Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Scudding Clouds | Tomato Soup

The dampness of this morning was brushed aside by the blustery wind, although lessened from previous days, it still ensured the clouds a scudded sky-journey above the undulating Manchester outskirts. My foot lifted and pressed and lifted and pressed, rhythmic and gentle against the car pedal, moving and slowing to manage the distances to brightening red lights in front of me.

I arrived early to the Wellspring Centre in Stockport and parked and unloaded my car on the quiet street outside.  It's at times like this that my thoughts often become invaded with a series of what are now standard questions echoing through my head; do you need all this stuff, will you use it all, what are you doing today? I have to say now, I never quite resolve this one with a feeling of satisfaction, I'm not sure I ever will!

Inside the room is clean and bright, made brighter still by the newly added Christmas lights dangling from the sturdy cross-beams. It's still quiet and Lois, Philip and I find time to continue our conversation from last week . . . how will the whole 'library' look, will it be a series of boxes that need to be opened to see what's inside, or will the entire display be completely visible as the viewer encounters it? Will books be grouped or categorised by size, or shape, theme, or content?  How will colour affect the final look - and is there a repeating colour throughout? These are important points for consideration for the final work, although we recognise that they don't all need answering today. We begin to look through the books and work we have so far, which is a lot; we make decisions about our focus and action for the day and get on with the task ahead.

At 12 the lunch service begins; a hearty bowl of tomato soup with vegetables and pasta, chunky brown or white sandwiches and steamed pudding with custard. The queue forms quickly and then disperses to the surrounding tables.  Conversation levels drop slightly as the focus shifts to sustenance and we join in too.

Over the day the levels of noise often shift up and down considerably, yet today seems much quieter than previous days, the television remained silent.  Odd words catch my ears . . .

'Have I got your mobile number?'

A gentleman struggles in his pocket, clearly trying to find something that's set in deep, he eventually finds a packet and stands to offer a cigarette to his table companion with a lovely smile. It's not wanted, and the cigarette is returned to the packet. Eating continues to eat in silence; unmatched languages make for difficult conversation.

'I mean, what do you do when all your clothes are wet?  I 'ave to be careful. Y'can't go out in wet clothes can you, and I can't dry 'em'.


Talking content, form and classification

There's been so much activity since I last worked with  Lois and Philip; the Homeless Library has grown to become a vast array of words contained within many different and curious book forms in all shapes and sizes.

We decided to lay as much as we could out on the table to see what there was, the image below shows a small part of the collection so far.  It really sharpened our minds to the scale of the future task and sparked a great conversation about the whole and its constituent parts; we talked ordering and sorting, display and interaction, particularly once it becomes it's final form; a travelling library.

The different physical shapes and sizes present a great challenge to how the whole will come together best.  We talked around classification and the Dewey system in particular - how can these physical forms, be intertwined with stories and poetry in a way that doesn't become too complex to disconnect those who wish to engage.

Our discussion will continue today and I'm really looking forward to how we get on.


Monday, 23 November 2015

Homeless Library plans

I'm off to Stockport in the morning to run another workshop at the Wellspring Centre, so today has been a creative prep day.  I had thought about clam shell boxes, which would be a great way to store different forms of book together, but working through the prep I realised they have such a time consuming and fiddly construction process, I've gone for something slightly less complicated.

I've been to this centre before; last time I was showing people how to fold books into sculptural objects.  After I'd gone Lois and Philip worked their magic on later visits to encourage the people who visit the centre to add words about their homeless experiences; ink printed slips of text, handwritten notes, sketchy images of encounters and situations, raw feelings and physical discomfort, human kindness, the solace of drugs and alcohol, disappointment and anger.

It was such a pleasure to do the last session, I'm really looking forward to going back.  My bags are fully loaded with bone folders, glue, many rolls of book binding cloth and lovely handmade papers amongst a raft of other accoutrements!  It will be interesting to see what we all create.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Invisible Collaboration

Early in September I spent a day working with Lois, one half of arthur+martha on the Homeless Library project.  We were in Bury at the Red Door Drop In centre, part of St Joseph's Catholic Church.

The day began with unpacking my book making goodies from my trolley and boxes. Lois had a similar stash - we must have looked quite curious to the people in the centre when we first arrived - they'd seen Lois before of course, and Philip, but not me - or the huge rolls of book binding cloth I was carting around with me.

The centre was bright and full of chatter and busy activity, we sat in the main space, quite a small room in which it seemed most things happened.  Quite a few people busied themselves in and out, it was a beautiful dry day, with the sun peeping through the white (and some darkening) clouds.

