On Thursday’s session at The Booth Centre, for the project Panorama, I was chatting to Peggy. Our conversation turned to the impact our projects have on people….
Peggy was speaking with someone on the bus:
That’s just me, I make a conversation… she was looking for people who’ve suffered abuse to write poems- if I was chosen I’d get £50, I got the cheque this morning for the poem I wrote with you, “In the Box room”, when it’s cleared its going towards a deposit for my daughters home…
That poem has gone to prisons, and children’s homes- I went to visit a women’s prison to do some voluntary work- I said “I’ve got a poem I’d like to show to the other women who might have suffered in this way”- and they liked it. It went viral. Same with the children’s home.
It makes me feel really really proud of myself, that I can do something for people out there. When I wrote it I was tearful and heartbroken, I held it on my shoulders for so long. It was a big weight off when I shared it.
In the Box Room
safe in the house not safe in the street
heavy in a safe building
building heavy caged in
caged in the box room
room careful who you’re in the room with
with been used
used scared on the street
street make sure their safe
Thanks Peggy, and all of the other people who trust us to share their story- and hopefully start to find some peace through the art making.
From my notes, I nervously shared my thoughts on the project- whilst Gavin, Danny, Anne Marie and Peter spoke about the impact the work has had on them, with passion, dignity, articulately and without notes! Then went onto read their poems. I have much to learn!
It was an emotionally charged day, two people broke down in tears when they saw their work, seeing a moment in their history, caught up in embroidered stitch, the pain of unresolved issues? the relief of moving on? a sense of pride seeing their word shared? a letting go? There was lots of laughter also, and most of all a celebration of the amazing artwork, poetry and song created.
We are delighted to invite you to a celebration of the project ARMOUR, made in collaboration with people who have served in the Armed Forces, people with lived experience of homelessness and arts organisation arthur+martha. Sharing ARMOUR artworks, poetry readings, with a music performance by The Booth Centre and The Quiet Loner. Refreshments provided.
Armour is a project that uses words and stitches to explore the ways we protect ourselves. It is a collaboration with veterans of armed conflict and with people who have lived experience of homelessness. We asked people to describe their personal “armour”, physical and mental. Artworks were inspired by gambesons, the quilted jackets worn under suits of armour, made for our project out of rust-dyed fabric and embroidered with poems, and other writings.
I’ve never done anything like this before, many people said during the project. But the art and poetry they made weren’t just a technical exercise, they were a gesture of courage and connection. They overthrew defensiveness and they let in life.
I am pleased to share that recordings of poems from the project Armour are now on-line at Soundcloud
Poems, embroideries and other texts made in self-defence
Armour is a project that uses words and stitches to explore the ways we protect ourselves. It is a collaboration with veterans of armed conflict and with people who have lived experience of homelessness. We asked people to describe their personal “armour”, physical and mental. Artworks inspired by gambesons, the quilted jackets worn under suits of armour, were made out of rust dyed fabric and embroidered with poems, and other writings.
Poem and artwork Gavin Farquharson, stitching Lois Blackburn
This body of armour that
is the weight and size
of my heart…
Poems, embroideries and other texts made in self-defence
Armour is a project that uses words and stitches to explore the ways we protect ourselves. It is a collaboration with veterans of armed conflict and with people who have lived experience of homelessness. We asked people to describe their personal “armour”, physical and mental. Artworks were inspired by gambesons, the quilted jackets worn under suits of armour, were made out of rust dyed fabric and embroidered with poems, and other writings.
Poem Danny Collins, embroidery Peggy Prestley
Many people we met were veterans who have also experienced homelessness. We asked people to describe their personal “armour”, physical and mental. And to imagine what might happen if was taken off. That spark of imagining is what gave life to these poems. Out of much heart-searching, during the art and poetry workshops, came many pieces of writing. Some were embroidered, or inscribed on suits of armour made of cloth.
Although we all need protection, sometimes protection becomes the problem. Armour can be extremely heavy, it limits sight, sound, touch – and emotions. In the poem Sir Galahad by Tennyson, the crucial moment comes when the famous warrior realises if he is to let in love, he must remove his armour. But to do so is fearful as well as freeing.
Defences fail and life falls into a dark disarray
Observe yourself when the mind is viciously dismantled…
Imagining the absence of armour was a difficult sometimes frightening exercise. For some, it took tremendous courage to write about it. For others, it brought relief. And for others again, many questions.
“I wonder where it will lead me, this writing…?” (Gavin Farquharson)
“Poetry, I’ve never got it before. This is the first time I’ve even written a poem. Never before. I’ve enjoyed it, it’s been special.” (Elliot Hallisey)
How can people who’ve experienced physical and psychological violence live peacefully with their memories? In our workshops we discussed how we protect our deeper selves and how we heal.
This project was devised to allow emotional/artistic exploration of difficult areas of personal history. The poems come out of the experience of conflict – but our hope is that they might help people to find some peace.
…friends friends linked linked together hand
hands safe safe.
