Press Release

Projects, quilts, War Widows Stories

War Widows’ Quilt Commemorates the Lives and Loves of War’s Forgotten Women

From 7–11 November 2019, The Queen’s House, Greenwich, will host the first ever exhibition of the War Widows’ Quilt. Made from armed forces shirts by over ninety war widows and their family members, this beautiful and moving piece of art tells many individual stories of love, loss, and grief while also shining a light on the ongoing history of war widowhood in the UK.

War Widows' Quilt test

 

The quilt, made in collaboration with arts company arthur+martha, is part of the War Widows’ Stories project, led by Dr Nadine Muller (Senior Lecturer in English Literature & Cultural History, Liverpool John Moores University) and the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain (WWA).

 

Commenting on the forthcoming exhibition, Dr Muller said:

 

“We started work on the quilt exactly a year ago in this very same venue, and nobody could have predicted then what an impactful piece of art this would become. The War Widows’ Quilt tells so many moving stories, shares so many cherished memories, and expresses so much grief as well as hope. It is a magnificent, important memorial.”

 

Theresa Davidson, whose husband served in the Scots Guards and died in the Falklands in 1982, commented:

 

“I feel such pride and real honour to share my love and grief. The love, grief, loss, and pain never leaves you. It is my own personal war!”

 

Another war widow, Angela Evans, reflected on the profound effect that contributing to the quilt had on her:

 

“It’s from the heart. One day you have everything, then the next day you’ve got nothing. Somehow it helps to say something, to express it out loud.”

 

McMenemy Alberta

 

Lead artist Lois Blackburn (arthur+martha) reflects on her work on the quilt:

 

“Sewing together the pieces into a final quilt felt a giant responsibility, but one for which I remain very grateful. I selected fabrics that had been worn by the armed forces. I carefully took apart fifty military shirts to make patches and chose a patchwork technique that deliberately echoes the quilts made by British servicemen during the Crimean War.”

 

Mrs Mary Moreland, WWA Chair, highlights the importance of this project for the Association, its members, and the wider war widows community:

 

“The quilt and the project help the Association raise awareness of the challenges war widows face every day. Our voices are sadly still absent from most public institutions, including museums. We cannot tell the stories of war without the stories of those left behind.”

 

The quilt helps address a significant gap in the public histories of war, says Sue Prichard, Senior Curator (Arts) at Royal Museums Greenwich:

 

“The Queen’s House has long been the site of female power and patronage. As such we actively seek opportunities to reveal the untold female narratives inherent in our collections. It is therefore wholly appropriate that we take this opportunity to commemorate the experiences of contemporary women within the wider context of conflict on land and at sea”.

 

The exhibition will be marked with a special celebration event at The Queen’s House on Friday, 8 November, 5–8PM. On Saturday, 9 November, artists Lois Blackburn and Phil Davenport will be hosting drop in embroidery sessions and guidance to the quilt.

War Widows’ Stories is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, Arts Council England, the British Academy, and the Heritage Lottery Fund, and it is run in partnership with Royal Museums Greenwich, the National Memorial Arboretum, and Imperial War Museums.

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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. 

 

 

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.

Let the ice melt everything

A Book of Ours, Projects

Farewell to Jon, still seeing everything

Farewell coldness, let the ice melt everything.

 

Something about today made it a quiet one at the Booth Centre, the frantic buzz of the last couple of weeks had quietened. It was a gentle, reflective atmosphere upstairs in the art space too. We sat at a table with at most eight people gathered around it at any one time. Moments like these are ideal for exploring the deeper layers in ourselves, for seeing what’s there, and perhaps for sharing.

Roy writing

Today’s workshop was poetry only. Most of our working days are a mixture of art and writing, but this one was expressed in pens and paper and ideas. Which brought out a different quality in people; using language rather than gesture, vocabulary rather than colour. It also brought with it intimacy. We talked about things that slide under the surface of the everyday to remain hidden. We wrote about loss and about the losing of things we’d like to see the back of. And as we talked, we wrote. A group piece, extracted here. And individual poems too. Six line poems, six words per line. Enough limitation to bring focus, enough looseness to let it flow.

 

In the lunch break I met someone who’s often worked with us in the past. Bandaged up to the elbows on both arms, cheeks puffy and bruised. This familiar face grinned at me when I to join in the writing, “Can’t mate. I’m hoping I’ve got a place in rehab today. But thanks for asking.”

I said I hoped the place came up, that it all worked out. Bandaged arms, pyjama trousers, bruised cheeks. I’ve thought about that short encounter the rest of this afternoon. About that smile. It was as if I was a messenger from a far off world that’s thought of fondly, but currently unreachable.

“Join us again, when you can,” I said.

The reply: “Thanks for asking. I mean it.”

 

Farewell sweet love, you won’t be alone

Farewell everyone supposed to be home.

