Rob performs his story

Home: The Way I See It

They are powerful things, stories. Sometimes when I speak about my work, it feels a bit contrived. Do stories really deserve so much reverence? This storytelling project and performance by Extant Theatre at Theatr Clwyd in Mold went right back to basics – and has given me a renewed appreciation of how vital it is to share our memories and ideas with one another.

The set up was simple. Support a group of Blind Veterans to share their childhood memories. Develop their skills and confidence. Share their stories through performance.

Sylvia has shared memories of growing up in the Welsh Valleys.
Sylvia has shared memories of growing up in the Welsh Valleys.

However, Extant always bring a bit of magic to projects, particularly when Theatre Director Elizabeth Wainwright is involved. The telling and retelling of stories, supported by someone who is so passionate, dynamic and responsive has created something really special.

A group of storytellers, made up of Blind Veterans and friends have worked together for 10 weeks. They have learnt to tell as story from their childhood; to move you, make you laugh and prompt you to think about your own life and if it were you, what you might tell others. It’s an intimate portrait of how we can gather, despite differences, to share a piece of our history. And you’re invited.

text From the film ‘Home: The WAY I SEE IT’

Judge for yourselves – the film is now available to view on Vimeo. Thanks as always to Project Manager Jodie Stus for inviting me to get involved in another Extant project!

Marching forward

The Winter Solstice has become a point in the year for me to reflect on my work and learning journey on this little blog. Before I switch off my laptop until January, here are a few musings. Grab a cuppa and enjoy!

My work this year has had an almost exclusive focus on local heritage. 2018 marked the Centenary of the Armistice and the passing of the Representation of the People Act, so there has been plenty happening to mark both.

In February I was part of organising a commemorative event with the People’s Heritage Co-operative, The Active Wellbeing Society and Birmingham City Council. The 1918 legislation extended the franchise to thousands of working class men – and for the first time a significant proportion of women. I was invited to ask a question (effectively making a statement) to a full meeting of Birmingham City Council. The significance of standing in the Council Chamber only a stone’s throw away from where my Great Grandmother lived in 1918 wasn’t lost on me.

Speaking from the Gallery of the Council Chamber on 6th February 2018, 100 years since the passing of the Representation of the People Act.

My Great Grandmother wasn’t able to vote in 1928. Like so many other working class women she wasn’t recognised as a citizen until 1928. She spent a significant part of her married life raising eight children in poor housing in Hockley. I’m adamant that we shouldn’t be too self-congratulatory as a society when it comes to social progress and so I’ve spent much of this year pulling together a project to ask what happened beyond 1918.

‘Represent’ has been granted £36,100 by the Heritage Lottery Fund and I’m very pleased to share that I will be working as the Project Manager over the next 18 months. We will be working to explore Birmingham’s politics in the period following WW1 and the passing of the Representation of the People Act. We’re focusing on activism in relation to women as activists and housing campaigns. I’m really privileged to be working alongside a fantastic team of researchers and historians and we’ll be recruiting new members of the team in the new year – if you are a designer, evaluator or artist then keep a lookout! You can read more over on the People’s Heritage Co-operative website where you can also sign up to our mailing list for occasional updates. We really don’t know what we will uncover in the archives at this stage, so it’s all very exciting!

Other heritage projects this year have included some Project Co-ordination and delivery of creative workshops with people experiencing dementia for Living Memory; creating a film for Birmingham Friends of the Earth to mark their 40th Anniversary using archive images and oral histories; an ongoing memories project with elders for The Lichfield Festival and work with pupils at Paganel Primary School for Fields of Remembrance to examine how WW1 impacted on their neighbourhood.

Exploring important journeys for The Lichfield Festival

I’ve been continuing my learning journey this year through attending a variety of ArtsConnectWM events and courses, including ‘Preparing for Work in Formal Education’ and the always inspiring Digital Pick and Mix event. I’ve also been exploring Podcasting with an online MOOC, considering curation with Friction Arts, learning about the ‘StoryLab’ work happening at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and getting involved in a new heritage focused Research Cluster at Birmingham City University.

A real highlight has been working with the absolutely wonderful team at Geese Theatre to bring creative film making into two different secure mental health hospitals. Geese marked their 30th Anniversary this year and the years of experience are really evident in their practice. I’ve learnt so much from Geese and from participants who have thrown themselves into projects. We’ve created some fantastic work which is now being enjoyed by participants and being used as a resource by staff throughout Elysium Healthcare.

