Moving Forward with Moving In

Wow - how 5 weeks flew by! It is hard to believe that we lived at Northbourne Care Home for 5 weeks this summer.  On Friday 8th of September we had a party with residents, family and staff. We shared work that had been made - videos and paintings and we talked about moving forward. Both Claire and I feel strongly that our relationship with Northbourne has just begun really. We felt it was important that this event was tailored around the residents and hope to have a four day exhibition later in the year at Northbourne that is open to the wider audience interested in this project.We are going to continue writing this blog from now and use it as a reflective and evaluative space. We are also really interested in hearing thoughts from anyone who has been following the project, so please do feel free to contact us (see sidebar or contact page).

It feels important to continue coming in as the impact of our time here begins to resonate into our thoughts and feelings about our practice - what has changed, what has been confirmed, challenged, deepened. I think we both feel we have broken a certain type of institutionalised 'wall' that permeates participatory arts practices in settings like care homes. We have begun to think differently about how relationships are negotiated and established and. I feel so strongly that I am closer to a more reciprocal, unique and fluid understanding of what a collaboration really is.

Here are some photos of our time at Northbourne. Many taken by myself and Claire, and also by Phyllis Christopher who worked here with us, making photo-work with residents and documenting our time here.


06/09/17 - Day 31 / Week 5 - Flo's Bedroom with Claire

The beauty of this residency is that we have had chance to get to know the residents and their families well. Flo is a resident who moved into Northbourne Care Home the week before our residency started after living in sheltered accommodation. We have been aware that she may have gone through similar emotions to what we had when initially moving in. I know I felt unsure and lost without my home comforts around me alongside feeling nervous around people I didn't know or understand yet. After speaking with the staff at Northbourne, they told us that families or residents can spend as much time as they like decorating and bringing in their home comforts as it is an integral part of feeling at home. I can understand this as when we arrived at Northbourne our rooms were unwelcoming, sterile and clinical which made us feel even more detached to that 'homely' feeling. We however, were able to detach ourselves, knowing we were going back home after 5 weeks...

Barbara, Flo’s daughter visits regularly and during week 2 of our residency, Barbara mentioned that she would like to decorate Flo’s bedroom. It had some scuff marks on the wall from the previous resident and she wanted to make it feel fresh and lighter for her Mum. I felt elated and excited by the prospect of helping Barbara and it was certainly something unexpected, something I would never get chance to do working within the traditional workshop model. I was also given permission and asked by Barbara to help transform it which came as a result of living in Northbourne. To me, a bedroom in a care home is a safe space for that individual and it should capture them, rather than been an unipersonal space where people sleep and live before moving on. As an artist working with the traditional workshop model, I tend to work with a brief or theme which isn't directly connected to the residents - something like 'Matisse' or 'Colour' that everyone can tap into. The idea that the brief would be Flo suddenly felt emotionally deeper and more meaningful. Naturally, I was worried about time and how long we had to create something. Time seems to go so much quicker in a care home and you worry how well Flo will be from one day to the next.

Flo's bedroom is like any other care home bedroom, they are nearly all identical but have a range of magnolia paint shades on them. Photographs adorn the cabinets and sweet treats on the side but it all feels quite temporary. I would love to be able to use my skills and develop ideas to bring to life her room with story, colour, textiles and stitch. One of her main recollections, that she repeats often, is of biking from Chadderton to North Wales with her three brothers when she was young. The ride was approximately 100 miles there and 100 back. She also talks a lot about working in the cotton mills in Chadderton from the age of 14. 

Flo's bedroom so far....

After lots of deliberation and looking through lots of colour swabs from Homebase, Flo chose the colour for one of the walls - a very bright pink! She looked through them again and again matching them with her favourite cardigan. She was elated that someone would take the time to work with her on a one to one basis to change her room. 
Barbara, Kate, Flo and I painted the main wall in Flo's bedroom bright pink and Barabara has recently painted the three remaining walls white. It is certainly on the way to feeling much fresher and personal...

This idea was evoked by Barbara during week 2 of the residency and I originally had the deadline of the 8th of September to have it all completed by. Why was I rushing it? Why did it need completing by then? The worries I had were ‘What happens if Flo’s story changes or another poignant memories comes up?’ ‘What if the familiarity gained from living here fades and collaborating with Flo starts to feel detached?’ ‘How can I stop being so 'deadline-driven' and instead enjoy the process and moment based activity?’

I have decided to work with Flo and her family in a reciprocal way up to Christmas on a weekly basis to be able to really collaborate with Flo, trying various methods and techniques. If the above worries happen, then these are the challenges I need to face creatively and they will really enable my practice to flourish and be debated.

This is an initial sketch of my thoughts...and each small drawing was created working with a group of residents in the main dining room using a variety of techniques and processes. It felt important to include as many residents as possible in each aspect to inspire connections and conversations with Flo.


There have been two themes that we have been exploring over the 5 weeks at Northbourne - Identity and Connectivity. By our 5th week here, we have been able to organically let them merge as themes, and aspects of the work has manifested into the yarn bombing of Low Fell! In a bid to connect Northbourne Care Home with the Low Fell community, we have been galvanising an army of residents, family members, including Claire's grandma and other artists, including 'Open Clasp' Theatre Director, Trina McHugh, MBE to create over 70 knitted envelopes. Each envelope contains one of the postcards made using the thumb prints created in the early days of the residency. 

Last week Amy, Claire and Phyllis trekked out in the pouring rain to 'Yarn-bomb' the area outside Costa Coffee in Low Fell, about 200 yards from Northbourne. The rest of us stayed dry and watched them on the big screen through Skype in the dining room… The Yarnbombing was an invitation for people from the local area to take a postcard and write to someone who lives at Northbourne. We didn't really know what to expect, response-wise but this week we already have had 30 replies sent directly to residents. We all, including residents have been a bit overwhelmed!

 Yarnbomb film link

The messages have been so lovely. Most contain return addresses and Amy has been able to use the postcards to work with individual residents, having meaningful conversations and write replies. After feeling quite sad that the residency was coming to an end, the yarnbomb / postcards are our stepping stone into the next phase of the project. Even though we won't be living here anymore, we really want to continue collaborating with Northbourne and keep this dialogue with the community open and developing over the coming months (please send us an email through the 'contacts' bar if you would like to write to a resident!)

08/09/17 - Day 33 / Week 5: Alison and Two Margarets

Alison works here part time. After watching our video of Joan and her 'Skypewalk', she wanted to talk to us about some other residents - people she had got to know and really like, some with interesting and some with ordinary life stories. Our project and the open-ness of the blog has encouraged staff to see it as a place to share stories about residents and possibly themselves and to be excited about the potential for the blog to reach lots of people. It has been interesting for us to hear so much more about the residents lives. She wanted to show us paintings by one woman, Margaret Hall, who had died just a few weeks ago and whose belongings are still at Northbourne, including a lot of her artwork. Alison wanted to have Margaret and her work be on our blog, and be remembered.

'Margaret worked as an art teacher for a few years and lived with her mum, dad and brother. She basically devoted her time to her art and to her religion, she was a very religious woman. As a child her most treasured memories were between her and her brother. She remembers playing on a beach with him, with a red ball. Later in her life she used to send money abroad to orphanages, she would you know, respond to the kind of leaflet you or I might ignore - you can see in her stuff, she has thank-you letters from families all over the world. She was in The Gateshead Art Society and did an art degree in London before coming back up here to teach art for a few years and she was funny - a real character. Everybody here knew her, she was loud and nosey - she liked to know what was going on.
There were more paintings but I think a cousin in Scotland has taken a few, I don't know, I'll have to check. They're good though aren't they -strange. She said her mum never smiled. The paintings of her mum and dad weren't hung up, she had the drawing of her brother above her bed.
And I want to say it for posterity because I think it is wrong that the church didn't come and sit with her. For all the years she gave to the church, I think it's a shame nobody came to be with her at the end. I don't think anyone should die by themselves. We stay with them, for an hour at a time, even when we're short staffed. You shouldn't have to be alone.'

Margaret had lived in Gateshead all her life, and her wish had been to give her work to The Shipley Art Gallery after she died. We are going to try, along with Alison to get someone from there to come over and take a look at them. Many of the people living here knew her and still love coming into the annexe to look at her paintings. I spent an afternoon with a different Margaret and we looked through and talked about Margaret Hall's paintings.

Margaret Naylor discussing Margaret Hall's mapintings

06/09/17 - Day 31 / Week 5: The Canopy

Northbourne is surrounded by trees. Every window looks onto green. I love that Margaret (who plays golf and loves art) notices the trees every day, I suppose it might be easy to get used to them. Often meals in the dining room are long, quite difficult affairs for some, and they are so quiet! Just the sound of the always-on tv. So after breakfast last Friday we thought it would be interesting to change the environment by turning the tv off, covering all the tables with paper, changing the space by moving them all to face the window and inviting whoever was interested to join in to sit for a while and move some different shades of green paint around.

Dawn and Kate, the housekeepers wandered in and started painting - they chat and laugh with everybody and I think it gives licence to others. Amy went to get some of the leaves from outside, bringing them in and Kathleen reckoned they were Ash, Sycamore and Rhododendron. Mary, who I have drawn with before and who knows 'My Love is Like A Red Red Rose' off by heart, at first seemed annoyed that I had even asked her to paint and attacked the paper with the brush, probably frustrated that I was offering a paintbrush and she struggles so much to move her arm. So she sort of thrashed the paper with paint, and shouted a bit. Realising that this was totally fine - that we were all in fact going to copy her, and that there aren't particular answers or techniques needed to make gestural marks on paper and that the more expressive the better, Mary painted for about 2 hours, whispering about a woodpecker under her breath.

'Woody Woody Woodpecker
I wish I was you...'

I am writing and posting a lot of these blogs a few days after the events I am describing as I am finding it hard to talk about people. The residency has all been about people - trying to spend time with people who live here without always wearing the hat of 'engagement' or work. But in the event of stripping back toward that intimacy, lines are blurred and it is overwhelming. It will take some time to piece together my new understanding of what it means to be here at Northbourne and understand how it will impact my ideas about art and my approaches to making and talking about it. I do know that more than ever I feel driven to question cultural attitudes to materiality and material as evidence of existence. The war memorial in Low Fell high street is more visited, venerated and embraced than the living people whose lives surely are the only reason a statue like this matters. In the context of 'seeing' people; bearing witness to their lives and personalities, as well as alleviating boredom, making something in the moment and shifting moods and environments, art is a tool of engagement, and it is more than that. When Gemma and I were reciting poetry with Mary I felt I gained a deeper understanding of the Rabbie Burns poem - that you could love a poem all your life, and carry it around within you, ready to use and share whenever you need lifting out of real life. It does leave traces, material ones. But it also leaves intangible ones and private ones - affects that are hard to testify to without changing them, lyricising them and ending up hiding them within versions, objects, images and words made about them.
After doing a group painting like this is, there is an object that exists. Many of the people who painted it won't remember doing it. What happens to it next is a difficult question for me. Having lived here and sat in people's rooms, I know from talking to relatives that most of the resident's belongings are either still in their house with their family- their favourite chairs, duvet covers, crockery, rugs, kettles, plants etc and what is here is a sort of bare minimum - Elizabeth has hardly anything - just a photo in a frame, but her husband comes every day from 10am to 6pm and they go out. I think he probably doesn't bring much stuff in order to avoid the reality that she permanently lives here. Others have more personal items - Hazel has many photos, hankies, ornaments, knitting, 10 pairs of glasses, all continuously folded, moved and arranged - each acting as a conduit to a buried, or half-remembered memory. She has a brooch she says her mother gave her, that is 80 years old, 100 years old, older than she is. Obviously if people express an interest in keeping things made with us - pictures or photographs, that's fine, but this canopy painting is 4 metres long. So we have cut it up and put it into 35 frames. On Friday, at our little celebration day, we will put them all out and offer them to people. They are either new, never seen before gifts from Claire and I, or they are mementos of our time here. If they are not taken, or wanted, I do understand why.

05/09/17 - Day 30 / Week 5: Mary, Gemma and Kate / Quietness

Gemma Seltzer is a poet and writer who applied to be one of the artists coming in to Northbourne whilst we were here to try out different, experimental and open ways of working. Poetry can be private and personal, and she wanted to come to be able to interact and collaborate with other artists who do this work as working as a poet, she is often alone. 
Gemma was here for three days, staying at my house at night. There was a lot of intense talking - about using persona to engage people and whether a 'quiet' persona was possible. Talking about quietness, I realised that I often do small 'performances' every time I enter a room to 'engage' people. I think loudness and humour create a sort of trust - that you will lead and take on the responsibility for whatever happens, however daft! One of the things I love about drawing when I am on my own is the space it provides me to be introverted and to 'withdraw' from the world, but I rarely get a chance to draw with other people in a quiet way. I think I shy away from the intensity required, and the intimacy. We talked about how it can be hard to inhabit, work with and accept quietness and decided to work together on Gemma's final day, using poetry and drawing and make space for introspection and silence in the noisy environment of the dining room.
Gemma had given Mary a rose and was reading 'My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose' by Rabbie Burns to her.

My love is like a red red rose
That's newly sprung in June:
My love is like the melody
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

Mary, sitting in her chair, can seem quite detached and struggles with mobility. As I have spent time with Mary, I could tell she was listening but that Gemma might not realise... so I brought some paper over and, as Gemma read, I began to make marks with charcoal, following the rhythm of Gemma's voice. I invited Mary to join me by holding up and offering a piece of charcoal. She took it and she drew after me, following my line like a dance.

As the lines grew Mary seemed to come into the room more and began to recite the poetry along with Gemma. The first verse was written on paper, but Mary knew all the words beyond the first verse. She was also, ever so quietly, putting on a Scottish accent.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I:
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
And I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only love,
And fare thee weel a while!
And I will come again, my love,
Tho' it were ten thousand mile.

Mary got tired and I offered the back of my hand for her to hold onto and we drew together.

'I feel like a lark' she said.
We drew a rose

The room noise and sound of the incessant alarm bell faded into the background. Later in the day, Gemma and I talked about the way poetry connects to very early memories that people with Dementia have of poems they learned at school. I want to learn more poetry by rote, as well as songs - I know the first two lines to an awful lot of songs, then it is humming after that. I want to have more ways of speaking other than in conversation. We talked about feeling invigorated by the idea of working so closely as three people, with someone always being able to 'witness' - to see and experience the small things. Poetry had given us a private space within a busy room and drawing had given us a silent way to communicate.