Joseph J Field
Following a move to Dorset in 2012, I enrolled as an art volunteer through Arts in Hospital at Dorset County Hospital. I visited the hospital on a fortnightly basis and engaged patients in simple printmaking – rubber stamping and offset printing using water-based relief ink. I worked mainly on the stroke ward with patients in their 60’s to 80’s. It became clear to me after two or three sessions that the conversation was as important as the art work in lifting the patients out of their concern and discomfort for a time. I saw them “come alive” as they talked about themselves – childhood, travels, working life and interests. I could see that, if the patients were willing, I could capture some of these stories in artist’s books – otherwise the stories would be lost.
I undertook some research on the psychological and medical benefits of reminiscing, this is well understood in the context of the care of dementia patients. “Research shows that even brief autobiographical storytelling exercises can have substantial impacts on psychological and physical health even months after the storytelling”. So, although reminiscence therapy has a focus on dementia patients, the benefits of story-telling are much wider and can be experienced by people not suffering from ill health, and also patients recovering from strokes.
I worked with patients personally and with other volunteers to collect memories of particular incidents in the lives of patients that they would like to share e.g. anecdotes about childhood, school days, characters in their communities, war time incidents, stories from their working life.
I collected my first story from a patient on the Stroke Ward on the 7 March 2017. She wanted to write her story herself and in around 100 words recalled an incident when she was 4 years old and was in danger of drowning off the beach in West Bexington, Dorset. Although it was shorter than I had envisaged, her 100 words were magical – context and drama. I knew that I would be able to work from it. Then followed my first book – a miniature concertina book hand-written on Simili paper with cloth covers and rubber stamp and offset illustration.
All but one of the stories I have collected were given to me on the Stroke Ward. However I did collect a long reminiscence from a patient suffering from dementia – I thought it best for her to dictate into the recorder on my phone and this worked very well. She recalled being evacuated from London with her sister to the home of a cousin in Weymouth - in retrospect, Weymouth with its proximity to Portland Naval Dockyard was hardly a safe place to send a child. A German land mine missed its target on Portland and drifted into the town causing many deaths and casualties and extensive damage – this she remembered vividly as it took the life of one of her school friends. Afterwards she worked as a window dresser for a large store in Weymouth and spoke of the challenge of working with very limited resources in the years after the war. This recording presented quite a challenge as it was a stream of consciousness narrative that didn’t follow a chronology and I had to undertake some research to check dates and facts.
Other patients have included a quarryman from Portland; a professional press photographer who trained at Reuters and had a fascinating career as a photographer with the RAF, a return to Reuters specializing in sports photography and completing his working life working for Westland Helicopters; a tenant farmer with stories of hard times in the 1940’s and 1950’s; an art collector who lived in Cornwall in the 1950’s to 70’s. I make notes as the patients talk and type-up the notes soon afterwards whilst the conversation is fresh in my mind.
During the summer of 2017 I had a visit from an American book artist who was staying with a mutual friend. She brought one of her pieces with her which was a miniature cabinet with drawers and cupboards celebrating the life of her grandfather who had died in WW1. From that meeting an idea formed that I should make an exhibition piece for each story as well as the small edition of books. Each exhibition piece would relate to the story and the author in some particular way. I envisioned a “container” for each book that would include reference documents, maps, badges, postcards, books etc. to provide a context for the life and the story.
Ideas came fairly quickly – I began to use boxes that had housed small electronic items as a foundation for some of the pieces, old fencing panel became miniature quarry walls with the addition of acrylic paint, an egg box was transformed into a repository for the farmer’s story using papier maché, paint and leather. I trolled second hand shops and charity shops for post cards, badges, children’s books and dress patterns from the 1940’s and 50’s. One rather strange find was a pair of women’s tights in the original Woolworth’s packing which I guessed had been in a drawer since the late 1950’s. Old street maps and road atlases are useful and I was very pleased to find a copy in excellent condition of the National Road Atlas of Great Britain published by A. Thomas and Co in the late 1950’s.
The exhibition pieces were exhibited at Dorset County Hospital from April to July 2018
I hope that this “Life Stories” project will encourage others to tell, to listen, to record.
Jo has very generously donated First Memories to our permanent collection as a reminder of the project.
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