Embroidery Lois Blackburn, inspired by anon artwork
We’ve had two weeks away from the Booth Centre, for the project Armour. So much happens so fast in the lives of people who use the centre, two weeks here takes some catching up. At the reception desk, we were greeted by Peggy. She explained that the cards and flowers we saw as we came in were for Michael, who had sadly passed away a few days ago. He joins many other people we have met who experienced homelessness, and died too soon.
We spent much of the morning with John Felix, a documentary film maker (who made two beautiful, sensitive films about arthur+martha projects before The Homeless Libraryand Stitching the Wars). John was with us to start the Armour film, interviewing participants, filming some of the afternoon session.
rusted fabric embroidered, trial compositions for the project Armour
As with our previous experiences working alongside John, people seemed very at ease with him, sharing their stories with candour. Over the course of the day, we started to see the project afresh, through the comments gathered by John.
Key themes that came up included: People felt safe to reveal their inner selves to the group, a deeper often more vulnerable side of their lives and personality than otherwise would be shared. Many of the group described themselves as having literacy problems, and having problems at school, but that these were helped by the sessions. They felt they had the support to do something new, something that was difficult at times but incredibly rewarding.
One member spoke about the abuse suffered as a child, but how doing the workshops allowed them to speak about this, and share their story with family and friends. Others spoke about how having the time and space to be creative, to think, was enabling them to see the world differently outside the sessions…
The film will eventually be shown publicly in exhibitions and online, but right now as it develops we are able to see ourselves a little differently and perhaps understand more of the complex lives that this project reflects.
Here’s a question. Is it possible to get a group of non-musicians together in a room for a couple of hours and get them to write a song? I was asked by arthur+martha to come to the Booth Centre in Manchester to help them find out. I’m pleased to report that it certainly is possible!
Matt and Christine at the Booth Centre
Although none of our group had direct experience of writing songs they were certainly no strangers to creativity and ideas came thick and fast. We started by thinking about the theme of our song – that of armour and protection. We did some exercises to help us find words associated with armour and words related to how armour makes us feel – safe, secure, protected.
To give us some inspiration we spent some time listening to and discussing a song called ‘I am a rock’ which was a hit song for Simon & Garfunkel back in 1965. The character in the song is someone who has been hurt deeply and is now a loner, without friends, hiding behind a self constructed wall.
The discussion touched on the extreme vulnerability of sleeping rough, when a sleeping bag is your only armour. We talked about how drugs and alcohol can create an emotional fortress giving a (false) sense of protection. Above all we felt a sense of strong sadness that the person in ‘I am a rock’ was cutting themselves off from possible support and help. We decided our song would have some elements of positivity about love, faith and support.
‘The whole thing (‘I am a rock’) is about me. But I am coming out of it. I want to face the music, not run away- to give up on love is to give up on life.’ Karlton
When we came to write our song we zoomed in on the word ‘barrier’. A barrier can be something that is put in place to keep people out. But it can also be put in place to offer us protection and keep us safe. We liked that it had two different sides to it. We discussed the implications of this – positive and negative – on people who put up barriers to others.
An effective technique in songwriting is alliteration where several words beginning with the same letter are strung together. We decided to adopt this and went for ‘Behind brittle barriers’ as our title. We included the word ‘brittle’ to reflect that emotional barriers can be broken down, given the right amount of love and support.
‘I didn’t know I had this in me.’ Christine
After some thrashing out of melody and chords (we definitely wanted the song’s music to sound upbeat) we arrived at a finished version just as our 2 hour deadline approached. We then ran downstairs to do a very quick and impromptu performance! (Video link)
As a songwriter I’ve never worked on a song that was finished so quickly or one that was so truly collaborative. Each person in the group contributed something useful and different and the song reflects that with a broad range of ideas. Above all what I get from the song is a sense of hope – that everyone – brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers – are hiding behind barriers of some kind, but that they are brittle and with hope and faith in each other we can find the support we need.
SONG LYRICS Behind brittle barriers
Behind brittle barriers you can’t feel safe
Behind brittle barriers you can’t feel the bass
Barriers block the way, push obstacles away
Behind brittle barriers
Cradle me in your arms and keep me safe
Don’t let me loose or lose my faith
Behind brittle barriers, behind brittle barriers
People behind brittle barriers
Clashing through conflict (Behind brittle barriers)
Peggy Prestley’s embroidery for Armour, work in progress
Rage that’s used in order to control
relations, intimate partners
to achieve a golden dream a chiselled cold
fear that stings fear
where one isn’t aware
it looks like metal but it’s not.
The Booth Centre: there was also anxiety in the air this morning, it hit like a shock wave as I came through the door. Someone was trying high level intimidation, with raised fists, loud shouted outbursts, staring competitions. He was dressed in black, he paced the room, moving erratically and occasionally launching into another confrontation, while the staff tried to defuse his anger. Because people in the Centre are very attuned to threat, their radar was on alert. They looked over each other’s shoulders while talking, there was an unsettled feel, objects kept being knocked off tables, people bumped into one another. It was as if an earthquake had dropped in for a cuppa.
