Tuesday, 27 November 2012


The following article about our project the warm /&/the cold is from The Big Issue in the North magazine. Dawn Bunnell writes:


The traditional arts of patchwork quilting and embroidery are being used to record the experiences of Manchester’s homeless community.

the warm /&/the cold  is a project run by arthur+martha arts organisation, led by poet Phil Davenport and artist Lois Blackburn.

Created out of denim fabric, the quilt is made of denim from recycled pairs of jeans - twenty-seven in all - embroidered with personal descriptions of when a homeless person was warm or cold.

The project began eight months ago and has taken arthur+martha right into the heart of Manchester’s homeless population working with vendors from The Big Issue in the North and also people using the Booth Centre. The project gathers together artwork, poetry and interviews born out of spending time listening to the life experiences of people living on the streets.

Poet Phil Davenport said: “The quilt is created by asking simple questions that have complex answers – when were you warm? When were you cold? They lead into the whole area of homeless experiences. Physical warmth and extreme cold, but also emotional warmth, or being left out in the cold of rejection.

“We work with people who wouldn’t normally get heard, yet have a lot of wisdom. Many people who live outside of society see what’s going on more clearly then everyone else. People we've met also have great humour and resilience, which is an inspiration to me personally.”

The experiences are written onto the fabric by the homeless people themselves, who have also helped embroider their own words, with support from students from Manchester Met University.

Once the six by nine feet quilt is completed, it will be displayed alongside a range of other quilts made during the project at the university’s Holden Gallery, from 3 December for two weeks. These quilts will then be donated as housewarming gifts to people who are being rehoused.

Andy (participant) and denim quilt

Phil said: “The quilts are traditional, but also represent warmth, hospitality and the home - and the stories they tell are preserved through touch. It's a very ancient ritual we've tapped into, the passing on of personal histories.”

Little animations featuring lines from the big quilt are being screened throughout November and December on Manchester’s BBC Big Screen outside the Triangle shopping centre and on Liverpool's BBC Big Screen.

Phil added: “It has been wonderful to do this; we were moved and honoured to hear the stories. And the project has obviously been a big deal to the participants, one guy we spoke to had his files lost by the DSS, he felt invisible – he told me working with us made him feel visible again. A woman today kept saying how joining in with this had boosted her confidence, just a bit of talking and sewing. Sometimes it's the little-seeming things in life that are the biggest.”

Exhibition of quilts, ceramics and prints the warm /&/the cold at The Holden Gallery, Manchester Metropolitan University, starts 3 Dec 2012.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

do unto others

In the course of our Oldham project 'making memories' we are trying to find ways that we can intensify and find meaning in memories, using objects.

Working at The Grange (Housing with support) in the morning and Highbarn Day Centre in the afternoon, Phil and I adapted our on-going project 'Lost Property'. The technique gives everyone an opportunity to subtly effect the meaning of their selected object, and emphases their reminiscence. While Phil led the session, I wrote 'field notes'....

Walter with Rolls Royce

Phil introduces his toy dinky Rolls Royce, explains his history with the item as it goes round; smiles all round as he explains the frustration he felt as a child having to keep it in the box. It's carefully handled by the group, Doreen shares memories of dinky cars her sons played with. Phil asks 'Did you have a special toy? Conversation flows between members of the group, sometimes directed straight to Phil. Doreen keeps spying the other objects in the bag, curious to see them, prompting me to get them out. Walter takes hold of the lead toy soldier with real delight and an animated face.

do unto others  Eunice, Oct 2012

The conversations inspired by each other seem as lively as those inspired by the objects, especially so when a subject everyone has an opinion about - such as how to punish children! This became particularly animated and passionate.

Good to have some objects to show with an element of mystery , the small dog on a marble base produced a range of ideas for its use... Paper weight, box lid, or simply a decoration. I would like to see space within these memory boxes for mystery objects, ones that provoke imagination and play - where everyone is on the same footing, staff and participant.

Labelling: the group got on with writing labels without questions, we didn't go into detail as to the reason why we were writing on the labels. There is an ease amongst the group, perhaps due to the relationship built over the previous sessions, perhaps the enjoyment of the conversations before the writing exercise. V was the only one who struggled, it was her first time with the group, she seemed confused at times. She would have benefited from one to one attention throughout the session. Doreen, Yvette, Eunice, and Reet understood and savoured the extra dimension and depth the labels gave to the objects.

