Wednesday, 30 March 2011


A map of you

The morning at the Red Door housing concern centre in Bury. It’s a far cry from squeaky clean offices. On the surface it’s a shambolic place with mismatch furniture, woodchip walls, notices dotted all over, a roughly approximate paintjob. But the centre is sympathetic, caring, fine-tuned to the folk within. We’re in a bashed-about living room-come-reception that manages somehow to feel like home. And that’s the point.
 I'm the one, are you one like myself! in a crowd
We’re joined by L and S, who talk us through their lives: long stretches of problems with mental health and the turmoil that comes with it. Later M arrives, he’s shy and quietly spoken, but has a sharp awareness of all the pitfalls around homelessness – and the many ways to fall into them. These three have all been hospitalised for longish periods due to mental health problems. Two of them are in their forties, one a little younger – all old beyond these years.

S described, ‘Police helicopters chasing me at three in the morning, cos I thought I was Jesus.’ M explained how difficult it can be to access help when tipping over the crisis point with mental health. ‘Crime is sometimes the only answer. To get food, or get a little bit well.’ He often deliberately allowed himself to get caught so that he’d be sectioned immediately. S talks about being kicked, cursed and CS gassed by police who were irritated with her misbehaviour when delusional.

I mentioned William Blake’s famous visions and L shook his head sadly and said one word: ‘Anti-psychotics.’ He knew the diagnosis, the terminology, the prescription, probably even the exact dose that would’ve straightened William out if he was a ‘service user’.

Late in the session, B appeared – he’d joined in the last one but had got up late so he drifted into the conversation, listening to the discussion. He’d wanted to do some more poems. At the end of the morning, L said: ‘It’s good to have something like this, the art. We get a chance to give our views, our take on things. People who are classed as normal don’t get to see our world. This opens their eyes.’

The afternoon with young people in a hostel was alternately sweet and sad. The two young women (J J and J – ‘We paired up the first day we met.’) who spent most of the session with us were astonishingly fresh-faced in comparison to the many other homeless people we’ve met. They hadn’t been etched by the life. But the danger signs were all around them and later Paul our ‘host’ from REIGNITE expressed his concern about their vulnerability. They’d buddied up as people often do in this circumstance and were looking out for each other – perhaps they’d be OK. It felt like a very flimsy perhaps. They joked with us amid the distractions of pop and txt messages.

Then N and M joined us, two boys who on first glance looked like a cliché of trouble, but who gradually settled with us, joking with Lois about their ‘thug’ exterior – they were just softies they told us, ‘Little chillers.’

JJ opened up between the banter: ‘People look at us: young people not working and in a hostel and they think bad things. They don’t see what’s happened. I don’t really tell anyone I’m living here cos it’s embarrassing. I just go day by day. I didn’t go to school, moved about a lot missed everything. Mum I don’t talk to. Dad I don’t talk to. Being here is teaching me how to live on my own. I wouldn’t know how otherwise. They put me out first thing in the morning and I walk around town, find summat to do. Sit in the arcade. Too many people judge. You gotta walk in someone else’s shoes to understand what they been through.’

L’s words from the morning came back to mind: ‘Don’t give up, don’t give up. Prove them wrong, the people who judge. Don’t follow their footsteps.

Monday, 28 March 2011

You can be my little bodyguard

a map of you

The familiar smell of hospital envelops us and we're in. The psychiatric ward at Fairfield Hospital in Bury is (depending on your view) a locked door, or a secure haven. We've been brought here by Paul and Sue at Bury's IGNITE adult learning project. They often work with homeless people and some of these folk pass through the psychiatric ward. We sit with a gentle, quietspoken group downstairs in the ward. The conversation is delicate, taking small steps. We talk about comfort and happiness. The man next to me says: 'I will be happy, won't I?' It sounds like a plea. As we talk the sunshine bounces around the yard outside. A woman describes her love for music, 'Rachmaninov, can't understand why he's always second to that Vaughn Williams in the polls.' An older man talks about walking, whilst staring at the shimmering light outdoors.