Lois and I sat inside at the central multi-purpose table so we could have a look and chat through some of the work made, and to do our own quick skills sharing session with some quick book making techniques.

There are many stories that have been shared so far in the project, some as poetry, some hand written, some typed.  These have been intertwined within the folded pages of books, print work and other papery structures produced in earlier workshops.  There is an excitement building about this project, I'm keen to see how it unfolds along the rest of the way, and to read more of the stories too.

For this session I took some of the already printed stories to explore book ideas with. Reading through any of the texts I find there are certain words that stand out - almost as if I was going through with a highlight pen - they needed to be said a little clearer and I played with ways of doing this.

Justin came to join me, he'd been working with Lois in an earlier session and had some of his own words already written, but first he helped me work through the idea with the bits I had. We shared thoughts and ideas as we went along.  I do love the process of sharing something I can do with others, it's such a pleasure to see anyone's confidence grow as they pick up a new technique and working with Justin was just that.

We cut a story into thin same sized sections, there was an odd pleasure in it dividing the story so evenly and we cut the same sized pieces of tracing paper to use together. Justin read through the story and underlined words he felt were important, that needed highlighting, that needed to be shared in a more visible way.  There were cut out and stuck onto the tracing paper as a separate layer.

Conversations drifted on the air, "I found someone in me lounge this morning, I had to get out before I punched him. Why would someone be in my lounge? I came here".

Justin and I talked about reading other people's stories, about whether it was easy to find the right words to cut out, to in some way raise the status of.  We agreed it was - things just pop up and feel important.

As he reads he intermittently tells me stories of his Mum and his twin sister, who has recently died.  His Mum was a child-minder, but she also showed other people how to child-mind too; she shared her skills with others. He smiled as he explained they always had old cardboard, empty loo rolls and used tubs ready to make things, she was always making stuff with him. He seems to be really connected back to that time, he talks quite fast, an excitement about the memory perhaps.

Then, the now of the task in hand stops him short, "I need to concentrate, I'll shut up". We glue and cut in silence.

My ears again become aware of the others in the room, a tiny front room type space, a sort of flat with a living and dining area, as well as a kitchen. All one space, with a busy washing machine in too.  Here folks sit and natter, watch TV, get help and advice from the staff.

I know I smell, I can't have a bath
I'm not right, I'm not with it
It's these tablets ...

We've cut out all the words and they are glued on to the tracing paper. I'm pleased with the result and Justin thinks it's a good idea too; we carry on.  He makes the decisions on cover and inner paper we can use and we being to make the book covers.  Making holes is hard, we could do with a hammer but it's not safe to have one so we sort of struggle along, but enjoy the challenge of a little bit of making do too.

After lunch Justin starts to work on his own text, cutting it into sections to go with his story.  We talk about plans for his book and we work together on the table for quite a while, until it's time for me to go.  His book isn't quite finished, but he is clear with what he needs to do and I leave him all the materials he needs and tools he can keep too.

He promises to finish his book; I hope he manages it!


Wednesday, 21 October 2015


A quirky engagement project took place on the Leeds-Liverpool canal in Blackburn this month, capturing the imagination of canal users who were asked to navigate their way along 100m of the towpath imaging their journey as a different canal user - pedestrians could be fisher-folk, cyclists or maybe boaters. Cyclists imagined their route as anything other than cyclists - and I took a quirky photograph to build a collection of instant images, which were pegged along the railings for everyone to see.

#sharethespace is a Canal & River Trust project engaging with canal users throughout the country, encouraging them to share the space they use with others - to be considerate, open to the needs of others, to be aware and to share.

Each person we met was given a small unique artists' book to thank them for contributing to the project, with hints and tips on what to look for on their 'different' journey - we even had someone who danced their one hundred metres!

Thank you so much for your brilliant support and 
enthusiastic engagement, I think the project really 
complimented our Share the Space event and the 
photos are fantastic. 

Sarah Knight
Development & Engagement Manager, Canal & River Trust


Wednesday, 3 June 2015


. . . this was taken yesterday, a day of frenetic clouds scudding across the skies of North West  England, filled with spitten raindrops which occasionally teased themselves apart from their grey structured form, falling ever downwards to connect with me, my bike and my panniers filled with food, cameras, water, spare clothing and bike tools. I must have thought I was on an incredible mission, yet I cycled about eight miles in all during the day.

