“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…
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.
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.
When I was a little girl I used to say, “I want to love the world better.” But it’s a job I cannot do. Sometimes I can’t even love myself.
16 years ago I got clean. I was using heroin and crack, introduced to them by an ex-partner. Even then I wrote every day, journals and diaries and books of all descriptions. Sometimes it was almost illegible. I did the cold turkey myself, writing every terrible day. My dad would say, “This is the book that will help the world, this will be how you love the world better. The story of how you healed.”
When you come off heroin, your body is all pain. You stretch and you bend and you twist, you twitch your legs, they call it Riding the Bike. Couldn’t sleep, I’d be pacing, I’d be looking at the sky. In the middle of the night I’d be looking out for that chink of light at the darkest time, just before the daybreak. When it finally came I’d think I’ve done another day, I’ve been clean.
I wrote about it every day, every detail. A whole book. Then one day I burned it all. Maybe the weight of those pages was too heavy.
Maybe you know that book too.
WHISPER TO ME ALONE gathers experiences of people who have experienced homelessness — and the experiences of many other vulnerable people — in Manchester during lockdown. We’re using journals of writing, art, songs, phone conversations and embroidery.
Photo above: Featured embroidery, by Marylyn MacLennan for the quilt, Here Comes the Sun.
During the first lockdown the Booth Centre ran an advice drop-in and accommodated people under the Everyone In scheme. At 11am every day they ran a Facebook activity session to combat isolation, which included the arthur+martha WHISPER TO ME ALONE 2-minute poetry videos.
“I’m still tired, but feeling positive now. I really appreciate this, the chance to write the poems. When life has been harsh to deal with, it’s helped.”
One of the things I have witnessed over and over again is that making art, writing poems, stitching embroidery, can help to unpick despair. Nobody really knows why, there are lots of theories. At times making a poem or an artwork is simply a distraction. It takes the mind onto other things, stops those restless thoughts chasing each other and becoming frantic.
Art can also help understanding. Writing a poem gives your thoughts new shape and perhaps allows new answers. An artwork is a representation of the world and connects you to it more deeply. Slowing yourself down to the intricate pace of an embroidery gives you time to meditate and find a richer texture in the whole of life.
“I’m feeling my way forward, using my poems as a guide.”
Making things not only shows the exterior world, it also reflects the inner life and makes it richer, brighter. If you can, take a little time to live with the prose poem below. It’s a celebration of trees, the wonderful, familiar friends that I often don’t give a second glance. But here they’re transformed by the poet’s eyes — into furniture, into children begging for pennies, into a swirling cloak that becomes an old coat, or into old pale bones against a winter sky. As well as trees, all the seasons of human life are in this little poem and so it helps me to appreciate my own. And for the makers of such work it is transforming too…
“I found this to be very useful. More than useful, brilliant in fact.”
The Hollies are still wintergreen, come spring, leathery, shiny-tough, reliable as upright chairs in their utility upholstery.
Plum and cherry let the March winds take their snow and ruby blossoms from them, holding out small fingers for their fee, which came in copper verdigris and silver tarnish, well-used coins and promise of paper money for the fall.
Oak begins leafing out from nowhere, fine, fresh, lettuce-like, so young.
Sycamore sings, spreading hand spans which unfold into a summer cloak whose generous swirls conceal old mossy coat.
Beech, whose bones arched stark against the pale, cold, winter sky, now shimmers in the heat, the flesh full, lush, deliciousness.
Today’s blog was written by Philip Davenport, arthur+martha.
“..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
Asking for help can be the most difficult thing. It seems simple, but there’s a million reasons not to, infinite excuses.
“You’ve got to be ready to ask,” says one of our regular group who’s come through addiction and out the other side.
“It’s not easy, admitting you’re weak,” observes someone else.
“But is it really weak? Everyone needs help, it’s human,” says someone who’s just got a new flat. “I’ve been living out on the street, I needed a lifeline.”
It’s a morning of dancing around these tiny self-made mountains, delicate but terrifying.
Then in the afternoon we start with tears, as occasionally happens. The person next to me is literally shaking. Eyes dark with worry. Tears flood and emotion floods the room. Somehow these tears liberate everyone else, bring them closer to their feelings. And so we write together.
It’s a brittle atmosphere like a family argument, a storm waiting to burst. There’s sadness and anger, lightning strikes of shouting. Then between it all poems grow. People write about letting in simple pleasures. They talk about sunshine, the silliness and joy of just being. Little lines that are fought for so hard, shared and appreciated. Then shouting stops, the tears ease off, we have a strange peace.
Help is too big to put in words
Naked in a big world
Myself to get off the drugs
Help is too big to put in words
Myself to get off the drugs
Mum and dad and me
Naked in a big world
Help is too big to put in words.
I’m touched beyond words by these words. Their makers are so proud, yet embarrassed, yet delighted. There’s a shy grin.
“Maybe I’ll be back next week,” says a new member of our ongoing little club.
“Was it a bit much?” I ask another regular. He shrugs.
One of the delights of each different arthur+martha project, is the chance to work with new specialists to gain new skills and inspiration, to see things with fresh eyes. For the Book of Ours project next year we will be joined by singer songwriter Matt Hill, this year we had the delight of working with Calligrapher Stephen Raw. Stephen writes about his experiences here.
Once again I have the feeling that there is something strangely transformative about calligraphy. Even complete beginners somehow grapple with the wretched pen and enjoy their results! How can you write anything when the nib is thick one way and thin the other and only goes in one direction!? (Little wonder that Mr. Biro was so successful with his wonderful invention.) And wrestling with a quill-like pen was exactly what happened in the workshop – look at the smiles on faces proudly showing the fruits of their labour.