We work for an hour, then go upstairs to the next floor of the ward. The air is hotter and soporific. People here are more obviously damaged. S speaks in broken English of his home land The Czech Republic with a mixture of affection, anger and fear. There he suffered racial abuse, then in England the break up of his family, the loss of his home and job.  He has the most torn-up and re-stitched neck I've ever seen, scars the size of a starfish clamp onto his throat. P has tattoos instead of scars and talks of her moodswings, selfhate, abuse. But as she works with us, she rallies and challenges her own self-definitions. In her piece she becomes a column of power.

Czech in Manchester

The afternoon session is at Red Door Housing Centre with a group of homeless and vulnerably housed people. They're feeling a little shaky because someone they know has just died, possibly violently. We talk about survival, the things that make you tick. B has spent nearly three decades in prison and is a 'Survivalist. Been on my own since I was 11. I adapt. Life moves fast. Part of being a survivalist is adapting, if you don't adapt you're back in prison.' What's the trick to surviving, I ask. He looks at me from the other shore of a great, sea-deep knowledge. 'Instinct,' he says. It's a word that has come up many times before. Towards the end of the session, K comes into her own, with a string of funny, sharp little stories about her life in hostels and bedsits.

I took an immediate liking to K; before meeting her, one of the volunteers whispers her nickname 'Bubbles' and it fits, she's got the voice of Jane Horrocks, a small stature and eccentrically dressed. She does everything ten to the dozen, and I struggle to keep up with my note taking. My first question, 'What's the happiest part of your day' leads to her postcard piece (above) 'Going home to my Chippendale, he's got muscles in all the right places.' Through the session she gradually reveals truths about the vulnerability she felt living in B&Bs and in hostels, usually half hidden by the humour. I was scared in the B&B, but I couldn't show it. J who sits quietly opposite her, smiles as she explains she used to say to him 'You can be my little bodyguard'.   We end the session with K promising she will see us on our next session and will try to bring others with her.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

society wears blindfolds

We have been lucky to have Gemma join us as a volunteer on A Map of You sessions at the Big Issue offices. She's on placement at the Big Issue, whilst studying Social Work. A big thanks to you Gemma for your insights, enthusiasm, energy and countless cups of tea. Phil's written a fuller interview with Gemma, to follow at a later date, in the meantime heres a short quote:

'Making art allows conversations in a very unthreatening way. We're (social workers) another person whose trying to help- they might have had bad experiences of that...' Gemma

We've shared similar experiences to this before. Working with social care or health care professionals has been beneficial for both us as artists and them as professionals, giving a creative way to share insights on people.

Friday, 18 March 2011

The reveal: The Bubble Project

I love the way Derek Dick from Warrington Museusm and Art Gallery promoted The Bubble Project's exhibition 'I used to say I'd run away but never actually got round to it'  The first stage was an article in the Warrington Guardian,
where it's described as a mystery appearance, (in true street art fashion) and asks for help identifying what it could be or where it came from.

The second article reveals the artists to be the Young Carers, There is also an interview with Roz Coleman, the manager of the Young Carers Group, and former Young Carer herself. she comments: "You learn yourself through art. Children need to have art – it’s self-expression." and “Art is a great place to be. You can be yourself, it gives you room to reveal and to hide."

You can view more photos from The Bubble Project at our flickr site 
and read about the making of the poems and artwork here

Thursday, 17 March 2011

stay together for bad or worse

As an artist I find myself going on my own personal journey of discovery with every new project we work on. A map of you has given me the privilege of hearing homeless peoples stories first hand, direct and at times shocking.  A face to face encounter is a very different experience to reading about peoples lives, hearing stories on the radio or watching on tv, there is no place to hide.

Our duty as arthur+martha, is to try and reflect these encounters in an honest way possible, to encourage people to step outside their prison of circumstances, and to share with a wider world the thoughts and feelings of marginalized people in an accessible way as possible. No mean feat then. 

At the Big Issue offices, I spoke with a number of Roma venders. The venders are there to collect magazines, their working. This encourages Phil and I to be very direct with our questions, we cut to the chase. 'which place makes you feel safest?' I ask, I feel safe in this country, Romanian, no. Safe here. I feel free every single day. The Roma people I speak to again and again re-enforce the value of family and the importance of work. 'When do you feel free? I ask. When you don't have any obligation, when you don't have anyone telling you what to do, when you have happiness, family, a place you can say home, work a proper job, you can earn money. That's when you are free. 

