The weight of an angel’s wing

A Book of Ours, Projects

We’re making pages for an illuminated manuscript at the Booth Centre, a centre for people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. The original medieval illuminated manuscripts from 500-plus years ago were full of prayers and holy days and feasts, as well as smatterings of current events. Our new book reflects the diverse lives of people who’ve experienced homelessness, drawing on their lives and insights, replacing religious rituals with their day-to-day. And decorated by them with images and colours, to become rich with the details of their world. 

Calender Year, Johnathan

Calendar year, ‘A Book of Ours’ Johnathan Phythian

This week we’ve again been working on the calendar, always the first section of the medieval books that give us inspiration. Each day in the year has a special significance for particular people, be it a birthday, a personal tragedy, a breakthrough, or just a quiet moment of pleasure.

Our calendar is incomplete, however it’s starting to gather a remarkable patchwork of experiences together. Each description has to be a maximum of six words. It’s an art to describe a significant life moment in only six words, but many of the group have already risen to the challenge. Dotted among the personal writings are fragments of our wider history, especially the medieval history which would’ve impacted in the original manuscript makers.

August

August calendar page, ‘A Book of Ours’ Gary Cundle

Here is our work-in-progress August, each day it’s own little story of commemoration:

AUG

Aug 1

Leave windows open for my Angel.

Aug 2

Scared shitless, heartbroken then released.

August 3rd

Started coming Booth Centre.

August 5th

Two cakes to blow out. Me/sister.  

August 6th

Booth Centre helped me get a place

Aug 11 1999 (eclipse)

Let daylight come down on Earth.

August 13th

Day of marriage. Celebration. Soul partner.

Aug 22 1485

Dick Tudor 3, found under carpark.

June, (John)

What can’t easily be described is the intensity of each of our workshops. The absolute laser-like engagement of our writers and artists as they write their lives. For some people this is the only moment in the week away from intimidation, violence, drugs, despair. For others it’s become a social space where friendships are growing and trust is slowly forming. The saddest image I’ll take from today is of one of our most involved participants. Though he’s sleeping rough, he is always immaculately groomed, bright with enthusiasm for making art. Today, however, his eyes were shuttered by drugs, his voice blurred and his head nodded. But still he fought his way through the chemicals towards us, slowly, so very slowly, making his mark on the page.

July (Johnathan)

July, from ‘A Book of Ours’, Johnathan Phythian

Our 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 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 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.