“A piece of history for past, present and future…” arthur+martha CIC will wind up in March 2022, after 15 years making heartfelt artistic collaborations, often with people affected by homelessness or dementia.
Stitching the Wars 2014-2017
arthur+martha Community Interest Company (2007-2022) was a long, fruitful partnership – artist Lois Blackburn and poet Philip Davenport, collaborated with marginalised communities in the UK and beyond. The projects were designed to bring joy, comfort and self-expression, challenging social stereotypes and celebrating diverse voices.
Standouts include The Homeless Library 2014-17, the first-ever history of British homelessness – told through poems, art and interviews in artist books – exhibited at the Houses of Parliament and Southbank. Kindness2007-09, showed poetry animations by holocaust survivors on public screens at Piccadilly Railway Station, and BBC Big Screens in Manchester and Liverpool.
The Homeless Library 2014-17
“This project is both a piece of history and an art piece. I don’t think I’ve ever come across anything like it before. It’s beautiful.”
Ann Coffey MP, The Homeless Library Houses of Parliament launch
Most recently, A Book of Ours 2018- 2021 was a medieval style illuminated manuscript handmade by over 100 people with experience of homelessness:
“This book, here you have our world at your fingertips. Damaged in every bloody way, look at the state of us. We are terrible and we are beautiful.”Chris Keane
A Book of Ours 2018-2021
Quilts were a way of making many-handed work, for example the Bomber’s Moon2014-17 quilt is a textile artwork that’s both an aerial view of Derbyshire and a war poem. The War Widows’ Quilt2018-20 brought people together through embroidery to give expression to and raise awareness of War Widows’ experiences:
“A piece of history for past, present and future. A quilt of unending love, pain and grief. A quilt of great honour. A true work of art.”
The War Widows’ Quilt 2018-20
Art and poetry intertwined, exploring people’s stories. A series of printed publications and ebooks captures some projects, starting with Patience 2009-10, a journey through ill-health and end of life with older people, gathering first-hand depictions of how it feels to be a patient. the warm /&/ the cold (2018) is a poetic epic of homeless lives, young offenders’ stories and a Buddy Club for people with dementia.
Not only did arthur+martha challenge societal boundaries, they embraced experimentation and reflected a multiplicity of experiences. The quilts became stitched pages carrying poems that blossomed with rich colours and deep emotion. Oral histories became verse, entwined with drawings, or morphed into songs. The boundaries of participatory and collaborative practice were redrawn, with the belief that participatory art can make a significant artistic contribution to the wider world.
Many of the pieces were exhibited at iconic venues, bringing the art and poetry to wide audiences: the Houses of Parliament, Royal Museums Greenwich, Manchester Cathedral, Brighton Dome, Piccadilly Railway Station, Festival Hall, and the National Gallery of Art Lithuania, to name a few. All projects were shared in places and ways that the makers themselves could access and witness.
The War Widows’ Quilt 2018-20
“arthur+martha have been like some turbulent confluence of a river, where great ideas, rich practice and changed lives come together. I’ve long held them up as a polar star, some rich alchemy made physical, and something that researchers don’t need to measure. The work speaks volumes – or rather the people do...”Dr Clive Parkinson
THE FUTURE arthur+martha winds up, but the work continues… Lois’s current projects include A Necklace of Starsand Unfolding Beauty, creating hand fans, gathering and inspired by experiences of the menopause from women across the country.
Phil will continue to collaborate with the homeless community. Meanwhile, his story of childhood during the violent years in Northern Ireland, with interviews from many others – “an autobiography in many voices” – will be published this year as HIMSELF IN EXILE.