I am a ghost to all of you
not, I am human so to me be true
In the afternoon at the Booth Centre, the group direct the talk to life on the street. The reality of sleeping in cardboard boxes. They spoke with great energy and passion and S, who sits next to me repeats with urgency how important it is to share this with Phil and I, but its no good unless it goes out to a wider audience. A wider public must hear their stories. S and the others examined the postcards created in previous sessions, some artworks captured their imagination and sparked conversations and empathy,  but S felt there should be pieces that spoke in a much more direct way. Taking up their pens S and the others created dozens of new pieces, sharing the works as they made them, laughing and talking passionately of their situations and experiences as they did so.

W, seemed extremely vulnerable during the session, at times shaking with anxiety, leaving the group at times when it got to much, but always coming back. She thinks deeply about things and has a natural poetic way of putting her thoughts down on paper. Seeing her struggle to create the delicate piece below, really moved me.

missing outside beyond reach

people falling like rain, unseen. What will you do?

Anthony shared his usual mix of intelligent thought and great humor. He seemed to revel in the task of writing captions on his photographs. I love the simplicity and comic nature 'leaving on a jet plane'. 

I asked S about his experience of the afternoon, he explained 'It's been inspirational, its put a new focus on things - things most of us hold in. This gives you more focus.'

You can view more of the artworks by visiting our flickr site. Next week Bury.


'Your survival instinct is there all the time, ineveryone. It's just more prominent in the homeless.'

We've had a muted and gentle introduction to the life of homeless people. Everyone has been kind, courteous and explained what must have been painfully obvious to them. In a way this is our job, to ask naive questions, and to be sounding boards for whatever bounces back.

The sessions today felt like the lid had been torn off, particularly by three people. In the morning at The Big Issue office L chatted to us about positive self-images - and the sometimes desparate need to maintain them. As her story unspooled she very undramatically told us about her life as a prostitute and the journey she'd taken back from that. It was told in such a matter-of-fact way, with humour and warmth, that it hit us the harder.

Then in the afternoon at The Booth Centre S - who was a little the worse for wear, as people love to say - launched into a full diatribe, a furious rant about his world and the harshness and the misunderstanding from others that locks him into it. It was to put it mildly an uncomfortable situation; I felt like a hapless do-gooder, applying sticking plasters to a disaster. But anger is a great column of energy, bringing action as well as discomfiture. This session became the most articulate outpouring of the 'felt' sense of homelessness, rather than the 'explained'.

With this flow of thought and feeling came distress for some; managing the anxiety and yet allowing the release of anger was an immensely difficult judgement. The safe space that the Booth Centre works so hard to maintain was riven for a moment - and the cold came rushing.

Finally, C told us about the operation of the survival instinct. About his own anger and fear. About the chaos that he wakes up to everyday, the not knowing whether he will meet kindness or a fist.

"I wake up and think 'Oh no, another day.' Will I walk into someone who's vindictive, or generous? Everyday is different. But it's the night that's dangerous. We dread that. What gives anyone the right to punch me, spit on me, pee on me because I'm homeless?"

Friday, 11 March 2011

I come from cuckooland

Lois writes: I have to admit with some embarrassment that a map of you, has challenged my own pre-conceptions of homelessness, and taken me out of my comfort zone. To my surprise my initial concerns have been replaced with an enthusiasm and pleasure for the work. For me, the poem that follows reveals some of the voices we're hearing in our encounters with homeless people; thoughtful, intelligent, humorous, generous and at times brutally honest.


I come from cuckooland
I’m on my way to cuckooland
to comfort
my pillow
comfortable lying
at the side of my soul mate relaxed relaxing
finding your space, routine
a bit of breakfast, a comforting sleep
I do 4 hours a night
what makes comfort comfortable?
a teddy bear, a singer’s voice
a particular
one particular voice
music is hard but there’s one voice
you grow up hearing
the music of the soul
is anything good to the ear
listen to the birds’ opera

I come from cuckooland
well on my way to cuckooland
I’m in cuckooland
listen to the birds
music is wordless
that’s why it’s so good
springing joyful
some is made for a purpose and some is just made
like a rainbow
Barry White bless his soul in the sun’s warmth
comfort can be a cry
for sadness or grief
or joy
a strong sign of weakness
I was in detox
(you can’t say that word: it makes me thirsty)
you cuddle your baby
you cuddle your body
communion at church
the comfort of chocolate
homeless people: I comfort my friends on the street
let them stay once and awhile
something warm, something to eat
close your eyes and things come
the music is
springy and joyful
I feel happiness.

