Mandy Ross

Drawing on Writing

Emma from Ikon started us off with her 3E’s of drawing: Explore, Experiment, Express – and adopted them for writing too. And then we added another, Excitement!

As part of Arts Connect West Midlands’ cultural education programme, I’ve been working with Ikon and with Wolverhampton Art Gallery and two schools: St Hubert’s in Sandwell and Pelsall Village School, Walsall. There has been a fabulous buzz in both schools, as our confidence and sense of freedom grew in both writing and drawing, inspired by art we saw in the galleries and beyond.

Drawing on Writing at Pelsall Village Primary

Drawing on Writing at Pelsall Village Primary

At Pelsall we explored the stories behind drawings in Wolverhampton Art Gallery’s collection as we drew and let the writing free to explore and fill the page. We took inspiration from our journey to the gallery, and the drawing workshops too, making writing out of every element of our day’s experience.

Everybody contributed to this collective poem over lunchtime

Wet paper drying,
Waiting to be drawn on,
Is it wishing for a drawing
Of the tree it came from?

Lined paper waiting to be written on.
Fingers waiting to hold a pencil
To tell a story,
That doesn’t yet exist,
That the paper’s waiting for…
Click here to read more Pelsall poems

And at St Hubert’s, we took inspiration from Lee Bul’s sculptural exhibition at Ikon. We wrote mirror maze poems, envisioned cave art painting, and imagined escaping into the art gallery (where would you sleep?) We built a story with three voices. Then, after documenting the writing, we cut up the voices into ribbons to weave them into sculptural story work.

Cutting up three voices to make ribbons...

Cutting up three voices to make ribbons…



Weaving the voices into the story tower

Weaving the voices into the story tower

And we discussed the big questions: What is art?  What is art for? And in the capital city of our own utopia, should art be in the gallery or outdoors – or both? Do we have to choose?

The Capital City of My Utopia

The Capital City of My Utopia


Out of the Earth: poetry and pottery on fruit

Fruity paper cuts

Fruity paper cuts

Wonderful fruitful collaboration working with care home residents in Ledbury and Eastnor along with Jon the Flying Potter of Eastnor Pottery for Ledbury Poetry Festival
Starting with tasting fruits, we planned a range of sensory and creative and literary activities that meant everyone could take part, whatever their abilities. Examining and tasting pomegranates, lemons and sweet pineapple led into clay exploration, making fruits, reading poems and reminiscing. More to follow…

Fruits of the earth - some of Jon's pots

Fruits of the earth – some of Jon’s pots





Taking the work back to Ledbury care homes

We had a very warm welcome back at the two care homes presenting project work  – poetry, pottery, photographs, a hardback book documenting the project… and more fruit! – to share with residents. Activity workers there had picked up lots of ideas for reading, discussing and even singing poetry, as well as using clay, salt dough and even bread dough for creative exploration. A rich and rewarding project, building connections through many senses.

BookTrust Stories Tour

Story Basket with wooden spoon puppets

Story Basket with wooden spoon puppets

I’ve been learning loads working in libraries, prisons and community settings alongside actors Wendy, Huz, Romeet and Hemi, who bring heart, soul, boundless energy and mischief into a BookTrust theatre show touring the Midlands for young children and their families. I’ve made this Story Basket with wooden-spoon puppets and other ingredients to tell the story of Dominic and Grandpa Wilford – and now the puppets are taking over the show… All kinds of ideas for bringing stories alive.

In Balsall Heath…

...where we [heart] literary graffiti written in the urban grime

…where we [heart] literary graffiti written in the urban grime

I remember…  A writing memory grid from our Dewey Decimal project in Kingstanding and Erdington

Small boxes, small prompts, sparking lots of memories - lots to explore and develop

Small boxes, small prompts, sparking lots of memories – lots to explore and develop

Islamic Calligraphy, and writing the dance

Concertina books written and decorated in response to qalam dan pen boxes

Concertina books written and decorated in response to qalam dan pen boxes

It’s been a busy autumn term, with some fantastic creative work. I worked with a keen group of Muslim women at the Go-Woman project in Saltley, exploring a fascinating exhibition of Islamic Calligraphy at Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery. After a handling session at the museum with curator Josefine Frank, we wrote concertina books, describing the beautiful artistry we’d seen on pen boxes (qalam dan) made of papier mache, wood and brass. On the other side we wrote memories of where we’d each learned to read and write in English or in other languages. Memorable stories emerged…

We also wrote on gold paper chain links about what our mothers had taught us – and what we’d pass on to the next generation. These formed a chain of transmission, echoing the transmission of calligraphy skills from master to pupil down the generations.