A screenshot from ‘Let the Light Show’, produced with Geese Theatre.

In 2019 things will continue to take a dramatic turn with another film planned with Geese Theatre and some work with Big Brum Theatre.

Over the past month I have been working in role as a ‘Community Knowledge Officer’ for Balsall Heath, helping Balsall Heath Forum to create an online directory and events listing site to be used as a community resource by local organisations and residents. I’ve been getting lost in WordPress plugins, themes and widgets (quite a nice place to be!), but eventually it’s taking shape. I will be employed until April, liaising with local partners to develop the resource further. Do add any news, events or organisation details to the site if you have details to add – you can view the site at www.neighbourhoodnewsonline.com.

The Neighbourhood News Online site for Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook

I’ve ended the year on a real high. Last night I came together with my wonderful coworkers from The Transfer co-working space for a few pre-Christmas drinks. It’s a lovely community of people who support one another through the trials and tribulations of freelance work and remote working. The board of Trustees from the Old Print Works work so hard to make the space cosy and welcoming and I’m so grateful for the shared lunches and camaraderie.

I wanted to end this post with an image from the ‘March of the Women’ event that I documented a few weeks ago. Balsall Heath and Moseley Women’s Institute wanted to mark the Centenary of the first women casting their votes in a General Election. They came together to sing a song written by a Suffragette alongside a series of songs written by the group and by women migrants.

It was such an uplifting event and a reminder of the dynamism and optimism in my neighbourhood. When we lift one another up then fantastic things can happen. More of that in 2019 please – the world can’t get enough of it.

Planning, collaborating, telling stories

Planning, collaborating, telling stories.  All the stuff that I love.  Here’s a bit of an overview of what I’ve been up to so far this year.

I have spent part of this year working part time as a Project Co-ordinator on ‘Living Memory’, a two-year Heritage Lottery supported project that records and celebrates photography collections and life stories from across the Black Country.  It’s been an intense and rewarding role, delving into fascinating stories and stunning images from across the area, as well as making connections with community organisations and projects that I was completely unaware of before.  The project will hardly scrape the surface of the rich narratives there are to uncover, but you can get a flavour of what we have been doing on the project website (where you can also sign up to get occasional updates into your inbox) or by following us on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.  A personal favourite story of mine is John Shrimpton’s – whose efforts contributed to the formation of the Sandwell Valley as a nature reserve and protected it from development.

I’ve continued my longstanding relationship with the Lichfield Festival this year, developing their ‘Hear My Voice’ learning and participation programme, this time with elders across Walsall and Lichfield.  Textile Artist Liz Blades and I have been visiting Dementia Cafés, the weekly ‘Mind Matters’ session in Beechdale and drop ins for over 50s to develop our project on the theme of journeys.  I have been taken aback by how open people have been about discussing their memories – often they touch on personal traumas and tragedies and frequently these experiences have not been shared so candidly before.  Our task will now be to carry this work forward into the next phase.  The textile patchwork quilt which illustrates some of these memories will be on display at the Lichfield Garrick Theatre over the course of the Festival.

 

 

 

 

Meanwhile, work has continued on the Birmingham Friends of the Earth Heritage project.  A group of volunteers have been scouring through the archives housed at the Library of Birmingham and have unearthed some fascinating stuff about the 40 year history of The Warehouse, BFoE’s home since 1977.  A few weeks ago I trained up a team of volunteers in a morning to conduct oral history interviews with people who have a connection to the building and to BFoE’s work.  With 17 people to interview over the course of the afternoon it was a hectic day, but so many lovely anecdotes emerged and there was a really strong sense that these people were early pioneers and advocates of many of the actions that we see as positive and important today.  I’m in the process of knitting these stories together.  A short film and accompanying booklet will be ready for the Autumn.

Behind the scenes I’m still plotting and planning other projects, including ongoing collaborations as part of the People’s Heritage Co-operative.  Next week I’m embarking on a new project making a film in a setting for women with mental health needs.  I’m also going to be presenting Women’s History Birmingham‘s work to this year’s Community Archives and Heritage Group conference, which this year focuses on Conflict, Protest and Reconciliation.

A Healthy Ecology of Culture?

‘How do leaders in the Arts achieve wider and deeper engagement with the Arts and Heritage?’

