I wrote this blog post for Bristol Life of Breath Project, so am now posting it here. I’m very proud of the work that a group of us did in primary schools in early 2019. I’m using some of the ideas we experimented with in some new workshops I’m devising for GP Dr Sarah Temple and her company Ehcap. Her work on emotion coaching for parents and children helps a great deal of people and I’m proud to be part of the development of this too.
My 16 year-old son and I were invited by Anna Best to do an arts residency at The Mothership in Dorset at the end of October 2018. This is an account of that week.
We know that we will be doing some work together. We don’t know what we’ll be exploring exactly, and we’re given the freedom to not know. No result is expected – this is luxurious, even decadent, in the best possible way. We’re both at periods of life where there is transformation and change. He will leave home soon, maybe next year, maybe in two years, so I will be looking at what this means to me. I know I want to go deep into whatever I explore.
Practicalities first. We are staying in a studio overlooking a giant oak.
Anna’s beans are drying on one of the shelves:
We have a compost loo which we’ll share with other people, there is no internet. Chris is next door with Simone the dog. We have a vast landscape to wonder in, including a disused railway line. Bridport is 20 minutes drive away and there’s everything we need there, including food shops, pubs and cafes. I’ve brought most of what we need anyway. There are other rural local produce shops and pubs nearby, and it’s not so far from the sea. I pour over maps to get my bearings as I don’t know the area at all. We are near Powerstock, not far from Bridport, and oddly close to places we used to go when we lived in Devon, such as Lyme Regis.
We will present our work at a showing for Force 8 on Friday, 5 days into our residency. http://force8.org is “a creative collective of artists, writers, designers and musicians founded by Anna Best and Hester Schofield in 2016 to promote a culture of thinking and progressive dialogue through contemporary art that will inspire people in Bridport and the surrounding area.”
Where to start? There are many resources available to us: Resource 1. we have brought books. Some are his choice, some are mine.
Resource 2: a random selection of materials. The combination of them is in itself of interest to me. I’ve brought wood cutting tools, paper, inks made out of soil, he’s got threads, wool, knitting needles, an antique wooden milk crate full of materials including paints.
Resource 3: there is a lot of extraordinary nature outside, so our palette is full and there are endless textures and colours to find.
Resource 4: In our application for the residency, we started from a statement that Bede attributed to Plato – “Inside everything, there is a perfect form“ which I think he picked up from studying Ethics and Philosophy. Another way of putting this is that everything in this world is an imperfect representation of its perfect form.
Resource 5: In the summer we were in North Wales and my mother, sister, cousin, my children and I had walked to the beach for a swim. On the walk down, Bede made me a boat to hurl away into the sea, as it was my birthday. It was rainy and cold and it was the perfect thing to do. I have brought the photo of this.
Resource 6. Making letters to an aspect of self is my thing…. so I would like to do this. Writing letters to the breath every day makes it easier to catch the journey of the week in the writing – they somehow catch the nub of each day. They give the whole thing a slow paced rhythmic quality.
The first thing I do is ditch any idea of a plan, or a list or any tightening around my waist. I do keep looking out to check Bede is ok though….
Watching your mother go into a deep creative zone in an almost off grid rural location and having no-one else about isn’t every son’s dream. And you might be amazed he actually came at all. Well so am I, and it isn’t all smooth…
“How long are we here for?” he says on day 2, impatiently.
“Seven days” I say.
“But what exactly are we doing here?”
“Making things, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. Just making art. You know that. You wanted to come!”
” I don’t want to do an arts project, he says. I want to be at home.”
And there was the ‘You’re so deep mum’. It wasn’t a complement.
‘Yes, I am.’ I say, simply and get on with sewing fragments of text onto a piece of paper.
After that he settles in, or just gives in and finds what this is about for him. Unstructured time, un-led… no one is telling us what to do and there really aren’t many people around… all this is fine. It’s such a contrast to the stitched up quality and quantity of time in the rest of life… school, jobs, volunteering, walks, Duke of Edinburgh, Ten Tors, and so on. There is certainly no manual of how to go about making a piece of work here. Physically and in atmosphere, the place is remarkably like the farm we were lucky to be able to live on in mid Devon for eight years, before we moved to North Somerset.
