Room for You, for me, for everyone.

Bringing art to patients and hospitals for 20 years….

For just over 5 years, as part of my work as a freelance artist, I have been taking art and craft activities to cancer patients and their families in local hospitals. I was the newby, the project itself has been running for 20 years. Covid 19 put a stop to our work in hospitals in 2020 and though we tried hard as a team of trustees, counsellors and artists, it has proved impossible to develop suitable methods to meet our objective of providing emotional support through creativity. So I thought I would share the highlights of the time I have spent working for this amazing project. Firstly, I’ll look at some of the bigger projects I have worked on for Room for You and then I’ll write about some of the ‘Take Home’ projects I delivered with patients and their families.

At St Bede’s Palliative Care Unit, I often made large scale pieces for display around the building, encouraging those who were able to help with the design and construction of the art work. Often this meant working with family members as patients were so very poorly, or sometimes staff would have the opportunity to add some colour or stitch to pieces. The triptych shown here expresses the philosophy of care for the unit and also includes a quote from the founder of the hospice movement, Dame Cicely Saunders. I took my CAD machine in to the unit and this meant that people could choose the colour, press a button and stitch a word.

This project led onto my designing a cover for the little books we gave to patients to record their ‘Thoughts and Feelings’ the textile design was scanned and then printed as postcards which were stuck onto the cover of the notebooks.

My next piece was a special donations box, embroidered with flowers.

The flower theme continued in four panels made for the Quiet Room, in the unit, where patients, family or staff could sit and gather their thoughts.

To make these pieces, I asked participants to silk paint some of the flowers, birds and insects and these were then collaged on to the panels. Most of the flora and fauna are symbolic, or have links to the treatment of cancer patients.

The staff at the hospice worked really hard to fundraise for special furniture in this room to make it a calm and nurturing space for those going through grief and heart ache.

It was enlightening to work in the Palliative Care Unit. The staff were simply amazing; calm, caring and positive although they too sometimes needed to use the Quiet Room. The patients and their families were in such a desperate part of their lives but the care they received helped them to manage this time. I hope that the art work we did there gave them comfort, solice and strength. I know there was conversation, story telling and laughter amongst the paints and projects. I hope the pieces we made together will continue to bring colour, calm and conversation to the unit.

Meanwhile, over in the chemotherapy ward in Newcastle, there were different challenges to work with -patients fixed up to chemo machines that would bleep and fetch nurses running if arms moved too much, work spaces limited as staff obviously needed to get to patients, some people being treated in beds. All sorts of physical and practical limitations to consider.

I did notice that patients and carers would sometimes bring their own knitting or crochet with them and that led to he Wise Birds Wise Words project. Room for You provided patterns and materials for knitting or crocheting little owls…once completed these wise birds carried messenger bags with words written by patients, carers and staff to encourage those going through cancer treatment. The birds were perched on papier mache branches and could be seen through the window by those in the treatment bays. Lots of people got involved, if they were not able to make an owl, they could write a message to include in the little bags.When the time came to take the display down, the owls took flight and settled on the noticeboard by the Nurses Station, so I think they were appreciated!

In Sunderland, we worked with patients having treatment for cancer and other life limiting illnesses, bringing along projects for participants to take away and also projects to decorate the treatment spaces. This silk painted pond was inspired by the Winter Garden in Sunderland. We took the silk frame and paints to patients so that they could add colour to the piece. Silk painting was a good medium to use, no large arm movements necessary and we could either leave the patient to work quietly or sit and work alongside them, chatting as we painted.

Needlefelting was another good technique to use, again, a small work station could be set up on a lap tray and the repetitive action of stabbing the fibres could be relaxing, or stress relieving! The local Souter light house was recreated in needlefelt and framed to go on the wall in one of the treatment bays. The act of needle felting – stabbing the fibres into the backing fabric – helps release tension and is an easy technique to learn; just keep that needle nice and straight and keep an eye on your fingers to avoid unprescribed acupuncture!

Lots of projects were created for the Radiotherapy Unit at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care. Here we worked in the waiting area, with patients and their families, providing a creative activity and a listening ear for people undergoing radiotherapy treatments. The nature of the treatment means that patients attend regularly for several weeks, so often people would be able to help create larger installations. The waiting area has large glass windows looking over an enclosed courtyard. The perfect spot to display silk paintings as the natural light would shine through them and enhance the colours.