Relevant to the ‘Book of Ours’ project is the fact that some of those novice monks copying manuscripts way back when in scriptoriums were actually illiterate. But this is perhaps no surprise when you consider that our letters are only a manipulation of four simple strokes in various combinations: a vertical, a horizontal, a curve and an angle. The rest is creative embellishment. In the workshop I was telling someone about the time in the 1980s when I lived and taught in Papua New Guinea. One day Makali, a caver, came to the art school without any ability to read and write at all. Yet, when given my drawing of text he managed to produce sublime v-cut letters in wood.
He, as Booth Centre participants do, was dealing with pure form in much the same way I might approach unfamiliar Chinese or Singalese script. Nevertheless, the question remains: why our pleasure in calligraphic script? My observation and guess is that it has something to do with the very nature of an internal contrast within a single letter. Any letter has one part that grows from fat to thin and back again in such a beautiful, gradual manner. And what is more, it’s all gratis – the ‘magic’ pen does it all. Keep it flat on the paper, keep the angle the same and hey presto – letters with inbuilt vitality and variation. No need for contortions of wrist and fingers – just get a grip and off you go. I’ll risk sounding patronising but it never ceaes to delight me when it happens.
The resulting pages in a ‘Book of Ours’ visually speaks of such enjoyment. For sure, some of the letterforms might be wobbly or even ‘scuffed’ (no, not a technical term) but the connection between those monks and the Booth Centre writers is right there in front of us. The process of capturing language and making it visible has always been spellbinding. George Orwell, writing in 1946, said how language is ‘an instrument which we shape for our own purposes’. He wasn’t really talking about the way letters look but he was aware to the importance of fixing language with letters. Without script our lives would be confined to simply conversation or monologue. I love the story – probably apochrophal – of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, who placed a quill under his pillow at night in an attempt to learn how to write. He knew the importance of it but couldn’t be bothered to do the graft of getting frustrated with that wretched pen. Charlemagne could have learnt something from those at the Booth Centre workshop who stuck with it!
One of our makers was worried about having to rush his artwork. He was working on two pages of intricate text. I said,“This isn’t a job you do in a couple of hours, you might take weeks. And we’ve got weeks.”
He grinned,“Good, I like a bit of a ponder. So it’s the long haul is it?”
We’ve been working slowly, steadily, for several months now and our relationship to the book is changing. At first we were worried where was it taking us, this weird journey that follows the steps of medieval makers. And then there was a period when we got tripped up by details. Was this colour right? Was that bit of handwriting too illegible, or too neat?
As we continued with the book, week by week, we’ve learnt to trust the process. Every time we sit around this table in the Booth Centre, more remarkable pages are made. Each page is its own little world, it has a particular emotional gravity, has its own atmosphere, its own residents. Some of the pages are sweet or funny, some of them are the kind of waking nightmares you’d never want to live through. Some warm your heart, or break it.
Time changes when you read these pages, enter these worlds of word and image.
There’s the weight of the experiences of homelessness that the pages describe. But there’s also the sense of replaying an ancient set of rituals, the human act of marking our place in the world. Then there is the slowness of the actions required to construct the pages. This stuff can’t happen fast, it often takes days to make a page, the intricate decoration, the careful script. There might be several writers or artists involved, their contributions layering a thickness of time.
And the pages mark transitions in our own lives too. Many of the original group who we started with at The Booth Centre have moved on. Sadly one of our regular contributors died a week ago and the texture of that experience is another mark in A BOOK OF OURS. Now we know that whenever we open the book, we’re also opening up the memory of a lost friend.
This workshop was part of the project A Book of Ours, creating an illuminated manuscript with people who have experienced homelessness or at risk of. Supported by theHeritage Lottery Fund.
The Booth Centreis here to bring about positive change in the lives of people who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness, to help them plan for and realise a better future.
One of the most interesting conversations I have had about joy came from talking to somebody about anger. We have been making work about joy that morning and he entered into it with delight. Then he had the phone call. Everything changed after the phone call. He was seething, he was fuming, he wanted to go to war. And then we talked about the possibility of holding two emotions at the same time, about how happy he had been earlier in the morning. And what a contrast those two things were, both in the same person. And we started to think about whether joy was destroyed by anger, or could coexist with it.
This week at the Booth Centre the poetry is built up from that foundation. How do you protect your joy from the assaults of the world? Or, as Mathew put it, when describing how to survive insults:“It’s water off a motherf***ing duck’s back. Quack quack.”
And then we came to the question of how long joy can last. Can it be prolonged? And Joan suddenly talked about trying to catch the snow when you are a child. That image filled my head, The dancing snowflakes and the swirling kid and the upheld hands and the breathless anticipation. Joan took the idea and gently placed that it into this:
Into my heart
Joy is like making a snowman.
Seeing the faces of our children
As we make a snowman together.
Choices like love, trying to hold on
To snow as long as we can.
When angry, I’d rather hit a wall.
Kiss and make up, bring joy back.
In the afternoon we were joined by Andrei. He wrote three pages of questions to ask Joy. We selected some of them to make this poem but as he said he could’ve kept going and going and going. It’s a big subject, joy and the lack of it.
What is it. Euphoria, happiness—is it?
The Government doesn’t know what happiness is.
Can there be a joyous skyscraper?
Joy is not my fault or yours.
Is recording joyfulness a thing of joy?
Is there violent joy? A stomping yes!
And have you ever seen a bluebird?
This workshop was part of the project A Book of Ours, creating an illuminated manuscript with people who have experienced homelessness or at risk of. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Booth Centre is here to bring about positive change in the lives of people who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness, to help them plan for and realise a better future.