Friday, 29 July 2016

"Tactile Poems"

On 22 July, we had the opportunity to discuss the Stitching the Wars quilts with Arts Council England Chief Executive Darren Henley and Arts Council Senior Manager Rebecca Blackman. 

The quilts are a collaboration with hundreds of older people in Derbyshire, describing the effect of the world wars on rural life. They interleave embroidery, patchwork, poetry, memory... Darren Henley: "These are beautiful. Tactile poems, they're rich on so many levels."

(Left to right) Philip Davenport, Rebecca Blackman, Darren Henley, Lois Blackburn.
We've been working on the final stages of making at Buxton Library, making handling samples to go in the exhibition and editing a book that will complement the artwork, in a public session. Rebecca Blackman: "The colours are uplifting, unbelievable - and the content is very moving." 

Bombers Moon quilt, detail

This project is funded by Arts Council England and is the recipient of a Foundation Derbyshire award. The quilts have been publicly exhibited in various stages of completion and will shortly go on tour around libraries and museums in Derbyshire and further afield. Many thanks to Buxton Library Services for their hospitality.

Fresh Air & Poverty quilt, detail

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Woodland in Winter: a quilt

The fingers of Phil Barraclough, author of the poem below

Woodland in Winter

Woodland in winter it's bloody cold
icy crackling days, cold dark nights.

Winter in the woods came upon my life 
by my own design, to sit here a lonely man 
and there is sat a bird, a fictitious thing of all ways 
in nothing to see a beauty in grey and green 
its hungry eyes telling me to feed him 
and all I had was bread to warm him 
I used my coat and wrapped him in 
yet unto my eyes he stared and to sleep I went.

(I wake from the cold and find I have shrunk
To a five inch fool.)

Phil Barraclough

The decision has finally been made. After much reading, pondering, discussion, sampling, text arranging and the tearing up of small pieces of paper, we know what the poem around the edge of the SING ME TO SLEEP quilt will be and how it will be laid out. Now it simply needs to be stitched. Here is the day of the latest big push, as the stitchers gather around the quilt once more at The Booth Centre. Interspersed through the design on the main body of the quilt are other lines, including some in Lithuanian.

This quilt is one in a series of quilts/textworks for arthur+martha projects which attempt to distil the experience of many people coming together in community. This is the second quilt made with homeless people in Manchester; two other quilts are accounts of rural life during and between the world wars, as told and stitched by older people in Derbyshire, many of whom have dementia.

SING ME TO SLEEP is a collaboration between homeless people in the UK and Lithuanian. The project has been devised by arthur+martha in partnership with the Lithuanian arts organisation Socialiniai meno projektai; it is funded by the Arts Council.

Lois, Janine, Barry, Brian, Phil around the table at the Booth Centre

Barry, in charge of stitching and astonishingly cheeky jokes

Andris designing a teleporting bird

Janine and Barry, the bird in the foreground was stitched by Jack

Janine stitching "To see a beauty"

Brian gave us his quiet and intense concentration

Phil B, still cursing

Monday, 25 July 2016

Stitching the Wars at Lyme Park

A Bomber's Moon, at Lyme Park. Photo © Garry Lomas 2016

Our project 'Stitching the Wars' is slowly coming to a conclusion. Public workshops have finished, the quilts 'A Bomber's Moon' and 'Fresh Air and Poverty' now finished, our job now is to complete the book that will sit along the quilts when exhibited, sharing the poems and reminiscence and to confirm a touring exhibition schedule.

It would be hard to think of a more fitting start for this process than at our local National Trust property Lyme Park. The stories gathered in this project from older people living in Derbyshire are rich with experience and feeling, as rich as the opulent surroundings of Lyme Park.

Fresh Air and Poverty at Lyme Park. Photo © Garry Lomas 2016
Fresh Air and Poverty at Lyme Park. Photo © Garry Lomas 2016

As with all of our projects they would be impossible without the kind  and generous support of volunteers and partners. For these photos (and more that will feature in the forthcoming exhibition and book) I want to thank Garry Lomas  for the wonderful photos and Kathryn Croxford at Lyme Park for making it all possible.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

LOVESHIP: The Homeless Library at the Festival of Love

The Homeless Library at the Southbank, 2016

The Homeless Library had its public launch on 11 July, at the Poetry Library, Southbank in London. I have rarely been at an art event where so much goodwill shone on so many faces. The exhibition is part of the Southbank Festival of Love and it felt to me that our launch lived up to the name. 

Five participants in the project came to send their books, poems, interviews and artworks out into the world. And an audience of 70 well-wishers arrived for the event, which included a public workshop to demonstrate how the books and poems were made.

Jack Quashie reading at the Southbank
We gave a short tour around the exhibition in which different participants spoke about their work, the making and the meaning of it. There were some tears and a lot of banter too. There were also some heartrending moments. Jack Quashie read a short interview extract about walking for ten days across desert as a refugee and the crowded room went silent:

"When you are walking on sand, you cannot lie down and go to sleep. Even if you are tired, you cannot sleep. The sand moves like waves on water, if you lie down and sleep it will bury you. When people died we did not dig graves for them, we left them on the sand and it covered them. Sometimes the skeletons come back up again. And then they sink under the sand once more. I try not to think about it."

We ended our tour with a reading of the poem above, by Peter Twigg. It is a sweet little piece about human connection and Peter read it with such warmth that I think he charmed every listener.