I offer to give him structure, which he refuses, but I throw out a few lines in case he wanted to catch them. Such as a quote I’d been told at a wedding the day before we’d left. “When you change the things you notice, the things you notice change.” This goes down surprisingly well.
But if we’re open to noticing the perfect form of everything, then which parts of what we encounter will get sketched onto my notepad, or scratched into something he is making? What form will we use to pull it into a piece of work? Will we even make a piece of work together?
The time we have at The Mothership is during the week of the end of October, our Halloween; this was once seen as the thirteenth month. I read about October and November in Ian Siddons Heginworth’s book ‘Environmental Arts Therapy and The Tree of Life, A monthly guide for your soul’s journey on this beautiful earth.’ I read slowly as I like to let the thoughts of writers that I like seep through me, not just over me… though perhaps I’m just slow, and it’s my way of justifying it. His words make more sense to me whilst in this landscape than they would have done at home. You might say they enter me as much as the surroundings, the elements, the fierce winds on our last night there.
We don’t garden as we’d thought we would, so it is more about the landscape, the stories, the fire, the materials we find in these places. We visit the sea and the fossil cliffs.
We have walks in the forest next to the house, alone and together in various changing lights.
”I’m blowing through the elder” he says. ‘It’s pithy inside. You can easily remove the pith”. He’s carved out holes and blows the top, I hear it make a trembling airy sound. Then he shaves a bit more, and the sound disappears. That’s perfect, I think. It’s a silent recorder. And just then steam shoots out of a log.”
Everyone who walks into the space or we come upon becomes part of the work. The stories of everyone who we talk to, influence us or are woven in. The theme seems to be around cuts, threads, sewing up, tracks, circles. A saying goodbye, and a what next? Quite often words elude me, and I confuse words with others – he’s quick to point it out. That’s creative brain at work. He’s got to write an application to a school. It irritates me to have to get that bit of my brain out (the left hemisphere), but of course I’m going to help. I don’t want him to leave home just yet, yet if that’s what he needs, that must happen. We go to an internet cafe to do it.
So in the end how do you choose the right thing to put into this grand sketch of a mother-son moment in time, and what to leave out? Perspective is necessary, to distinguish between the irrelevant details and if no-one else is there to do it, eg a dramaturg, a work partner, it takes longer. I’m already making excuses for the unformed quality of my work. Yet there’s a joy in staying as free in ideas as possible for as long as possible. On Thursday night, I start to create something in script form. I am still pulling threads together when Hester and Anna arrive at 5 pm on Friday for the showing. Bede has lit a fire dish outside.
I haven’t expected it, but the making of objects, the formation of ideas, our creative journey becomes the main thread of the script. There is also something emerging about rising to the challenge of being an elder, in spite of not really wanting to be.
A fire dish. Stories. Everyone who is there tells a story, each one brings something new to the circle.
This is Bede’s story, though it’s changed and refined and perhaps got both more factually accurate and more poetic in retellings since. ‘If you cast your eye across the bay towards Plymouth, you can see Eddystone Lighthouse. Eddystone built his lighthouse out of wood and glass, and to show off how well built it, he decided to sleep over inside it, for the first night it after it was completed. And that night a great storm came, an unlikely storm, and swept it all away, and him with it. So I was on the sea, on the way to France, thinking of this story. I looked out of the horizon and I could see the world was round. You can’t get that perspective on land. We can make the land straight by building railways, but the sea will always be round. Railways were built across America, they cut off Buffalo paths. We westerners build roads, square buildings, straight lines…”
Bede also shows what he made… the silent elder recorder. A bamboo pen. A mini church door. A book bound in leather and filled with painted images: the images illustrate cell division. A thick knitted something which ‘has not become anything yet’, but then becomes a circle, a cowl. He tells a story around a fire dish. He composes a song.
I make a series of letters, in ink and red thread. Seven stories joined by breaths, stitches, insults, home truths. I then write a 24 minute script which is finding what it is.
What does Bede think about what we have made? He likes the fires and the stories but he doesn’t want to hear what I have written. Of course. But he doesn’t mind I’ve written it.
What do I think of what we have made? Perhaps I have made something out of the extraordinary ordinary – this place, the occasion, just having a week to play with. Or even something ordinary extraordinary? I like it when Anna says the studio looks like we’ve been living there for weeks – I suppose we have let ourselves get pretty messy at times. I hope I have not been sentimental, and I hope it gets people feeling something, but know I’ll need to do a lot of cutting.
