Tuesday, 28 June 2011

award winning!

Our project with St Helens Council's Art Service in Four Acre,  has just won an award! We finished runner-up in the national Lemos and Crane Bloom awards. To find out more please visit www.sthelens.gov.uk and http://www.lemosandcrane.co.uk/

Judges described the Four Acre project as: “A really good way to identify isolated older people who are not in touch with statutory services” and “a well conceived, executed and documented example of the stimulation and fun that the arts can give.”

The panel of judges were: Andrew Barnett, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation; David Cutler, The Baring Foundation; Tim Joss, The Rayne Foundation; Katherine Payne, The Mercers’ Company; Louise Telford, Northern Rock Foundation.

Thanks so much for everyone who voted for the project.

Monday, 27 June 2011

orange, an apple, a shiny penny

During our session with the Bingo group in Four Acre, St Helens, a poem was created on the theme of birthday celebrations.... Thanks again for making us feels so welcome and joining in our activities with so much energy and enthusiasm.

couldn't wait to be 10
to be 11
to be 12
mother did a bit of baking
never a party
couldn't afford one
8 to a bed
13 in one house
a nightmare of the past
a spread and a cake
a cap gun – I love cowboys
little tin toys
a teaparty, told the girls at school
lucky to get a present
parents not working
eldest of 6, always poor
mother baked endless cakes 1947, 48, 49
lucky if I got a card

wish each other a few
didn't celebrate
such a lot of us in the family
great and
great great
went iceskating, silver blades
an endless pattern
Springfield and opposite the Baths
hired a disco
played your own
Saints got beat in the final
on my 18th
Cadburys Selection, an orange, an apple
nuts as well
a shiny penny
safe endless days
everyone was your aunt or uncle

we spoil our kids cos we didn't have it
enjoy life
an endless tapestry
share it with as many as possible
friends come to the house
grandchildren bring me things
I will stay 69
I'm not going to be 71 this year
I'm still here
that's celebration enough

group poem
20 June 2011
Bingo group, Four Acre, St Helens

Friday, 24 June 2011

Pimplets Pies and Bourbon biscuits

Yesterday for the project in Four Acre St Helens,  Phil, Joanne and I spent the morning at Kershaw Day Centre working with people diagnosed with dementia. As ever on a first visit to a new venue I felt a mix of excitement and apprehension, but all concerns quickly disappeared as we were met by wonderfully welcoming Gary Conley, who quickly settled us in with cups of tea and introductions to staff. As we talked Gary pointing out with great pride the potters wheel, he talked of wanting to try out new things with this art group, of pushing the boundaries and raising expectations.

As participants arrived we formed a group around the tables and started chatting about food and cooking. Our mouths soon were watering with talk of Pimlets Pies and homemade baked custards. For the poetry and art work we focussed our attentions on cakes, pies and biscuits, and after a very lively discussion (which the staff seemed to enjoy as much as the participants) we divided up into smaller groups to select individual lines to write onto card cakestands.

Some participants decided to draw their memories rather than to write about them. John worked through double vision to produce these beautiful drawings of fruit cakes and bananas.

Later I collected signatures for a layer of cakestand, although we all might sign our names less (with the loss of checks and emailing replacing writing letters)  the writing of a signature is something most of us take for granted. However with memory loss or/and double vision, for many of the group the simple act of signing a name became an activity that needed great concentration and focus. Their struggle and determination made the work even more poignant. 

For more photos please visit http://www.flickr.com

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Bloom Awards

I am pleased to announce that the current arthur+martha project in Four Acre, St Helens has been short-listed for the national Bloom Awards. The Bloom Awards are for excellence and innovation in improving the quality of life, dignity and well-being of older people receiving care and support. We would really value your support. To register and to cast your vote on the various projects in the awards please follow this link http://lemosandcrane.co.uk/ and look for St Helen’s Council- Arts Service: Art of the Unexpected. Voting closes 24th June (5pm)

caring, embroidered bunting in progress

Poems about succumbing to temptation iced onto cakes, childhood memories painted onto plates, or make do and mend stitched onto tablecloths, bunting describing manners, reminiscence celebrating rule-breaking drawn onto cake stands, fading memories written on doilies, 'sugar' graffiti that evokes the tastes and smells of long gone childhoods…. poems and artwork commemorating those we care about and times of real poverty.

