A question of survival

Projects, quilts, War Widows Stories

There are many lessons for me to learn during every arthur+martha project. Our involvement with War Widows’ Stories, comes with a steep and sometimes painful learning curve.

Like how many wars there have been involving the United Kingdom since World War Two, many names I’m familiar with; The Troubles, Falklands War, the Gulf War, Bosnian, Afghanistan, Iraq… but many others I was unaware the British fought in- The Malayan Emergency, Greek Civil War,  the Korean War- I’ve now met 2 war widows’ whose husbands died as a result of the Korean war, they call it the forgotten war. Both their quilt contributions have the word Korea embroidered- a lesson in stitch. And each of these wars results in war widows, and children without parents, on both sides of the conflict, brought into focus by the women I meet;

‘Your world is turned upside down, but you have a baby kicking inside you, so you’ve got to get on with it- life goes on.

In April my mum was widowed, in May I was a widow, in June my son was born.’ Kath

Sylvia signature

This is a project that carries weight and responsibility. Yesterday I met Kath, who had campaigned for years to have her husbands name publicly on show somewhere in his home town, a name plaque to mark giving up his life for his country. It took years, finally with the support of The British Legion she achieved it, his name is honoured in his local church. Other women I have spoken to have told me their desire to have their husbands names publicly displayed. It’s been the inspiration to have their names stitched onto the quilt, alongside the war widows themselves. It’s a small contribution, carefully, slowly stitched.

 

Typically our projects are run with repeated visits to people, in group settings. This allows for participants to slowly build their confidence and their skills. For War Widows’ Stories, we have a number of group workshops, but also wanted to bring in the voices of other women- ones who couldn’t travel to the workshops. So far I’ve done four home visits up and down the country,  and enjoyed everyone of them. One to one sessions allow a quick, intense, meaningful, getting to know someone, revealing a flavour of their story. During the visits so far we haven’t started stitching as I hoped we would, instead I often find I am stitching participants designs on their behalf. For some they haven’t the physical ability, some it’s confidence of their skills- this is the drawback of a one-off visit, skills and confidence development. But their words, handwriting and drawings say so much.

And finally for today, the constant repeated theme of the project- survival, the getting on with it. Kath, like so many stories I’ve heard was left widowed desperately short of money,  she went to a board of men to ask for a bit more money for the 6 week baby- they told her ‘You’re young enough to get married again, and go back to work’…

‘A question of survival. Four buses to work, four buses home. It was all buses and work. Self survival, going to work, coming home, bed and work and Robert my son.’  Kath

question of survival

One of Kath’s squares for the War Widows’ Quilt

Written by Lois Blackburn

The War Widows’ Quilt is being made as part of the War Widows’ Stories project.  The project is supported by Arts Council England, the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, Liverpool John Moores University, Royal Museums Greenwich, the Imperial War Museums, the National Memorial Arboretum and the Heritage Lottery Fund.  

A blank canvas

Projects, War Widows Stories

Quilt ideas

I thought it might be of interest to record and share some of the creative thinking behind the project and the steep learning curve as it progresses…

At the start of the project I am faced with a blank canvas. No colours, fabrics, set themes, images, words are decided upon, the artwork can go in any direction. But I don’t want to go and meet my fellow collaborators with nothing, I prefer to go with a framework, ideas that can be discussed, elaborated on, edited or even teared up. So the fun begins.

fabric samples

Sampling for the War Widows’ quilt

Everything starts with the war widows themselves. Thankfully a lot of interviews and background material has already been gathered by Nadine Muller and her team. For me the artwork is another way to communicate the stories. So what might war widows’ want to communicate? And how do we celebrate their stories, their lives? their individualality? They have been left out of the history books, out of the museum collections, this quilt and poetry collection aims to make a small contribution to addressing this, it’s a domestically sized artwork with big ambitions.

