Writing workshops with ArtSpeak

I’ve just finished a commission for ArtSpeak which gave me the opportunity to nose into the lives of retired and elderly people across the city. My brief was to find out what arts activities people are interested in and where they would like to see these take place. The research would then help ArtSpeak develop a series of Creative Cafes. The research was conducted during two-hour writing workshops at Strelley, the Meadows, Clifton and Bulwell. From these sessions I created pen portraits of participants to demonstrate the different ways in which the arts fulfil needs, particularly in terms of health and mental wellbeing.

I got this commission after giving a talk at the Nottingham Contemporary about my contribution to The Bigger Picture, a multi-collaborative research project exploring the impact of intergenerational arts programming on minority communities in Nottingham. Sharon Scaniglia and Hannah Stoddard of the Radford Care Group were in the audience and approached me afterwards about their ArtsSpeak project. I mention this because as lovely as the internet is, nothing compares with getting off your arse and meeting people in real physical space. This is how I get most of my work. It was also nice to work with Sharon again. We had previously worked on the board of directors for Festival of Words.

I began each ArtSpeak session with some literary or historical link to the area. This was partly to see how much people knew about their home turf and as a reminder that artists are ordinary folk from ordinary places. This led on to a series of writing exercises from a pre-set list of questions. You can’t predict how these sessions will go or how participants will react, so the questions were a loose guide that could be adapted as and when. Similarly, what works in one place doesn’t necessarily work in another.

Folk from Bulwell were absolutely on it. They were self-motivated, well-organised, and had a good infrastructure in place to keep themselves busy. Their complaint, and one I heard repeatedly, was not having enough time to do the things they wanted to do. Therefore, anything that took them out of their busy schedule had better be worth it. I have featured one person from this session (Joy Rice) on my Whatever People Say I Am Instagram account as she confessed to knocking out the first brick of the now defunct Broadmarsh carpark. How dearly I would love to meet the person who one day gets to knock out the first brick of the Broadmarsh shopping centre …

When I began creating Dawn of the Unread in 2014 I was highly skeptical of one stop libraries. I was deluded by the aura of books, believing the presence of any other service within this space would trivialise the experience of reading. I was wrong, and Strelley library typifies this. Opened on 14 November, 2018, after £1 million of investment, Strelley library acts as a cultural hub for the wider community. It’s also a very inviting space, with light pouring in through the glass fronted windows. Above the library are 37 one-bedroom independent living flats, run by Nottingham City Homes.

The participants for this workshop came from the flats, one of whom was really grateful that Hannah Stoddard had knocked on his door twice to encourage him to join in. He said he wanted to answer the door but didn’t have the confidence, so appreciated her perseverance. He was introverted, anxious, and uneager to get involved at first. He said he’d not undone his curtains in two weeks and was very ill. But once we’d won over his trust he became really animated, sharing an incredible life story that had taken him around the world and in a variety of public facing service jobs. He temporarily forgot about his illness and our session overran by an hour. This validated the objectives of ArtSpeak. It was a pleasure to meet him and I felt genuinely sad to say goodbye. I felt as if I’d known him all my life rather than for three hours on a Thursday afternoon.

The Clifton session took place in a less inspiring library, but this didn’t bother participants. Cost and access were the factors that seemed to matter most, rather than aesthetics. Clifton library is on the bus and tram route. I met a man who took The Beatles’ ‘All you Need is Love’ as his personal mantra, travelling to India in a clapped-out van. On his way he stopped off in Afghanistan and fondly recalled that they were the kindest most hospitable people he’d ever met and how much it saddened him to see what we had done to the country in the aftermath of 9-11. I would love to tell his story as part of the graphic novel element to Whatever People Say I Am and may do so if I can find additional funding.

Participants at the Meadows were exactly as I expected – vocal, proud and heavily involved in their local community. Again, I encountered incredible stories of ordinary lives – from a woman whose best friend is a parrot to a man who copes with bereavement by growing food in his allotment and sharing it out with his neighbours. This group all wanted to learn how to write ‘properly’ so that they could write their memoirs to pass on to their grandchildren. I recommended The Accidental Memoir by Eve Makis and Anthony Cropper as a good starting place for getting their ideas down.