I come from cuckooland
I’m on my way to cuckooland
cuddle your pillow
to go.

Anonymous Group poem, 
Booth Centre, 8th March

Thursday, 10 March 2011

a map of you: Santuary

The following poem was written by V, a participant in our 'map of you' group at the Booth Centre in Manchester.

get the bus and GO to the calm to the peaceful
know where I'm going to the lovely there
talking to country people chills me wakes me
it bores me the city the daily
I like to walk when the light's going I'm coming
home I know exactly where I'm coming back to
the smell the cold breezy air the sound
the sheep
thrush in the morning the same one that
wakes me
in the city it's stressful to me very cos you can't move in
that space you can't breathe everybody walks right through
you jumping from one side to the other panic attacks
back to the wall
got to go through to quiet draw a veil over them quiet
place in the cathedral where they know me they trust
me I think of it as sanctuary
the flock
thrush in the morning the same one that
wakes me

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

a map of you: postcards

Three and a half workshops days in and we have the start of  a wonderful collection of artwork for a map of you (working with homeless and vulnerably housed people). As ever, when doing collaborative work we are unsure just where things are going and exactly how they will turn out; this can be stressful, but also creatively stimulating. We’ve a pattern now, with a drop-in artists’ residency in the a.m. and then a ‘closed’ workshop afternoon, but are still learning the ropes, still untangling the patterns.

Our morning at the Big Issue office divided between me progressing the postcards and Phil interviewing staff. When we were putting together our book PATIENCE, we found that the interviews with nurses, doctors, psychiatrists and so on gave a strong sense of context to the book. Certainly talking with Nathan and Gemma this morning helped us to understand some of the pressures that both vendors and staff are under. These interviews will be blogged in due course.

The afternoon at the Booth Centre by Manchester cathedral was a powerful experience. Our group of six participants skated around the subject of comfort, moving delicately between totems of comfort and lack - teddy bears, detox, separation, joy, chocolate and even suicide. It felt like eggshell-walking, but it was finally an uplifting gathering of people and their thoughts. The word ‘comfort’ grew and grew in scale and significance and as we worked a kind of peace settled in the room.

For a map of you, we have a number of outcomes already planned, this gives us the framework and direction for the text/art. At the end of April, we will be showing a concertina postcard at the Text Festival in Bury.  We will be selected 6 images from the growing collection of customised postcards of Manchester or from the collection of customised Lowry postcards. Its a lovely position to be in, to already have so many pieces to select from.

Phil has started to work with participants to create short (140 character) poetic pieces that can be used in the LED displays at the BBC Big Screen, and with LOVE advertising company. These short poems are also be written, or stencilled onto the postcards.

Yesterday we had our first disposable camera developed, D chose what he considered to be discardable photos (blurry, out of focus, all sky...) and wrote on them short fragments of text about his life. We're excited about these images, would like to develop a collection. These could possibly used on the Lightboxes at Piccadilly.

Without prompting, 3 participants picked up bamboo dip pens and worked on their own poetic pieces. Its wonderful to see people re-visiting their calligraphy skills, something many won't have done since childhood.

The stories of casual violence and the battered expressions are only part of the story. There is much tenderness in this little community at The Booth Centre and particularly on show is the great British survival mechanism of humour. It sparks everywhere, filling the place with big gales of laughter.

Thanks to The Lowry, in Salford Quays for kindly donating the large number of postcards.

Monday, 7 March 2011

The significance of a ham salad sarnie

Friday afternoon was sunlit and sharp – a good afternoon for legwork. We set out at 2pm with Ben from The Big Issue office on an outreach walk, checking in with the vendors in Manchester city centre. Our plan was to show our faces to the vendors, many of whom hadn’t met us, and to try making a little impromptu work with them.