Everyone agreed that it was useful to pass on a message. That they would all be curious to see a label attached, that it would impact on the object, 'It becomes a story'. in Doreen's case the labeled doll became a story of life and death.

'my first night duty' Doreen Oct 2012

The various objects passed round focus attention; people speak about the object, which in turn inspires more conversation, drifting and at time leaping between topics. 

Introducing new objects allow subtle directing of conversation...

Reet: I love it coming here, I'm so pleased that you're carrying on. I shouted yes! When I heard it was going to carry on. 

Questions asked:

1. Do you have a childhood object or toy or memory that is your most important.
2. What conclusion have you drawn from life? Or did someone ev give you a good piece of advice.
3. What is the link between the answers to these two questions?

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A welcome at The Red Door

the warm /&/the cold project
Bury Housing Concern Nov 14 2012

As part of our ongoing project with homeless people, we've conducted many mini-interviews with homeless people, which are fascinating and moving accounts of difficult lives. We've also been in contact with many carers, support workers and helpers at the drop-ins and centres we've visited. One such is a volunteer helper at 'The Red Door' drop-in, known more officially as Bury Housing Concern.

Homelessness happens to anyone, any age. Mainly it follows family or relationship breakdown, that's the main one. The big problem.

We try to help people with the situation they're immediately in, whatever level of urgency it is. Have they just come in wanting a shoulder to cry on? Have they just become homeless? Do they need a bit of TLC or are there deeper problems? We work our way up the ladder, starting with what they think they need. Then we go on up. A lot of people don't understand their rights and their needs. Usually I get the tears, my job is listening. They come to me with a story and I'll ask what help they need.

As somebody who has been homeless myself, I always tell them my story and then we compare notes. We end up chatting and I find out what they need - and I tell them the rest, their rights and so on. It can be very emotional.

I get a lot of kisses and cuddles in this job.

I think you need to be a good listener; they don't need advice ramming down their throats. Someone might've come in here for months, then one day they'll say: 'We need to talk and they'll break down in tears - and we'll talk properly.

I love doing this work, the job satisfaction is so big.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

From Mayo to Melbourne

The Big Issue in the North office, 7 Nov 2012
the warm /&/ the cold project

Here's an interview with Peter, a very cheery homeless man in Manchester who we met at The Big Issue in the North office today. This is one of many such encounters, documented as part of our project with homeless people in Manchester, discussing their lives. Peter comes from County Mayo in Ireland, but has his sights set on getting to as many places in the world as he can that begin with the letter M. Manchester is just the start. We've heard many accounts of just how punishing life on the streets can be, but Peter has a different point of view.


I like sleeping out, I find it natural. I've an awful addiction to television. No problem with that on the streets. I'm qualified to be a farmer, I'm just one who doesn't have a farm. If you want to be a farmer you have to get yourself a farm. It's a good life outside, it is THE life. You have happiness with the time you've spent. I wouldn't be happy with a history of well-watched Coronation Street.

It's very cheap on the streets, no rent, no heating bills – no heating. I find a log fire or a turf fire to be the best way of heating. It's a free life. I've been moving around the last two years. Money can be a problem, but I've always worked, always been able to make the money in one industry or another. I want to stay on the road awhile then at the end I'll buy a house and a farm. When I settle, find true love or whatever is out there.

I ran out of money, the cheques started bouncing. Got a heavy prison sentence which ran me out of money more. Sold the farm - got me debt-clear but I didn't have any way of moneymaking. I started travelling, doing work. Cards for cash in Dublin, had fun with that. Kept farming, WOOF-ing (Worldwide Organisation of Organic Farming) doing odd jobs and now I've found The Big Issue.

From here, truck driving or farming, see whichever comes in. See the world while I've the chance: Amsterdam, Spain, Holland, Europe, Russia, Australia – the whole lot. When you own a house you're un-free, it's restricting. It buys you a safe place to stop but you can't run out the door and be a player. You're either a jet or a homeowner.

I've never come across that rough a time on the street, I'm a fairly happy-go-lucky fella. I know what a hammering is – know what a fight is and how to dodge it. Usually it's at night these things happen. I go to sleep through all that, it's the right time to be doing it anyway, at night. Find somewhere to sleep, stay in hostels, shelters, or parks, wherever you can pitch a tent. I have a tent, never leave home without one.

If you'd like to follow Peter's travels, go to his Facebook page: Patrick J Larkin at facebook.com

Monday, 5 November 2012


17 October, The Grange, Oldham

Philip writes:

We're working on developing reminiscence boxes, for use in care venues for older people. The objects in these boxes can spur very powerful remembering in people, even those who have memory problems.