Some of the most successful artworks I’ve collaborated on in the past are the ones that play the materials and techniques against the subject matter, for example in the artwork Fresh Air and Poverty, a quilt illustrating how the World Wars impacted poverty and strife, I choose sumptuous fabrics, associated with wealth and splendor, silks, satins, velvets, colours associated with royalty. I aim to make artworks that make you look twice, surprise and gently challenge. So this time I’m taking a selection of fabrics that have been worn by the armed forces, masculine, formal, speaking of authority. I bulk buy 50 shirts, and carefully take them apart, as I’m doing so the material whispers to me, some still smell of their last owner, are stained around the collar or cuff, some have a name written in marker on a label or hem. The structure of the shirt suggests things, the shoulder epaulet when removed from the shirt, becomes a decorative edge for the quilt. The shirt pockets could hold secrete messages, love letters…

I’m looking for inspiration for the quilt technique, something that is relevant and meaningful. A memory comes of a quilt seen at the Quilters’ Guild. ‘Crimea Quilts’, quilts were made by soldiers, sailors and regimental tailors, at around 1860-1880s… from military felted woollen fabric. The romantic story is that these were made by convalescing military men in their hospital beds. The actual history is rather fuzzy around the edges, we don’t know who taught men these skills, or exactly where they were made. Each quilt is unique, but many share a similar look. They are a intricate, beautiful, ambitious artform and seem a perfect starting off point. I start collecting images.

inspiration and ideas

Sampling, ideas and inspiration for War Widows’ Quilt

Each element of the artwork is thought through. I take to my first meeting with the War Widows’ Association the fabrics, images of the Crimea Quilts and suggestions for the sizes of the individual pieces we work on. Phil Davenport (the lead writer) has been talking about letter writing as part of the inspiration for the poetry collection. I’ve taken that idea and run. I’ve sampled tiny postage stamp size squares, patchworked together.  I’ve used the size of airmail letters and envelopes as templates for fabric rectangles, these I hope will be stitched onto with words or images.  I suggest the war widows write and stitch their names and the husbands with their date of birth and perhaps their husbands date of death.

Mary, embroidery

Mary’s and John’s names, DOB and John’s DOD. Work in progress

Our first meeting is a wonderful mix of laughter, lively discussion and food. Lots of food. The fabrics are examined and given approval and as I hoped spark of conversations. The ironing of those shirts, the men inside them. I am reminded not to leave anyone out- I put on my shopping list red fabric to represent the War Widows’ Association and tartans, how I love tartan.

workshop

Impromptu embroidery workshop

I am rather taken a back when members of the War Widows’ Association don’t just want to write their signatures and DOB, but they start to stitch, it’s 10 oclock at night and we are having a  fabulous impromptu embroidery session.  Un-finished work is carefully wrapped to be completed on train journeys home, in precious moments of peace.

I couldn’t have asked for more. Time now for more sampling, cutting out and preparation of hundreds of rectangles and squares of fabric. I might just have to get the iron out.

Lois Blackburn

 

Questioning the past

Projects, War Widows Stories

Talking with members of the War Widows’ Association at a formal dinner turned out to be a very informal affair, with much laughter and camaraderie. But it also produced a set of fascinating questions, devised by the women themselves, for us to ask as our work with the project War Widows’ Stories gets underway.

As we discussed these questions, little moments of people’s stories were shared. The shock of being told that your partner is dead, the impact of this violent news on everyday normality, that can never again be quite normal. The fear of telling children their father is dead — how to pass on cruel news kindly. Being a victim of gossip. Being angry because you’ve not been told the truth about the death. But most of all, how to get life started again.

Many people said, “We just got on with it.” But each and every one had a different way of doing so.

Here are the questions, some direct, some provocative, many very thought provoking. Perhaps as our project continues, we will find some answers. As well as more questions… 

As a war widow, what are you supposed to say, and what would you like to say?

Is the title war widow offputting? Even the term widow? How would you like to be known? Relict? Dependent? The last three digits of your husband’s service number?

Do you feel that people are on eggshells around you? They really want to ask: “Why are you a war widow?” What happened, and how would you like to tell it?

What didn’t you get told about your husband’s death?

We are trying to get to unknown history. How do we read between the lines of given history? The official version versus the spoken story, versus reality?

What are the words and images of your inner life? What symbols fit you? What phrases stay with you? What remains unspoken?

What is an object that symbolises your experience for you?

Why do you think people see widows as a threat to other people’s relationships? Have you been seen as a threat?