Our work is on show in BMAG until the end of January 2014 as part of a wonderful exhibition of ancient and contemporary writing and art.

Chain of transmission

Chain of transmission


Writing dancers – or dancing writers?

The Human Dance

The Human Dance

And a glimpse into the secret world of ballet at Elmhurst School for Dance, where there was fantastic writing inspiration from dance in all its forms. Working with students aged 11-13, we explored why humans dance, in contrast with animals’ movement – ‘The robin’s dance is the anxious search…’ – more below.

We wrote descriptive pieces after observing a dance class through studio windows (wonderful technical vocabulary, and a challenge to look afresh and find words to describe limbs’ shapes and movements). And we started to develop writing and choreographic ideas exploring relationships between inanimate objects – a birthday candle and a match; a knife, fork and spoon.

After a glorious night at the ballet, we wrote Thirteen Ways of Looking at The Nutcracker (after Wallace Stevens’ strange and beautiful Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird). And finally, we made beautiful writing gifts, using finished work to shape paper boxes – and who knows what gifts inside…

The Robin'd Dance - a Christmas writing gift

The Robin’s Dance – a Christmas writing gift

Poetry maps in Eastnor, Ledbury Poetry Festival project

Writing a map

Writing a map


As part of the Ledbury Poetry Festival, I worked as poet-in-residence at Eastnor, a tiny Herefordshire primary school with just four classes. Children throughout the school visited and wrote poetry about the local blacksmith, the potter and the weaver, as well as the racehorse stable, Eastnor Castle and deerpark. The happy sound of pens and pencils inspired by ancient work traditions brought into the 21st century… Here’s Bella’s wonderful poem Weaving gold of friendship

Tiny poem maps

Tiny poem maps

Everyone made tiny poem-maps – a poem on one side and a writing-map on the other. We folded them and left them lying around Ledbury during the Poetry Festival for people to find and keep.

And working with Rachael Lambert of Rural Media, Class 4 made tiny animations of one of the poems they had written. Watch this space…

Thanks to all who worked so hard to make the project such a fizzing success!

Our proud display of map and some of the poems

Our proud display of map and some of the poems


Out of the earth, the potter spins...

Out of the earth, the potter spins…



Flowing Through Time

It’s been a treat working with five schools and musicians from the CBSO on Our City, Our Past, a project exploring Birmingham’s history through songs and music. We took the piddly River Rea as our starting point, as Birmingham began as an Anglo-Saxon village at the river’s crossing. A group of students from Selly Oak Trust School visited the river to take inspiration.

Writing the River Rea

Writing the River Rea

Working across the artforms, with words, music, drama and visual arts, the project  traced the Birmingham’s development from farming village to market town and then to a great industrial city, focusing on Birmingham’s blacksmiths. Pupils from Woodgate Primary School brought us into the 21st century with a song called Global Birmingham:

We’re Birmingham Brummies
linked all around the world.
The world’s in our city,
where the river still flows towards the sea.
We’re connected by plane and train and cargo ship,
linked by letters, telephone and text,
connected by our games devices,
tv, internet, by satellite, by skype and facebook, facetime.
We’re Birmingham Brummies…

And I was very proud to write the script for the CBSO’s Schools Concert in June 2013. OUR orchestra accompanying OUR children singing OUR songs telling OUR city’s history – doesn’t get better than that!

Dominic Grows Sweetcorn

My new picture book – published by Frances Lincoln, with gorgeous illustrations by Alison Bartlett – grew out of conversations with a neighbour, Mrs Brown. She told me all about her childhood high in the Jamaican hills, where her family grew lemons, coffee, mangoes and sweetcorn. And a very different life here in 1950s Birmingham where she and her husband came to find work.


The Fancy: live performance at Project Pigeon’s loft

The rain held off as a capacity audience gathered in Digbeth’s evening sunshine for an unforgettable one-and-only performance of The Fancy directed by Rogue Play. Thanks to all who worked so hard to create this quirky, memorable production – live music (everyone joined in), live pigeons, live theatre.

The audience gathers

The audience gathers

A purple pigeon?

A purple pigeon?