ArtSpeak is an arts strand of The Radford Centre. Read their blog about the project here. Website: www.artspeak.org.uk




The Bigger Picture Project – arts and inclusion

For the past year I’ve been working with Loretta Trickett on research for The Bigger Picture which explores the impact of intergenerational arts programming on the experiences of exclusion and isolation within minority communities in Nottingham. This is a multi-collaborative project that includes researchers at the University of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent University and Bright Ideas Nottingham. Together we have been looking at cultural institutions such as National Justice Museum, New Art Exchange, and Nottingham Contemporary as well as many others.

Loretta has held focus groups with various retired people to try to identify possible barriers to the arts and how local organisations can make themselves more inclusive and accessible. Her research has found strong correlations between the arts and health and mental wellbeing. A lot of the retired people she interviewed stated that the arts fill an essential gap in retirement by essentially providing stimulation and building community. One interviewee talked of the arts being a ‘cultural trigger’ that led to obsessive behaviour. He stated that being intrigued by a painter could lead to him reading books about the artist, visiting countries related to the artist, or learning to paint himself. Other people talked about having no time during their working lives to pursue personal goals and then being busier in retirement than they were at work. Over and over again the research reinforced how important the arts were to individuals on numerous levels, not least in providing a sense of self now that work no longer defined their identity.

My role in the project has been finding ways of disseminating the research so that it’s more accessible. This was done through a visual narrative and a graphic novel.

The visual narrative was created by Paul Fillingham, Richard Weare and me. This 35-minute film condenses hours of focus group meetings. The aim was to find recurring themes and categorise experiences so that viewers could get an overall feeling of how the retired felt.

I like the idea of a continuous multi-authored narrative and first got the idea when I worked at LeftLion magazine. The editor at the time, Al Needham, wanted to tell Nottingham’s version of Hillsborough but was cautious given the sensitive nature of the subject matter. The best way to do this was to piece together first-person experiences in one article, thereby allowing self-representation. Two years ago, I helped put together a similar project for the East Midlands Heritage Awards whereby Richard Weare and me conducted interviews with heritage professionals and then sutured these Vox Pops together to create Heritage Confessions.

The graphic novel is for Whatever People Say I Am, the follow-on project to Dawn of the Unread. I held writing workshops with a group of retired people and together we identified key issues they faced on retirement. I then gave them a series of questions (‘what do you miss most about work?’ ‘what is the most important thing to you in retirement?’ etc) and compared their responses to try to narrow down themes and find common patterns. Then we worked on a narrative arc and eventually produced a multi-authored script. This was really important as it enabled the focus group to create something tangible and experience the joys (and frustrations) of writing a script rather than having one imposed on them. If they enjoyed this process, hopefully they would carry on writing…

The script is currently being illustrated by John Brick Clark. Brick is retired (born in 1949) so he was the most appropriate artist for the commission. John was one of our previously commissioned artists for Dawn of the Unread. I don’t want to give anything away, so keep your eyes on the Whatever People Say I Am website. Our aim is to publish this first story for April.

I’m also working on another story for this project about a care home. It involves a Lancaster bomber pilot, a woman with a male horse called Princess, and an 87 year-old taxi driver from London who read his first poetry at 86. More of this in another blog…

On Friday 1 February Loretta and me presented our findings at the Nottingham Contemporary in what was one of the most enjoyable conferences I’ve ever been to. Karen Salt (University of Nottingham) produced a pack of cards that ask various questions and enable arts organisations to understand their aims and objectives in relation to participation. These act as triggers for critical conversations, and had everyone talking in a way that wouldn’t usually happen in a conference.

Bright Ideas, led by Lisa Robinson, took feedback to another level, putting on a performance in which arts organisations were asked to take a health check. The play was performed by a community of researchers who had not met prior to the project and was funny, inciteful and clever. They addressed some difficult issues in a very thoughtful way and I’m sure the organisations in question learned a lot more about their practice than they would from the dreaded feedback form.

Too often academic research is cold, stale and so far up its own arse it (insert witty comment here). This led Geoff Dyer, in Out of Sheer Rage, to conclude of academic criticism that it kills everything it touches. ‘Walk around a university campus and there is an almost palpable smell of death about the place because hundreds of academics are busy killing everything they touch.’ This was not the case on Friday. Together, we produced some innovative and engaging approaches to research that were fun, informative and accessible.

The Bigger Picture is a collaboration between Nottingham Contemporary, New Art Exchange, National Justice Museum, Bright Ideas Nottingham, University of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent University and Midlands4Cities. Funded by Arts Council England. Nottingham Contemporary’s public programme is jointly funded by Nottingham Trent University and The University of Nottingham.