Was your grief ever used as gossip?

Was there a day when your burden suddenly seemed lighter?

survived with a little help

Trying out ideas for the War Widows’ Quilt.

 

Our ladies of the War

Projects, War Widows Stories

The Union Jack Club in Central London is a quiet pivot at the centre of British history. It is the club where people connected to the armed services traditionally come to stay when they’re in the capital. These doors have admitted corporals and Queens, generals and ghurkas. When you enter, you see wooden panels carved with the names of the heroes and (rarely) heroines of a hundred-plus years of wars. Colonial wars, anti-fascist wars, Cold War, the War on Terror, civil strife in Ireland, strikes against Iraq and Afghanistan. There are paintings of men on horseback, men in helicopters, jets, tanks, camouflage and bright red cavalry tunics. The library has deep green leather seats, and around you are the books that tell of these wars, titles like The Fall of Berlin, Rat’s Tales, Raiding the Reich, or No Time to Wave Goodbye.

breakfast

But we are not here to talk about battlefields, we are here to talk about their consequences.

Lois and I are staying at this iconic club to meet the group of women who run The War Widows’ Association, women whose remarkable lives bring a different perspective to those same battlefields.

Among the medals and the honour calls, they’ve also displayed great bravery in the face of conflict — but their stories are unheard, do not exist in the museums, are not recounted in the histories. And we are very privileged to be invited to take part in the first-ever gathering of their stories. Being arthur+martha, our contribution to this wider War Widows Stories will be a collaborative quilt and poems, that complement the oral history recordings and wider research currently being made by Dr Nadine Muller.

But today is a day for hellos, getting to know faces and gather ideas to fuel this longer conversation. The occasion right now is an evening meal for the regional managers of The War Widows’ Association: the big, bustling group is full of energy, jokiness, and a vibrant camaraderie as we sit down for tea. The cliche of widowhood is somber and soft-spoken, however this evening was spent talking loudly, eating heartily, laughing loud.

And yet, as we talked, other resonances came into the conversation— flashes of sadness, anger, my own memories of growing up around soldiers, and my mother who is also a widow. And suddenly this space, that seems so certain in its carved memorials and its place in history, is full of questions. And we wonder how to speak about it…

Philip Davenport, Oct 2018

 

Lois Blackburn introducing the art making to the War Widows’ Association. Photo courtesy WWS.

arthur+martha give thanks to our supporters for this project Arts Council England, the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the British Academy, Liverpool John Moores University, Royal Museums Greenwich, the Imperial War Museums, the National Memorial Arboretum and the Heritage Lottery Fund.  

The journey of two quilts

Stitching the Wars

I’m currently looking at the Stitching the Wars quilts, I’m checking to see if there are any repairs to be made. They’re about to take another journey, this time their off to York to the Quilters’ Guild to be archived in their collection. While I’m stitching, making repairs my mind is musing about the life this quilt has already had.  It’s a quilt that is been made by many hands, (over 500 people contributed) some nimble, some inflicted with arthritis, seen by sharp eyes and those with limited sight. whilst making it people chatted, their minds wondered, they shared memories, day to day concerns and delights. For some the simple pleasure was working with rich colours,  many delighting in the pleasure of enjoying different textures of fabric in their hands, from silks to felts, to knits, velvets and tweeds, for people living with dementia, this multi sensory experience can be hugely beneficial.

Fresh air and Poverty

‘Fresh Air and Poverty’ at National Trusts Lyme Park © Garry Lomas

 

Workshops took place in day centres, a hospice, craft groups, dementia cafes, Libraries, always with cups of tea and biscuits. Materials for the quilts was donated, brought from charity shops and occasionally from fabric shops. Fabric was dyed in big baths of colour, inspired by the Derbyshire landscape for a bombers moon and by colours associated with wealth and grandeur, for fresh air and  poverty.

As the quilts grew in size we found space to look at them and put them together where ever we could, whether that was the floor of a library, or the largest tables we could find. I would stand bouncing on a chair to try and get a view of the whole. When you are making quilts it’s all about the touch, then they take on a different life, in exhibitions, there is rarely touching allowed.

