POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists
Performances

Reflection: Common Threads Project/Threads of Resilience

Published on Jun 15, 2024 by Áilbhe Hines

Introduction

"Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."
(WHO definition of Health)

Creating communities of support and healing is an important part of the work of arts in health. Groups or circles of participants can enhance the effects for individuals. Cultural resonance and equity are of vital importance, with efforts being culturally inclusive, targeting, and informed by community members, especially those who are marginalised.

The Common Threads Project (CTP), highlighted in a WHO Arts in Health Conference in New York, resonates with my own work as a socially engaged artist and creative arts therapist in Omagh, Northern Ireland, through the project Threads of Resilience. Both inititatives bring together people affected by trauma to engage in creative, healing, and transformative story sharing processes.

Images and extracts interwoven into this piece are from the theatre piece, Threads Of Resilience: Stories of a Circle of Women.

Common Threads Project

The Common Threads Project, first piloted in Ecuador in 2012 (Cohen, R., 2013), works with people who have experienced gender based violence, trauma, and displacement. It has expanded globally, including to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bosnia Herzegovina and Nepal.   In 2019, CTP established partnerships with community-based organizations serving refugee communities in the US. By 2023, it had launched a virtual stress management and burnout prevention program for staff at two partnering organisations in Ukraine. Over the course of eight sessions, CTP facilitators led the group in creative methods for self-care and managing trauma (https://commonthreadsproject.org/blog/2023/13/expanding-the-work).

CTP engages women in healing circles where they come together to sew, a practice that connects with culturally resonant traditions and promotes recovery and resilience (Cohen, 2013). This approach combines psychotherapeutic techniques with textile work, aiming to manage intense emotional states, enhance self-expression, and improve overall functioning (Cohen, 2013). CTP, influenced by global practices like the 'Chilean Arpilleras' that emerged in response to the Pinochet dictatorship, incorporates both evidence-based research and the wisdom of traditional cultural practices (Cohen, 2013). Techniques such as somatic awareness, muscle relaxation, breathing exercises, and psycho-education are included to deepen the healing aspects of these textile narratives (Cohen, 2013). Furthermore, CTP integrates story cloths as a form of expression, which have been particularly empowering for those who have been silenced, including African American women and the Hmong people of Laos and Cambodia (Cohen, R., Butterly C., 2020). Garlock highlights the value of sewing in community as an ancient practice, noting that art therapists can enhance the therapeutic effects of textile narratives and help marginalized individuals develop confidence in expressing their stories through these mediums (Garlock, 2016). As part of a holistic approach that includes coordinated security, legal, medical, economic, educational, and social services, CTP has shown benefits in reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress, while also counteracting feelings of stigma, self-blame, and shame (CTP, 2019). Engaging local practitioners and activists to deliver these programs ensures that the interventions are culturally resonant and effectively tailored to the communities they serve (https://commonthreadsproject.org/who-we-are).

Threads of Resilience

A number of years ago, I facilitated a project in Omagh, County Tyrone, with a group of women from diverse backgrounds and of varying ages. They had experienced various forms of trauma inducing events throughout their lifetimes and had also been impacted and injured by the bombing of Omagh in 1998. This initiative was part of a larger cluster of projects administered by ICAN (International Culture Arts Network 2010-2013), in which I was engaged as a facilitator/practitioner. Initially meeting weekly, the project was extended at the women’s request, eventually leading to a performance which toured venues across the Island of Ireland.

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Threads of Resilience, developed: 2011-2012, director/writer: Áilbhe Hines, various venues Ireland/N. Ireland, ICAN International Culture and Arts Network, performed with faciliated post performance discussions: 2012-2013.

In the early stages of the project, we engaged in activities to introduce creative expressive forms, strengthen group bonds, recognise strong emotional connections, explore regulatory interventions, build personal resilience and build trust. Many cups of tea and delicious cakes and scones were shared in our workshop circle. Much humour, storytelling and laughter provided a powerful counter balance to the eventual emergence of difficult material. Following these initial gatherings, the women began, in a supportive environment, to share traumatic personal and community stories. These narratives were explored through various techniques and creatively structured interventions, including bricolage, collage, visual imagery, movement, music, and drawing, before participants felt able to share their stories.

