Session 1: Plates of Wisdom
’Enabling women here to express their feelings through creative activity is positive, empowering and liberating for them,’ Manager Emma Falks wrote to us. Liberating is a key word as some of the women here have been locked up in prison for years. Ripon House Approved Premises is a safe space from which to take their first steps back into the free world. But each step can feel daunting.
We invited the women to choose from paint cards a colour they would like to see in a room of their house. We then matched colours to our partners’ eyes. Two of the participants worked together. One of them matched with ‘Liberty Blue.’ ‘The colour of freedom,’ I said. ‘Yes, that’s it!’ she replied.
One of the participants said she wasn’t good at school, that she was a rebel. We talked about how in creative arts bending the rules can be a good thing and lead to something new. The women appeared to relax in their seats and the atmosphere felt increasingly positive.
We read quotes and aphorisms, selecting wise phrases to paint on plates for ourselves or friends. We then fell into quiet plate making. ‘This is what we call flow in the business,’ Milena said.
One group member told us a story about a Daddy Long Legs and began to do an impression of it. She made us laugh with her self-deprecating wit. ‘Every time I move my joints I feel like a fire cracker’. Writers search around for ages for a line like that. ‘Do you ever write poetry?’ I asked. ‘Yes. I do. I wrote a brilliant one for my son once. I keep a notebook by my bed and then if I think of something I write it down.’ Poetry wasn’t for everyone who attended but in the coming weeks we were to find several other women who shared this passion.
People stayed much longer than they had planned to and earned high fives from our brilliant support worker Nu as a result.
Session 2: Cakes and recipe poems
The group were given notebooks and told they could sketch or write in them as they wished between sessions as well as drawing. As an icebreaker we played teaspoons – a conversation game. The spoons prompted discussions about power dressing and what we would do if we won big lottery money. Most of the group wanted to buy their own house. We all enjoyed dreaming and there was generosity too; all of us wanted to give money away to friends, relatives and deserving causes. This added to the supportive mood and helped the participants focus on their own aspirations.
Participants made chocolate and carrot cakes. While they cooked we baked a group poem. We wrote individual words connected with cake making on strips of paper and noted on bigger strips the places we would like to visit, what we would like to accomplish, a famous person we would like to meet etc. These were used to construct the fun group poem below.
Recipe For A Good Life
Sweetening forest spring
in the village,
becoming a midwife –
I would be made up!
Wash in the coast of America,
particularly Cape Cod,
mix with the Queen
before she leaves us.
Stirring and simmering
with Jenifer Lawrence.
She is really quite funny,
we’d totally go out clubbing!
Whisk a moment of peace
in a Pilates class,
fold in complete happiness,
contentment and peace,
lick the bowl while on my back,
looking at the Northern Lights!
The session finished with us artistically decorating the gorgeous smelling cakes, which participants and staff were to enjoy after lunch.
Session 3: Bag making and story wheels
One of the notebooks had already been used. A member who was in hospital sent it in with Nu so it could be shared. When I read it out, the reception was was the special kind of silence that only very emotive poems produce. This was to start a trend for bringing in poems people had written in the past or through the week.
‘In my cell I feel lost and heartbroken;
for I love my children; how my fate has been spoken,’ wrote one poet, moving from a place of the blues to a place of hope.
Designing bags, one of the members told Nu, ‘I like drawing. I used to do it all of the time but I’ve got out of practice. It’s a bit like riding a bike. You learn how to and then you forget.’ Nu encouraged her in this. ‘It will come back to you. You’ve obviously got a talent for it.’
She soon did!
We then made story wheels and odd-sock wearing characters to generate stories using linking phrases. This took some problem solving, especially when in the first story a school banning knives to prevent crime got into difficulty in the cafeteria at lunch time when they couldn’t cut up their food! The group pulled together to find creative solutions.
Session 4: Perfect home and cushion covers
Milena started by explaining tie-dying techniques. Soon everybody got their bundles tied, ready to start painting cloth that would become tie dye cushions. When they’d finished they helped others in the group, especially Nu who Milena was prodding to finish more quickly!