We have been inviting older people in the community to make a mix of poetry and art, celebrating their lives and visions.  We’re trying to reach those who might not normally join in with art activities, by taking our workshops to the local Bingo night, housebound peoples homes, the doctors surgery, Tesco’s, a day centre for people diagnosed with dementia a local library…
We’re inviting the participants to stretch a little beyond their usual habits and social circle, meet some new people, try out some unusual creative avenues. It allows participants to share their view of the world in a vibrant dialogue with their community.
More photos at http://www.flickr.com/

8 in a bed

I'm writing this while Les calls the bingo numbers in St Michaels' church hall,  Four Acre, St. Helens. Les and Pat , both over-60s, run the bingo night, the allotment group (just won a prize) and Les used to oversee the Boxing Club too. He's a big man, a scaled-up version of the ordinary, with a big voice and a sharp insight in people. He's the anchorman in this group of people, calling the Bingo, making connections, helping to hold the centre of the community.

We went from table to table before the bingo stand and asked the folk here to offer a thought or two about celebration, then cut up their lines and let them fall into a rough shape. The poem that emerged sketched out a little story of struggle, but also perseverance: “I'm still here, that's celebration enough.”

teacher pulled hair to celebrate birthday

Many people had grown up with very little in the way of possessions or money and their families had grafted hard and long all their lives. The older people especially had a tough ride – one person remembered growing up in a family of 13, all sharing a little house with only three bedrooms. Very few remembered celebrating birthdays with a heap of toys – but the thing they did own was a strong sense of family, community: “Those were safe days. Everyone was your aunty or uncle.”

8 to a bed, 13 of us but oh what happy days

Les watched us work and then observed: “I've often noticed if you ask people to write down their thoughts they get all tongue-tied in their heads. But if someone writes it down for them, they get the ideas across clear as you like.”

This is one of the fundamentals of our work and it was sharp of him to pick up on such an important aspect of it. These moments of conversation - the flashes of recollection, or humour - are the energy feeding everything we do and those moments must be encouraged and valued. Some of the most powerful encounters in my life have been made through these arthur+martha sessions, I only hope that we serve the people we meet well.

selection orange apple shiny penny nuts I loved my home

The bingo's ending, people are packing in a flurry of numbers, discarded score sheets. Les makes a final farewell before the PA is switched off: "Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen, hope to see you all next time. For now - bye."

ballons with short reminisces 

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

tacked, taped and nailed

Yesterday morning Phil and I were working in the Four Acre Library. The venue has become wonderfully familiar now and in turn Phil and I are not such a strange sight to the locals. A number of times children in the library have recognised us from the workshop we did in the local school and said hello, Phil recounts how when he's cycling to catch the train local children are smiling and waving and saying 'hello, and there's the poet!' Its a slow process getting to know a new community, but it feels like we are making a small step in the right direction.

Margaret Clarke writing poetic line on tablecloth
Yesterday we worked with a great mix of older people including a couple we met during 1 to 1 sessions, one woman we met during our drop in session at the local Tesco's, another we first met at the session in the Doctors Waiting room- its great to see these more unusual venues paying back with participants joining the group at the Library.

Sid Saunders writing poetic text on tablecloth

We worked on the theme of 'make do and mend' and after some very lively reminiscence, we focussed on stitching- from repairing clothes to making cloggs from boots to pulling out the stitches on a cut arm...
Short poetic lines where selected from the reminiscence and written onto the tablecloth (and will be embellished with stitch at another day) It reads:

God Grant that I may see the stitch until my dying day
boots when they wore away
take them to the cloggers
tacked taped and nailed to turn them to
sparking clogs
pit drawers
sew them with shot fire wire when they riped
we riped the oil cloth off the floor
to burn it to get us warm
bless this house and the family that live within
the work I have done
lives on.

for more photos please visit http://www.flickr.com

Friday, 17 June 2011

embroidered 'posh' bunting and tablecloths

bunting in progress, A slap
I've just been reminded that today is the 20 year anniversary of my graduation from the Embroidery Degree at MMU. (Manchester College as it was then) Its a bit of a shocker. To celebrate I've just posted some current embroidery work done with older people in the project Four Acre, St Helens. 

Since graduating, I haven't done much in the way of stitchy embroidery, favouring instead painting and other quicker methods of working in textiles. However this project has been a joy, there is something really relaxing about sitting down absorbed in  stitch, and wonderfully social if you combine it with other people, tea and cake.

if theres stress in anyway, tablecloth in progress

The embroidery works on-line at flickr are bunting (half made) based on reminiscence about Manners, and the consequences if you didn't have them! The other, the on-going embroidery is the tablecloth, covered in poetic phrases that tell of the importance of tea drinking, sometimes cheeky, at times touching and funny, with delicate drawings in stitch of tea cups and pots.

tea will solve all, tablecloth in progress

and yes, sometimes tea will solve all.