These alternative modes of telling mediated distance or proximity to difficult material and the group learned how to accompany each other in these processes. The women, in time, supported by other circle members, shared and expressed painful narratives and experiences. What emerged in these processes, was that the women were not just finding and creating space to tell their painful stories and experience of trauma. We were also uncovering their remarkable resilience. We explored the ways in which they had been able to carry on in the face of cruel circumstance. We did not seek to diminish the impact of trauma, but sought to establish means of holding the pain. The women were able to find ways of honouring impacts as well as, in tandem, explore ways in which they might transform painful experience.

We’ve stood up constant. Constant wounds. Scars. Hands and heart songs, marking moments. Marking patterns. Threading fragments. Stitching and fixing. Fixing and stitching. Making do. We suffered. Violence and blasts. We endured searches and losses. Then the peace process. A collective sigh of relief. To be sabotaged cruelly and heartlessly that day. No excuses. No justification for any of it. And that day, the day that everyone wants to know about. The day the cameras and the reporters landed on us in a swarm, relentless in their enquiries. All eyes looking at us, Curious. Is that what we have become?

When we got the call I was working in the bar and the men did not want to leave.
I walked out with my friend as we talked about the wedding she was going to.
I don’t remember anything after that, apart from holding tightly onto my handbag with the bar keys in it.
Later, I was in hospital surrounded by chaos, shouting and crying.
My life was never the same again. I survived, but people died.
I don’t walk four miles a day any more.
I move slowly, but I’m still moving.
I move slowly. I survived, but people died.

The project did not involve making cloths like in the CTP, but stories were shared about working with cloth and how these sewing and fabric activities served as metaphors for resistance and resilience. Items such as cloths, fabrics, quilts, imagery, photographs, dresses and other heirloom objects, which were important to the group members, brought into sessions by the women, enriched the narrative.

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Threads of Resilience, developed: 2011-2012, director/writer: Áilbhe Hines, various venues Ireland/N. Ireland, ICAN International Culture and Arts Network, performed with faciliated post performance discussions: 2012-2013.

We patched up our fissures when we created the quilts.
Crafted fragments into cloth. Marking materialising scars.
The fabric absorbed the things said and unsaid.
The uncertainty. The joy. The loss. The fear. The dread.

The sewing activities, historically a communal endeavor for women, were central to the thematic material and imagery used in the final presentation. We learned of traditional techniques such as patchwork quilts, the repurposing of flour bags, and the craft of mending and making dresses. We learned of materials being smuggled across the border and lovingly sewn into wedding gowns.

She often went across the border where the material was cheaper and brought it back across. She had hundreds of patterns which I still have. They are very precious to me.

There was always a blanket being crocheted. Granny’s purse held the sweet money, the wains lining up for their piece of gold.

We learned how those items – cloths, threads, and needles – held the stories of these women and the women who came before them. Those threads, those repeated actions of moving the needle in and out, the creation of something new out of scraps of the old, encapsulated unspoken experiences in the cloth, symbolizing not only their trauma, but also how they had overcome it. We convened a circle of women within which to explore the threads of their lives and how their shared experiences had meaning and value. The group wanted to expand the creative exploration of the issues and stories. They were now ready to share aspects of these stories with the wider community.

Surviving the attacks, the floods and the bombs. Traces of our ancestors. Embedded memories in bodies and minds. Our own voices emerging now. Tears and laughter given space. Reflections of our lives. We survived. Looking into the mirrors what do you see? Circles of women formed. Holding it together. Big pots of soup and endless pots of tea. Cleaning and sweeping all our troubles away. Sewing and knitting the rows of pain.

In this second stage of the project, expanding on previous work, we created a theatre piece which was also curated as an installation, based on the stories and experiences they had shared in our circle. I worked with the various stories and scenes worked on by the group and put together a script for performance. The women were involved in all aspects of the installation and script. Elements of their stories were represented on large boards incorporated into the set,and the words they shared were also incorporated into the set design. Throughout the piece, symbolic fabrics, cloths, mirrors and reminiscence objects were used as entry points to both personal and group narratives.