When I read my words, I see that my metaphors are thick and deep, where as Bede’s thoughts are so clear, even if not simple. Does this make him a better artist than me? I know the detail can confuse the whole, and I need time to work out which is which.
What medium should this writing end up as, I ask at the showing. I’m not so sure yet. Theatre? Radio? Novellette? Long poem? Hester suggests it’s radio, it’s so internal. “You really need to stop and listen to the words, the words are enough in themselves.” I agree, and think that the character called Time could blossom if on radio. Hester sees it as a working through, an interpretation of a dream, or the unconscious, through referencing the every day. Anna says that though some of the references are familiar (she’s lived her for some time, and visited since a child), that this doesn’t make it dull. Knowing a place for years, seeing it through seasons and periods of life, seeing the same thing again and again just makes it richer, deeper, and hearing about it from different perspectives is part of that depth.
Yes – life gives everything we need. When you change the things you notice, the things you notice change.
I ask Hester and Anna to create their own letters to the breath which they do, speedily. I hang them next to my letters, at the window overlooking the oak tree.
Then they tell their own stories beside the fire. Both pick up on themes and leave something new to this story. We blow breaths to each other and receive them back and then go back to our lives.
This whole thing is a walk through something, the 13thmonth, a ritual, a song. It feels as though it touched something honest and true, but I can’t yet understand it – how could I?
I look up my notes of a workshop I went to the week before the residency, about building your dream idea. One of the exercises is a visualisation. I read my account of the visualisation – my vision if you like: it’s about a tall lighthouse by the sea, I am at the top of it talking to a big crowd, helping millions of them see differently. Let’s hope that vision doesn’t get dashed into the sea, I’ll have to build it with better materials than Eddyson used.
My youngest son comes for the last day, after his trip to London where he spent time with my mother. He’s been to the holocaust exhibition at The Imperial War Museum and played Fortnight with his cousin. I encourage him to create something. This is what he makes:
“So for now the cycle is ending…. Down by the water’s edge, our ship awaits” writes Ian Siddons Heginworth
Thank you to:
The Mothership and Anna
Ian Siddons Heginworth; Environmental Arts Therapy and The Tree of Life, A monthly guide for your soul’s journey on this beautiful earth’
Hester, for recommending ‘If Women Rose Rooted: A journey to Authenticity and Belonging’ by Sharon Blackie, which I’ve been reading since.
Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannia
The Viking I met at Adele and Nic’s wedding.
Eggardon Hill, which we could see each day, and our friends at 3CaneWhale whose beautiful song ‘Eggardon Hill’, sent little ripples to us throughout the week.
This blog post is on the Wellcome Trust funded Life of Breath Project website: take a look.
The blog delves into the possibility that what I might be asking people to do in my letter writing project, is make their own graphic medicine. What do you think?
Images: Dean Ayotte/Elizabeth Blackwell Institute.
I met Jessa Fairbrother today at a nourishing movement workshop called Flummery Room run by Brenda Waite at The Island in Bristol. Beautiful sessions: Brenda is generous and gentle in how she leads and she manages to encourage us to give something of ourselves, without even asking. Working together, our bodies moving in space to silence or music, we explore repetition, pauses, distance, folding and unfolding. All of us in the group have a chance to get to know ourselves better and to perhaps discover something about each other too. All of this is beyond words, although words are not banned, and they may appear at times in the space too. Something is freed up and we remember how to play again.
At the end there is a chance to talk to some of the other participants; I like that the talk comes after the getting to know another person a little through their movement and how they move with others.
Jessa told me a little about her work – photographs, embroidery, her themes – I became curious. Now home, I’m meant to be sanding down my front door ready to be painted, but how much more enjoyable it is to be reading some of Jessa’s blog posts – nuggets of inspiration and observation. Here is one.
My colleague Dr Alice Malpass has written a blog about our Being Human event at the Arnolfini in November 2017: it’s on the Life of Breath website: https://lifeofbreath.org/2018/01/gasp-making-breathlessness-less-invisible-through-the-creative-arts/.
RIP Jenny Joseph.