 

From Ballad No. 4, group poem

 

A swallow over his heart

Projects, War Widows Stories

Lois and I are currently working on the quilt and poetry for War Widows’ Stories and wanted to share some of our thoughts and writing from the wonderful session in Edinburgh with the War Widows’ Association

 

A swallow over his heart

With a scroll engraved with

My name, when he was 18.

 

Kathleen Cahillane

 

Kathleen Cahillane signature

Kathleen Cahillane

 

The Edinburgh group workshop for the War Widows quilt and poetry was a subtle sharing.

Twenty people sat around the table, bringing a mixture of expectation, grief, anxiety and excitement. It’s a strange thing to ask people to look at one of the most painful things they’ve ever experienced and turn it into a piece of creative work. A big ask, as they say. In this workshop we invited a group of War Widows to write and embroider about widowhood.

The intention was that they’d make work about the things that keep them going, the survival strategies. As it happened, many brought the rawness of loss to their writing and their artwork. They’d decided to dive in deep, even before they arrived. I was between two women, both of whom had lost husbands in Northern Ireland, both of whom had already written down some ideas about how to explain this terrible mystery in their lives, to others and perhaps to themselves.

The writing they made was very direct, giving dates of death and looking at what had happened square on. But events like these aren’t so simply explained. The echoes continue and continue. A child looks like their missing father. A particular day is loaded with dread. The absence is huge, too big to deal with all at once. The need to carry on for family is paramount, grief gets brushed to one side and stays unhealed…

As people worked, there was a gentle hubbub of conversation. They settled into the rhythm of the sewing and writing and shared experiences with their neighbours. Little stories of details that had been forgotten started to emerge. A camping trip, a tattoo, two children on their father’s shoulders.

It’s often with little things that the big things are said:

 

Farmer

 

A hard worker, carrying

Two little boys and a lamb

In his hood.

Loved and being loved and

Along came our son, our hope.

 

I courted a B Special

I married a UDR soldier.

He died Royal Irish

Loved and being loved.

The Lord watches over our

 

Going out and

Coming in. In my beehive hair

I had no idea.

Loved and being loved and

Along came our son, our future.

 

Joan

 

joan B pocket

Joan’s pocket, embroidered by Lois

 

 

The tears are close to our eyes

War Widows Stories

We’d like to thank the War Widows’ Association in Northern Ireland for inviting us into their precious twice-yearly meeting and making time for us when they were meeting with old friends, planning events, and sharing news. To be present  in one of the meetings is a privilege. It’s a group of friends, but it’s also a group of people grieving. The tears are close to everyone’s eyes. And then there’s a layer of politics. And of history too, the resonance of war.

Alberta

Over sandwiches and a cup of tea we talked about the weather, about memories of childhood — and then suddenly we were discussing a man being killed and his child running away from the scene of the killing covered in blood and shattered glass. How do you say all this, how do you deal with all this? At the end as we were getting ready to leave, Alberta our host answered the question, “Hugs.”

And yes, love is one answer among the many we heard. One of the widows said, “Here people hug me. But when I get back home I’m on my own with my life again and I go on a downer.”

A lot of the groups we work with include people from all walks of life, they’re brought together by a circumstance, for instance people who’ve experienced homelessness, or dementia, or widowhood. They’re suddenly talking to each other, in ways that unlock great emotion, sometimes it’s compassion, sometimes it’s anger, sometimes joy.

Today we passed from table to table, introducing some art and poem ideas and simply talking. Although there is no “simply” here. To be a widow is not simple, it is as complex as every individual in the room, with their many triumphs and tragedies. And of course, a shadow presence is the word “Troubles”. The conflict that still echoes through this place, and through many of the people here. How to even begin to put such a knot of loyalties and grievances to rest?

 

Ann

The project that we’re collectively making is a quilt. Many of the squares that make up the quilt carry the names of the widows and their husbands, and dates of birth and death. Other squares are pockets, which are embroidered with a few words, giving a part of a story, or a line from a song. Within these pockets is memorabilia, things that quietly commemorate, poems, letters, scraps of cloth. They are both present and hidden.

Making art or poems together allows deeply layered conversations to happen, sometimes finding expression for what’s only partly known. It’s what needs to happen first. Today was not a day for making, it was preparing the ground. When people left the room, many of them took squares with them to work on at home.

 

Heaven is my home(ann)

What will come back, how will those extraordinary moments we shared be re-made in word and stitch? Anne and Margaret talking about faith and love — “Heaven is my home.” Or Violet, with her eyes sparking, as she sang a line of a song that her husband used to sing to her, “Send me the pillow that you dream on
So darling I can dream on it too…”

 

Thanks to Alberta and Mary for inviting us to Belfast. Thanks to everyone who attended the War Widows’ Association meeting for making us feels so welcome and sharing your time, your creativity.  

 

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.