Peter Twigg and Christine Hough mid-workshop

Phil Barraclough (in orange coat) explains his work, to Lorraine Mariner far right and others
We then ran a workshop for an hour or so in which our participants shared their skills, encouraging the audience to become makers. It was a big pleasure to be with such a mixed group of all ages and all backgrounds and make work together, peacefully. To sit around a table together while making poems, writing, art, is an activity that has been part of my entire life. When I was a child my mother would sit myself and brothers and my sister around the kitchen table with paint, paper and bits of cardboard to keep us amused and to keep an eye on us. While we sat around that table the arguments would stop, the worries would stop, and a kind of busy calm would descend on us.

The same magic occurred again at the Southbank on that July afternoon. Maybe it was because our band of bookmakers have now become so confident that they happily encourage others. Or because the Library staff and the audience were open-hearted and keen to join with us. Or maybe it was because both my mum, Shirley, and Lois' mum, Pat, had come to the launch and were lending extra support. For a short time, I felt I'd come full circle and had arrived home.

Poem on pillar by Paddy; booklets on bookcase various participants
On behalf of all the Homeless Library team, we would like to thank the staff at The Saison Poetry Library, Southbank for their extraordinary kindness and support. We would particularly like to acknowledge the help of Chris McCabe, Lorraine Mariner and Pascal O'Laughlin for their skill and enthusiasm. It means a great deal.

The Homeless Library is on exhibition at The Poetry Library, Southbank until 18 September 2016. This project is supported by The Heritage Lottery Fund.

Photographs by Julia Grime, 2016

Book by audience member made as a 'reply' to the exhibition during the workshop

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Self-medicating with art

Self-medicating with art 

On 11th July we participated in a discussion at The House of Lords about the value of arts and health, particularly our recent project The Homeless Library, supported by The Heritage Lottery. There is now a huge weight of evidence to show that arts and health projects have a powerful effect on the well-being and health of people who take part in them. However there is still a lot of concern about putting healthcare funding into arts and health. Here is the short presentation we contributed. 

Danny was sleeping on the street when we first met him. His fear of being around people held him at bay from the world. During the two years we gradually got to know him, Danny braved many fears, because the drive to make art was so strong. As he embraced poetry, he also embraced the company of others and began to address his difficulties. He said of this project: "It's put me back on the ladder to life."

Art allows public dialogue with the deeper private self. People share their deepest beliefs, feelings, fears, hopes. This is why artists make work and why people want to see/hear/read what they have to say. Making art can bring great satisfaction and community, in that sense it is healing. It is one of the best ways of communicating between human beings.

And for the individual? In our experience the safe space of art-making is similar to both therapy and childhood play. It brings joy, it brings insight.

The psychologist Polly Kaiser, who has written footnotes for The Homeless Library, observes that people can only change their lives using therapy if they have a safe place to do it. Homeless people by definition do not possess a safe place: therefore many of the stories they tell are of damage with no chance to heal.

The temporary place of safety that we've offered has been these discussions and particularly the making of art and poetry. The shared delight of the creative sessions was uplifting to witness. To offer people a short time away from fear, from addiction, from intimidation was perhaps the most valuable gift that we had to bring. The intensity of involvement was the intensity of people enjoying a rare and precious luxury. Self-expression is one of the deepest human needs, it defines identity, allows change and brings joy. It was what we gave, in fair exchange for their honesty.

Lawrence is a man who grew up witnessing extreme violence, as a child he was malnourished and ate dog food. Now, instead of self-medicating with continual substance abuse he writes poetry and grows a garden. He self-medicated with art. He says of making art and gardening at The Booth Centre: "There is genius in everyone and (this) has the ability to bring it out. I was a piece of detritus on the street and they found the gold-winning, cup-winning me. I was excrement and I found the garden, from excrement to compost."

Detail from the current South Bank Exhibition.

The Arts and Public Health Round Table was hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing. It was one in a series of round tables in which practitioners, academics, policy makers, those with lived experience and managers of services are invited to share their knowledge and experience with parliamentarians. The information gathered will be used to inform policy recommendations for the Inquiry into Arts, Health and Wellbeing. Find out more about the APPG and Inquiry here:

FREE ebook. Yours for a limited time, The Homeless Library ebook, with insights into the lives and experiences of Britain's homeless, including art and poetry.

The Homeless Library project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The Homeless Library: a catalogue of homeless lives

The Homeless Library will launch at The Southbank, London with an open poetry and book-making workshop.

Homeless people have created a first-person history of British homelessness, exhibiting at The Poetry Library, Southbank 9 July-18 September. It includes individual testimonies, poetry and art written in handmade books, lending insight into experiences of Britain's homeless. Meet the makers and create a handmade book with them, at The Poetry Library on 9 July, 4pm.

A free 200 page ebook, The Homeless Library, including interviews, poems and artworks has been created as a catalogue for the exhibition and can be downloaded here.

Launch date: Saturday 9 July
Time: 4-7pm
Price: Free
Venue: The Poetry Library, Level 5, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre

"We tell you stuff because we think we can trust you. Trust is the biggest thing of all, it is the biggest thing I own."

The Homeless Library is lived history, people's descriptions of their own lives, as told by contemporary homeless people. Alongside the interviews, poems and artworks inscribed into handmade books tell an emotional history.

In Britain, the heritage of homelessness is brutally sparse. This is the first shared history of British homelessness. Interviews have been edited and footnoted, by various ‘experts’ including homeless people themselves, who have the greatest expertise. There are also accounts by older people who witnessed homelessness from the 1930s onwards.

These experiences lent to The Homeless Library connect every one of us, after all we share a society. And the tellers have much to offer, because they see as an artist or a philosopher sees. From within and yet outside.

This ebook was launched as part of The Homeless Library exhibition at the Poetry Library, Southbank, London, 9 July-18 September 2016. Project devised and run by arts organisation arthur+martha 2014-16. Supported by The Heritage Lottery.