The art lives on — and so do the memories of these encounters. Lois and Philip would like to thank everyone who’s supported us. We are grateful to the funders who showed such belief in our work, especially the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Arts Council England. Our work was not only a collaboration with individuals but with organisations whose staff showed extraordinary kindness and lent great insight and skill to all our projects. Most of all we would like to thank the makers of these projects, who took part, sharing their lives and opening up new worlds to all of us…
Creating the artwork for the Book of Ours has been a true collaborative process. Occasional pages have been made by one person, but most have the hands of 2 or 3, some pages have multiple artists and writers. This is a fitting tribute to the Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts that inspire our book. Each element was created by a different person (in the Western tradition usually monks) the parchment, the scribe, the illuminator, the book binder… For us, it means we can offer many ways for people to shine, be it writing, drawing, calligraphy, painting…
The illustration in the medieval manuscript was functional as well as decorative, marking the beginnings of important texts, and helping the reader to find their way around the book. The illustrations worked together to inform the reader, to tell the story. The Book of Ours, borrows from all these traditions, with artworks inspired by the poetry, or by themes and images directly from the medieval manuscripts.
During the last year, under lock downs and Covid restrictions, we have had to adapt our workshops, with smaller groups when we were lucky enough to meet at The Booth Centre and Back on Track, and remote ways of working, using on-line resources and the post. I contribute with themes, inspiration, resources, examples, creating a page template with space for illustrations and text. Sometimes I have much more input into the book pages. For instance one of the last pages in the book ‘The prospect of a bath’.
My first step was to block out the page, with space for the illustration, and space for Andrew’s beautiful poem, ‘The prospect of a bath’. Using transfer paper, I copied Andrew’s hand written poem onto the manuscript page. This in turn was written over with calligraphy pen and ink. I will always use people’s own handwriting where I can, and keep spelling and layout as unedited as possible.
I had been sent in the post a tender angel drawing, from C Blackwood, which I copied onto the page, creating the image in inks rather than felt pen, but keeping it as true to the original as I could.
Looking at medieval manuscripts for further inspiration, I found an image (see below on the left) that irresistibly fitted the theme, and one that could showcase C. Blackwood’s angel. The resulting page has perhaps more of ‘me’ in than I would like- normally a page like this would go backwards and forwards to various makers more often. However it does showcase the Andrew’s poem, and C.Blackwood’s angel, so I hope they will be pleased.
arthur+martha work with homeless and vulnerable people to participate in making the illuminated manuscript BOOK OF OURS. This project is partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track and supported by the Heritage Lottery.
DERBYSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL SHORTLISTED FOR HEARTS FOR THE ARTS AWARDS 2021
The shortlist has been announced for the National Campaign for the Arts’ (NCA) Hearts For The Arts Awards 2021. The awards celebrate the unsung heroes of Local Authorities who are championing the arts against all odds.
Derbyshire County Council has been nominated for Best Arts Project for Necklace of Stars – an embroidery and creative writing project set up to tackle the lack of person-to-person creative engagement opportunities for housebound individuals, with arts organisation arthur+martha.
This year’s winners will be selected from the shortlist by a judging panel of key arts industry experts and practitioners, including:
Le Gateau Chocolat, Drag artiste and cabaret performer
Paul Hartnoll, musician, composer, founder member of Orbital
Samuel West, actor, director, Chair of the National Campaign for the Arts
Despite the incredible hardships faced by Local Authorities in 2020, this year’s awards have seen the NCA receive a record-breaking number of nominations, as local communities turned to the arts for solace, strength and connectivity during the pandemic.
Nominations were received from across the UK for each of the three award categories: Best Arts Project; Best Arts Champion – Local Authority or Cultural Trust Worker; and Best Arts Champion – Councillor.
The shortlist was judged by representatives from some of this year’s partners in the awards: Culture Counts; Wales Council for Voluntary Action; Local Government Association; National Campaign for the Arts; and Voluntary Arts Wales.