As is the often the way there, I spoke to some people I have known for years and some I’d only met this morning. Every conversation was fragile, lightly touched by the presence of fear, yelling its head off in the corner. The first person I talked with was fighting back panic, he said. The next was joking with me, but kept checking the threat potential. The last had been awake four days straight, out on the streets. He’d not been eating, because of grief. He looked shrunken, like a an inhabitant of an institution, with over-large, over-bright eyes.
Footballer Ryan Giggs on visit to the Booth Centre, Manchester.
But walking alongside fear, and just as powerful, was the feeling of being thoroughly, immediately alive, and the intensity of each shared moment. A day at The Booth Centre is like this, you can squeeze several hours-worth of living into an instant. There’s a surreal-ness to the fast-forward rush of it all. It came as absolutely no surprise that the footballer Ryan Giggs suddenly turned up with a camera crew to meet folk, sign autographs, and add a further manic element. Suddenly beaming smiles and a celebrity frisson punctuated the atmosphere.
In the afternoon, making an oasis of stitching and poems, we read The idea of order at Key West by Wallace Stevens, a poem about reducing chaos. Its subtitle might be how to insure yourself against the effect of the world by finding safety in art. Or in other words, how to write your way out of fear. The writing was made sharper by the recollection of our morning demon, a malevolent drug dealer stalking his own mad shadows.
When I was fighting didn’t think that was dangerous
When I was homeless, I used to put my head in a box- I was sleeping on a park bench, with cardboard to keep the draft from below and a box to keep the wind of my head. A box, a lovely form of protection- it works very well.” Georgina.
It’s a hard to explain in words sometimes, better to experience. As I have talked about in previous blogs, The Booth Centre does something remarkable- gives a safe space to some of the most vulnerable in society. And more than that, creates a tolerant, optimistic, creative working space that I feel privileged to work in.
‘Making art, takes your mind away from things.’ Garry
Shrine, part of the Armour project
With Johnny leading the session, the room took on a jovial atmosphere and somehow, at odds to the stereo types of the pained artist, in stickered misery,the laughter and support allowed people to talk about some darkness, darkness that nobody would want to face. One man, living with his fiancée and son, recently dying in a house fire, created a shrine. A deeply personal brave piece, that effected all of the viewers.
‘Making art, helps an erratic mind, it stimulates- you’ve found the secrete to help homeless people.’ Dave.
Johnny had filled a two tables with an eclectic mix of objects, bones, wooden boxes, an old violin, books, tiny figures of people. Without pausing anon, (a veteran of the armed forces) choose a large piece of tree bark and started writing his train of thought onto it.
“The sway from your branches, to and fro, my home, not to share, my solace from memory dark, noice, panic, fear, tearing at my brain… you comfort me still, my house, my treehouse’ (insert photo)
Quietly spoken, he explained to me later, that he had spent 2 years living in a tree house, only coming down to the ground in the dead of night.
Gary’s artwork coincidentally picks up on another aspects of trees- their life cycle and the importance of trees/cardboard and wood in a homeless persons life. Taking us back in a circle to Georgina….
Johnny Woodhams at the Booth Centre
I had no real idea what I was expecting to find and feel at the Booth Centre having never been there before. I was afraid that my concept for the session might be met with boredom or resentment…after all what do I know about what it’s like to live on the street? What I found was the best ‘family’ of folk I’ve met in a long time….staff, volunteers and visitors alike…genuine, welcoming, comforting and inclusive….what an absolutely great place.
The outcomes of the session were raw and hugely emotive but the power of humour and strength were ever present throughout the day….I cannot wait to go back….I can see a hundred more things we could do! Writing is at it’s best when it is honest and rooted in truth…there are some bloody great writers here but often my favourite pieces are the most basic and simplistic because no language is wasted…it is as the person speaks….
This session was utterly touching, emotive and beautiful even in its sadest themes…it lifted my spirits enormously and reminded me how important the power of art is even more so in these current climes….
Any one of us could easily fall into this position…the mixture of amazing characters was complete testament to this…..
arthur+martha are pleased to announce that we have been awarded Arts Council Funding for a new pilot project called ‘Armour’.
Armour will be a six month pilot project with homeless veterans, developing creative ideas based on medieval armour. How can veterans live peacefully with the memory of war? We will re-think, re-examine, re-create quilted medical armour, as garments embroidered with meditations on war and peace.
Workshops will discuss how we protect our deeper selves and how we heal. Discussions will be edited to create a collection of poems. Based at The Booth Centre homeless resource centre in Manchester, we will train peer mentors, involve organisations working with veterans, partner art/museum venues to research and exhibit the artwork.
Like any new arthur+martha project, I am sure this project will stretch us into profoundly new areas of working, that will bring us many challenges, but will also bring us joy, open new approaches, audiences and collaborations.