One of the biggest projects was to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War in 2018. I designed and prepared a silk panel featuring the dates and a soldier in a trench. Each Wednesday afternoon I would set out the panel and ask people to help paint in the colours. To complete the installation I asked people to make red poppies to surround the panel. Initially I left a simple knitting pattern, yarns and needles. This project really touched a chord with people – lots balls of red yarn were donated and each Wednesday we would arrive to find bags of completed poppies that people had made either on the journey to the hospital or on days when we were not in. My one pattern grew and eventual there were a dozen different styles of poppies. All of them were stitched on to black netting and the silk panel was added to the centre of the piece. The hardest job was actually hanging it all – it was very heavy but luckily the radiotherapy engineers had some very strong velcro tape, and tall step ladders, that we used to fix up the display.

Annual events such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter also provided inspiration for the windows. Using simple craft techniques such as pompom making opened up conversations as people remembered their childhood pasttimes. New style pompom makers made the task much simpler and quicker than in the days of using cardboard milk bottle tops.

As people would often donate yarn to the project we would find creative ways to use it and put across our message that being creative and sharing your thoughts can help. I made bobbins for knitting – similar to ‘Knitting Nancy’ or ‘French Knitting’ kits using cardboard tubes and hairgrips. Patients began to knit long strings in different colours and talked bout what we used to use this knitting for – stiching into rounds to make coasters and mats, very long scarves for fashion dolls, book marks for grandparents…We decided to make them in to words! So we asked people in the waiting room to think of words or sentences to encourage people as the went through their treatment programme. My long suffering counselling colleague became adept at threading wire through the knitting and then we shaped the words and phrases before hanging them in the window spaces.

Another project seems to have pre- empted the NHS rainbows that have appeared all over the country to show the nation’s support for the huge effort put in by all the doctors, nurses and support staff during the current pandemic. We made a silk painted rainbow, emerging from pompom clouds, with needle fleted rainbow raindrops, and stitched with messages of hope and thanks from patients and their families.

Another creative process that always brought patients together to talk, take part and reminisce was proggy or hooky rug making. One of the first methods used by Room for You artists and one that I was familiar with through my work in primary schools. The craft is traditional in the North East, patients would tell us of childhood when they had to cut strips from old woollen clothes for their families to hook into rugs. The cycle of use took new rugs to be (very heavy) bed covers, then to use on the floor and, when too dirty to have in the house, they would line the leek trench on the allotment with them – ultimate recycling!

The radiotherapy waiting area has several large metal columns along the corridor. Initially these were ‘yarn bombed’ but I thought that there was scope for an ongoing project to cover them with proggy rug panels. Using old wooden picture frames as the support, I stretched hessian and drew on designs. We would start the panels in our Wednesday afternoon sessions and then leave them out for patients to continue throughout the week.

For one panel, I drew the 20th century artist, Frida Kahlo. She suffered terrible health problems in her life but continued to find release through her art, so I thought she would be a good role model for the radiotherapy patients. We made several of these proggy panels and then I stitched them together around the columns.

The final large scale project I undertook was for the Palliative Care Unit. As they remodelled their entrance, I was asked to make a panel to cover a window space into the office. We decided to use quotes from Dame Cicely Saunders and involved the patients by asking them to add colour to butterflies and flowers. This meant that it was easy for people to work on the art project whilst sitlling in their beds.

I will miss having this opportunity to share my creativity and to encourage others to use theirs. I hope that some of the projects we have done will continue to make people smile and that the skills and ideas we have passed on might have helped people fill the hours of lockdown with a little bit of positivity.

Water, Stone and Wood

Water and Stone

Recently, I got a glimpse of the sea, it’s been a while and I miss it so. Just to take a moment to stare at the water and be under the endless sky. That sense of space and clarity.

The water was so calm, barely a ripple and after days below freezing, 6 degrees felt almost mild.

Just being by the water gives me such a sense of calm. I can feel myself quieten and that’s when my creative thoughts have time to bubble up to the surface.

Waterfall, Jesmond Dene

Mostly, as the lockdown continues, I walk in local parks. Jesmond Dene is a long steep sided valley formed originally by glaciers and erosion, then sculpted and styled by Lord Armstrong in the 19th century to become a landscaped park. He gave the park to the city of Newcastle in 1884. The waterfall pictured above is one of Lord Armstrong’s more dramatic alterations to the natural flow of the Ouseburn. The Ouseburn flows from near Ponteland into the Tyne and one day soon I am going to walk the whole of it from the source to the point where it joins the Tyne. For now, I can walk for several miles, in and around the Dene. This green space is often busy, as it is right in the city, but walk a mile or so upstream and it becomes quieter and a little bit wilder.

