As you know, I have been working with older folk this year. One of my contracts was with Arts Care Gofal Celf who kindly invited me to deliver Music & Story in a specifically designed new, Dementia friendly Gwalia home for older folk in Tumble, Llanelli. Continuity Artist already at the home, Rose Thorn, had advised that Music and Story would work well. I was kindly funded to come for 6 sessions on a Monday morning and work alongside Rose.
This is where I met Louie, a 92 year old woman living at the home. To be honest, she didn't really like the music part of the session. I would ask her if she would rather come in after the music, but she preferred to sit and listen, waiting for the last half hour because she enjoyed talking with me about her life in West Wales during this time. She brought in a book for me of Llangybri, where she grew up and talked passionately about parts of her childhood and younger adult life, as if it were only yesterday. We laughed and chatted as she shared snippets of her lifetime with me.
It was as if she were sending me postcards from her memory of all the times that had made her smile.
I really looked forward to talking with Louie. She loved looking at maps of the local area and I came to realise that her story was one that was seldom told in the history books: a woman who had spent her life as part of West Wales farming culture. In effect, Louie was giving me insights into what life was like for welsh women and girls in agricultural Wales.
Just as my contract was finishing, Louie asked me if I could 'do something with her story' Well, what was I going to say! 'Sorry, the funding has finished!' As a storyteller and musician, I think being asked to be the curator of someone's story is a great privilege. I decided there and then, to promise her that I would do what I could, that I am not a historian but that I would write songs based on the memories she shared with me. She agreed. I made the decision to do this regardless of funding and that some things just need to be ...
We called our journey 'Postcards from Louie' because of the nature of how she told me her stories but also she has a huge collection of postcards to her father, grandfather and herself.
I would let go of the idea of being paid for my work and treat Postcards from Louie as Research & Development to potentially inform ways of working within community arts for the future; to work in a one to one way with people who have Dementia and Altzhiemer's Disease, and with their families, to allow their story to lead the way in terms of engaging and informing others.
Here is an example of how Louie's story has led the way ...
Louie's daughter in law, Jill, works as a teacher in the village just outside Llanstephan, Louie's last home before moving to the old folk's home. When I visited the family and looked at the type of songs I would compose, given that Louie's toys from her childhood were central, we decided to focus on nursery rhyme/songs for children. We then talked about a site specific performance whereby the children from Jill's primary school would come to the places where the songs were written for an intimate sharing, and hear them in the context of that site. So, for instance, the cockle picking song would be on the beach in Llanstephan where Louie, at weekends, would pick cockles, right up until her 70's, for the folk in the old people's home .
At the the end of the story trail, the children would visit Louie and all the folk at the Old People's Home in Tumble and sing at an afternoon tea.
When it came to potentially paying me for my time, funding was kindly offered, but it would need to be delivering the trail to children in the Tumble area schools and not Llanstephan, because of the funding restrictions.
But the Tumble schools are not part of Louie's story in the way that Jill's school is. To switch schools would not be staying true to, or allowing Louie's story to lead the artistic journey of the piece. It will be a delight to tour those schools afterwards ... and I sincerely appreciate the kind offer, but it is not artistically right for this stage of the story.
We can see very clearly how funding might sometimes tie us in a way which means that we can not follow the story of the client. As Community Artists we need to earn money and this understandably leads to compromise. But I really did not want to compromise Louie's story and given all the things she has done for her community, and many other welsh women with her throughout their hidden histories, this would be my contribution, this is how I would join them; by telling their story through Louie's .
And it is such a beautiful story. A story of a woman who cared very deeply about her community, who gave her time and love to those in her village, much in the way that many welsh women did and still do: behind the scenes, making things happen in an unassuming way for the good of the people. A time when communities survived through sharing and citizenship.
Since working with Louie, people have asked me, 'So, who is Louie? Is she famous or something? Did she do something amazing?' and I reply, 'Yes, she did do something amazing. She is a welsh woman who kept a sense of community alive in her village for the whole of her life. Her story shows us our own history, a hidden history. And she is still doing this now, by inadvertently appointing me as the curator of her story to inform others of what life in West Wales was like.' Perhaps she can teach us all. She is certainly teaching me.