I spent much time walking around the North Walney Nature Reserve, observing, delving, listening and recording; the background roar of the receding tide, an overlaid often fierce wind rustling the grasses frenetically, shrilling the water surfaces into shadowed peaks and troughs.

In the depths of the trenches I set the camera to record the sky, repeatedly moving along the guttered corridor, connecting connected views.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Homeless | Home-less | Home?

I've just caught part of a programme on BBC3 tonight about homeless people in Bristol.  The interviewer, who has been homeless himself, spent time talking to people he has met as he had wandered the city with a camera and over time re-visiting them, tracking and discussing the stories of their homeless experience.

One young 17-year old lad, homeless since 14, talked about a place under a bridge that he'd lived in for about 7 months.  They filmed him in the location, talking with three other young men who lived there too.  They'd created a tent like structure from blankets, had a laptop to watch films; things had places, there appeared to be an order to the space, and it was dry.

The comment that caught my attention and prompted me to write this note occurred later in the programme, when the young lad is again being interviewed after he'd not been since in the regular gathering places for a while, the interviewer had caught up with him to find out why.  Sat on a bench, overlooking the river and near to the bridge he had lived under, he explained that there had been a fire, someone who had found needles was trying to get rid of them, but that action had sparked a larger fire.

Since the incident access to get under the bridge had been closed off with metalwork fencing and a lock.  Paraphrasing his comments to camera:

   "The thing is that's taken away some of my childhood.  I mean I've lived there for about 7 months they've stopped me from getting in now".

It appears to be a simple insignificant comment, yet could it be that even in the direst of circumstances we can still form an attachment to place?  Can we still see a place as in some way 'ours', our home, our space that is our own, which is ordered, has a purpose, provides shelter with others.  Could we even say there is some sense of community here, community of place and of a shared situation, which triggers and strengthens the sense of loss when access is denied.
I felt it was a significant comment that has provoked considerable thought for me and piqued my questioning even more about the significance of place in our lives.

Dementia & Imagination - Update

Princess House in Seaburn is the latest care home location for the NE team's input to the Dementia & Imagination research project. Today will be my only visit to this care home location. It's a lovely place, right on the sea front, a lighthouse in view and the beach a short walk away.  

Meeting the new people is always exciting,  watching the careful way the Intervention Artists, Kate and Claire spend time with each person, shaking hands, holding eye contact with smiles and laughter intertwined with greetings and chatter is heartwarming.

The session is spent being expressive with faces first, then hands, as we pass an imaginary ball around the group. Care is taken to protect the ball which soon becomes a baby bird, a nest, a hedgehog.  Hands reach out to join in.  Others just enjoy the watching, silently, their faces tracking the movements of others.

A lady clutches a teddy bear tightly, a thing of comfort perhaps. She joins in with the activity, encouraged by the person sat with her, the bear sometimes becoming part of her extended movement; he is joining in too, or perhaps on behalf of her.

The session continues with green screen filming of residents moving and imagining different places. The image of these far off places are projected onto a screen at the side of them, with their own image layered in. There is much hilarity about the activity, and there is also difficulty for some in understanding they they can see themselves in the projected image on the screen.

    "I don't know what's happening, I don't know what's going on".

I'm conscious that as I write these words for you to see, it is open to interpretation. What visual markers, what sounds, what body movement accompanies this uttered phrase?  How does my use of language shift the reading of the situation, how do I influence what you take away?  For now I leave the thought as an opening for further discussion.

The difference in how people are affected by their dementia is intriguing, each time I experience something new.  And unexpectedly, now here I am being told off for being in someone's private home.

    "all these people are in my house and they're treating it as their own".

The flustered confusion is calmed by attentive staff and the raised voice quietens, for a while.

The session ends and as we leave I look out at the sea, the weather patterns creating a fragmented surface; mixed brown-blue water, clouds white with darkened shade scurrying past.  The funfair is just setting up in the field nearby and the child in me wants to stay, to run in these open spaces, to play on the sand filled beach and take in these views.

I begin to wonder if those people behind me share any of my sense of wonderment. How do they see where they live, what is their perception of their place?

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Sophie Calle

Modus Vivendi

My final day of a week visit to Barcelona and I happened upon a series of lamppost banners with the name Sophie Calle upon them.  I've long admired the way Calle explores her subject matter of self through a quiet, contemplative exploration of emotion and often raw personal grief; hers and ours.

I had seen 'Take Care of Yourself' somewhere else, perhaps Berlin or Venice, I couldn't quite recall.  This smaller scale version, presented in the grander surroundings of the Palau de Virreina, with selected responses to the email from her lover as wrote to tell her of their relationship ending, gave a small sense of the enormity of the project as different women responded in their own professional capacity to their interpretation of the message received and its delivery method.

