Friday, 13 December 2013

How much is in a tale

We're on the search for memory prompts to serve as reminiscence aids for the project Making Memories. The sheer physicality of an object (a rolling pin, a potty, a toy car, a perfume bottle, a teapot, a spigot, a bob-chaser, a doozie...) is a powerful tool. Just as taste can prompt remembering, a la Proust, so can touch, smell, weight. One of the best gadgets we've discovered in this respect is a pile of books.

Collection of Beatrix Potter's Books 

Lois and I brought books from our collections this morning to Shaw Side, Residential and Nursing Home, we worked with people who have a dementia diagnosis. The table was piled with a diverse set: illustrated children's books both old and modern, Pooh, Alice, Peter Rabbit and assorted chums, an atlas, the Observer Book of Flowers, the Observer Book of Planes, a “Cyclopaedia”, a rhyming dictionary of my Dad's and a venerable book of Keats' poems.

Lois had prepared some outsize library cards as templates for people to write/draw into and we'd a stock of creative writing exercises in our back pockets. This felt risky because dementia can incapacitate folk very cruelly – language dexterity suffers, for example - and we didn't want to over-tax or embarrass anyone. But conversely we didn't want to underestimate people either. So, the paper and pens were around as an option if anyone wanted to take it (most didn't) and meanwhile I wrote down their observations as material for a group poem.

Page from The Observer Book of Planes

What became apparent was that all the people around the table were capable of entering the world that these books opened into. Even if it was with faltering steps, they went right on in. The illustrations were a key, the sumptuous colours of the plates in the illustrated Alice in Wonderland, the exquisite Beatrix Potter artworks, the heart-warming cheeriness of Winnie the Pooh. All of these caused delight, amusement and even wonder. An ex-seamstress marvelled at the embroidery-like detail in Beatrix Potter. And a model aeroplane enthusiast worked slowly through the Observer Book of Planes, before passing it onto the ex-WAAF veteran sitting next to him. The woman next to me gasped audibly at the autumn colours on a page of Winnie the Pooh.

Lois's childhood copy of The World of Pooh

But the language too held a fascination, people picked key phrases or words and rolled them around their mouths, savouring them. One of my neighbours went into a long, detailed reverie about the meaning of storytelling. Her language was scattered and diffuse to my ears, but she spoke with her own precision and the power of it pulled me in. She ended with: “It's a big thing, how much is in a tale...”

Books are not just made of words. They have a powerful physical authority and they bring a huge number of associations to mind, good and bad. The words within are translations of the authors' raw experience into language and the reader re-translates them into various sorts of understanding. That understanding is a gift of the reader to the reader and it occurs within them; it is their possession and it cannot finally be measured or judged except by them. What was so moving today was to see that the pleasure given by a book can exist in a place where understanding sometimes seems very far away.

Atlas dating from 1933


Responding to books

Hold a book – guess what's in it without opening it. Make up your own story for it.

Open a book and sniff the pages – what does the smell remind you of?

Draw around a book, then another and another, until you have a cluster of rectangles; give it a title.

Exercises, to be written onto library cards

Categorise your favourite book, replacing the name of the author with your own name, the Dewey number with your date of birth and summaris the story in no more than 20 words.

Write the first line of an invented story on the card, spreading your words out across the whole card, hopping between lines and using the gaps between the words to illustrate the story in some way.

Decorate a library card to be the front cover of a favourite book.

If there was a library of your childhood what would be the titles of ten of the books?

Make a story using at least one word that rhymes with 'book' in each sentence.

Tut, tut, child!  said the Duchess. Every thing's got a moral, if only you can find it

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Asleep in the dark wood

The dark forest or wood, is a symbol that haunts human beings - from fairy tales to horror films we go into the darkness to encounter fear and perhaps to overcome it. This is the way that we grow up and become fully ourselves, by facing fears, demons, addictions, enemies without or within. The means to challenge and disperse one's particular fears is something that we only can discover individually, but because humans are emotionally similar we can learn from the experience of others, be they Hansel and Gretel or King Arthur, Dante or Dostoyevsky, whoever. The way that some of these experiences are passed on is through the strange fabrics of storytelling, poetry, art.

The exhibition The Dark Would, which I've just curated at Summerhall in Edinburgh, brings together poets and artists who take us into the heart of the Dark Wood, as the poet Dante called it. These are pieces that look at the confusions and difficulties of being alive, balancing that with  beauty - and perhaps too, very subtly, with ways out.

a quilt for when you are homeless

I now want to “walk” you through this exhibition, because it hinges on an arthur+martha piece and many followers of this blog won't be able to visit in person.

The central piece is a quilt that is hand stitched by homeless people from Manchester (helped by embroidery students and members of the WI) describing fragments of their lives. It was made during an arthur+martha project last year called 'the warm /&/ the cold'; the piece itself is titled 'a quilt for when you are homeless'. The making of this quilt is detailed elsewhere on the arthur+martha blog; it was a long process constructing this modest-looking piece, the work of many hands and much life experience. Much of the work occurred at The Booth Centre and The Big Issue in the North offices in Manchester. The quilt is a series of life story fragments from a much longer piece, which we are editing into a book called ALBION, funded by the NALD.
After Henry James, by Tom Phillips; on shelf, THE DARK WOULD language art anthology, at Summerhall, Edinburgh, 2013 

In the main exhibition space at Summerhall, the quilt is spot-lit, and around it are satellites, other works also picked out of the dark by intense lights. I've put stuffing under the quilt, so that it looks as though there's someone sleeping beneath it. Around this imagined person are dilemmas and difficulties that we sometimes face, leading away like myriad possibilities. We see works about madness, rape, war, repression (by Tom Phillips, Caroline Bergvall, Simon Patterson) but also gentleness, love, humour, art (father and son Alec Finlay, Ian Hamilton Finlay, then Richard Wentworth, Maria Chevska). To my mind these pieces are speaking to each other. Here's the revolutionary thinker Guy Debord represented by two posters from the 1968 student uprising in Paris, in dialogue with Ian Hamilton Finlay about insurrection; in the next room along are pieces by Lawrence Weiner, Fiona Banner and Jenny Holzer which, all put together, make connections between male sexuality, power and war.