Jenny Joseph is a name I’m familiar with. It’s on the spine of a book that’s always on my book shelf, and is now on my bedside table, to read for the first time as an adult. When I was 15, Neil Astley of the newly formed Bloodaxe Books asked me whether I’d like to be on the cover and the back of Jenny’s new book ‘Persephone’.
The pouty photos were taken and tinted by Irene Reddish, and I got paid something like £60 (this was a lot to me, we’re talking about June 1986). Unusually, there’s also a photo story in the middle, with models – my friends – Diana and Judith Taylor, Farne Conway, Fay Gilder, Thomas Gilder and my first boyfriend’s dad, Roger Neville. My life mentor and friend Moira Conway took the pictures for the photo story in the coffee shop of my mother’s bookshop, The Bookhouse, in Newcastle Upon Tyne.
Theme is one of my favourite subjects to teach as it informs the heart of any piece of creative work, whether it be film, fiction writing, theatre, photography, non fiction, textile work… you name it. Plus it’s about emotion, which is the cornerstone of creating anything meaningful. This workshop, and my recent Creative Sparkle workshops have taken me back to the material I taught on the Narrative MA module at Norwich University of the Arts (I loved that job!).
Film maker Dr Vicki Smith asked me to run a workshop at BEEF over the summer. A privilege to be running the first in a series at BEEF’s current home: The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft.
BEEF – Bristol Experimental and Expanded Film – describes itself as ‘a film and sound collective with an analogue heart’, it’s well worth looking up and getting involved in. Vicky is a true experimental film maker and thinker and it’s been great to get to know her through this.
It’s a joy working with creative people, giving them a pile of tools to explore and improve their work and sharing stories. In these workshops – there is a cultural knock about, as one of the workshop attendees wrote in their feedback. Indeed – I view any workshop as essentially being a process of, ‘I am nourishing you and you are nourishing me.’
More about the workshop details:
Details: SATURDAY 30th July at BEEF’s current home: The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft, 14 Hillgrove St, Bristol.
DAY ONE : EXPLORING YOUR MEDIUM
This set of workshops may be taken singly or together. Close attention will be paid to the role of sound and the senses in experimental film, the advantages and creative applications of different film formats and the consideration of audience.
10-12 am: Elspeth Penny: Narrative – Communicating through Media
A narrative is the unfolding of a structured communication to an audience. Story, genre, time, space, theme, style, plot, characterisation and dialogue, sound, movement, image. This workshop uses practical exercises to explore theme – and how a well worked out theme affects everything we communicate.
Elspeth Penny makes films, tv, literature, theatre…. always ideas led. An experienced creative workshop leader, Elspeth has taught for over fifteen years, including running an MA module in Narrative at Norwich University of the Arts, and loves to work with people of any age and level of experience.
Now for the feedback.
Thank you to all of the participants who gave feedback:
Very open and dynamic in approach. It did need more time perhaps! Good location and resources. Made me think more about the direction of my work and how to develop it.
The exercises were good and energizing and brought the group together in a dynamic and creative way. The film and book examples were well chosen. The exercise at the end of using colours, projection and camera to rapidly explore a filmic theme was really fun and a great idea for an explorative tool.
– The creative exercises are very inspiring and helpful.
– The drawing on overhead and filming is brilliant help to see your theme in action.
– It could be an hour longer.
– Please do more of these workshops.
Really stretched by boundaries.
Felt like I could think more freely.
Wow have something/pointers to take away and follow up.
- Great cultural knock about
- Made me relax and share
- Great set of tool kit to go away with that could be transferred to all/most creative processes.
- Great sense of security in the group.
Points to improve
?? Too much in 2 hours. Needs a day.
Note to self: Don’t try to do too much in an hour!
Thanks to Vicky and Esther for your help in planning and on the day.
Thanks for watching.
Breathe Easy, the Forest of Dean April 19th 2016
‘My Dear Breath, I have lived with you for 83 years, the first 23 were good! but you have been unkind’ – one eighty-five year-old, Clare, writes to her own breath in large pink letters – she’s been using Beetroot ink and a feather to write with. She tells me she had Asthma since she was a child, ‘I used to wonder if I’d wake up dead.’