She ignored all divide by making ham tea for the 12th of July parades. All the salad came from the garden. Those marchers really appreciated the feast she had prepared, while they were all watched over by the Sacred Heart picture that hung in the room.

Do you know coming from a Presbyterian background I was always fascinated by the Catholic Church, the candles the rituals.

We were attacked by both sides for our so-called traitorous behaviour. My whole world was affected by it. Neighbours and friends attacking us for our choice.

On Good Friday I went to a funeral. The church was really bare and everything was dark and cold. I think I know why. The woman who died was a changeover you know. So that is why she didn’t get the same as those who were born and bred.
Ah no! It was Good Friday. The church is always bare and quiet on that day. It has nothing to do with the woman being a changeover.

The opening scene of the performance depicted a young women seated, sewing a piece onto a Patchwork Quilt, surrounded by an ancestral circle of women also sewing, knitting and mending. Subsequent scenes incorporated the stories of their lives from childhood to the present, spanning a significant period of their community history. These scenes interwove stories of the conflict with other community narratives, illustrating how the women had overcome and survived challenging events. As had happened during the workshops, scenes of humour as a means of resilience were interwoven with painful, enduring narratives and the stories of courage and overcoming.

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Threads of Resilience, developed: 2011-2012, director/writer: Áilbhe Hines, various venues Ireland/N. Ireland, ICAN International Culture and Arts Network, performed with faciliated post performance discussions: 2012-2013.

Another time coming back from Donegal the wains in the car and we get to the border checkpoint. We’d been gone all day and the boot was full of dirty nappies from changing the wain. On the way back we were stopped at the checkpoint. When the soldier said he would have to look in the boot, we found it hard to keep a straight face. Go ahead if you dare.

And what about the mother from Donegal who went across to do the shopping and smuggle it back. All three daughters sitting in the back seat, with the shopping under their legs and a blanket over their knees. Just as they reached the border checkpoint she would say “right girls pretend to sleep now” and they would duck down sprawling over each other looking like three innocent girls asleep. The soldier had a look, smiled and waved them on. Just across the border in Donegal again and the girls spring to life “were we good mammy?” “yes girls, you were brilliant” and they laughed.

E: Anything interesting in the paper?
H: Well I’m reading the daily obscurities.
E: What are you reading?
H: You know, I’m checking out who has died and what wakes I might have to go to.
E: Oh you mean the obituaries.
H: The obscurities yes, and it looks like I have a busy few days ahead of me. I have two wakes of people whose folks I know quite well and about three others I will go to anyway. I’ll be run off my feet with all the wakes this week.

(Later)
E: Are you here long?
H: Long enough to be parched!
E: Have you not had your tea yet?
H: I've been sitting her for twenty minutes and I haven't been offered a cup of tea yet.
E: Sure that's terrible. I'm surprised. Have you been up yet?
H: No. There was a big line to see her, so I thought I would get a cup of tea first and then go up.
Two women S and W come back from the wake room.
They greet and sit.
H: Have you been up to see her?
S: Och yes. She looks well
W: Were you not up yourselves yet.
E: Well I've just got here but I didn't get tea yet.
H: I've been here for ages and not one drop of tae has been offered to me yet. Did you have tea yourselves?
S: We did when we got here. They have a nice enough spread on.
H: Isn't that nice for you.
E: Anyway. You were up. Well, how did she look?
S: Ah she looked peaceful you know. She looked well.
H: What was she wearing?
W: She was wearing...what do you call those things...was it a kind of nightie?
S: A kind of blue shroud. She looked well. It would have matched her eyes.
E: Was she not wearing her glasses?
W: No she didn't have the glasses on.
E: Well I didn't know her that well, but I wouldn't know her without the glasses.
H: What about bling? Did they have any nice jewellery on her?
S: Oh yes. She had a locket on. Pure gold with gems and all that.
W: Oh yes. I'd say she knew to take that with her. She loved that locket too.
E: Why? Is it worth a bit?
W: Oh it's worth something all right.
H: There may have been rows over that. That's probably why she decided to take it with her.
S: Is that your man over there
E: Who is he?
H: It is. She has four cuddies and just that one cub. Lives in England. Hasn't been home for years.
(Greet other wake goers, then back to the conversation)
S: I know the cuddies. They worked hard to help her all those years.
W: And now that young fella is home to inherit all!
E: Do you think? What about the cuddies?
H: Aw it will all be passed on to him, don't you know.
W: Sure, that's the way it goes.
Two women enter with tea: Tea ladies?
E: I will thanks.
W and S: We're grand. We had some tea earlier. Thanks.
H: Ah youse are very good. No thanks. I don't have time for tea.
I have another wake to go to.