On the ground floor of the gallery we find work by Jenny Holzer, Mallarme, Richard Long, Sarah Sanders, Robert Fitterman, Tony Trehy and Laurence Lane (among many others) all of which touch on the places where we are rawest and most human. You can see shots of the exhibition and read more about it elsewhere in FLUX magazine,The Herald, Summerhall TV and other sites.

However, the two pieces I'd finally like to mention here both link back to arthur+martha again. The first is Holocaust Museum by Robert Fitterman the delicacy of which chimes with our own project involving Holocaust survivors, Kindness. Fitterman's piece takes the text from all of the photo-captions in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and simply reproduces them as a long "found" poem. The poem has been printed on A4 pages and pinned to the walls of an office room adjacent to the gallery.

The last room - and most uplifting, I find - contains two textworks by Richard Long. They were made by Long over twenty years apart, at very different times of his life. He suggested that I pair them. They are both circular and both describe going for walks in the outdoors. In a way they're tiny globes. They are in a long, bright room and the light changes subtly as you move from one end to the other, from cold to warm. The room has a soundtrack of schoolchildren impersonating birdsong, a recording that Lois and I made during an arthur+martha session at a school in Derbyshire, during a silly and joyous afternoon. They give the space that very underrated thing, a happy ending.   

I would particularly like to thank ACE for funding this project, all of the project participants from The Booth Centre, The Big Issue in the North and The Red Door, whose work and words made the quilt.

The Dark Would exhibition continues at Summerhall until 24 January 2013.

a quilt for when you are homeless

Monday, 9 December 2013

have your cake and eat it too

Last weeks session for the project Making Memories, was all about the fine art of cake eating... The Great British performance surrounding afternoon tea; the three tiered cake stands, smartly uniformed waitresses, fancy sandwiches with the crusts cut off, warm homemade scones...

We were working with older people the majority whom had some form of dementia, so even more than normal activities and expectations, had to match the needs of the person joining in. 'Keeping occupied and stimulated can improve quality of life for the person with dementia, as well as those around them. Activities can act as an opportunity for fun and playfulness. They can also encourage independence, social inclusion, communication or expression of feelings.' The Alzheimer's Society.

In the memory box this week, I used a range of different prompts to stimulate reminiscence and creativity, photos of afternoon tea, vintage photos of tea rooms, various cakes to taste, smell and look at, cake stands and plates. 

In between cake eating and tea drinking we reminisced around the subject:

Special occasions, a nice hot drink 
little fancy cakes, a big house 
cup of tea, a nice cup of tea in the morning
sandwiches, little fancy ones
a cup of tea for tea
ham, cucumber
cut it in slices
a nice cup of tea
turkey, salmon and cucumber
egg and cress

couldn't afford posh cakes
would make them, not fancy ones
pies everyday things
winberry pie, girls go picking
a nice summer day

Betty's tearoom tea hot water a separate pot
tiny sandwiches, tiny cakes, little scones
tea and cake at the church
I like a nice cup of tea in the morning...
tablecloth, napkins
the people around you
like the old times
like the old times
shouting hot cross buns

Drawings themed on cakes, and lines of reminiscence where drawn onto cardboard three tiered cake stands. These have been left with the care homes to work on during the week, giving our group another go, and new people opportunities to join in with the activity. I look forward to seeing the final results.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Thank you that was very pleasant

We're working in partnership with Gallery Oldham to help rethink their reminiscence boxes as tools to stimulate art, writing and shared reflection.

We’ve recently started working in two care homes in Oldham, trying creative reminiscence ideas. Working with people with a dementia diagnosis, we're on the lookout for subtle breakthroughs, which mean an approach has worked and someone has changed their behavior for awhile. This is the story of one such moment.

The Big Wheel, Blackpool

The Big Wheel, Blackpool, Carbon Print

The reminiscence box we are currently constructing is called High Days and Holidays. It’s a powerful memory jolt because it brings with it associations of family outings, religious festivals, days out of the day-to-day. One of the slightest and yet most affecting things in this box is a set of old handtinted photos of Blackpool, the Shangri La of the North West. People were invited to trace these images with a pencil, onto carbon paper, making a copy of their marks. The drawings that came from this session have a dreamy beauty.

To make such a piece requires much effort, especially if you happen to have a dementia diagnosis. You have to recognize the picture, enter it, select the most important details, physically inscribe it with your own human labour.

A lady in our group today sings almost constantly, it’s a circle of behavior she rarely breaks out of. We of course didn’t know this. We simply saw a woman who sang a lot when we first met her become engrossed in drawing.

It turns out this was the first time she’d picked up a pencil and signed her name in two years, when her carer didn’t know if she could even write. It turns out she was a professional singer, and often worked in Blackpool.

It’s very tempting to make this last fact a neat ending to this story, because it appeals to logic. She was a singer in Blackpool – aha! 

I don't trust neat endings. Perhaps it was the rhythm of the physical activity, perhaps it was the particular colour of the picture, perhaps it was simply the daftness of our idea that appealed? But she stopped singing and we all kept smiling.

Tower Circus, Carbon Print