One of the participants asked me to read her poem to the group. She had used the metaphor of a teddy bear to talk about what she had been through in her life. It was a story of resilience which was to be framed and displayed with a digital drawing on the Ripon House walls. Later in the session the poem would inspire another group member to sing a song her son had written.
We talked and wrote about our ideal homes – be that a big house in the Caribbean with a good oven and veranda and room for all the grandchildren or common themes of gardens, trees, water, sunshine and flowers. Everyone was fully present and this showed in their art work and writing.
The theme of freedom for National Writing Week was to inspire ideas for poems which were read out the following week but to write about freedom felt too difficult for some.
Session 5: Our Dreams and Dream Catchers
Have you ever read the Langston Hughes poem Dreams? Participants said it was ‘powerful’ and ‘right’.
The poem is below.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
To start off their written responses I asked questions like, ‘How do you feel about dreams? What dreams do you hold fast to? If there was a place where dreams were kept where would it be?
When it came to making dream catchers, one of the members had made them before and shared her knowledge of the art, telling us about God’s Eye dream catchers. Learning really is a two-way street!
Session 6: Characters and their stories
In stories, change always happens to characters. Stories help us to think about the things in our own lives that we can change, problems we face and how we can solve them. We created and developed characters, told stories about something significant that had happened to us and created storyboards to tell those narratives.
One participant chose to depict a spooky thing that had happened to her. Milena illustrated what she described while she wrote the words. Over the coming weeks details were added to the black and white drawing, and the whole scene was beautifully coloured. The tamarind tree was full of flowers and the baptist church became a wooden building with tin roof.
Session 7: Surrealism at The Hepworth Wakefield
Our project trip was to one of our favourite galleries. Hayley has written about this in the Journeys and Destinations project’s page.
The first task was to explore the exhibitions, focussing on Viviane Sassen and Lee Miller and photographing works where we were allowed. Some of the women really enjoyed taking photos. They were all very drawn to the Vivianne Sassen exhibition and we spent most of our time with her work.
Everyone was very definite about which artwork they wanted to engage with. They sketched the images and/or created a poem. Sassen describes her works as image-poems so this was the perfect lead in to creating our own image poems in words.
Someone called the artworks ‘kooky’ – an accurate description of surrealism if you ask me!
Two of the participants had never been to an art gallery before. One commented. ‘I didn’t think I’d like anything about it but it’s the opposite’. As the day progressed, she appeared deeply affected by the experience of engaging with the art. It was almost like we could see the synapses of her brain firing up.
A transformative poem was created about a woman who wanted to die but decided to live: another about the gap between a mask and a person.
One participant focussed on the trees in a photo when sketching it but Nu hadn’t spotted these. This opened up a conversation about how we notice and connect with different things when relating to art works. One writer read out her work and, as people’s brains ticked away, we talked about how ideas don’t necessarily come out fully formed. Participants enjoyed listening to what other people thought of the art. It was clear that a lot of critical thinking was taking place. Achievements made weren’t purely artistic either – coming out with a group and getting in the lift were big milestones for one member, for example.
One of the writers was still scribbling away while we were reflecting on the session. Another told staff member Pam she had forgotten that she was actually good at anything but now she thought about it, she did love English at school and maybe she would continue writing. Another told me she was keen to find out about what writing opportunities would be available to her when she left. Luckily I could help with that.
Session 8: Group assemblage making
An ‘assemblage’ is a word used by surrealist artists to describe a collage of words and images. Ours was to be a group response to the exhibition we saw last week. We rolled out the paper and started work, bringing in creative words, sketches and photographs from the previous week. Group members helped relieve the nerves of the member of staff who had joined us and before long we were all absorbed.
When 1pm came it was hard to stop but we had a meeting and it was time for lunch. One of the members told us she’d miss us. ‘You never know when you’ll meet me,’ Milena replied. I bump into people who were in the workshops all the time!’
The whole session was really harmonious and had a beautiful organic feel to it. As Milena said this was ‘the best session in Ripon House, so far! It wasn’t just a creative flow, it was the openness, the humour, the group dynamics and the huge glimpses of possibilities for growth.’
Thanks from Artlink to the women and to all staff, particularly to Nu, Emma, Pam and Rebecca for their enthusiastic involvement!
Becky and Milena