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.
A couple of observations about yesterdays session at the Booth Centre from Johnathan and project worker Karen.
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.
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 who’ve 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 it’s 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.
The cliche of homelessness is that it’s a drab, black and white world, a gritty documentary with a downbeat ending. But in the artwork and writing for this project we’ve 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.
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.
I suddenly needed to sit down, found I was breathing too fast, I’d become dizzy. L wiped his streaming face and beamed the broadest smile I think I’ve ever seen on him. Chris, who’d 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.
Today was our second day into our new project ‘A Book of Ours’, making an illuminated manuscript with people who’ve 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. It’s impossible to let your imagination play if you don’t feel safe, or sense you’re unwelcome, or being judged. People living on the streets or in hostels often tell us that a quiet space that’s 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 don’t value them. Here’s a Brilliant Job day, in precisely 12 words: “Started work, didn’t 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. Here’s 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. It’s a nice space to build up rapport. People get to know parts of themselves and share in a way that they wouldn’t 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. We’ll 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 “homeless” when they are so much more. Supported by HLF.
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 people’s 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, I’d the feeling that there was nowhere else to be sitting in the world that bettered this.
In today’s 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…
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.
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.
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?
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.
Our days spent at The Booth Centre for the project Moving Panorama typically fall into a pattern, in the morning Matt and I work in the main one-to-one with people, it might be editing songs or gathering new material in the form of life story work, or themed interviews. Sometimes it’s simply chatting, listening, having a conversation- this activity could be easily undervalued, but it’s having time to be still and listen, that helps to build trust, builds a relationship and motivates new people to join our afternoon group sessions.
At times there are things that are very difficult to hear, cruelties re-told, re-examined, re-lived. Many if not most of the people we work with have suffered trauma of one description or another. The Booth Centre works to support people through their issues and to find ways to look and move forward.
The art and music we create during the project Moving Panorama subtly supports this process. We see people’s confidence and skills improving, abstaining from drink or drugs, surprising themselves about their capabilities, finding joy in abilities they didn’t know they had. This project is also supporting and challenging my own work as an artist. The quality of the collaborative song-writing that Matt is leading, and the art work that our group is producing, is keeping me on my toes, re-freshing and challenging my art practice, keeping it fresh, motivating me.
Yesterday afternoon we brought colour into the project- literally- until now all of our scrolls have been in black and white. Rolled out on the long table was 10 meters of white paper. We took out paint brushes for a walk, between readings of the first draft lyrics to one of the new song ‘Always Forward‘. It’s a song that thinks about all the people who have walked the streets of Manchester before us, and those walking them (or sleeping on them) right now. We all walked around the paper, filling it up quickly with vivid colours, crossing one anothers paths. The physicality of creating art, the speed and looseness, made us quickly warm up and relax into art making. We became quiet and focussed, enjoying the nature of the art materials as colours bleed into one another, the delight and magic of the process of painting.
Ian’s tent in Manchester
Into these painted pathways, we started drawing, writing and painting in response to the lyrics of the song. The scroll quickly took on a depth of meaning, a curiosity, a maturity. The resulting artwork will look different again once they are moving across the Moving Panorama frame, at which point it maybe edited, drawn into again. The scroll artworks we are created stand alone as individual pieces, but I am confident that when they are performed with the songs, both artistic disciplines will enhance and bring alive each other. We will get to try this out very soon….