Discussing Derbyshire’s nomination Hearts for the Arts Award partners said about Necklace of Stars:
“This is an inspirational project that has supported an extremely vulnerable group of individuals, made more vulnerable by COVID-19. It has clearly given participants purpose and focus, helping to reduce loneliness and mental ill health. The way the project adapted to provide one-to-one support to individuals remotely during lockdown is impressive and we were struck by the strong partnerships across a range of partners that allowed the project to expand its impact by signposting participants to other services”.
The winners of the Hearts for the Arts Awards 2021 will be announced on Valentine’s Day, 14th February.
Hearts For The Arts is a National Campaign for the Arts initiative, delivered in partnership with Culture Counts; the Local Government Association; Theatre NI, Thrive NI; We Are Voluntary Arts Wales, Wales Council for Voluntary Action.
TheNational Campaign for the Arts (NCA) is a charity and independent campaigning organisation, run by a board of volunteer trustees. They campaign for more investment in the arts, to improve the lives of everyone; and they champion those who make that happen. forthearts.org.uk
The Here Comes the Sun quilt hangs on my studio wall, it’s nearly complete, 3 hems to be stitched, a hanging system to be devised, a bit more stitching, more colour to balance the composition. It’s now time to pause, to reflect on this unique and wonderful project, to thank everyone whose joined in and to share. It takes time for me to write, for ideas to percolate. There has been much learning, some heartache and lots of joy with this project. I’m splitting my reflections into parts, so as not to overwhelm. So here I start at the beginning.
(artist Lois Blackburn)
Bringing of people together through creativity.
Phil and I working as arthur+martha have always aimed to breakdown boundaries through the arts; to bring people together, forge a greater understanding of each other, share experiences. However previous projects have been limited to one sector of society, for example: older people, people living with dementia, people with experience of homelessness, war widows, carers… This project gave us a unique opportunity to bring everyone together, without hierarchies, without labels.
How we worked
We invited people from across the globe to make embroidery and write a short piece of poetic text for a new quilt, Here Comes the Sun. It was open to everyone, wherever people lived, whether they regularly make art, or haven’t picked up needle and thread since school, everyone was welcome.
The project researched and developed new ways of working for artist Lois Blackburn during the Covid 19 pandemic. It built on the learning from recent project War Widows’ Quilt,and current project Necklace of Stars. It looks and prepares for an uncertain future.
Lois’s first goal was to engage a cross section of people in the project, from many parts of the world and many backgrounds, then from this participant group, build a team of volunteers to stitch on behalf of those who were struggling. Lois started by spreading invites to join in the project via social media and the web, and targeting groups that have previously worked with us, such as War Widows.
The interest and take up was fast and enthusiastic. Approximately half way through the project, due to time and financial restrictions, Lois stopped promoting the project to new participants, as she didn’t have the capacity for more contributions to the project.
130 embroidery squares have been created
28 embroidery squares were made by volunteers
18 new volunteers
37 drawings/paintings/designs were made by people with experience of homelessness
11 embroideries where stitched by people with experience of homelessness/or struggling with economic hardship.
Suns, are a symbol of alchemy. It represents life, influence and strength. It symbolizes energy, power, growth, health, passion and the cycle of life in many cultures and religions throughout time. In Egyptian culture, a winged sun disc symbol stood for protection. The Egyptians also worshiped the sun god Ra. In 20th century pop culture, the sun gives superhuman strength to comic book hero Superman. Such strength allows him to protect and rescue people in danger.
Particularly important during the crisis, for many of our participants and audience members, it’s a symbol of joy and hope.
“Beautiful piece of work and I love the connotations of the sun shining again.” Julie New, Personal Recovery Coach
The sun theme of the quilt and poetry is easy for everyone to understand. Yet if can be interpreted in countless different ways. Each of our 130 embroideries are unique.
We offered people the option of embroidering someone’s name on the quilt. This raises questions about remembrance, personal and national, the idea of a Covid time capsual. It also raises questions about how we give support, grief, hope.