Ben was lean-faced, young and kindly – and he walked like the clappers, despite his habitual roll-ups. So we brisked down through the Northern Quarter and to the main bustle, where we met P our first vendor. He gave us a warm hello and chatted for 10 minutes about the site, the people who pass him and about his own past. Little fragments of a hard history: ‘That barbed wire reminds me of prison.’ Because the vendors work when at their pitches, we could only take a little of his time and intermittent attention.

Other stops led to other conversations, outside the big landmark stores and edifices in town. Vendors wear a dayglo bib while they’re selling, so that they stand out for the outreach workers to see – the bibs double as a traffic safety extra. (R wryly observed of this badging: ‘All the women, everyone’s after people wearing a Big Issue bib cos we’ve got a lot of prospects. I’m personally overwhelmed with offers.’)

The idea of the outreach is to make sure people are alright, working – and eluding the ever-present ghost ‘trouble’ however it next materialises. The pressures of the life are huge, often coming from deep-set behaviours and peer pressure. Breaking out of this mould can be a long and terrifying job. ‘I’ve been homeless two year no ID no benefit so I was stuck in a circle couldn’t get anywhere to live cos everyone wanted ID and wanted to know you was on benefits. Plus I was a bad smackhead. This time last year - my head did go Fred West quite a bit - but I couldn’t even tell people I was a heroin addict cos I was embarrassed.

Our idea was simply to ask people about their day - the best part of it – and for them to document the moment of our conversation by taking a quick photograph. I jotted down the words, Lois gave people whatever help they needed as they took the pictures.

I have good moments. Someone brought me a ham salad sarnie today. Or they all bring me a cuppa in the middle of winter and you end up with nine cups. I never refuse it. When they do little things like that that’s a nice touch.

For more images from a map of you, please visit our portfolio site.

Used to say I’m running away but I never actually got round to it

This collection of street art made by young carers in Warrington asks questions about how we care for each other as humans – and if the cost of caring is the freedom to be yourself.

A group of 8-11 year old carers collaborated with arts organisation arthur+martha at Warrington Art Gallery to create these subtle self-portraits, combining graffiti, poetry, collage, paints, ink. They name friends, fears, cares and freedoms – some of them buried, some of them harshly written across a face or inscribed in the heart. The pieces have been placed in Warrington’s indoor market, a familiar hangout for young people dodging rain and boredom.

Kitty and self portrait

Kitty Bland’s two pieces contrast a curled up introvert with a jumping skyrocket of a girl. Ryan’s firework-minded thinker is held to earth by a chair, his head in the exploding stars. 

Ryan and self portrait

Len’s basketballer is a teamplayer, but strives for individual glories. Lauren’s cross-legged image looks at us full in the face, while her eyes are masked and with her free hand she texts a message elsewhere. Luke Hall’s laconic bystander shimmers within his outline, can’t be pinned down – but at his centre is a ‘fireheart’.

Luke's Fireheart

Complementing the figures are self-portraits as training shoes – half-drawn, half-written customised trainers that give fragments of the makers’ lives and interests. But the shoes are also a means of escape – they are literally the method needed to run away. Some of them carry fragments of fearfulness or anger, and have been hacked to pieces. Others are joyous celebrations of the artists. On one set of training shoes is written the title of the show, a passing comment made by one of the young carers -  ‘Used to say I’m running away but I never actually got round to it.’

Used to say I'm running away...

At the information desk in the market, poems bottled like pickles can be requested – they describe emotions as trapped animals, wriggling to get out.
This exhibition was commissioned by Warrington Art Gallery as a response by local young people to the street artist ELBOW-TOE whose work has recently been exhibited in the gallery. ELBOW-TOE said of the collection 'These are awesome!' Warrington Young Carers partnered the project, which was directed by artist Lois Blackburn and poet Philip Davenport, arthur+martha. 

Kitty's customised trainers

Derek Dick, Museum Operations & Development Manager at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery  said 'I am so pleased with the responses and the work that everyone has put in. This group has really benefited from the whole experiences. It does put life into perspective.' You can view photos of work in progress and the final installation at

Thanks again for all of those people who volunteered their time and help, particular thanks to Derek, Sarah, Louise and Melanie, and all those from the Warrington Youth Federation. We are grateful to the parents and children at Hayfield Primary School, who kindly donated so many trainers, as materials for customization.