Their performance was staged in community settings, marking a new phase of transformation; the women’s stories were witnessed by members of their own communities, who then engaged in discussions about these narratives in facilitated dialogues following the performance.

The threads of resilience that can never be broken or taken away.
Here are the photographs of my ancestors.
Here is my house that survived the floods and the bombs.
Here is the music and the dancing and the games we played when we were young.
Here is the story of my life as a gift.
The stories that have been and that are still to be told.
Here is my past and the lessons learned.
I have a story. I have a story to tell. My story.
My story is your story, is our story to tell.

Similarly, in the Common Threads Project (CTP), women are invited to bring their Story Cloths to exhibition spaces, which provides an opportunity for both their home communities and a broader audience to witness and reflect on their stories. The Digital Archive for the exhibit “Stich by Stitch: The Fabric of Healing” has examples of Story Cloths in four thematic sections: Hidden Memories, Surviving Atrocities, Healing Wounds, and Building Solidarity.

“Threads of Resilience” tapped into the internationally recognised and culturally resonant activity of women coming together in healing circles to talk, to support and to make, sew and weave together their individual and shared experiences and stories. This project became the framework of a methodology that I continue to utilise in varying contexts. As a practitioner, I was deeply moved by my experience in Omagh. The lessons I learned there have endured and my practice has been immensely enriched by the circle of healing we created together.

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Threads of Resilience, developed: 2011-2012, director/writer: Áilbhe Hines, various venues Ireland/N. Ireland, ICAN International Culture and Arts Network, performed with faciliated post performance discussions: 2012-2013.

A project called Conflict Textiles based in Northern Ireland which originated from a 2008 exhibition entitled The Art of Survival: International and Irish Quilts, provides some additional context to the significance of our project in Omagh. See an interview with Roberta Bacic of the Conflict Textiles project here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVE2rldnFr0

A short film, Stitching the Unspeakable, provides a fascinating insight into the aims and outcomes of the Common Threads project and can be viewed here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-iAGEphcD1M

A CTP virtual exhibition can be viewed here:
https://artspaces.kunstmatrix.com/en/exhibition/1557984/the-fabric-of-healing-story-cloths-by-survivors-of-trauma-war-and-gender-based 

Stitch by Stitch: A fabric of Healing digital archive of story cloths can be viewed here:
https://commonthreadsproject.org/digital-catalog 

I am hopeful for the future of arts in health and our role as practitioners within this field, especially through the use of intersectional and equitable processes and projects like those highlighted in this reflection, gesturing to new directions and opportunities.

Participant Testimonial

I participated in "Threads of Resilience". It was honestly one of the most powerful pieces of work I have ever been part of. I was a member of a women's group from Omagh, a place that had previously witnessed one of the worst tragedies of the 'troubles' (the wholly inappropriate word that was used for the civil war that raged for decades in the North of Ireland) prior to us having a semblance of peace.

The group of women consisted of people from both sides of the divide who had different experiences growing up. They were Mothers and Sisters and Daughters, with the same objectives and goals, but from very different upbringings. Through this project each person was afforded the opportunity to tell their story, share it with others, not only helping us to understand things from their perspective; but also enabling them to unravel it and make sense of things that previously they may have buried.

The compassion and understanding that was shown by the director, the attention to detail and the absolute professionalism mixed with humour that this lady brought to the participating group was the reason that so many people were touched, healed felt heard and understood by this performance. It was shown a number of times in the community and then travelled to Belfast and beyond and everyone in the audience was moved by the stories.