Liam is my 15 year old son. I have suffered badly with my mental health over the years and the lockdown has made my condition worse. He is my inspiration to keep battling on everyday. He is in year 11 and is one of the children that will not take exams, I have found that his attitude to this and everything that is thrown at him is exceptional. I am so proud of him.
I haven’t embroidered a single name on it as so many people have done so much over this period. I wanted it to be inclusive of the people who have done simple gestures which have improved my days immeasurably. Such as someone smiling reassuringly from across the road, the post people still working and bringing supplies, my colleagues who have set tasks and set up groups to inspire and entertain whilst we are furloughed. The hospital staff who did my tests despite being in the height of the pandemic.
Today blog for our project BOOK OF OURS, the medieval-style manuscript book, is written and illustrated with photos by the Booth Centre volunteer Sue Dean. She writes from the perspective of both a volunteer and participant.
Mondays with the arthur+martha group returned this week to the designs around the edging of the book, and to teach those who wanted to try Calligraphy. Several people wanted to continue with their partial complete designs around the edges for the book. Some expressed an interest in the beautiful designer writings of Calligraphy, while those who chose to continue their book designs were fairly quiet in concentration, asking few questions and mostly carefully bringing their imagined design to life.
We had pictures of insects, bugs and beautiful winged creatures to base our ideas on. The almost silent deep concentration was palpable. Meanwhile for those who chose the Calligraphy soon found this was much harder to master than imagined from the swooshing ease of pen strokes by the actual Calligrapher Stephen Raws. One or two mastered the basic idea and produced some excellent first attempts. For others it was much more difficult and not as expected from watching the Calligrapher write initially. Overall a quiet calm class with many happy faces at the work completed.
The BOOK OF CHANGES project is funded by the Heritage Emergency Fund, supporting homeless and vulnerable people to participate in making the arthur+martha illuminated manuscript BOOK OF OURS. This project is partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.
As sometimes happens in a workshop, todays was a game of two halves. Before the break, a couple of the participants where distracted, sat on the edges of the room, engaged in their own thoughts, and their own troubles. But after the tea break, gradually the atmosphere changed, as the art worker said;
If you leave out clay for long enough, people will pick it up and start making…
Some new people joined the group, and gradually everyone around the room fell into peaceful activity.
Alongside the clay making workshop, my table of art materials and examples of embroidered suns. Karen, a Project Worker at the Booth Centre, took 5 or so precious minutes to sit and paint, explaining she hadn’t had a chance to create anything for so long, and how wonderful it was to sit and paint. Her work was immediate, energetic and joyful. She took a pack of embroidery materials away, with full intentions to stitch a sun tonight.
For others the process was a slower, more thoughtful one. ‘H’ had gone away after last weeks session with paper, themes and a head full of ideas. Today he arrived with pages of photocopies, the starting of designs of complexity, humour and thoughtfulness. The first thing he showed me was the beautifully written ‘Here Comes the Sun?’ he explained; “It’s the question mark that’s important.” ‘H’s work is never simple, there are always ideas of complexity behind them.
That question mark is so important in these times. Today listening into conversations around the room, I noticed more the undercurrent of unease, a sense of frustration, of mistrust of the government. Conspiracy theories abound. Thankfully the creativity also offered a sense of calm, release, distraction and purpose.
I come home tonight with a new collection of wonderful designs to be interpreted in stitch by our volunteers.
Thanks to everyone at the Booth, and thanks so much to Merida Richards for allowing me to work alongside her pottery session.
It’s been over 1/2 a year since my last visit to The Booth Centre in Manchester. So much is different, so much the same. The same friendly welcome on arrival, but with temperature checks and contact tracing, and due to current guidance, much fewer people in the centre. The staff and volunteers are well organised, everywhere is sparkly clean, the atmosphere calm and purposeful.