This was the question posed by Robert Hewison, author of the excellent book Cultural Capital, the Rise and Fall of Creative Britain’ at an Arts Connect WM seminar for Arts and Cultural sector leaders on 1st November.  It’s also a question that I’ve been grappling with on a personal level over the past few months, and something I alluded to in a blogpost back in June.

Hewison has superb insight and clarity into the shifts in cultural policy, in the increasing commodification of culture and need to justify its value in market terms.  His book charts the rise of the ‘Creative Industries’ and the notion that an army of freelancers and small scale creative businesses can drive innovation, tackle unemployment and regenerate whole swathes of post-industrial Britain.  As one such freelancer who is frequently told how much my colleagues and I contribute to the economy, I’m acutely aware how much guff is spouted in this regard.

Thankfully there seems to be plenty of work being done to redefine how we measure value in arts, heritage and culture.  I completed the University of Sunderland’s online ‘Introduction to Participatory Art and Media’ course over the Summer and the range of excellent case studies with serious research evidencing their impact was wonderful.  However, unless this work is taken seriously at a strategic level with adequate funding and supporting structures, the hours spent meticulously evidencing outcomes will be just one more instance of the sector fruitlessly justifying ourselves on other people’s terms.

We were also provided with some seemingly damning statistics, highlighting how increased Arts Council and National Lottery funding for the Arts has led to minimal impact on engagement amongst the wider public (admittedly using flawed methodology).  It was highlighted in the ensuing discussion on our table that it is important to bear in mind the wider context of ‘homegrown’ and commercial culture to get a truer picture.  My mind instantly turned to a key text from the Leadership course, John Holden’s ‘The Ecology of Culture’ which sees culture in a wider context than Arts Council policy, where different cultural sectors organically intersect and support each other.  Like a natural ecological system, it requires interdependence and sustenance of the many different elements.

The lecture highlighted three key threats to the sector, which really set the challenge for everyone in the room:

  • National Lottery funding decreasing
  • Educational policy narrowing
  • the wider Economy shrinking, with particular challenges at Local Authority Level.

So, how do we begin the answer the question posed to us?  In all honesty I fear for my future in the sector as a Freelancer.  Whilst welcoming additional funding coming into new and existing National Portfolio Organisations locally, I feel that freelance artists are frequently on the outside of the conversation, working precariously in a tough environment.  If we don’t ‘get the gig’ or have the time to invest in attending arts events it is hard to operate.  This is exacerbated for people with dependents, people with additional needs or people living in more isolated areas.  The idea of an ‘Ecology of Culture’ is something which makes sense to me – the need for stronger networks at all levels, with more people looking ‘sideways and below’ for support, instead of merely responding to challenges and opportunities coming from a policy level.

I’m not entirely sure what my ask is, I’m still making my first forays into thinking about this in more depth.  I’m probably being quite unfair in my analysis based on my current bugbears.  I could probably be more proactive, be more focused, take more risks myself.  However, here are some thoughts, which I appreciate are very focused on my own development:

  • In the Heritage sector there is so much dependence on Heritage Lottery Funding for individual projects.  It seems that there is little in the way of learning and development, particularly as so many projects are one-off, small scale activities by community groups who do not deliver heritage projects as a core activity.  As part of my work as Secretary of The People’s Heritage Co-operative I am interested in exploring how we can develop networks to increase our resilience.  Sharing experiences and skills, as well as making connections with other heritage practitioners will surely mean that we are spending less time competing for limited funds and more time pooling our skills as the funding pot decreases.  I’m particularly passionate about making the case for high quality and strategic heritage education with young people and I hope that Heritage Practitioners can feed into the development of the ‘Cultural Education Partnership’ locally.  Watch this space as plans develop.
  • National Portfolio Organisations could create ‘learning communities’ – spaces where artists can collaborate, play and respond to each other, without the pressure of responding to a commission.  Friction Arts’ ‘Artists on the Edge’ is a superb example of this.  It has created a family of artists from different disciplines who are now forging new paths, but who are also able to bring their skill and energies to supporting Friction Arts’ work.  It’s a reciprocal and sustainable model, which is of particular value to ‘post-emerging’ artists.
  • Arts organisations also need to find ways to welcome Artists through their doors – not just as consumers of culture, but as people with something to offer and share.  How can we initiate these conversations?
  • I really welcome the Arts Leadership course (Arts Connect WM are recruiting the next cohort now!) and I’ve taken plenty away which I’m not yet sure what to do with.  Perhaps my next step should be seeking a mentor?  But who and where?

