never did it at school. At school didn’t learn much. Here, I’ve enjoyed, people don’t rush you. Stuff like this, you like to take your time. Me, I love doing it. We’re all adults, but we’re all always learning…”

 

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.

Trickling from the stream’s my dreams

A Book of Ours, Projects

There are no ordinary days at the Booth Centre, the homeless day centre where our workshops are currently based. Within the space of one day, or even one hour, there might be laughter, sadness, fury, tears, joy  and today was no different. This was the fourth workshop of a major new project, making an illuminated manuscript with people whove experienced homelessnes, a book that will include over 100 makers and stand as a testament of ignored, misunderstood lives.

Many people who join in with our sessions are at an extreme, a point where life has spiralled, and emotions are bubbling close to the surface. Sometimes its possible for that emotion to fuel artmaking or writing, which in turn allows self-exploration, or lets people reach out to others. But making such work can be gruelling, there needs to be help at hand so that the journey has an ending. Today, it felt as though some people were walking along the very edge of themselves, trying to find a way through darkness. For others, it was possible to put trouble aside and welcome brightness.

 

A Book of Hours, from the John Rylands Library collection

 

 

The cliche of homelessness is that its a drab, black and white world, a gritty documentary with a downbeat ending. But in the artwork and writing for this project weve looked for inspiration to colourfilled medieval illuminated manuscripts. And in response people have identified the technicolour in their lives, saturated them with golds and greens and reds, as well as seeing the shadows. One piece of writing from the morning workshop starts with, A sunny and warm-full day… In another we meet, the darkness of me.

But today was also remarkable for another reason. In the afternoon we made out first research visit with the group to John Rylands Library to see some original medieval manuscripts firsthand. These handmade books are one-offs, hundreds of years old. To be allowed this close is a rare chance to really encounter books that are artworks of amazing power.

 

Chris at The John Rylands Library

 

Our guide was the friendly and immensely knowledgeable John Hodgson, who is Joint Head of Special Collections. As he led us to the Victorian interior, John paused briefly and in that moment the booming traffic, and seemingly time itself, dropped away. A tremendous sense of peace wrapped around us. We went forward into this amazing public treasure house, marvelling at the carved pillars, the statues, the knowledge, as G said. He took us around the building first of all, which is an architectural beauty of pink sandstone, full to the ceilings with vast bookcases containing vast books.

And then to the books. Nobody quite expected what happened next. As John slowly, slowly, leafed through a 500 year old medieval Book of Hours, the group hushed. The pages were iridescent with blues and reds, and burnished gold. We looked closely, saw the writing of people hundreds of years dead and yet who still spoke to us through these pages. I noticed that two of the people in the group were quietly crying. Still the pages turned, the Hours of the Virgin, which celebrates each part of each and every day, The Offices of the Dead, a section of commemoration. The intense colours burned with a passion for living, for finding the deepest joys in life, and sharing them, and for acknowledging grief and pain too.

 

A Book of Hours, in The John Rylands collection

 

I suddenly needed to sit down, found I was breathing too fast, Id become dizzy. L wiped his streaming face and beamed the broadest smile I think Ive ever seen on him. Chris, whod gently joked with John through the tour, stopped the wisecracking and simply repeated over and over, Its lovely though, innit? Just lovely.

We sat and had a coffee together afterward and quietly went our separate ways. I waved to the guys across the street as they disappeared into the bustling city. 

 

Thanks to everyone at John Rylands Library, especially for John for taking such great care of us all, sharing a glimpse of the amazing collection and helping to inspire our project.

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.

 

Let daylight come down on earth again

A Book of Ours, Projects

“One of the men sat next to me- hes got a lot of things going on, sleeping on the streets at the moment. Hes had an amazing day. You could see how relaxed he was, how focussed…

(Karen, support worker Booth Centre)

 

Today was our second day into our new project ‘A Book of Ours’, making an illuminated manuscript with people whove experienced homelessness.

Not only are we trying to make an artwork, we are also constructing an atmosphere that people can relax in and learn to trust. Its impossible to let your imagination play if you dont feel safe, or sense youre unwelcome, or being judged. People living on the streets or in hostels often tell us that a quiet space thats safe is a rare luxury amongst the mayhem, violence, stress. One of the pleasures of this session was to see people dancing away in their imaginations, in the company of others.

