Sunday, 9 November 2014

The object of remembering

I’ve been feeling grief as a physical force, its pushed and pulled at my body like a lead weight, as I write my head is pounding, my shoulders aching, one minute I feel sick, the next an appetite for the comfort of sugar, my teeth and gums are receding, my hair and skin lack lustre and most of all I feel overwhelmingly exhausted, I’m trying to flow with it, ride the waves, accept.

My dad's funeral was last week. Since then I have been clearing out his flat, right now allocating new spaces to his belongings. It’s a tough, important, painful job, but satisfying when it works, finding new life for cherished objects. That’s what this bit of writing is all about. Phil and I in our work with arthur+martha often explore the power of objects, but never have I experienced first hand the heart wrenching effect so clearly on myself and my sisters.

My dad's death was pretty sudden, my eldest sister and I entered his flat the next day and found it as if he had just bobbed out. His quilt pushed half way back, his slippers in place, a unsmoked cigarette in the ash tray, milk in the fridge. I didn’t want to move those slippers until the last day of the clear up, not out of anything morbid, but rather they were dad somehow.

Dad was a retired architect, his sense of design, music, art, have enormously informed, inspired and educated my sisters and I. His small one bedroom flat was full of objects collected over the years, 80% of which had memories attached for one or all of us. There were voyages of mystery, discovery and delight to; a box with five beautiful Christening gowns, who did they belong to? And in the same box a child’s tartan kilt and shorts worn by my dad, I have a photo of him wearing them on my wall, but why didn’t he show me the real item when he was alive?  And perhaps most poignant a single child’s leather glove. My sister has it - so she can hold dad's hand.

Many of the objects hold a complex collection of meaning, of reading and emotion, they hold the story of my father. The objects also have their own history, some inherited from family, some carefully selected and treasured items from the 50s, 60s and 70s from around the world. In addition, the objects hold powerful memories for my sisters and me from childhood and growing up. It appeared that the greatest clout on my sisters and me, was to discover objects that had been hidden in our memories, that wonderful, aching, spark of recollection. I now understand on a much deeper level how some of the older people we work with on arthur+martha projects are reduced to tears, or joy when they encounter an unexpected object.

The history and life of these objects carry on. Each one now has to have a life time of chain-smoking removed from it, brought into the light a space found for it. Musical instruments will be played again,  (dad getting his own back, my noisy kids playing them) cooking pots will no longer be simply on show, but used, records played and song along to. I will share my memories of the objects with my children and they in turn will add another layer of history to them. They will take on new meaning and new importance and stay treasured items for future generations, although over time I’m sure a few will end broken, un-sentimentally sold or given away to the charity shop.

Writing this down helps to make sense of the process, just as writing and speaking the eulogy for my dads funeral helped. I’m told the first year is the hardest.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

A route map to Atlantis

Phil has been working with Blackpool Arts for Health on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour, which is being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post excerpts from Phil's Blackpool blogs from this summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

October 2014

Phil writes:

Should storms drive you to anchor
seek a place of quiet calm, like the ruins of Atlantis.
Gather up what still remains
the friends who stand beside you
are the means to sail again.
Find in the companionship of the sea
a shining reflection of a brilliant promise.
Calendo, O sea of screaming rage
hush and listen to the breathing world
see the glassy horizon glow.


The myth of Atlantis, the lost city, is the stuff of legend and poetry and occasional B-movies. Archaeologists - I am told - have found the site of the old city in a volcano crater under the sea. But the myth remains intact because it calls to a deep part of us all, with the allure of something that can never really be reached.

We are working on a sequence of images and poems that also hunt for an elusive thing, a definition of happiness. The pieces are for the corridor of The Harbour mental health facility in Blackpool and our idea is that they help make the journey along the corridor a happy one - but also gently question what happiness might be.

Today, the group worked on a collective poem about the hunt for Atlantis, as a metaphor for the journey through life. It is a story about the struggle through the human storms and shipwrecks that we all encounter as we travel through time - and what we hope to find at the end. The morning and afternoon groups both contributed to Atlantis, so it is a many voiced tale. In writing their individual verses the group worked tremendously hard. I've dotted this blog with verses (each written by a different person) from our group's Atlantis:

I leave behind me

all that has destroyed me
farewell dear friend, farewell; may
Hermes master of the roads
comfort me as I journey to
the island forests I dream.
(What will I see as I go by
birds flying high in a horse-tailed sky?) 
Sweetly caressing tones stroke 
softly on my face.


The greatest block to all was self-criticism which in some cases was so harsh that the writers came to a dead stop. We talked about the reasons for stopping and very often behind the self-judgement was a history of harshness, particularly the viciousness of teachers or parents encountered in childhood. Some of these stories were heartbreakingly sad. As people worked, they talked, reporting how they felt and the poem gradually grew, incorporating some of the conversation. Writing it became a journey in itself. The greatest pleasure for me was to see that the group coming out of their shells - like cautious sea creatures - and supporting one another, listening to each other's needs.

