Smartphone owners will find unmissable artworks in public spaces offering journeys into remarkable, real-life stories of addiction, mental illness, hope and resilience in Hidden Tales, a digital arts trail set in Rochdale, between Tue 3 – Sat 28 October 2017.

A partnership between CAN (Community Arts North West) and Petrus a charity in Rochdale working with people who are homeless or at risk, the 18-month project determinedly tells stories of perceived human weakness and undeniable, often unlikely strength with unique wit, dark humour and honesty.

A poem, a portrait and a QR code on a large-format print becomes a door into other people’s worlds, recognising their resilience against addiction, mental illness, personal tragedy, homelessness and isolation. Breath taking tales of lives spent finding paths through adversity and surviving against expectations include a professional horticulturalist expert, whose career owes everything to ADHD and illegal marijuana cultivation, and a nun whose encounters with tragedy only cemented her faith and desire to support the vulnerable.

Purposely positioned in the town the stories are told, siting audiences alongside the subjects, the specially commissioned artworks are to be hosted in a range of public locations, to either be found by accident or as part of a published trail. The trail starts at Touchstones, Rochdale’s cultural centre,where visitors can pick up a map and follow the trail to find the rest of the artworks throughout the town centre, including the historic Town Hall, the Wheatsheaf Shopping Centre and the Pioneers Museum.

Petrus service users and volunteers with stories to tell spent time with CAN’s creative team, including award-winning filmmaker Mat Johns, poet Martin Stannage and CAN Creative Producer, Sara Domville and each given the opportunity to tell their story, their way. The participants include:

Andrew McConville: Describing his experience of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as ‘enjoyable and confusing’, the condition’s positives have driven Andy’s life forward and cast aspersions of it as life-limiting far to one side. Enthusiastically exploring things that combatted debilitating boredom, his explorations of recreational drugs led him to grow marijuana and, whilst illegal, has led to an in-depth knowledge of cultivation techniques that have led to a professional horticultural career.

“You’ll never find any better medicine than happiness. – Andrew

Sister Noel: In 1976 Sister Noel was posted from her home in Donegal, Republic of Ireland to Kenya, after initially resisting her calling from god. Once in East Africa, she worked to nurture babies whose mothers had died in childbirth, weaning them before returning them to their fathers. Her initial encounters with death amongst the babies sent to the care of the convent shocked her, an encounter with tragedy that left a profound effect. Tragedy, both personal and amongst those in her care has strengthened her faith and, after 32 years, Sister Noel returned to the UK and is a Petrus volunteer in Rochdale.

Roger Kirby: A bright and well-educated child and youth, Roger became confused by his own unhappiness as he pursued an academic career. Psychotic episodes became part of Roger’s life, learning to manage his recurring manias amidst a reluctant to be formally diagnosed. In striving to cope, he turned to drugs and looks back on his life with apparent, crystal clear clarity and wishes to be part of a discussion about our ‘backfiring’ society and mental illness.

“You either have a stupifyingly middle class, career sort of life or a rough and ready, underclass life. – Roger.

Tanzeem Mahmood: Arriving from Pakistan at 14, Tanzeem was isolated by language before gradually finding a sense of greater belonging through an improved grasp of spoken English. Now working for Rochdale Women’s Welfare Association, Tanzeem supports South Asian women whose isolation, loneliness, anxiety and depression manifests itself, often, after their children grow up and leave home. Using various initiatives, including the inclusive, multi-faith or no-faith women’s ‘Candlelight Dinners’, Tanzeem promotes better recognition and management of women’s mental health.

Gail Coupe: Strength comes from within, often deeply buried beneath years of misfortune, and Gail’s story begins with her mother’s own weaknesses, who gave her a drink of shandy as a child, followed by a beer, pretending it was ‘pop’. Years of abuse followed. Her first marriage failed before finding happiness with her second husband and father of her two children, before he died suddenly. Drink became a coping mechanism, before seeking help. Gail speaks to encourage others to find rehab.

Jimmy Welnowski: Delivering news of redundancy to former colleagues made Jimmy a victim of assault, leading to an epilepsy diagnosis. His means of making a living as a physical worker were gone. A spell of homelessness after splitting with his partner was broken when a Labrador woke him from sleep in a park. Jimmy roused himself and his innate curiosity propelled him back into education. Now a community worker, helping people make sense of their experiences through music, he intends to complete the degree he started with the Open University after attending college courses in computer literacy.

“Get back on your bike!” – Jimmy

Martin Tobin: A volunteer on Petrus’ Incredible Medical Allotment, Martin beams with pure joy when he considers the life-enhancing powers of growing for the garden’s visitors, young and old alike. Turning a patch of unloved land into a community resource for growing everything from chillies to potatoes, as well as maintenance and decorating the site, volunteers develop horticultural skills through hands-on experience as well as meet other people in the community. Martin is there, in any weather, ready to lend a hand and, if needed, a listening ear.

Emmanuelle Bajiiji: An actor, writer and Petrus volunteer, Emmanuelle expresses himself in a powerful, confidently delivered poem, eloquently exploring the transformation of his mental state, from despair to joy.

Sara Domville, CAN Creative Producer, says: “Our partnership with Petrus is a long-standing one, so we’ve got to know many of the volunteers and people seeking their support very well, seeing many glimpses of humanity’s finest attributes – faith, strength, kindness, honesty – that stop you in your tracks. It was so important that ‘Hidden Tales’, in offering a platform for these stories to be told, did so on those terms, finding the best in people through challenging times. Placing the work outside a gallery space, making the videos available digitally, on-site in Rochdale and via mobile phone means that the sense of reality becomes intentionally acute”

Hidden Tales’ raw, storytelling and poetry-penning talent has a further chance to make their words heard in a live event taking place at The Vibe, Rochdale on Tue 17 October 2017 (2pm – 4pm) hosted by Mancunian wordsmith, Mike Garry. An afternoon of music, poetry drawn from workshops held in the Rochdale area and the screening of the eight short video portraits created for the Hidden Tales Trail, it is part of Rochdale Literature and Ideas Festival 2017.

Phil Foster, Deputy Coordinator at Petrus Community, said: “We are delighted to be taking part in the Hidden Tales project. These stories are touching and honest portrayals of people overcoming challenges and show the importance of understanding and concern within our society. We have worked closely with CAN to help give our service users and volunteers a platform to tell the world their stories and I hope that the people of Rochdale enjoy following the trail.”

Hidden Tales is supported by Arts Council England and The Granada Foundation.

Hidden Tales, a digital arts trail set in Rochdale, between Tue 3 – Sat 28 October 2017.

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