I think it takes me about 4000 steps to shake my head clear of thoughts and stresses, then I become more aware of the landscape, the trees, the bird song.

The Calligraphy Tree

This is one of my favourite trees, an old yew, close to one of the many footbridges that cross the river. I love the way that it circles and twists around, as if it is corkscrewing out of the ground. And here, slicked with rain, it shines and glistens darkly against the vibrant evergreen leaves. I am going to do some drawings with ink and large brushes to explore that tone and form.

Timber and Rock

The wood and rocks hint at past industry in the Dene; before it became a pleasure park there were farms, mills and quarries. The shapes and textures will make good studies. I think I will expand my Journey Mapping series to include work based on these small but precious journeys through this local environment. Even these short explorations, though, have brought me to places that I haven’t discovered before and offer joyous glimpses of herons, owls and like a rare jewel, the kingfisher. There are otters and even deer here too, though I think I may have to walk further and at the quietest times to find them.

Calmed, refreshed and energised, I head back to my work space ready to push these images out onto paper and cloth.

Journey Mapping

There are now three permanent home workers in this household, the girls are doing lessons from home and I’m still stitching away as long as the light permits. Sometimes my very civil partner joins us – when he’s not on the rota to teach keyworker kids in his school. It’s busy, its different, but we’re making a new routine. It’s nice to have company at lunchtime! Although our post lunch walk included me piggybacking those with unsuitable footwear over the muddy bits – not easy with teenagers!!

I’m continuing with my Journey Mapping series of small pieces, it’s nice to see them selling well in my Folksy shop. I’m moving towards more water inspired pieces now. The current one is called Rip Tide. These photographs show it’s development, as I add in each layer of fabric and stitch. The part of Arran that I know best looks over to the small island of Pladda, between these two points the tide can be quite treacherous, hiding reefs under the waves that can catch sailors unawares. It does make the sea look very dynamic and that’s what I was trying to show in this piece.

It seems easier to stitch sideways with my machine rather than forward and back to create these stitch lines, good job my machine is a tough and sturdy one!

Journey Mapping – Rip Tide Donna Cheshire 2021

It’s time to do some more drawing sampling now, ready to start on the next series of these pieces. Then I will start to stitch some larger work, hopefully sometime soon we will be able to get out to galleries and exhibit work again and I intend to have a big series of these pieces ready to go.

Onwards

A slow start to 2021, cold dark mornings occasionally enlivened with a magic dusting of frost, or snow. There are applications that I need to write and projects that I need to plan but there is also a need to organise family life as we start another term of home schooling and zoom meetings. We all need a space to work and a space to live. All the aphorisms of a new year seem muted as we need to keep safe and try to get on with our lives.

New work is progressing as I explore landscape in more abstract forms, starting with small pieces that will help me create larger compositions. I aim to produce a large number of these small pieces, learning all the time about how to pair hand stitch with machine, and which stitch format works best for bold or delicate marks. They are like puzzles that I solve, moving pieces of fabric around and adding layers of thread until the balance feels right. The satisfaction of achieving this balance helps to override the constant anxiety running through life at this moment. It is good to focus my thoughts on the places that inspire me, remembering what it is like to be out on the hills or at the edge of the sea.

When the light gets too poor to stitch I have a new mound of inspiring books to mine for ideas and understanding. Reading ‘The Salt Path’ by Raynor Winn has made me want to pull on my walking boots and head for the hills. Not possible at the moment but I can travel through my stitches. ‘Birds Britannica’ and ‘Flora Britannica’ are full of stories and folklore that encourage more ideas for context and ‘The Lost Spells’ is just a beautiful book to get lost in. When its grey and dark outside cozying up with a book and a large mug of tea is delicious, especially when there is Parkin to munch on too.

So for now, I shall pull on my boots to explore local green spaces; I’ve seen the first snowdrops or snow piercers pushing through the leaf mould and frost, soon there will be crocuses and ammonites too. A brisk walk, a mug of scalding hot tea and then on to the work bench, sketchbooks to fill and an exhibition to plan. Bring it on 2021, bring it on.

Stars for the Season

I read today that the best time to see a meteor shower could be next weekend – the Geminids will peak with about 120 meteors per hour being visible! I’m hoping for some clear skies so I can go out and see them.

This reminded me of the hospital arts project I’ve been working on lately, small craft project kits to help medical staff to unwind a little, my one involves making a garland of origami stars, I’ve put together kits and made a little video to go along with the instruction sheet – I’ll share that here!