Interleaved with our poem are fragments of WH Auden's wonderful poem Atlantis, and Sea Fever by John Masefield, which was a staple of British classrooms for decades. Auden was struggling with his life journey and the poem has the emotional openness of someone in crisis: it is a sad, sarcastic, yet hopeful piece that looks for deliverance with tired eyes. When it finally arrives at its ending, it carries the relief of a long, hard voyage finally done. My hope is that we will carry some of the same spirit in our work and gift it to the people who will live with it.

All the little household gods

request that we listen today
to the call "ATLANTIS"
the light of their countenance.
The thrashing waves and foamy rush
where waves meet in high
briney smell and spray so fine
is sight for tired eyes. And all I
hear is the wind flowing out and roaring in
a quiet sleep and a sweet dream.


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Early Evening Stars

Eric n Ern, in Blackpool Local History archive, still glimmering

Phil has been working with Blackpool Arts for Health on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour, which is being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post excerpts from Phil's Blackpool blogs from this summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Phil writes:

Blackpool has a local history archive that is more than local, in fact it touches on the childhoods of many, many people in the UK. The town was the entertainment centre for  Northern England up until the early 1980s. In the archive are photographs, postcards, programmes, letters and a myriad other souvenirs of Light Entertainment, everyone from The Beatles to Shirley Bassey, from Gracie Fields to Marlene Deitrich.

The photos (mostly the jewels here are photographs) bear the marks of age. They are yellowing, pitted and printed with handling, stamped with the business addresses of agents and photographers - and finally, they are often signed by the stars. I found myself very moved by our workshop today, in which participants searched through file after file for iconic photos to work from. Their short-list is a roll call of the early evening stars who glimmered on stages from the beginning of the 20th Century, and then on British TV in the 1960s and 70s.

Sooty and Sweep, Cilla Black, Eric and Ernie, Roger Moore, Ken Dodd, Shirley Bassey, Tommy Cooper, Ian Botham, Beatles and Stones. In the wings are Gracie Fields, Judy Garland, Lilly Langtree, all from other eras. As the group worked, they expressed their glee at the treasures they unearthed from the quiet green files of the archive.

These works are destined for a dementia ward at The Harbour mental health facility. 
They will become portraits in textiles. It's hoped that these familiar faces from the past will not only look friendly, but they might usher in some good memories. 

People who have dementia remember early memories best, as most people do. With the pleasure of reminiscing can come pleasure in remembering more generally, taking a little of the fear out of the dementia. It's good to think that these faces from the past are coming out once more and delivering a performance that might just be one of their most appreciated.

Ladies and Gentlemen - it is our great pleasure to introduce...

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Henri Matisse and the hieroglyphic of happiness

All images by the Back on Track group, photos Gemma Lacey.

Phil has been working with Blackpool Arts for Health on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour, which is being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post some excerpts from Phil's Blackpool blogs from this summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

Phil writes:

September 2014

The hieroglyphic of happiness

"There are always flowers from those who want to see them." (Henri Matisse)
Happiness is often elusive, but can seem very distant indeed at times of personal crisis. Our new project with the Back on Track group will record moments of happiness as poems and as visual marks. The work will be particularly inspired by the artist Matisse and the British visual poet Bob Cobbing. The workshops are with members of the Back on Track , Arts for Health programme and will be run by visual poet Philip Davenport and artist Gemma Lacey.

Today the first workshops took place, the first marks were made, first poems written. Already some rich results have come from these early explorations, as the group get to know each other and friendships are formed with one another and with the materials we are using.

We are making murals for the new mental health centre in Blackpool, The Harbour. The pieces will incorporate words, images, hieroglyphics and marks. They are poems for the eye, made of shape and colour as well as language. The emphasis as always will be on enjoyable, stimulating workshops that are also gently challenging.

A site visit to the nearly-completed building by Gemma, Sarah and Phil gave us our first viewing of the large corridor that will contain the work. It is a wonderful space, large and airy and full of light. Now the delightful task of filling it.

September 2014

Colour her name with pride

"Creativity takes courage." (Henri Matisse)

Many of the makers involved in this project have gone through a period of struggle with their mental health. To make anything at all, they have to quieten the critical voices in their own heads and push past fear, doubt, under-confidence, together with some physical limitations. This makes the pieces very precious, because they've been won from (sometimes massive) adversity.

We're following the trail of Matisse, whose later work is full of colour, light and memories of the sea. In this session we set out to build an imaginary undersea garden, first in words, then a series of marks, then a cluster of cutout shapes.

One of our group has an aquarium in the house and she explained: "When life becomes overwhelming I find my peacefulness watching the fish. I love their colours and their movement. Even the sound of the oxygen bubbles passing through the tank is beautiful." As she described this sanctuary, her voice shook with emotion - and suddenly this undersea garden of ours became more than an exercise, more than a distraction. The intensity of her reaction pulled the other members of our group into it and they set to with energy and sparking imagination.