Applause for the actors

Applause for the actors

Making word mobiles

Random word associations change constantly as the mobile moves on a breath

Project Pigeon update

It’s been an eye-opening glimpse into the Fancy – so much to learn about strategy, rivalry and friendship in the secret world of pigeon fancying. Thanks to members of Aston Pigeon Club and other local clubs who helped me understand some of the intricacies of breeding, training and racing pigeons, three short radio plays are almost complete and ready for casting. In September, Kim Charnock of RoguePlay directed a well-received rehearsed reading upstairs at the Patrick Kavanagh, Moseley, and the plays will be recorded soon – and performed, we hope, back home at Project Pigeon‘s Digbeth loft in spring 2013.

What is the word for a word made out of itself?


Project Pigeon

Spot the birdie

I’m delighted to be working with Project Pigeon. I’ve been commissioned to write a radio play, as part of a project to create a pigeon-fancying archive here in Birmingham. So far I’ve just dipped my toes into this secret world, with its own vivid language – self-black with bright copper-bronze wings – and I’m looking forward to going to the Aston club meeting next week.
I started him off with Redbadge Tumblers in the 70s. He was just a young lad. He came down on the bus, the Midland Red, and he stopped at ours the weekend. I took him back to Midland Red; they wouldn’t let him on the coach with the pigeons – it was livestock, see. I had to bribe the driver a fiver
– John

Writing on and off the page: new course at mac

So far we’ve been creating ‘roads of consciousness’ (rather than streams), writing down by the rather piddly River Rea, and exploring water without yet getting wet. Looking forward to more…

Tiny books we made

Time travel and feathery matters in the Cole Valley

Writing the long path

Our Write On! Adventures in Creative Writing project with Class 3HL at Colebourne Primary School, Hodge Hill has been, as the children wrote, very fun! We stepped through a time portal from their 21st century playground- and were whirled straight into the Iron Age. Walking along a grassy track beside the River Cole, we searched for firewood, food and inspiration for writing about daily life in Iron Age Hodge Hill. And some great writing followed.Chalking in the playground

We also wrote about the school’s chickens and  eggs (which came first?)  The children chalked their riddle poems on the playground for their friends to read at playtime.

Ikon Gallery project: Sir Benjamin Stone’s photographs

We could speak

3 men seeking work at the mop fair

Sir Benjamin Stone of Erdington took over 20,000 photographs between about 1880 and 1914, most of which are now held in Birmingham’s city archive.  They photos are a fabulously diverse record of his world, both locally, at Westminster where he was a local MP, and of his travels all over the world.

I’ve been working with the Ikon Gallery to invite the people of Erdington to write the untold stories of some of the photos.

You can see us

‘Ancient widows’ picking up sixpences from benefactor’s tomb 1902

There’s been a fantastic response from local writing groups, The Cube artists, patients in the John Taylor Hospice (The Grange was Stone’s home) and people dropping into the library.

We’ve been imagining what people in the photos would say if they could speak.  We’ve also written in the voices of those NOT shown in the photos – the servants and children banished behind the scenes, as well as Sir Benjamin himself behind the camera.  It’s been fascinating and thought-provoking – thanks to everyone who’s taken part.  We’ll be publishing some of the work – watch this space…

Children’s History of Birmingham

I learnt loads about Birmingham’s history while writing this book – about our  Roman fort, medieval urban regeneration, and about how our city has been shaped and enriched for centuries by generations of incomers from all over the world.

Do get in touch if you’re interested in organising a history writing workshop for children or adults – once you start noticing clues in the streets around you, the city’s your inspiration…

And here’s some more inspiration – a list of place names here in Birmingham which are just asking to spark stories and poems…

Winter Lights November 2010

Birmingham celebrates Diwali, Christmas, Chanuka and Chinese New Year — whatever our background, it seems we all need a festival of light and feasting to get us through winter’s cold, dark months.

Writing workshop taking inspiration from Rabindranath Tagore and rangoli patterns

My poem Winter Lights formed the basis for a CBSO project exploring all these winter festivals. Musicians from CBSO and Sampad worked with the Hindu Women’s Network and children of St Ambrose Barlow School in Hall Green, Birmingham.

We made music, rangoli patterns and poetry in English and Gujarati to celebrate.  Winter’s been brighter this year!

Rangoli poems to read rotationally

Rangoli poems to turn and read rotationally

Click here to watch the project video by Sima Gonsai.

The project was funded through Birmingham City Council’s Arts Champions scheme.

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