Friday, 10 June 2011


Visual poems by Satu Kaikkonen and Steve Giasson at the Fusilier Museum, Bury.

The Text Festival in Bury has been an extraordinary gathering of international poets and artists, redrawing the map of language. Exhibitions from the festival extend out from the art gallery to the Fusilier Museum and the Transport Museum. Philip, who curated the Transport Museum show, also helped place works selected by Tony Trehy in the Fusilier Museum. Here are his explanatory notes on some of the pieces in the show:


Main Entrance doors

Derek Beaulieu

Language is one of the barriers between people that cause conflict. Beaulieu's poems are often abstract constructions of letters with no obvious linguistic meaning. So, this is an international declaration of peace.

Derek Beaulieu letrasetting his work onto the glass door at the museum

Exhibition entrance

George Widener/Ian Hamilton Finlay/Christian Bok/Anonymous

All of these pieces describe machines of destruction. Widener is an 'outsider' artist who depicted plane and shipping disasters. He was often short of money, working on cheap paper napkins instead of art paper. Ian Hamilton Finlay used images of military equipment to describe the violence of nature and nature to describe human violence. Christian Bok's 'language virus' is of course a kind of killer, as is the sniper at the end of the wall.

Second World War

Irene Barberis's line of black words is taken from the Book of Revelation in the Bible. Here, the words echo the shape of a machine-gun belt; bullets for the gun sitting over them.

Musical instrument Displays

Satu Kaikkonen/Anonymous

In these two cabinets, the work of the Finnish visual poet Satu Kaikkonen provides an unplayable musical score for the silent instruments (see photo above). Kaikkonen, one of the leading experimental poets in Finland, is also a music teacher. Hidden at the base of one of the cabinets is a postcard from the sequence 'a map of you', made by homeless and vulnerably housed people in Bury and Manchester - more of these postcards can be seen at Bury Transport Museum. The single word message of the card can be read in many ways - perhaps here it refers to the solace brought by music.

One man tent

Fatima Quieros

This visual poem (or 'vispo') by South American Fatima Quieros is a variation on the letter X. Here it rests on the empty sleeping bag like a question - who was the ex-occupant of this bag?

Normandy Room

Steve Giasson

Canadian poet Steve Giasson has listed the names of all the dead in Homer's Iliad, the heroes and the unsung (see photo above). The piece speaks to the other roll calls of the dead in this room - the many Fusiliers who gave their lives in two world wars.

Modern War

Stephen Butler/Philip Davenport

Butler's triptych subtly points up the physical brutality of war. Davenport's spreadsheet is based on his notes taken at war crime hearings in the Hague. The trial concerned the massacre of Muslim men and boys in Bosnia. The poem counts up the dead, using a spreadsheet like a kind of mourning abacus. (Philip's account of writing the poem at a war crime trial in The Hague is to be found on this blog, titled "I am sitting in a room" written March 2009.)

Visual poem by Stephen Butler

Closeup of Steve Giasson poem

The Text Festival continues until 9 July 2011; please contact 0161 253 5878 for dates and opening times of specific exhibitions or events.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011


The artist Tabitha Moses has been working with us on the Four Acre project, giving us invaluable help and now this informative feedback...

I suppose I got in touch with arthur+martha because I've had a growing feeling that running creative workshops hasn't been as fulfilling or profound as it could be - for all concerned. Sometimes, not always, it seems that participants have a pretty superficial experience, just coming along and making something crafty pretty quickly, not much one-to-one interaction, following instructions, not engaging very deeply with the creative process. Of course it's not compulsory that they have an epiphany but there is such potential to open up internal vistas through exploring and challenging yourself…

I've noticed the benefits of working as a pair – there is someone to bounce ideas around with, to discuss how the project is going, share the workload, bringing individual strengths to the workshops (Phil's words/poetry and Lois's design/visual skills), developing the projects through conversation.

Other things I've noticed…

- It's important to let people use their own voice in the words and visuals – handwriting, drawing, spoken words
- People have the choice of words or visuals, they can engage initially in the most comfortable way
- Very simple 'art' techniques that don't scare people away. I love how the handwriting is transformed into something permanent by embroidery or transfer onto crockery
- Questions and topics of conversation are universal and open to interpretation. People can respond as lightly or as deeply as they wish
- Longer term projects allow greater depth, exploration, relationships to develop
-  The one-to-ones are new to me. Important for reaching deeper places, thoughts, ideas, memories
-  The blog is a vital part of arthur+martha. It acts as a record of events, a place for reflection, an advertising tool, a virtual gallery, somewhere the participants can direct friends and family to.