We aim to make a series of pieces that embrace living, but also acknowledge the fragility of the makers and the viewers. Art that's uplifting - combinations of bold, simple colours and occasional lines of text - with some space for peace to enter and maybe a little shadow.
Many of the people involved have no art training and so the work has a naivety that some find it hard to accept. "It's like Playschool for adults," commented one of the group, sadly looking at the page she'd been working on. It can be humiliating to try a creative activity when our expectations of ourselves are high and our judgements are harsh. One way around this is to embrace naïveté and allow limitations to become strength. This is one reason that Matisse is our guiding spirit.

When the French painter Henri Matisse hit 70 he was no longer able to paint. A series of cancer operations  left him in a wheelchair, unable to stand, unable to wield a brush for any length of time. It was, to put it tres mildly, frustrating for one of the best painters of his generation. Famously, Matisse invited a new technique to sidestep this mishap - cutting out pieces of coloured card and pinning them to his compositions. Picasso went to visit Matisse after the illness and was both delighted and annoyed (Picasso was a competitive creature) to see the old man busy making again despite the best efforts of cancer and old age.

The shock of bright colour in the cutouts, sometimes intertwined with text and cartoonish drawings, massively influenced 20th Century graphic design. Many of the cut outs became murals and we've used these as a start point for this new mural project, which is a search for  The Hieroglyphic of Happiness. Matisse's resourcefulness and determination in the face of adversity is as important to this project as his technique.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Someone to watch over me

Above: the ancient arts, at Hargreaves Foundry. Photo Claire Griffiths.

Phil has been working with Blackpool Arts for Health on pieces for the new mental health facility The Harbour, which is being built on the edge of Blackpool. Over the next few days, we will post some excerpts from Phil's Blackpool blogs from this summer and autumn. A complete set of the blogs and photos is at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite.

Phil writes:

Seeing molten metal being cast is both wondrous and terrifying, like visiting a caged volcano. It's become a rare vision in this country, so a chance to observe traditional casting is a gift, even if it's a slightly scary one.

Today we visited the Hargreaves Foundry in Halifax where cast iron artefacts have been made since the 19th Century - and where Anthony Gormley's sculptures are constructed in this 21st Century. Walking around the foundry on a research trip with the Smart Arts group and our guides Andy Knight and Richard Hall was an amazement. M commented, in his languid way, "This may be the coolest thing I have ever seen." Except of course it's hot: molten metal like poured light, showering sparks (A saw them as dying fairies) heat shattered moulds, sand burnt at temperatures so high that it becomes crude glass. 

Aside from the eye-catching fireworks there's something deeper at work. G put his finger on it best I think: "It's almost religious, the feeling in here, going back to the ancient rituals. The mould is made and then broken. The sand is burnt away like old habits, the old life, old patterns. Then we cast the new."

The word 'cast' can mean many things. Many of our Smartarts group are recovering from difficult times and their art-making is about casting off the old skin and allowing renewal. We cast a spell, cast dice, cast runes, cast plaster, cast aside, fore-cast the future. There is a well-known kinship between making things in metal and casting ancient magic, which is among other things a sort of wish fulfilment. Art is also a form of making wishes come true. O picked up this thread: "What would I create? Happiness? What would that be? A smile, a touch, a feeling, who knows? A longing for the past, my past? A chance to start again. How far back would I have to go to start again? Perhaps as far as birth, a newborn."

Art is often dismissed as an add-on to life, as opposed to the important things like money, career and efficiency. Actually, art-making predates all of those activities and I often wonder if that makes it higher up the scale of priorities than we realise. The necessities of life were invented first.

For all its ancient associations, Hargreaves foundry isn't a museum, it is a thriving contemporary producer with a world-class reputation. Because the standard of making is so high, it attracts artists with very specialist requirements as well as corporate clients. The most notable artist customer is Gormley, who has worked with Hargreaves for a couple of decades. The site is dotted with Gormley pieces in various stages of completion. Over it all, hanging from the ceiling of the storage warehouse is a Gormley-size version (i.e. 6 foot 2 inches) of his iconic Angel of the North. A big chunk of rust-colour iron, it looks tough, yet gentle. A totem and a guardian.

Above: Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North, man-sized, at Hargreaves Foundry

O again: "Scrap is melted into liquid, it has power, energy you can feel. It's poured into a cauldron where it bubbles, the smell of sulphur in the air, Hubble bubble. It's held in a ladle, like golden sun... It does become, of course, hard as iron and cold, yet the coldness doesn't detract from its beauty and tenderness... the feeling an angel watches on. I have a thought - it'd be nice if  somewhere, somehow an angel watches over all of us."

Photographs of the Smartarts visit to Hargreaves Foundry in Halifax can be seen at the Blackpool Arts for Health blogsite (the photos were taken by Claire Griffiths). We would particularly like to thank Richard and Andy at the foundry for their kindness, hospitality and hard hats. For more information about Hargreaves, go to