It’s the first time I’ve been to the Forest of Dean. I get to Great Oaks Hospice, Coleford an hour early. A man is cleaning a lawn mower, whistling away, and I feel at ease. I consider how I’d not mind spending time at any hospice if I could hear someone going about his tasks so happily. He helps me carry in four boxes and several bunches of different coloured rolled up paper into a warm open room in the basement. I set up, ready for the Breathe Easy group to arrive.
I have arranged to do something for the first half of the meeting for Forest of Dean Breathe Easy group. Mike Green is Secretary of the group – he and his wife greet me, then the participants begin to arrive.
‘This looks interesting, intriguing!’ says one slim friendly man, Archie. The table is all set with tablecloth, homemade inks, pens, pencils, chalks, charcoal. There is something about him that reminds me of my Geordie grandfather Grumpy. Grumpy had chronic bronchitis from years of dedicated smoking and spent the last fifteen,or was it twenty years of his life? – looked after by Gran – he was largely bedridden towards the end.
As we start the workshop, there are six people at the table, and a few more trickle in until we are thirteen.
I introduce myself and tell the group how I have developed my letter-writing project Scent (www.scent.buzz). I warm up with a drama exercise using the breath, play a specific kind of consequences, appropriate for the group, ask everyone to write five messages to their five-year-old self in the past, then ask everyone to write a letter to their own breath.
Mark is a jovial man whom I immediately feel at ease with: he chats to me about parenting boys and various theatre pieces he’s seen.
‘I wrote a letter to my lungs actually,’ he tells me. He has written, ‘We are behind you with this’ at the bottom of his chosen piece of humble white A4 paper. He continues – ‘It has helped me to be less critical of myself. That’s because of the five messages that you asked us to write to ourselves as a child.’
It’s harder to be mean to a child, so addressing ourselves this way does tend to help us be more compassionate with ourselves.
‘My letter is basically all about what breath and I can do together’, Clare tells me, with a little regret in her voice. She then says more cheerfully, ‘This is another way we look at ourselves and our illnesses – there is a lot we can do without medication.’
Everyone reacts to the workshop in their own individual way. Participants talk to their breath in tones ranging from kindness and friendship to reprimand, such as Clare’s, ‘But you have been unkind.’
There’s a discussion in the group about whether keeping the letters is a good idea. I suggest that they might like to pin them up to remind themselves.
I know from previous groups that people have admitted that they think their partners will laugh at them if they pin them up. It’s not out of unkindness, but perhaps out of embarrassment about expressing emotions or needs.
Mark tells me that he’ll take it home and throw it out, the way everything else goes in his house. One participant suggests to him that he might benefit from seeing it – why not put it on your wall?’ He considers it, then he says that he’d like to keep it for a while.
Here’s another thoughtful extract.
It’s tea and raffle time. I am offered a raffle ticket, but I say that I wouldn’t like to win and take away the prize from one of the others. The raffle master insists. Luckily I don’t win.
‘I think we all enjoyed that and wish you were here for longer. Perhaps you could come back?’ Mike tells me.
‘That was tremendous. I really did get a lot from that’, Carol says as I’m leaving.
A few days later I get a letter through the post from Mike:
‘Your workshop last Tuesday gave our Breathe Easy members food for thought and a creative outlet not experienced often enough on third Tuesdays in the Acorn Suite. I hope you agree that the varied response, in words and images, is proof of the value of the afternoon to those present, not least the fun of it.
Mary tells me that the procession of the exercises led her to realise she could rise above negativity and begin again to enjoy life.’
I am both moved and humbled, in particular by Mary’s feedback. To me it shows that this is not just simply about letter writing and communicating to some part of yourself, as profound as that might be. It’s also a procession of exercises, a progression of ideas, a transition which participants can go through. If it helps a single person to ‘begin again to enjoy life’ then it’s worth doing.
Thank you to: Mike Green, chair of the Forest of Dean Breath Easy group for all his help and for the photos (when I discovered I’d left behind my camera); all the participants, whose names have been changed for purposes of privacy; Great Oaks Hospice, Coleford for their welcome; Dr Alice Malpass, NIHR Research Fellow for referring me to Forest of Dean Breath Easy group after we both delivered talks at the Life of Breath research group; Jess- Farr Cox; Philosopher Professor Havi Carel, http://www.lifeofbreath.org/ for inviting me to talk at her Wellcome Project Funded project research group in Bristol.