Phil mentioned that it was important for him to allow his own practice to inform the workshops. I've found this rather difficult in the past, thinking of my practice as being composed of the visual and making parts only. However I now realise how heavily I draw on people's accounts, stories, reminiscences for my subject matter. This can definitely be brought into future workshops.

Tabithand Mr Clarke

It was a real privilege to sit in on the session with Mr and Mrs Clarke, all those memories, stories, people, places. We had a right old laugh. Important to pass on the knowledge too. I don't know how housebound Mr and Mrs C are but they seemed to enjoy the company and the chance to reminisce. Keeps the brain ticking over. I liked how they were encouraged to look at their stories in an unorthodox way, cutting up sentences and making poetry.

So, thank you Lois and Phil. You're doing a great and inspiring job.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Boiled Bone Soup at Tesco

participant in Four Acre 'Tesco' workshop
Tesco in Four Acre were kind enough to let us run a workshop in their supermarket, so we (Phil, Lois, Tabitha) duly set up shop. We had cakes, tablecloths, balloons to write on, all of them stark white in contrast to the multicolours of the stacked shelves around us. The memories of food ushered in by the older people we met were also in stark contrast to the plenty on display. Perhaps it's impossible nowadays to imagine the short supply of those wartime childhoods, but the power of telling came through both loud and clear. One man actually shook with anger at the very idea of wasted food: his mother had raised his family on not-quite-enough. They didn't starve, but they certainly were acquainted with hunger, intimately and often.

Go Hungry cake

Hungry? I used to steal potatoes and peas and carrots from farmers' fields. It's what you had to do. (Anon)

Boiled Bone Soup in yellow enamel bowls. No flavour, but it filled. (Marie)

fairy cakes with quotes from Participants written on (then eaten)

War recipes: Irish Stew. No veg, apart from a dirty carrot. A piece of meat the size of an oxo. Hold a leek in the pot for 5 minutes to give extra taste. The next week we made bread. No yeast. (Joan)

The first banana I had was out of a tin. (Jeff)

Short pieces of reminiscence were selected by participants to write onto cakes, napkins and paper tablecloths. More photos at flickr

(A big thank you to Louise Applegate at Tesco for helping to facilitate this session and Tesco's for providing the materials for the workshop.)

A van delivered the tea leaves, another the milk, another the bread....

Monday, 6 June 2011

St.Teresa's Primary School, St Helens

Do heroes date? Are most of today's toys virtual? We wanted to start an intergenerational conversation at St Helens, so Phil and I worked on an activity for children to engage older people in discussion. Last Wednesday morning we were given warm tea and welcome by Years 5 and 6 at St.Teresa's Primary School, Four Acre.

We chose themes that would connect across the decades. Year 6 listed Heroes - they selected and justified their personal heroes:  varying from Zeus, to 'my Nan' to Jesus to tweenpoppers JLS. The children drew an image symbolizing their choice on a paper plate,  taking care to leave room on their artwork for the older person to write their reply in circular form. For Year 5, we discussed Toys and Games, resulting in a diverse and at times disturbing mix of computer games and classic children's toys. From the delightfully monikered Killzone 3, to one girl who chose her Grandma's Whip and Top. Phil attained a level of doubtful cool because he'd played Assassain's Creed.

One of the creative challenges was to draw in the round - to make a drawing with no top or bottom, that could be viewed from all directions; it's a great stimulator to set projects in which the world is seen in a slightly different way.

I was saddened to hear several children hitting the 'I cant draw' wall. They needed lots of reassurance and encouragement. Where do the problems set in? I believe that all children can draw, I see children aged 0-5 before starting school who delight in mark making, colour and texture, seeming more interested in the process than the end result. Where and how does this change? Unfortunately confidence is easily knocked. Sometimes this problem is added to by the very people who are trying to assist. I've sometimes seen classroom assistants trying to help out by drawing for children. We have met many older people over the years who cry out 'I can't draw', citing the fact that they haven't done anything arty since school. Many recount how a teacher's or parent's throwaway criticism put them off for life.

Kung Fu Panda in a heart.
One of the boys I worked with insisted he couldn't draw, however he was full of enthusiasm for the subject (his hero was his saviour Aunty, who he symbolized with a Kung Fu Panda that she gave him, enveloped in a heart) With encouragement, he conquered his fear and designed this delightful plate. The hard won pieces are often the best; they depict their own struggle.

We asked the children to imagine they were reporters, and brainstormed with them a list of questions they would like to ask older people about the theme of Heroes or Games. Their questions showed imagination and some sophistication. I would love to be a fly on the wall for the conversations they'll have with the older people they choose to work with.

