Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Safe arrivals

Detail from the quilt Bombers Moon

Phil writes:

Most of the people we have met in 2015 are on journeys. A lot of the homeless people we've talked to are searching for solutions, for insight, for comfort. Many are on the move, sofa-surfing, living in temporary accommodation, or on the streets. I don't think that I have ever met so many people genuinely on a quest for knowledge as I have in the homeless community. The homeless centres we've worked at, The Wellspring and The Booth Centre, are more full of questions than any university. 

It's been a year of big journeys for us too. Some of the journeys have been external - out into the world - some of them have been artistic, and some of them inner journeys. We've just travelled to Lithuania, setting up a new project faraway. Artistically we are stretching as well - our quilts are a meeting of the arts of textile and text - poems in stitched pages, they are a wide-open horizon to us. The Homeless Library has been an even bigger artistic stretch, working with homeless people to inscribe their own lived history into reclaimed books. 

The inner, personal, journey for myself has been to try to accept the death of my father, Ellis. For him, arthur+martha was a source of pleasure, curiosity, sadness - he continually asked about our sessions and the people we met. We talked about arthur+martha right up until his death. As an old soldier he was especially touched by the interviews with another ex-soldier, Warren, for The Homeless Library. When we would sa goodbye at the end of one of our many epic phone conversations he'd sign off with a cheery: "Travel hopefully." 

To everyone we've met and worked with this year - especially people who are on a hard road - we wish you safe arrivals. 

Thursday, 17 December 2015

The sea and the teaspoon

It is hard to write about many things at once. Here, a whirl of impressions...

We are in Lithuania trying to explain our work in community arts (to ourselves as much as to anyone else) and setting up a new project SING ME TO SLEEP. This time has been a tumble of experiences, filtered through curiosity, tiredness, happiness and a snifter of vodka. We are tourists here and so we touch briefly on the surface, but at least we touch it... and are touched.

Replica room at the Folk Museum

Yesterday we visited the Folk Museum in Vilnius, looking at textiles, religious figures, fascinated. We are trying to understand the many layers of another country's history, opening as many questions as we answer. Meeting many people and looking at many intricate textiles, many pensive Christs, many devotional pagan symbols, I feel that we are in the dreaming of a whole land.

Then, meeting with Vladyslav, the manager at the 'Betanija' social support and integration centre, which will be one of the sites of our project. Seeing the inspiration of this social hub on the vulnerable and homeless people who use it. The fundamental problems and issues seem to be similar to the UK. How much there is to learn from each other. What good people are out there, what troubled people are out there.

Today, a public discussion and workshop in the vast National Art Gallery. Our discussion facilitator Ed Carroll uses many water metaphors.  (Co-incidentally after Lois's recent flooded house) So we are riding amazing and powerful currents. 

arthur+martha workshop at the National Gallery of Lithuania

Vita Geluniene sketches out the work that she and Ed have embarked upon in their town, reclaiming space. We still feel we are very much tourists, a role which perhaps brings fresh eyes but also the possibility of much misunderstanding. We need to speak the language - not just spoken language, but the language of bodies, of perceptions.

The desire to speak and to express and the value of art (we guess) are the same in the UK and Lithuania. We were humbled by the welcomes, embarrassed by our lack of language, delighted by the results of our discussions and workshops. To meet the team here in Lithuania has been a delight. It is all a start.

Crucially, meeting the writer Vidas Dusevicius and the sculptor Egle Gudonyte and talking through Sunday afternoon, plans slowly hatching...

Saturday, Ed Carroll guided the discussion we had on socially engaged art and our place in it. Ed's phrase was: "There is an ocean of experience and we have a teaspoon and have scooped up a teardrop." 

Thanks again to Ieva Petkute and Simona, we would have been lost without you both.


Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Sing me to sleep

Lost in the woods. Sampling for the Sing me to sleep quilt.

We are delighted to announce that the first arthur+martha international project begins this week when Lois and Phil fly out to Lithuania to start Sing me to sleep. Two group quilts will be made collaboratively with homeless people in Britain and Lithuania. It's a conversation between two cultures, a dialogue sharing the arts of traditional embroidery techniques, quilt-patterning, poems and fairytales. The quilt will be themed around bed time stories, lullabies and the associations for homeless people this brings. 

This is part of our ongoing outreach work in association with the Text Festival at Bury Art Museum to experiment with language in collaboration with marginalised communities. All cultures in all parts of the world have stories told to send children to sleep, in the same way that there is a lullaby for every language. Some fairytales like Cinderella exist all over the world with slight variations - surely proof of our common humanity. Fairytales often have a darker side, but always violence is reversed, preserving the essential part of life without which we cannot prosper: hope. These stories will be refracted through different languages and through memory, making a rich crossover between the poles of experience and innocence.

Silhouette image from research

Sing me to sleep builds on previous achievements, continuing a sequence of collaborative quilts. These major text art/textile works enlist the skills and experience of hundreds of marginalised people. There are already two arthur+martha quilts in existence - one made by homeless people discussing warmth and cold, another award-winning quilt made by older people describing the two World Wars (yet another war quilt is currently in progress).

Detail from previous project, a quilt for when you are homeless

This is a partnership between the homeless community in both countries, arthur+martha CIC and VšĮ Socialiniai meno projektai arts organisations, the national gallery in Lithuania, Bury Art Gallery and homeless support organisation The Booth Centre - all of whom have an established reputation of working with marginalised people in pioneering and creative ways.

The project is funded by Arts Council England and the Lithuanian arts and health organisation VšĮ Socialiniai meno projektai. 

We would particularly like to thank Clive Parkinson for starting the conversation and Ieva Petkute for continuing it...