I usually work one day a week in hospital arts but haven’t been able to do that since March, so the project I work for, Room for You.org.uk has been looking at ways we can still engage with patients and staff. We’ve made a few videos as a team, combining images and discussing progress over Zoom calls, these will be shared on our website soon. We’re working on other projects too. It’s not the same as actually being with people but it does feel good to be doing something that, we hope, will help people through these strange times.

So, why don’t you take a few minutes for yourself, grab some square sheets of paper and a pair of scissors and have a go – the stars look great as a garland but also as gift tags or tree decorations – try using different size squares and different types of paper too!

5 point origami stars
How to make 5 point stars from a square of paper

Responding to Landscape

Arran Coast, evening time.

A weekend workshop with Amanda Hislop gave me a big creative boost. Looking for the abstract in land and sea was the contrast I needed after many hours working on a detailed wild flower piece. I felt I was never going to finish with the tangle of text, leaves and stems but a change of focus gave me the impetus to complete ‘Vagabond Plants…’ in time for a http://www.fusiontextileartists.com exhibition in November. The exhibition will be at the Bailiffgate Museum in Alnwick until January 2021.

Vagabond Plants Content to share the meanest spot. Donna Cheshire October 2020

The workshop took place over Zoom, for a weekend in October. Amanda guided us and showed examples of her work ing methods. Now I am focussing on taking my interpretation of the workshop ideas from paper to textile. First to be completed is a piece mounted on driftwood. This is, I think, going to be the start of a new collection – Journey Mapping, exploring the landscape in a slightly more abstract way. I want to incorporate ideas and objects I find as I walk the land, whether that is here in the North East or in Scotland, although this year all Scottish pieces are inspired by memories of past visits – I haven’t been further North than Bamburgh this year ( but the sea swimming there was great!)

I am working with my preferred processes but interpreting images in a different way, trying to capture the mood and feel of a place rather than a clear visual representation. Here, strong grid marks relate to the division lines found on maps. I’m using hand stitch to soften some marks and also to build texture as with the gold yellow section shown below. Textures refer to the movement of the sea, debris on the shore, and rocks. This part of Arran has geological features known as the Dyke Swarm, long fingers of prehistoric rock, some complete with fossilised dinosaur footprints, that reach out into the sea. These rocks make many inlets along the shore, trapping seaweed, shells and driftwood but also providing lots of basking spots for seals. A walk of just a couple of miles can be filled with wildlife and beach combing ‘finds’.

As 2020 has given me a lot more studio time than usual, I’ve been backing up visual research and investigation with reading, this book, by Simon Barnes , has some wonderful, uncomplicated, advice on how to see more when out walking. I’ll definitely try some of his tips when I’m out next.

Life in Lockdown

I am lucky, very lucky. My workroom, where I make my textile art and plan my workshops, is in my house. As with most textile artists, I have a ‘stash’ of materials that probably counts as dangerous hoarding in non- makers eyes 🙂

When is enough fabric too much?!

My kids are creative and independent enough to keep busy, plus the Circus school they attended back in ‘Real’ life (I know, right!) has switched classes online so they are having daily fixes of Circus activity AND seeing their circus friends on screen which really helps with their (and my) health and well being! And my CP has occasional days at out at work (he’s a teacher) but otherwise is doing the cooking, reading and online courses.

So my creative work continues, the only (big) difference is that there are no paid workshops going on in the real world at the moment and government aid for the self employed seems a little slow to arrive. However, some of my regular hosts are honouring payments for workshops that should have been held now, with the promise that we will be able to run them later. Plus, some events I was booked into are going online too – so I am becoming quite the twenty first century artist!

Whitley Bay Carnival is hosting an online Art Market – come along and join us!

The carnival art market has an upper price limit of £200, so I am making some new, small pieces especially for this event. I have been taking inspiration from my daily dog walks.

Thank you Bobby dog for enabling me to notice daily changes in plantlife in and around our local park. Bobby is not my dog, I am walking him for a friend who is isolating. We go to the local park almost every morning. It has been wonderful to notice the different plants flowering in turn, the trees blossoming and then moving onto producing fruit. All in a park that was once a brickworks.

The park is providing more inspiration for my urban wildflower pieces and I am collecting rusty items from the pavements as we meander along the quiet streets.

Playing around with compositions

I love the bright colour and tenacious quality of ragwort. Apparently it arrived in Britain in the 17th century from Sicily. It was grown in the Oxford Botanic garden but escaped and by the 18th century was growing freely on the walls of Oxford colleges. Then as the railways were introduced it naturalised on the clinker beds at the side of the rails and spread along the tracks around the country!