Over the morning the two groups produced thoughtful work, enthusiastic and engaged. I look forward to the seeing the finished artworks. Thanks again to the school for making us feel so welcome, and providing pencils, pens and those essential cups of tea.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

a huge kettle always simmering

Yesterday Phil and I spent a happy and productive morning at Four acre Library, with a small but highly motivated group of participants. We worked on the embroidered tablecloth with an image
of a brown teapot, and writing sharing the tradition of teadrinking...

Sid spoke with great affection and humor about his mam and dad,  he wrote on the tablecloth: "It was that strong we called it black treacle, there were spoons of it heaped like logs floating''. and "an open grate a huge kettle always simmering. She'd cook immaculate."

Mary shared her memories of growing up on a farm: "Nothing tastes so good as sitting under a haystack or stook of corn and drinking that tea''

One of the challenges in working in a drop in session is you never know how many people will be joining you- an empty room or and overcrowded one or a mad rush with everyone turning up 5 minutes before the finish time. This time the library was quite quiet, so our group was small. But the conversation blossomed and kept blossoming. Our pair of participants really engaged in the subject matter, the conversation and the artworks. They'd both been to previous sessions, and seemed keen to join us again in future ones - a tentative start in creating a new creative group in Four Acre. One of the joys of group work is setting an activity up and then watching it take of and have a life of its own. Here the encounters were social as well as creative - our two main participants were strangers at the start, but soon discovered that they were brought up in the same neighborhood and shared many memories, the atmosphere turned into a little party.

more photos at http://www.flickr.com

The pros and cons of manners

A visit from Mayor Tom Hargreaves added an extra voice to our session with the Mature Matters group at St Helens. The Mayor is deeply involved with his local community and so the discussion started with ideas of community - what makes a healthy community? What are signs of it sickening? From this we moved into examining how we're all taught to inter-relate. The pros and cons of manners. Key phrases from this discussion were embroidered onto bunting, like moral post-its from a shared past. 'Eat with your mouth closed.' 'Sit up straight.' 'Manners!' 'Ps + Qs.' The group itself is a little community, a cheerful and supportive one, run by Doreen and Monica. As Doreen said: 'Community? You've got to get to know people. And care about them.'


embroidering the bunting
Key words from this discussion were embroidered onto bunting, like little moral post-its..

A visit from Mayor Tom Hargreaves added an extra voice to our session with the Mature Matters group in Four Acre.

Mature Matters and the Mayor

Owen and the Mayor

Pauline and Jane

Scripture cake

Vintage cookery books

For more images please visit http://www.flickr.com

Saturday, 4 June 2011

conclusions drawn from being alive

The most moving session I've witnessed at Four Acre was with one man. During the course of reflection and reminiscence, he travelled through his whole life. At first, his summary of it was dismissive. 'Mundane job, mundane job, mundane job.' His manner was brittle and defensive. He was shut away in his house and within himself.

In the course of talking, his world began to unfurl. He remembered the adventures he'd happily undertaken, the crazy-seeming risks. He recollected his encounters not only with other people on his global travels, but also the natural world, the landscapes, the wild edges of the earth. I made notes of his experience and read them back to him, reaffirming the richness of his past. I asked him to make a piece of writing that reflected on his experiences. He was too self-conscious to write or draw in front of us, so we left him with pen and paper.

For our second session, he had written a little philosophical rumination; the conclusions he'd drawn from being alive. He had also decided to join an artgroup. He was also less guarded. Little chinks had opened in his armour and through them escaped some hints of his old bravery. Because we had the opportunity to work one-to-one with this man, a remarkable thing occurred. We were privileged enough to be part of a rare moment - when someone looks at themselves and changes as a result of that act of reflection.

Of course my account is subjective. How can we really know what happens in another person's head, or heart? But something about the quality of that particular afternoon makes me believe my 6th sense. The fact that I can see his face before me in my minds eye as I write, can recall the conversation, tells me how deeply it affected me.

How do you measure human engagement? Behind every publicly-funded art project there's a tussle going on between art and numbers. How deeply engaged are the participants, versus how many participants? How much does it cost versus how much art is in the art? This is public money and as many of the public as possible should benefit. But if the engagement is shallow, then what's the point?

arthur+martha usually works with groups: being in a group is often a great encourager and pleasure for people. The social dynamic becomes part of the texture of the art. However, numbers are not the whole story. The strength of a piece of art is the intensity of its vision and the conclusions it draws. Neither the personal experiences nor the power of the artwork can be number-crunched - they need another kind of accounting.