We're trying various techniques, many of them light and playful, to add different facets to the reminiscence experience. Today, we put the objects into a bag - participants had to identify them by touch, reaching into the bag, exploring them by touch rather than by sight. The results caused great hilarity and gave the session a different focus than usual, stimulating much speculation and concentration. Smell is famously a trigger for memory, but touch is less used.

I'd brought various relics from my own childhood to the session, amongst them some toy soldiers. Here is the section from my field notes when the soldiers made their appearance:

Walter is completely transfixed when he encounters the toy soldiers in the bag. He gasps with recognition and a look of joy lifts his features. His delight is so big that it communicates itself to everyone in the group. His train of thought is fascinating, from childhood play to military service. 'It's going back for me. The subject isn't nice BUT the memories it evokes, they are nice. Cast them in lead a long time ago. (Dips into the bag and holds up one of the toy soldiers.) You can tell he's old, his rifle is drooping. I knew a lot of lads in Germany who were injured, became friends. Politicians have got a lot to answer for, people are the same everywhere, it's what they're directed to do by politicians is the problem.'

The reminiscences were cut up into lines and also put in a bag. People 'lucky-dipped' the lines, which were used to make a poem - a composition technique famously invented by the surrealists in the early 20th century, going under the title Exquisite Corpse. Dipping for objects and for poem lines brings an element of play into remembering and takes away from the fears that can accompany dementia.

I wonder what the 10 year old me would have thought of this game?

Thursday, 1 November 2012

A life about meself

Spaghetti Maze: dementia and life stories

Lois and I visited Bury Dementia Cafe for the first time this week. We've been commissioned by Bury Art Gallery to devise life stories, working with people who have a dementia diagnosis and the Cafe was the latest port of call.

A life story document helps people remember their lives as memory fails - an invaluable ally as they progress through the stages of dementia. It can also be crucial for carers to 'know' someone in their care quickly and to understand their mindset. Finally, life stories are a kind of heirloom which can be handed down through a family.

We're experimenting with the many life story templates that are available, bringing some fresh thinking to the field. For years now we've used avant garde writing techniques to help people access and write about their memories and in this project we're trying some of those approaches. But we've also been asking participants what they believe are the most important parts of their lives and reinforcing that by recording their conversations, noting things they like to discuss.

This week we brought some of the life story templates to the session and asked participants and carers what questions they think a life story should answer. Did their lives break down into easy-to-spot categories? What were their important life stages? What would be good questions to ask so as to find out about a life? The questions that people suggested are in bold in the text below. What phrases did they use to describe certain periods of their life experience? The phrase 'The Dancing Years' had a wonderful ring to it, as an evocation of teenage freedom and restlessness. And rather than the ponderous word Autobiography, I liked the phrase 'A life about meself.'

Just about everybody chipped in with some thoughts. Here are some of them below, from my notebook jottings. 

Childhood 'A learning time'
Teenage 'The dancing years'

Life experiences and emotional histories shape our reactions. How do you react to difficult circumstances?

“Mum and dad's music was motown. I still love motown...” Who influenced you? How were you influenced?
People you meet change you and alter your path – What's your path? What shape? Was it a wandering road or a straight line? Did you get to where you were headed?
Politics: 'I was a political animal, through and through. But I put family first.'

Family stays with us – how do we keep it alive? Grieve for it?

Inherited beliefs: 'The need to work and how to treat people. Justice. Treat everybody with FAIRATION.'
Family history and rebellion against it and yet how precious it becomes when we get older. 'I wish I'd asked more.'
'It's because they're no longer here and yet you're trying to hang onto them.'
'You're curious about why your children are the way they are.'
'Tell it, if not for us, for your grandchildren.'

Fitting a whole life into a small space, like a life story book. How do you squeeze it in, choosing the most important bits? 'It's difficult to compress..'
Individuality is difficult to describe. 'The unusual thing about my life is...'

Heirlooms as history.
Objects have some of their power because of their personal or social resonance with history.
'Being born in a certain period shapes your future.'
'These events shape the human being you eventually become.'
'It's a devastating thing to be bombed.'
What childhood memory would you keep? What experience would you pass on?
Autobiography 'A life about meself.'

'I hope that you have managed to enjoy the opportunities you have worked for.'
How fortunate are you?
Travel - 'I was able to travel, the world opened up.'
Things you might have done (but didn't). What are the great might-have-beens in your life?