Storylines is a project which brings the memories and stories of older people with learning disabilities to the public through live events which combine video projection, performance and poetry. The pilot project has been led by young learning disabled artists Becky Bruzas, Jason Eade, Tina Dickinson and Sarah Watson from the Oska Bright steering committee.
By Alan Morrison
It’s an unusually warm late September when I visit a residential annexe of the Frances Taylor Foundation (FTF) in Hove, to observe a couple of hours of creative and reminiscence-oriented workshops. This observation visit is to hopefully precede a collaborative poetry commission facilitated by Carousel in partnership with the FTF and with Dao.
My first impressions on entering the FTF residential annexe in Hove is of a friendly, tranquil and sunny environment and atmosphere, plenty of light, neutral décor, and activity rooms painted in primrose yellows and pistachio greens. In a kitchen area three tables are strewn with old photographs which the residents – nine middle-aged-to-elderly ladies – are in the process of gluing into scrapbooks.
The aim of these workshops is to encourage residents to preserve some of their memories through the compilation of scrapbooks, as well as their own drawings. Scrapbooks seem the perfect metaphor for the fragmentary image-based nature of memories. As one resident poignantly remarks: “It’s important to share our memories as otherwise they’d be forgotten”.
I follow Becky and Tina, two of the Oska Bright facilitators into a quieter room where they proceed to interview three FTF residents in turn, which they also film. Again, the focus is on personal reminiscence, and in particular, comparing and contrasting individual experiences of daily life past and present in homes run by the FTF (formerly under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Order, the Poor Servants of the Mother of God (1872-1990), founded by Frances Taylor).
The first interviewee, a meek and kindly lady, aged 54 years old, with a weathered complexion and rumpled brow, reminds me, as she sits hunched in a chair framed against the bright yellow of the wall behind her, of one of van Gogh’s portrait sitters. She becomes tearful during her reminiscences, but it’s like a light rinse of spring rain and is clear how well-supported these women are and how fond of the Oska Bright facilitators they have become.
With another interviewee, I’m genuinely surprised at how much younger than her actual age she looks: “I was born in 1932” she half-whispers. With a noticeable dearth of wrinkles, and a polite sprightliness about her manner, I’d assumed she was in her mid-Sixties, not her early 80s.
The ladies interviewed have generally fond memories of their early years in the care of Catholic nuns, under the auspices of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God (which became the secular Frances Taylor Foundation in 1994, celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year). These nuns acted in part as surrogate mothers, the residents having been given up for adoption to the Order by their natural parents, who for whatever reasons, were convinced this was the best thing for their children.
In an age where abuse scandals are disturbingly commonplace, particularly with regards to church-run children’s homes, questions as to how residents were treated and whether they were pressurised to attend church crop up for each interviewee. However, the responses are mostly fondly nostalgic and each resident emphasises how they were able to choose whether or not to attend church.
The only single hint at a possible seam of opportunism in these nun-instructed early years is a photo of young female residents in work-like aprons posing for a picture in an industrial-looking laundry room. One wonders whether they were paid anything other than pin money for what might well have been labour-intensive ‘occupational therapy’.
Should the next stage of Storylines come to fruition I shall be looking forward to a prospective commission to run poetry workshops, initially working alongside the learning disabled workshop leaders as part of a process of drawing out further creative reflections on how life in residential care homes in the community, now, compares with institutional life of yesteryear.