My two workshop visits are to create art and poetry for Here Comes the Sun, quilt, part of the Whisper to Me Alone, project. On a large table, I display a small selection of the 90 embroidered suns that have been made for the quilt, fabric packs and art materials. We’re trying new ways of working with the Sun quilt, a face-to-face and remote working, learning much as we go. One of the beauty’s of the project is how immediate it is to understand- the sun is symbol that is familiar in every culture, it’s approachable and accessible to everyone. The subject matter can be treated as light as a feather, or analysed in depth.
Roy (pictured above) approached his embroidery with his usual gusto, his resulting painting is rich and complex, he’s going create a stitched version next week.
One of the embroideries I brought in to show to the group was designed by Sue Dean, who in happy coincidence was there in the centre. She had previously created a series of sun paintings, which had been stitched by volunteers. She had seen a photo of the finished embroidery, but not the embroidery in the flesh, her absolute delight in seeing the embroidered version was obvious.
For some of our group, there isn’t a safe place to go home to and sew, so their paintings and materials are stored for next week. Others leave with packs of materials, creative ideas and promises to return next week.
And I leave with a belly full of good lunch, and a sense of relief, hope and optimism. It’s the Booth Centre way.
Thanks so much to Merida Richards for allowing me to work alongside her pottery session. I look forward to hearing more about her work with the fantastic Venture Arts next week.
Following on from the success of the first phase of A Necklace of Stars, we are looking for older adults who are housebound (aged 65+) from across Derbyshire to join us in a creative writing and embroidery project.
Arts Derbyshire is running a remote embroidery and creative writing project where participants receive weekly* one to one phone calls with artists ‘arthur + martha’. The artists will guide people through the process of creating beautiful embroidered stars or creative writing themed around lullabies, for free.
The embroidered stars will be brought together to create a quilt which will be exhibited alongside the creative writing and lullaby soundtrack around Derbyshire’s cultural venues in 2022.
A Necklace of Stars hopes to increase confidence and wellbeing, reduce loneliness, forge connections and re-ignite creativity.
If you are interested in taking part in this project (whether you have no experience or plenty), or know of someone who might enjoy getting involved, please contact Sally Roberts on 07395 904386 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
A Necklace of Stars is an Arts Council England supported collaboration between Arts Derbyshire, DCC Public Health, Derbyshire Library Services and arts organisation arthur+martha.
* Weekly phone calls for approximately 4 weeks or until you are happy with the work you have created.
Hands sanitised, masks on, socially distanced, we sat and talked, we all took small steps together out of lock-down, a lock down state of mind as much as a physical one. ‘S’ explained how nervous she’d been coming in on the bus, going into the unknown- for all of us, it was the first time in a group workshop for many months.
Phil and I have enjoyed keeping busy working since the beginning of lock down, connecting with people, finding ways to support creativity via postal packs, the phone, and on-line. Today was something different, something very special, creating work for the collaborative quilt ‘Here Comes the Sun’, part of the Whisper to Me Alone project. The host venue was Back on Track, it’s an inspirational Manchester charity that supports people who have been homeless or had mental health problems.
Our theme is the sun, a symbol of hope and re-starts, of warmth and comfort, of gift giving, as one participant described; “The feel good factor”.
A seemingly innocent and simple theme, it still leaves plenty of room for the imagination: “You don’t see dawn in the city, you don’t see sunrises, the blocks get in the way.”
Then the joy of putting our ideas onto paper started, the artistic play. I took in one of my favourite materials, oil pastels and ‘Brusho’. Brusho is a fabulous highly pigmented watercolour powder, you mixed with water, or sprinkle. The magic of creativity with your hands soon took over, creating a hushed room, heads down concentrating, the outside world disappeared.
20 fabric packs were laid out for our group to choose from. One at a time we walked with favourite paintings in hand to find the fabrics that matched the colours, texture and mood of the paintings. One of the group had experience of embroidery, the others- this was something new.