Threads was an amazing project. It gave confidence, self esteem and belief in ones self to each and every one of us, as well as forging lifetime friendships. None of these women had ever been on stage before but they looked like seasoned professionals by the end. The unique thing was that each was telling their own story and they were woven together superbly by the director.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I was one of the youngest cast members so my experience was more of being brought up with all the bombs and shooting going on around me, however my Mum and the other ladies had to rear families, and keep households during this time. With that, came some enormous challenges.

All were adversely affected by the 1998 Omagh bombing. All are healing 25 years on. All are amazing. Women's stories need to be told and Threads of Resilience helped a group of Omagh Women have their voices heard.

Bibliography

Cohen, R. (2013). Common Threads: A recovery programme for survivors of gender-based violence. Intervention. Retrieved March 20, 2022, from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b7eeaf2c258b4a04473be79/t/5bc746a2f9619ac0ad540c3c/1539786403995/fdd79c_e34948c5e6984bb5aba13c77f11d6b3c.pdf

Cohen, R., & Butterly, C. (2020, October 11). The fabric of healing. Europe Now. Council for European Studies, Special Feature: Networks of Solidarity During Crises. Retrieved February 15, 2022, from https://www.europenowjournal.org/2020/10/11/the-fabric-of-healing/

Conflict Textiles. (n.d.). Interview with Roberta Bacic. Retrieved April 2, 2022, from https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/conflicttextiles/about-2/

Common Threads Project. (n.d.). About Common Threads Project. Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://commonthreadsproject.org/

Common Threads Project. (2019). The Common Threads Project: Review of Pilot Projects 2014-2018 Bosnia-Herzegovina, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Nepal. Retrieved February 20, 2022, from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b7eeaf2c258b4a04473be79/t/6099c6cafa12a81aef912f2a/1620690642127/Pilot+Review_New_v7+%281%29.pdf

Common Threads Project. (2023, January 13). Expanding the work. Retrieved from https://commonthreadsproject.org/blog/2023/13/expanding-the-work

de Witte et al. (2021). From therapeutic factors to mechanisms of change in the creative arts therapies: A scoping review. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved August 20, 2021, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.678397/full

Fancourt, D., & Finn, S. (2019). What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being? A scoping review. Health Evidence Network synthesis report, No. 67. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553773/?report=classic 

Garlock, L. R. (2016). Stories in the cloth: Art therapy and narrative textiles. Art Therapy, 33(2), 58-66. Retrieved June 21, 2024 from https://commonthreadsproject.wordpress.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/stories-in-the-cloth-art-therapy-and-narrative-textiles.pdf 

Hines, Á. (2012). Threads of resilience: Stories of a circle of women.

World Health Organization. (n.d.). WHO constitution/Definition of Health. Retrieved March 3, 2022, from https://www.who.int/about/governance/constitution 

Áilbhe Hines

ilbhe HInes BIO PIC

Áilbhe Hines is an interdisciplinary artist and creative arts therapist. They are concerned with socially engaged interdisciplinary therapy practice, with the potential of creative arts therapies in diverse communites of care and with trauma informed practice.

They are interested in how artworks can consider knowledge/knowing and in the interactions between artist, viewer and the wider environment.

They experiment with ways in which communication of ideas through artforms can have multiple layers of meaning and affect.

Using poetry, recordings, film, written works, performance art, visual work, in-situ artwork and materials exploration, as a means of inquiry, research, creation and presentation, their work considers the ecological, relational and structural interactions that surround us and the intersectionality that defines us - as individuals, communities and societies.

Their works include improvisational durational works installed and/or performed in diverse, non-traditional arts spaces and contexts.

Objects, texts, materials and ephemera are worked with anew in these durational works, creating new objects texts, and ephemera as residue, to be brought into the next stage of inquiry and making.

Áilbhe is currently working on a series of reflection pieces for the IACAT Journal, Polyphony, and a new body of work, :Beyond the Anthropocene", partly supported by a much appreciated Arts Council Agility Grant.

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