Am I thinking along the right lines here?  Am I just using this as a sounding board to vent some frustrations?  I think that most artists CAN and WANT to achieve wider and deeper engagement.  Too often our engagement is fleeting, ‘hit and run’, working to another agenda.  I crave depth, collaboration and longer term relationships where I can use my artistic practice to work in a genuinely participatory and collaborative way.  Several projects are in the pipeline where I hope to address that.  In the meantime, let’s keep Hewison’s question in mind and try and develop a healthy cultural ‘ecology’…

40 years of Birmingham Friends of the Earth

Birmingham Friends of the Earth are celebrating their 40th Anniversary this year. To help mark four decades of campaigns and action, I am working with local historian, Liz Palmer,​ on a Heritage Lottery Fund supported project.  It will involve working with activists, past and present, to explore memories and archives.

Back in April I attended the 40th Anniversary Party.  The fact that it was so well attended (see above!) really shows what an important role Birmingham Friends of the Earth, and The Warehouse, have played in people’s lives.  So much has been achieved, so many friendships formed and so much creative and committed work has been put into making positive and sustainable environmental change.

If you want to get involved with delving into archives or recording oral histories, there is an informal meet-up next Tuesday, 8th August at 6pm at The Warehouse on Allison Street. Or, if you would like to be kept in the loop with news and events, you can subscribe to the project newsletter for occasional updates.

Do you have a 2 year old?

I’ve written several times about the excellent work that Balsall Heath Children’s Centre do.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t really coming across in a PowerPoint presentation that staff had been using about free childcare provision for pre-school children.  The challenge was to incorporate the experiences of local families into a short film.

As you can probably guess from watching the film, I had rather a lot of fun hanging out with Siobhan and Kiara who have both benefited hugely from accessing services at the Children’s Centre.  If you need any evidence that Early Years provision changes lives, then this is it.

This film to promote the Government Scheme was produced for Balsall Heath Children’s Centre to encourage local parents to take up the free childcare offer. Balsall Heath and surrounding neighbourhoods have low rates of pre-school children in education, yet as Siobhan and Kiara demonstrate, attending an early education setting can have real benefits to children and their families.

Lichfield Travels

Where are you from?  Where have you been?  Where are you going?  These are all questions that I have been asking as part of a new commission for The Lichfield Festival.  As part of the Festival’s focus on journeys, we wanted to explore Lichfield’s connections to the wider world – and what better way to do that then through a gargantuan map!

Last Saturday, on Day 2 of the Festival, I took up residency for the day in the Festival’s pop-up shop, armed with the said map, a wad of colourful stickers and a bag of craft materials.  As well as a band of trusty Festival volunteers, I also had a Hare and Tortoise for company!  Using the map, I invited members of the public to mark out where they were from, where they have lived or worked, and one place (only one!) where they would like to go.  This sparked off some fantastic discussions, particularly between families.  Kids planned out holidays, their parents pointed out some far flung places they had visited, some visitors revealed ‘other lives’ spent as children overseas.

Alongside the map, we have been creating a ‘patchwork quilt’ of our collective journeys, ahead of Textile Artist Elizabeth Blades’ upcoming textile project (keep an eye on the Festival website or even better, join their mailing list for more details).  Using maps, stickers, crayons, pens and plenty of imagination, participants created their own ‘patch’, illustrating a journey which has been, or will be important to them.  Some have been fantastical (flying cars and trips to the moon), some have been fond memories (childhood holidays on the beach) and others have been possibly the first stage in planning an adventure (Manga fans wanting to visit Japan and children excited about going on an African Safari).

Come and view the quilt and the map so far and add your own journey this coming Saturday, 10-3pm at the Festival Shop, next door to Costa Coffee in Three Spires Shopping Centre.  If you can’t make it, maybe add your own journey to the conversation using the #lichfieldtravels hashtag.

Here is a quick timelapse that I put together of the day – if you were there, see if you can spot yourself!

Hedgehog Helpers are go!

Back in February I wrote about an exciting HEDGEHOG related project that I had in the pipeline.  Well, I’m thrilled to share the finished film – it’s going down a storm with the kids who made it, their classmates, teachers, parents and the super people who worked on the project.

Mr Griffin from St Albans RC School receives a hedgehog friend from Julia from the Friends of Brandwood End Cemetery.