Monday, 7 December 2015

Un-bricking the windows

Detail of book from The Homeless Library

Jonathan Billings is the manager of The Wellspring homeless drop-in, Stockport. We were lucky enough to dodge in amongst his busy schedule and get an interview with Jonathan for our project The Homeless Library. If you're interested in finding out more about his work, we'd suggest a visit to his excellent blogsite.

Our HLF-funded Homeless Library is an account of contemporary homelessness in the UK, told from many perspectives and inscribed into secondhand books.


I see every client who comes in here as having a window of opportunity. All of us staff here at The Wellspring wait for the window, we wait for the bricks to be smashed out. People who are entrenched, who are stuck in their behaviours, are bricked up. When they do have a breakthrough they need the best chance as that window opens. That's what I watch out for. It's almost like seeing a new person being born. Once they've left behind chaos - drugs crime alcohol - and get through recovery they become different people. People with potential and with understanding of others. They have a lot of life experience, they know a lot and might not even realise it because of the drink or drugs or whatever. It's a real perk of this job, seeing people change into what they can be. 

I have a lot of conversations in this job hoping it's the right moment. One thing about this client group is I don't know when the last conversation might be. These people are very vulnerable, many die young. Those photographs on the tree of life out in the hallway opposite this office are faces of people who are now dead. Every single one of them are people I've known, people I used to talk to. 

Those conversations have changed me. I try to help people in the most positive way that I can. Each conversation is important. I can come across as grumpy but I'm not I'm perfectly happy inside I just have a grumpy face. I have a reputation because I've barred people from coming in here, or laid down rules, or pushed people into hearing stuff they don't want to hear. It's  important to say those things, it's important to have those rules. 

We see homelessness as a symptom of other things. I have never met a homeless person who did not have a reason for becoming homeless, it doesn't happen by accident. There is always something else that's not been addressed. 

The first day I started working at The Wellspring I was sitting on the wall outside looking at two dead rats next to me. I had left a good job in social services and I sat there and thought "What have I done?" I got shown inside and I asked "Is there a phone?" The reply was, "No." I asked "Is there an office?" "No." "Is there a computer?" "No." I said, "So it's going to be paper and pen, then."

It was a dangerous place to be. That first year I phoned the police up to 10 times a day. There were knives, two shotgun incidents, constant fighting. The client group was difficult to work with. I brought in membership. I barred lots and lots and lots of people. Basically we had two client groups. One of them was people in need who had nowhere to go. The other was people who were intent on trouble. Those were the ones we barred. We started helping people properly, supporting people as they faced things, even rehousing people. News began to spread that we could help people off the streets.

We made it safe for people to be able to change. You've asked me what the community of homeless people are like out on the streets I would say The Wellspring in those early days was a good sample. It was people bullying other people really. People intimidating the vulnerable. We had to stand up to the bullies. Some of them didn't even realise they were bullying, it was so habitual. I've explained to people that they were doing it and they've broken down in tears, sorrowful. Having difficult conversations with those people allowed some changes in them to be made too. 

There's a guy out in the foyer right now - three months ago he wouldn't have talked to me, he would've thrown something at me. That was because I barred him from coming in. He couldn't understand it at first. Now he has been talked to many times, I've explained his impact on others and he gets it. We had a difficult conversation. Sometimes people will just spit in your face when you do that and you have to be ready for it. He was ready to hear it and he will talk to me now.

When I started here I drew up a plan. Most of the things on it have been ticked off now. My biggest goal left is to provide our own accommodation. We are currently working on that we will have our own sheltered accommodation in the next two years. Then we can offer people a safe place to sleep.

Interview with Philip Davenport at The Wellspring, Dec 2015

Volume from The Homeless Library

The Homeless Library project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund

Friday, 4 December 2015

A sunflower hanky

Riff Raff at work

What is the shape of a life? How do you both map and move beyond your past?

We were working with a group at The Booth Centre homeless drop-in. Tracing the all the ups, downs, detours and arrivals of a life is quite a feat in the space of one small poem. Impossible really, but in its impossibility is also its power. It can be tempting to reach for easy solutions, cliches, sentimental endings. Finding an image or phrase that doesn't feel forced or distorted is difficult. Perhaps it's even more impossible if you have been abused as a child, or blurred by substance abuse.

This was our first session at the centre for a few months and it was essentially a rehearsal, with no pressure. The group first wrote some details of their lives on cards and hung them on a washing line, in date order (see Lois' earlier blog for details of this poem-writing when tried in another workshop). Then some haiku-making:

My lost youth found, remembered
Somewhere ages and ages, hence the tears
Comfort with a sunflower hanky.

"Riff Raff"

Joan. The right direction...

What surprised me was that people in the group worked so hard to construct these little pieces of meaning. They made themselves tired and made themselves vulnerable in front of one another. But they also managed to hold in their hands some small, tough beauty. 

Haiku are poems that distil the moment of being alive. They are tiny but - like a well-designed piece of luggage - pack a lot in. In three small lines, they criss-cross boundaries between peace and disquiet, time and nature, being and non-being. Haiku originate from Japan but are now hugely-popular in the West too. I'm nervous of them because they've been colonised by so many folk that they feel overused. However, if they're tweaked around a little they become refreshed.

In our haiku retooling, we incorporated statements from Chairman Mao exhorting his followers to make the long march across history. In these tiny histories made today, the words of the leader were wrestled back into the power of the little guys, as they wrote themselves into their own handmade history, The Homeless Library.

Pointed in the right direction
Through the hills I see crimsoned colours
He is in lightness.


The Homeless Library project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund