As part of the Writing East Midlands Write Here residency at the Nottingham Contemporary, I have been lucky enough to act as a mentee on the project, learning from and assisting the Writer in Residence Wayne Burrows. As part of the residency Wayne has been facilitating workshops with a group of older people from a community centre in Bilborough, which have taken place both at the centre and at the Nottingham Contemporary gallery itself.
For the third workshop Wayne, Jo Dacombe, one of the resident artists at the Nottingham Contemporary, and I were at the Bilborough community centre once again, and welcomed three new participants to our ever growing group. We looked at the sound works created by the artist Jack Goldstein and currently exhibited at the Nottingham Contemporary. These sounds, pressed on coloured 7” records, made quite an impact on the group while we were visiting the gallery in the first week, and include recordings of burning forests, boats out at sea and cats fighting. They create a vivid image in the listener’s mind, bring back memories from the past to the foreground and can be incredibly evocative. I was struck by how every listener responds to recordings in their own personal way, much like how everyone has their own individual response and feelings to a particular piece of artwork, or piece of music or writing.
For the workshop Wayne had prepared a collection of old vinyl records by recovering the sleeves and the labels with blank paper, a virgin canvas waiting to be relabelled as something new. We then prompted the group to explore the memories that the sounds had created, or for them to create new pieces of artwork and writing based on what inspired them. We encouraged the group to follow their own individual creativity, and working one to one with the participants helped them create song lyrics and titles, snippets of speech captured from their recounting of the past or even, like Jack Goldstein’s sound works, more ambient sounds such as the forest and nature. Through their stories, discussions and individual creativity the group came up with some fascinating work, often poetic and poignant, spanning from the depths of space with a Dr. Who themed record, to the sandy deserts of the Sahara.
For the last workshop the group returned to the Nottingham Contemporary, to revisit the exhibitions and, in the cases of some new comers to the group, see them for the first time. There was an added dimension to the group with one of the members bringing her charming granddaughter along also. For this final session we set about collecting some of the thoughts and memories the work the group had created had evoked. We looked at the records and text totems created by the group over the past couple of weeks and asked the participants where their inspiration had come from.
We then walked round the exhibitions once more, this time prompting the group to find a piece of artwork that has some kind of relationship with the ones created by them, and this was recorded by Wayne, Jo and myself. What emerged from this exercise were many moving stories came to the surface. Stories of loss, of bereavement, of the struggle of coping with every day life and of self initiated growth and change at a very late stage in their lives. Stories of lost first loves, of running away during the Blitz and not wanting to accept the powerful force of change in an ever changing world, of hiding in forests, of enlisting to the air force and of family members estranged despite still living in the same village to this day. Though tinged with regret and sadness, the memories were often very positive, with perseverance and preservation a prominent theme among them, and I found the whole experience very powerful. By meeting up as a group at the community centre every week the individuals reach out to each other, giving comfort and understanding where it is most needed and able they continue to learn from each other, retaining the all important sense of self worth and friendship.
The workshops have been in my eyes a resounding success, engaging a group with forms of art and writing that they might otherwise have not have tried nor had access to. When asked if they would be interested in further workshops similar to the ones they had taken part in, the resounding answer was YES! Out of the group, only one member had been to the Nottingham Contemporary before, and it was wonderful to see them engaging and responding positively to the space. The work they created also acted as a vehicle for them to express their lives, their memories and experiences, and to me this was a blessing beyond riches.
Wayne will now collect some of the group’s thoughts on their work and weave them into a longer narrative, to be displayed later at Bilborough Library with the artwork created. As for me as a writer, it has given me ideas on larger bodies of work and stories and characters I’d like to explore, and these characters are currently tap dancing around my mind. As with any group workshops that come to a close, I feel sad to leave some of the lovely people I have had the pleasure of meeting through the projects, but also blessed to have taken part and to have met them.