The film is the culmination of a partnership between Friends of Brandwood End Cemetery, The Wildlife Trust for Birmingham and the Black Country, Birmingham City Council Park Rangers and pupils from St Albans RC Primary School and Woodthorpe JI School to give ‘Help for Hedgehogs’!

The short film was made by pupils at both schools, and I gave hands on support along the way, as well as editing it all together. It is packed with information about how YOU can help encourage hedgehogs into your own garden and neighbourhood. Hedgehog numbers have declined dramatically in the past 50 years – unless communities take urgent action we may witness their terminal decline in our lifetime.

This project has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and took place between August 2016 and July 2017. 

Really enjoyed my child taking part in the hedgehog project.  It has made us all curious as a family to do our bit to help the hedgehogs, but also spread the word to others.  This project has built confidence and self esteem in the children, strengthened relationships for all involved, promoted curiosity in nature and started a very special journey for children, families, schools and their communities.  It is a joyous project that should be rolled out and continue to be funded to help many more.  Thank you.

Sparklers – a beacon in their communities

Last Summer I was asked by Balsall Heath Children’s Centre to document their ‘Sparklers’ parent peer mentoring programme.  Now, the Children’s Centre’s Stay and Play groups have been like a second home for my little family and I over the past few years, so I am slightly biased when I say that their vision and provision for local families are excellent.

‘Sparklers’ are a group of parents in Birmingham who are doing dynamic, life changing work in their local community. Through parenting classes and peer support they are pushing themselves to take on important roles as mentors whilst assisting other families through signposting.  The project, which is a collaboration between Balsall Heath Children’s Centre, Washwood Heath Children’s Centre, Clifton Primary School and Approachable Parenting, has been recognised at a national level through the prestigious ‘Nursery World’ awards. This is their story.

The Transfer Co-working space

Recently my lunches have got a lot more interesting.  Instragram-able even.  Not that I would expect people to get too excited by what I’m putting in my belly when I’m at work.  However, what it does represent is something very exciting happening in the way I work.

You see, over the past few months I have been co-working out of The Transfer, a co-working space within The Old Print Works on the Moseley Road in Balsall Heath.  Co-working involves pitching up in a shared office space to work for the day and paying a daily, weekly or monthly fee to do so.  It can be as flexible as you need it to be, which is so important for freelancers as work shifts and changes.  There there is tea and coffee included, and a variety of spaces to nestle down.

You may know The Old Print Works through one of its many tenants – the cosy community Ort Café, the Artist led exhibition space at Ort Gallery or Sundragon Pottery.  Or perhaps you’ve been to one of the events here (monthly Muzikstan nights are highly recommended!).  It’s a work in progress as the community of freelancers, makers and creatives try to breathe new life into an old industrial building, but this is the vision…

If you haven’t yet explored the Old Print Works, we are an eclectic and growing bunch of makers, doers, designers, artists, musicians, teachers, dreamers, builders and thinkers, sharing our skills and art and creations with the community in an even more eclectic and exciting space. The Old Print Works is full of studios, galleries, spaces and surprises – both indoors and out.

For me, it’s a small haven, a cosy place to hide away and be productive which is right on my doorstep.  There are so many little hideaways here and it’s full of greenery.  Tea and coffee are on tap, and the sustainable ethos of the place means that there is a mish-mash of furniture and decor, giving it a really homely feel.  I’m even managing a weekly lunchtime swim across the road in Moseley Road Baths whilst I still can!

I’m not really one of the ‘doers or thinkers’ here, but I do enjoy being around people with a ‘can-do’ attitude to making the building viable and vibrant.  It’s very much what Balsall Heath is about.

Which is where my lunch comes into the equation.  Co-workers gather each lunchtime for a communal lunch, tucking into food prepared at home or bits and pieces grabbed from nearby shops (cheesy naan bread made in front of you in a tandoor oven at Kurdistan Mini Market anyone?).  In the Summer bits of fruit, veg and herbs are picked straight out of the garden at the back of the building.  Everyone contributes something and somehow the result is always greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s also a chance to get to know co-workers, catch up with each other and step away from the screen properly.  The upshot is that my time at the computer is far more productive, even if I feel like I’m being really indulgent by stopping for a sociable lunch.

So, given the option of staying at home trying to work, sitting in a café trying to make a Cappuccino last a few hours or coming to a dedicated, friendly and affordable co-working space I think it’s an obvious choice.  Come along for a free trial and see what you think.