The big book of homelessness

A Book of Ours, Projects

Press Release

The big book of homelessness

People who are homeless in Manchester will make a medieval-style illuminated manuscript, describing their lives, in a 2-year project by arts organisation arthur+martha that has just been awarded funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Homeless lives don’t appear in any history books, but the Quilt of Leaves project aims to change that, with nearly 200 participants constructing their own accounts of homeless life throughout the year, with artwork, poems and songs to illustrate it.

rose print

‘Flower’, mono print on recycled book. Molita M. Part of the ‘Homeless Library Project.’

Artist Lois Blackburn from arthur+martha said, “These stories are part of our wider society, they just haven’t been heard yet. We feel that people with lived experience of homelessness have a huge amount of insight to offer us all. We’re delighted that we’ve received this support thanks to National Lottery players. We can’t wait to get started.”

Philip Davenport from arthur+martha adds, “We chose medieval manuscripts to inspire us because they’re among the first history books, and this is the beginning of homeless history in a written form. Those medieval manuscripts were the property of influential people, decorated with rich colours and gold lettering. we want to give this history the same treatment, make it the kind of book you can’t ignore.”

One of the main partners in the Quilt of Leaves project is The Booth Centre, a resource centre for people who are homeless and at risk of homelessness in Manchester where many of the workshops will take place.

we accept the little

‘We accept the little we have.’ mono print on recycled book. Anon. Part of the ‘Homeless Library Project.’

Notes

About the Heritage Lottery Fund

Thanks to National Lottery players, they invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about – from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife. www.hlf.org.uk. Follow us on Twitter, Facebookand Instagram and use #NationalLottery and #HLFsupported.

About the Booth Centre

The Booth Centre brings about positive change in the lives of people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, and helps them plan for and realise a better future. They do this by providing advice to find accommodation, education, training and help to secure employment, free healthy meals, support in tackling issues with health and addiction, and creative activities to boost confidence and self esteem. The Booth Centre is an independent, registered charity (no. 1062674)

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

 

Listening to the Unheard

The Homeless Library

The Homeless Library is about to hit the road again, this time we are off to Brighton for an exhibition of The Homeless Library is the iconic Brighton Dome Tues 3rd July to Sunday 22nd July.

The Homeless Library is a collection of handmade books, created by people with lived experience of homelessness. The books include interview extracts, poems and art describing their personal histories and those of the people around them.  Much material was placed online, in blogs and a free ebook. The Library exhibition launched at The Houses of Parliament and the Southbank and toured nationally, with homeless people reading their poems and sharing their books.

We are also delighted to be taking part in the Listening to the Unheard, Practice that works. A free event at First Base Day Centre, 10.00am to 5pm. The workshop will share experiences of Travellers and rough sleepers in Brighton and Hove and offers for discussion conclusions and content based on field research with Irish Travellers and rough sleepers.

As ever when packing up the The Homeless Library for the exhibition, different books jump out to me. This time it was ‘Just me in my sleeping bag’ made by Nicola. (Pictured here) Around 1 in 10 homeless people are women.