 

bombers-moon

‘A Bomber’s Moon, photographed at National Trusts Lyme Park © Garry Lomas

I am very keen that the work gets shown in a wide variety of venues. First of all the quilts get shown to the people who have collaborated in the making of them. Then we have mixed grand venues with more humble exhibition spaces. From the National Trusts Lyme Park,  a viewing by Prince Charles at the Farming Life Centre,  the walls at Buxton Art Gallery and Museum, they have sat along side books in a tour of Derbyshire libraries, and exhibited at Derbyshire Record Office, archives shown alongside photos from our book, and from Pictures of the Past.

Dorothy with quilt

Dorothy, one of our participants, and her embroidery ‘Clouds Farm’.

Every time I look at the quilts I see something different and memories are sparked for me, memories of the people who made the work and the stories they shared, the struggles they overcame to stitch, to remember. The delight in sharing,  the excitement in seeing the work coming together. The awards of having your voice and talents shared and respected.  As I look at it today the colours have never seen seemed so vivid, the work so full of life. I’ve had my hands  and eyes over every square inch of this quilt and yet I am seeing something new today. It’s nearly time for me to let them go and pass them on for another life and I can’t think of a better place for them to go to. In the safe hands of The Quilters’ Guild, the quilts will be photographed, kept safe for posterity and will be a available for exhibitions, as learning tools, to be enjoyed and a record of all the people who helped make them. Seeing them today has reignited my passion for this art form there is so much more to explore and to share. I am thrilled that these two quilts that has meant so much to the people who have made them, will be looked after with so much care and shared around the world.

 

Thanks

armour, Projects

I am so very proud to be part of the Armour Celebration event yesterday, a collaboration between veterans, people who have experienced homelessness and arthur+martha.

We started with a performance of the song Behind Brittle Barriers, co-created with singer songwriter Matt Hill and people from The Booth Centre.

From my notes, I nervously shared my thoughts on the project- whilst Gavin, Danny, Anne Marie and Peter spoke about the impact the work has had on them, with passion, dignity, articulately and without notes! Then went onto read their poems. I have much to learn!

It was an emotionally charged day, two people broke down in tears when they saw their work, seeing a moment in their history, caught up in embroidered stitch, the pain of unresolved issues?  the relief of moving on? a sense of pride seeing their word shared? a letting go? There was lots of laughter also, and most of all a celebration of the amazing artwork, poetry and song created.

Danny and armour

Danny sharing his poem at Armour Celebration

 

There are so many people to thank, The Booth Centre who hosted the project, Arts Council England who supported the project, The Imperial War Museum who hosted an outreach session, The Royal Armouries Leeds, Walking with the Wounded for their advice, the staff and volunteers from the above organisations, our guest artists/writers/singer songwriters, Johnny Woodhams and Matt Hill, and as ever most of all to our amazing participants.

To see the documentary film about this project please visit  ARMOUR

audience

Lois and Matt

Artist Lois Blackburn and Singer Songwriter Matt Hill the Quiet Loner

Armour: an invitation

armour, Projects
INVITATION
Poems, embroidery and song, made in self-defence.
Thursday 11th January, 1pm to 2.30pm
at The Booth Centre, Edward Holt House, Pimblett Street, Manchester M3 1FU

 

We are delighted to invite you to a celebration of the project ARMOUR, made in collaboration with people who have served in the Armed Forces, people with lived experience of homelessness and arts organisation arthur+martha. Sharing ARMOUR artworks, poetry readings, with a music performance by The Booth Centre and The Quiet Loner. Refreshments provided.
 

 

ARMOUR
Armour is a project that uses words and stitches to explore the ways we protect ourselves. It is a collaboration with veterans of armed conflict and with people who have lived experience of homelessness. We asked people to describe their personal “armour”, physical and mental. Artworks were inspired by gambesons, the quilted jackets worn under suits of armour, made for our project out of rust-dyed fabric and embroidered with poems, and other writings.
 
I’ve never done anything like this before, many people said during the project. But the art and poetry they made weren’t just a technical exercise, they were a gesture of courage and connection. They overthrew defensiveness and they let in life.
 
For more information please visit: /armour/