The morning session was boisterous and loud, an energy blast. We invited people to make short poetic pieces about their red letter days. Days when time went fast, or slow. G wrote a typical day in a prison cell, the sounds, smells, the boredom and fear. R described the loss of a relative, a long, slow, sad day. C wrote about the amazement of seeing an eclipse, as a child (a little excerpt from that is the title of this blog). Someone else described urinating in the church font, as revenge against a bullying priest. For someone else again, today was his red letter day, his first day in the Booth Centre, a day full of relief but also trepidation. These descriptions were boiled down to a few words and will be written into the calendar framework that we are devising for the first section of this ambitious book.

The theme is time and how we value certain moments of it. Or dont value them. Heres a Brilliant Job day, in precisely 12 words: Started work, didnt realise my day was over til someone told me.Rachel

Alongside the writing, pages of sumptuous lettering were appearing as the makers became immersed in their work. Suddenly, the paper was transformed into colour and glorious flowing lines. When we came back after lunch we were surprised and delighted to find that many of the morning group had returned. People had got a good meal inside themselves and this helped fuel them into the afternoon. Heres our support worker Karen again:

Can be a full stomach makes the difference. People having lunch and coming back up to do more doing full day…I spoke to a few people while they were in the workshop. All seemed to really, thoroughly enjoy it. The fact people came back from lunch, after working all morning is unusual, important. Its a nice space to build up rapport. People get to know parts of themselves and share in a way that they wouldnt necessarily share downstairs.

One of our guides on this project is the poet William Blake, his extraordinary visions were recorded in poems and artwork. His kindred spirit in our group is Lawrence whose wondrous outpouring of word/image brings delight to us all, despite his occasional grumpiness. Once again Laurence took flight up into the colour and light and others followed him in a swirl of colour and poetry and (always) humour.

As we came to the end, the group gently broke apart, saying their goodbyes, shaking hands, grinning shyly at each other. Then went downstairs and back into it all. Well leave the final word to Karen:

It can get manic in the Booth and I came upstairs into this session and immediately felt the vibe. It was just so settled. People getting into it. And me? I absolutely loved it.

This new arthur+martha project is the construction of an illuminated manuscript at the Booth Centre and other support centres for people with experience of homelessness. It will gather together significant events, dates, people, celebrations and memorials all in one book, giving a wide cross-section of hugely individual lives. Our hope is that by doing this we reassert the identity and the individuality of people who are sometimes dismissed as homelesswhen they are so much more. Supported by HLF.

A book of ours

A Book of Ours, Projects

The first day of a new project brings many questions to the table. And this one was no different. We are making an illuminated manuscript with people at the Booth Centre, following on from our project The Homeless Library, which was the first history of British homelessness. It gave first hand accounts of peoples life journeys, often pivoting around homelessness, illustrated with poems and artworks and inscribed into handmade books.

 

 

This new project is the construction of an illuminated manuscript. 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, clumped together simply as homeless when they are so much more.

First job of the day was to re-acquaint ourselves with old friends. We worked at the booth centre for 10 years on and off, and some faces were very familiar. Laurence, with a twinkle, said, Everything gets put to one side for arthur+martha. Joan gave us both a hug. Danny ditto. As we sat down to work, Id the feeling that there was nowhere else to be sitting in the world that bettered this.

 

 

In todays workshop, we made a timeline of significant day and people wrote short 24-word descriptions of their chosen days. (There are, after all, 24 hours in a day.) We also did a little experimenting with calligraphy pens, with colours, with paper and with page layouts. Some powerful work was made, beautiful miniature narratives and playful page compositions. 

 

 

But some of the most important work was to ask questions. We are using mediaeval manuscripts as the basis for our book. These are the Books of Hours that celebrated the Christian calendar. So how do we adapt this template for our purposes? For instance, the medieval calendars were often written in black, red, blue and gold, with a particular meaning assigned to each colour. But what meanings did our group associate with these colours? Is red a colour of love, or a symbol of blood? Is black grief, or power, or…? And gold  is it the colour of money, or something less earthbound?

 

 

 

And as we talked, the shape of this book of ours slowly began to emerge…

With thanks to everyone at The Booth Centre for their warm welcome, the support of Lottery players and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Leave it at the door

moving panorama

The reality of working with any group of people- particularly when you throw together a mix of people by circumstance rather than design- is you are sometimes going to hear opinions that differ from your own… occassionally these might tip over to racist, sexist or other ‘ists’, people can be quite extreme in their politics- or deeply apathetic.