We could take no photographs, and because of the volume of language incorporated into the work, it was impossible to present any further translation alongside each work. Instead, a written guide was available to carry around. We didn't pick it up for speed, and so didn't see or hear the explanation of each work.

I was deeply caught by 'Last Seen'; a four film projection filling a single space, four people each stand facing the sea, imperceptible shifts in their body language suggests great concentration and thought, deep thought.  Slowly the person will turn, their eyes somehow struggle to focus on the camera. Can they see? Have they been able to see and lost their sight? Have they lost someone at sea? With transfixed, wet eyes, I was unable to move for a very long time.

The exhibition closes 7th June 2015.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Dementia & Imagination: Sharing Event at Cranlea

Sharing events are the culmination of twelve weeks of engagement between the intervention artists and care home residents.  It's a lovely session, bringing together all the work that the group have completed to share and celebrate.

The sharing is open to any resident in the care home, and as luck would have it for this event a group of local primary school children arrived just as we were sat down to watch the film. It really was perfect timing, they came in with their teacher and sat on the floor. They had written their own newspaper and were delivering copies around the neighbourhood, which they gave out to the residents and staff after watching our film.

In the usual style, a creative drawing session also took place and some of the residents were keen to get involved. A gentleman in his 90's got to the floor, physically strong and able to get down and up on his own, although he was given help. He prepared to draw around Holly, who was lying on the floor on top of a huge sheet of paper. The group had done this before, there were works around the room showing this, displays of creative activity undertaken which don't quite portray the fun and hilarity that is part of any and every session that I have been part of,

I notice his hand tremors, and his determination to have a go.

I notice his voice raise and his body stiffen with frustration as he tries to make a point, something is really important and he cannot make himself understood.  There's an awkwardness, a silence and noise - people trying to help and realising they may be making the situation worse and not better,

I notice the awkwardness of us all, equally aware, equally keen to help, equally unable to improve the situation, time seems to slow to an imperceptible pace, time hangs suspended for what feels like forever.

I notice the laughter from a corner, another conversation has been continuing and the level of sound increases to fill the awkwardness I feel.  Sensitivities mould our frame, our thoughts and voices and I wonder on reflection how much it's just me that feels this.

The event is a great success, by all accounts - people are smiling, there's more laughter, chatter and banter exuding from the room.

At such an end point there's one last surprise, something I hadn't expected at all; a resident stood to address the room, strong and clear her voice calm and thoughtful - she stood to say thank you to everyone who had been involved. It was a lovely moment I hadn't expected and such a pleasure to hear.


Thursday, 26 March 2015

Cloud, Susie MacMurray

a hovering scratch;

rusted metal thorns
suspended, unmoving

trapped within the
stone walled, arched grandness; greatness

tagged, labelled clusters rest nearby
dull red, green and thick twine, brown

slumped, sleeping, resting; lifeless
tumbled, fallen, layered; voiceless

Monday, 23 March 2015

The Homeless Library - Introduction

Thursday was a very new day; a day of new experiences, new people and a new place.

I drove over to the Wellspring in Stockport to work with Lois Blackburn, one half of arthur+martha for their project, The Homeless Library.  The Wellspring centre is a charity organisation which provides help and support for people who have become homeless.

Lois and Philip are working here with people who visit the centre, gathering stories of lives past and passed, spending time quietly listening and carefully documenting the words of others. Checking, making sure, being careful that the written words express the story as it is given.


  I've seen mine, on the internet.

  Does it say what you wanted it to say?


Before I heard about this project I haven't ever given much thought about people being homeless, home-less; without a home.  It makes me question my own thoughts, challenging my embedded ideas and ideals.  Yes, I've bought the Big Issue a few times before, but I can't ever recall giving money when asked by someone on a street.  Avoiding eye contact, finding something else to be interested in.

I really wasn't sure what to expect, but I was excited and partly curious about what the day might bring.  I was a little nervous too, but that dissipated very quickly.

Philip was away, so it was just Lois and I for our first day of working together.  Laden with old library books, charity shop novels and two large boxes of sculpted books, all contained and strapped in two shopping bags on wheels, we unpacked and laid out my work on the radiators for people to see what we would be doing.  We sat together and I begin to show Lois how to fold square cut books.