There is something beautiful about the simplest of stitches, running stitch, it’s where most of us start off when we learn to sew, it’s probably the stitch that you started with at school. When you’ve got the right needle and a rhythm going, there is something almost mediative in the repetitive nature of stitching. Then comes; choosing colours, textures, thread thickness, stitch size, pattern- when written down or spoken these creative decisions are complex, however when we make them, they are often instinctive.
The group left with their hands full of threads, fabric and paintings, and full intentions to return in a few weeks for our follow up session. Returning to share and celebrate their sun embroideries, and welcome new participants to the making of Here Comes the Sun.
Thank you so much to everyone who came along to my first group session of Here Comes the Sun, and to Back on Track, who as ever made me feel so welcome, and everything so easy for me.
Here Comes the Sun is part of the project WHISPER TO ME ALONE. It gathers words and art from people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown, using journals of writing, art and song lyrics and phone conversations. The poems, songs and artworks will be launched as a twitter poem later in September. Supported by Arts Council England, partnered by the Booth Centre and Back on Track.
“..I’m glad you like it as it was a joy to stitch. Your idea just sparked something inside me, making me want to do some stitching which was very welcome as I’m finding it difficult to settle to anything at the moment.”
I’m beginning to hear recurrent themes in the feedback to our two current projects Here Comes the Sun and A Necklace of Stars. Many of our participants are finding it difficult to settle to anything. People describe having fuzzy heads, being overly tired, difficulties in even making even small decisions.
“What’s stopping me? It’s the state of things, I’m normally busy, involved with other things. Normally I paint and paint and sew and sew, but I haven’t in ages. It’s been very, very strange. I can go outside, and talk to my neighbours, and clap for the NHS, but it’s the first time in my life I’ve been like this. I need something to give me a kick up the backside.”
Here Comes the Sun. Vintage pillowcase, dyed, ready for embroidered poetry.
But counter to that, I have had heard from many other people saying that doing something creative is helping them re-focus and spark something in the brain. How interesting our brains are!
For many it has given a prompt to create something with embroidery for the first time in many years and connect with different generations of the same family:
“Thank you so much from my daughter and I for encouraging us to dig out my late grandmothers stash of embroidery threads to choose some sunny colours for our sun quilt squares. My grandmother was a very enthusiastic and skilled needlewomen and she would have loved the idea of this quilt…. (about her daughters embroidery) It is a while since I picked up an embroidery needle and as my stitches show I am more than a little rusty (for which I appologise) I have, however really enjoyed focusing on something creative during these strangest of times. We look forward to seeing the finished quilt.”
One of the delights of the projects is the way news spreads by word of mouth. Having a project to work on gives us all opportunities to think, talk and focus on something different with friends and family, an escape from the news, and Covid.
Have shared widely, and this has kick-started a WhatsApp group, as I was asked to set up a crafty one a couple of weeks ago. We can encourage each other daily in there and do other bits and bobs too.
Catherine Tombs embroidery for Here Comes the Sun.
But there is always more sharing to do, the more people engaged in our projects with different perspectives on life, the more exciting and greater the depth the project our project gains.
Everyone signed up to our projectA Necklace of Stars is currently housebound. Many where before the lock down. So far we have worked with people aged from 65 to 90. Many haven’t done any embroidery since school, but some are very experienced and confident in the creative arts. Everyone has a unique way of looking at the theme of the stars, everyone a story to tell.
Phil and I continually look at ways we can make the projects accessible to everyone, whatever their circumstances. Thanks to support from Arts Council England, we’re thrilled to be working with Booth Centre to invite people who are, or have been homeless to join in. They are being invited to draw suns that our volunteers will stitch on their behalf, a kind of art commissioning without any money changing hands. In addition I will be sending out packs of needles, threads and materials to people at the Booth who want to have a go at sewing themselves. I’m so thrilled to be working in this way and can’t wait to see how it progresses.
Sarah Burgess, embroidery for Here Comes the Sun.
Todays blog was written by Lois Blackburn, lead artist arthur+martha