Ivy leaved toadflax is another Italian immigrant growing in this country since the 17th century – this one escaped from the Chelsea Botanic garden, it loves to grow on walls and in nooks and crannies. Richard Mabey, author of Weeds, talks of this tenacious little plant arriving from Italy via seeds packed in with marble statues being imported, once again, to Oxford. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9522524-weeds

Stitched on soluble fabric

John Ruskin loved it having spotted it growing on the steps of a Venetian church and then seeing it in a painting inside the church! In Italy it is called erba della Madonna, here it is sometimes known as Mother of Thousands or Travelling Sailor. I like the way such a tiny plant is so enduring and so colourful, with those egglike centres, lilac petals and red tipped leaves.

When we get into the park – this sometimes takes a while depending on how energetic Bobby is feeling – the wildflowers are everywhere and ever changing. Back in March we started with wood anenomes and dandelions at ground level, trees starting to regreen and the blackthorn coating itself in bright white, lacey blossom.

April brought blue – bluebells and forget-me-nots in shelted shady spots, then purple as honesty shot up underneath the froth of cherry blossom. By the reed filled pond, king cups glinted golden in the spring sunshine.

So my sketchbook is getting filled with flowers and my knowledge of plants is growing stronger, Lady’s Smock is common but I didn’t know it until this springtime, such a delicate pale pink. It is blooming all over the park now and the vetch is just starting to show its more vibrant pink blooms. Catching up with the potent pink crab apple. And on the way to the park now, the lilac is looking and smelling beautiful.

Daily walks are helping with inspiration and mood, although sunny days definitely help me to feel brighter than grey – and days when I don’t watch the news or Twitter are the best of all!

Hideout in the hedgerow

Developing a piece of work is a slow process, an idea percolates, sketches are drawn and samples made – although in my case the samples often end up being included in the finished piece – not so great for the sketchbook but it does advance the making process!

Hedgerow and Hare 2020

The idea for this hare has been percolating for a long time. Ever since I stitched one for a community project, I have wanted to incorporate a creature into one of my wildflower scenes. My daily dog walks during the current Covid 19 lockdown, are proving inspirational in that I’m noticing daily changes in the wildflowers, bushes and trees in the little local park – though I don’t think my lovely canine companion is going to appear in stitch!

Bobby looking for treats!

He usually gets a treat when I stop to take a photograph, its the best way to keep him still for long enough to take a good shot!

This partial lockdown does mean that I’m not getting to see my beloved wild flower border, though it’s just a mile away from home but seeing wood anenomes, honesty, marsh marigolds, forget me nots and yarrow coming into bloom is lovely. And the number of birds I can see and hear is wonderful.

Anyway, I started with a sketch of this hare in the hedgerow and he has been growing daily over the last few weeks. Collaged from hand dyed fabrics onto pelet vilene and then stitched with free motion embroidery

Now he has been cut free from his background and is ready to fit into the hedgerow, I ve added a base layer of greens to a sheer chiffon ground – recycled fabric already printed with some leafy images.

Starting to build up a grassy hide away…

I positioned the hare and used a contrast thread to mark his outline so that I could matched the stitched grasses to those in my initial drawing.

Now I’m starting to add in the wild flowers, the Lady’s Bedstraw has been stitched on soluble fabric, the knapweed and clover have been stitched onto more hand dyed fabric and then cut away from the base. The tricky bit is to decide when to stitch the wire hoop into the background fabric – I’m using an embroidery hoop whilst I stitch but it is not quite as big as the wire one, I’m just concerned that if I stitch it to the wire then it will be harder to machine stitch if I decide to add more detail – patience required at this stage!

Getting back to my daily dog walk – I started to stitch the red clover yesterday and this morning, saw some growing in the park – it’s as if I have conjured it up – or did my subconscious draw it to my mind on a previous walk?

Community Art in Isolation

A project from some time ago that I thought people might like to try at home – all you need is a cardboard box and a kebab stick!

Watch the Birdie!

Cut out the cardboard to make a bird or animal of your choice- just make sure that the corrugations in the card run vertically up the body of your creature as this makes it easier to insert the kebab stick later! You can paint your animal – we used acrylics and poster paints- or what about collage with old magazines or wrapping paper?

This shows the stick in the corrugated ‘tube’ through the pigeon

If you let one side dry then turn over and paint the other you can stand your creatures up in the window to entertain you and passers by 😊. The birds are fixed into toy blocks but you could stand them in a jar or vase, weighted with glass pebbles, or use some of that stockpiled flour to make a salt dough base!

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