The folding is quite simple; straight to the spine, or at an angle.  The challenge comes when you have done a few pages; the spine begins to thicken, causing it to curve back on itself.  You being to feel that you need more fingers than you have, some to hold back the already folded pages, some to fold the next page, some more subtly to ensure that the fold goes right into the spine.

One gentleman collects a square cut book section from me to have a go on his own, at another table. As he nears completion each time I offer him another, each time bigger, showing him the new technique and letting him try.  He completes three books, each with a lovely beaming smile.  His facial expressions and manner are encouraging; there appears to be something enticing about the repetitive pattern of folding, the fine handling of thin pages of paper, construction or manipulation techniques that appear familiar to him.  He appears relaxed and comfortable, concentrating on his task, almost distanced from his surroundings and situation.

I cannot help but just sit there and smile as I watch him work.

The day was full of contrasts; kind gestures, nervousness, delight, frustration, worry, fun, laughter, care and support.

At one point I sensed a timid, cautious presence, perhaps a yearning for invisibility, wanting to be anywhere else but there; eyes looking, eyes watching, eyes averted, eyes wary.

"would you like to have a go?"

"no, no thanks, not me"

Friday, 20 March 2015

Fort Walney Uncovered - Update

A pause, a moment to rest and think.  

No burden of guilt about things I'm late to do; I breathe and remember my activity of the weekend, a few eye aching hours spent unpicking a pair of black wool trousers late at night.  Now they are ready for the next stage of the creative journey; a pressing of sumptuous steam releases the fabric sections from their insistent creases.  Captured ingrained aromas, pungent, harking back to a previous life or lives, mothballed, food, fear, perhaps even death.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Working Lives, Working Together - Introduction

I'm working with Halton Heritage Partnership through to 2016, spending time creatively exploring their four public collections and seven community collections as part of an HLF funded project; Working Lives, Working Together.

The project will culminate with more objects, documents and ephemera from all the collections being added to the existing website.  These will also be used, together with local oral histories, to build a new app which is being developed to guide people on walks around both sides of the river, enabling locals and visitors alike to explore much more of the heritage of this richly diverse area in new ways.

I'll be updating my research activity here, but you can also keep up to date with my explorations on my Artist Facebook page.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Re-Wilding our Language of Landscape?

Robert Macfarlane wrote an article in the The Guardian yesterday about re-wilding our language of landscape.  As part of his discussion he writes about the removal of around 50 words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, including; acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow.  It's shocking to note, yet true of our time; children spend less time outdoors, less time observing and learning about these things we as adults know and love about our green world. 

I think the removal is an indicator of something deeper, of a disconnection, a dis-engagement which we need to work hard to re-ignite; something which is a significant them which I try to focus on in my creative practice.

I've taken the words listed and written an anagram poem to attempt to express how I feel about this, below.


NOT BlackBerry

nay word zealot
let not
natures rich

strike thy
tight held view
bring hope;
conker & newt

to plea:
re-enrich our 
feeble breast

Jeni McConnell, 2015

Inspired Responses - Update

Exhibition | Jan-Feb 2015 at The Brindley, Runcorn


We made two significant decisions at our first planning meeting; we would use paper and old books as our key material, and we would work with the theme of metamorphosis. 

I love to get out and about for inspiration, so the opportunity to take the Wade Deacon students out of their classroom comfort zone was very welcome.  We were lucky enough despite the lateness of the year to be able to negotiate a visit to the Victoria ParkButterfly House and still managed to find evidence of the four stages of metamorphosis, including a few live butterflies, some beautiful, delicate papery thin chrysalis cocoons and a few huge caterpillars. 

In my work I have often used old books, folding and cutting them to create three-dimensional sculptural structures.  In the workshop sessions I showed the students how to cut and fold paper and book pages to create different shapes and forms, we also played with cut paper to make concertina caterpillar shapes and used found words and phrases from the old books to create found text butterfly egg poems.

I was really impressed with the students.  Each time I visited they became more and more engaged, often staying quite late at the end of the school day to work on their own and in groups, developing ideas and talking through challenges.  I think they should be very pleased with the results of their hard work.


Sunday, 22 February 2015

In February 2015, thinking I was managing my online image store safely, I inadvertently permanently deleted all images from my numerous creative project/practice blogs, dating back to 2008.  These blogs, including this one, were created with great patience, considered thought and detailed research. They linked text to images which helped to express a view or opinion, to elaborate a technique or specific detail.  In all there were over 2,000 images that all now show as the image below.

This site will be restored over time and key aspects of my other project blogs will be added to my Flickr site, which I continue to update regularly.  All other blogs will not, sadly, have their images restored.