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In additition each of us brings with us baggage from our lives.  Working at The Booth Centre, (a day centre for homeless people in Manchester) the baggage can be very heavy, the history each person brings with them, the struggles of daily life. The trick is to leave it at the door. It’s not always easy, particularly when we are not in the workshop session- those between times seem to be when things kick off. But in the sessions, if things are going well something magical happens, we all are caught in the moment, the outside world seems to disappear, any problems, stresses are reduced. It’s medicine with no warning labels, no bad side affects. Now-a-days it might be called mindfulness, but anyone who has really enjoyed and been absorbed in art making will know, its a beautful side affect of creative activity. And it’s not just the art (and for Moving Panorama, beautiful songs and performance) that works for us, it’s the group dynamic to. I’ve talked about it this on these blogs before, but I am repeatedly delighted by how supportive our groups at The Booth are- more than in any venue I have ever worked at before. Our group nurtures, encourages and as people’s confidence grows, people gently challenge.

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So I know what ever baggage I have brought of my own to the session, I will come away feeling lighter, a weight lifted, my eyes clearer. We witness this happening to our group, we are told this in the feedback. This is arts and health in action- Ian one of the group has asked me about my job a few times, he often remarks how happy I seem, how much I seem to enjoy my job- It’s simple for me- why would I want to do anything else in life?

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Artist Lois Blackburn/arthur+martha, writing about the project ‘Moving Panorama’, with singer songwriter Matt Hill/The Quiet Loner, and groups from The Booth Centre. A free public performance of Moving Panorama will be at The People’s History Museum, on the 11th June between 12.00 and 1.00.

Supported by Arts Council England.

Dust

moving panorama

There are moments in life when it all comes together.

Yesterday afternoon, our group where lined up along a large scroll of paper, deep in the most dynamic, joyful, playful responses to our song ‘Dust’ you could hope for. At times laughing and chatting, at times silent engrossed in the pleasure of charcoal and pastel, mark making, the lines dancing accross the sheet.

Johno and danny

It was the hottest day of the year (so far) the subject matter felt appropriate, we talked about the dust kicked up on a summers day and beyond; the star dust we came from, the dust we turn at the ends of our lives… dust created from our skin, the dust carried from one city to another on our feet, the dust of history.

This was an afternoon of the art and the art makers letting go, freeing up, relaxing, and vitally- finding a way to really connect to the music being made. We listened to Matt singing the song ‘Dust’, and people responded on paper, it wasn’t precious or over thought out, but more instinctive and free.

IMG_5995

One of the joys of working in a group on one single piece is the confidence you can gain from others. I include myself here, it can take me a while to loosen up, but working with others inspires, cajoles and gently challenges.

Matt and I found a rhythm in the management of the workshop to, yesterday it suited the session for Matt to be able to work one-to-one with people- a luxury you wouldn’t get in a session run by one artist/songwriter… One-to-one means you can give undivided attention to someone, can see progress in confidence and skills so much faster. In addition its a wonderful thing being able to offer people a choice of activity. One participant who has been reticent about writing on previous sessions, started in the morning and with very little encouragement wrote all day, as the day went on we saw a real breakthrough in their writing, there was a passion to get down thoughts, examine memories, play with words. And then the obvious delight in having these words sung back to them.

We will have to wait to hear that song. In the meantime, Dust.

 

DUST

lyrics by John and Vincent

 

I was born as a child

Had no sense of direction in life

I created my own storm

But the storm created dust

 

Dust, dust, dust

 

I realized motivation

Is a part of my creation

I believe that growing up

Created an unstableness

 

And I couldn’t see much through the dust

I couldn’t see much through the dust

Dust, dust, dust

 

I was born surrounded by paradise

Where everything was there for you

Coconut tress, Mango trees,

and the Soursap breeze

 

Dust, dust, dust

I couldn’t see much through the dust
I couldn’t see much through the dust

Dust, dust, dust, dust, dust

Dust, dust, dust, dust, dust

 

Tell the sweetest fruit on the tree

of all the Birds I have seen

that Every years a mascarade

Beware the Mirrors on the face

 

sweetest fruit

As we were clearing up, Danny and I were chatting about the project and the after affects:

“That’s what happens with your sessions, I’ve got ideas in my head I want to get down now.. I’ll go and sit in the park and write.” Danny

Artist Lois Blackburn, writing about the project ‘Moving Panorama’, with The Booth Centre and The People’s History Museum Manchester. Supported by Arts Council England.