Words of Wisdom Pave the Way

22 April 2015

As with many of our projects here at make:good, ‘Words of Wisdom’ has been process rich from the outset and has plenty of stories. The journey to completion is something that has allowed us to meet a great many people in Bow and surrounding areas and involve a real sense of their voices in our final design. The journey of the project is a lovely one, and we’re delighted that so many of their own words and hand crafted elements are now embedded into the pavements and underpass walls along the pedestrian route of the A13 in Bromley By Bow.

The brief was simple: to create some way-finding interventions that would lead Bow School’s new influx of pupils safely under the A13, using the Empson Street underpass.

It was crucial from the outset that the Bow School students could steer the brief and direction for the project. In fact, several students wrote letters of application to be part of the schools ‘Core Commissioning Group’, a ten-strong committee who helped interview and appoint us as artists for the project. We then worked closely with this CCG to develop a brief, originally derived by emotionally mapping their desired journey with their chosen vocabulary; ‘safety’, ‘positivity’ and ‘feeling motivated’ along the route. We discussed how a journey to school in the morning has the power to change your mood for the coming day and how we might be able to influence this positively with the interventions. This idea of motivational words quickly became apparent as a theme, so we set about collecting as many as we could as our starting point.

We printed some bright orange ‘Words of Wisdom’ postcards and set off to meet as many existing groups, clubs and tagging along to community events as we could. We visited Bow Church Sunday service, Old Ford Housing Estate’s community fayre, Golden Time at Bow Ideas Store, Polar Harca’s Elderly Lunch Club and Bingo, popped into shops and spent a few afternoons with the knitting club at the Brownfield Community Cabin. We met so many people, at first seeming hesitant to offer their wisdom, unconfident that they had much advice to offer. After framing the question ‘what piece of life advice would you give to your 13 year old self?’, the smiles and jolly sentiments came flowing and we soon had over 100 hearty local phrases of wisdom from Bow. Some of them include “Give someone your smile”, “Take time to see the flowers”, “Keep an open mind, you never know what’s round the corner”.

One of my personal favourites came from 93 year old Zena who I discovered was a former Home Economics teacher at a nearby girls school most of her working life. “Every little mickle makes a muckle”, she stated to me loudly. “What does that mean?” I ask wide-eyed, wondering if it might be some rhyming slang I hadn’t heard before. Instead of explaining its meaning to me, she simply repeated it once more, louder, enunciating every word: “Well; EVERY-LITTLE-MICKLE, makes a MUCKLE!” It then registered, that this was not just a brilliant colloquialism about saving your pennies, but it could also read as: value the little things, as they eventually amount to bigger things. This is a fantastic notion that neatly summarises the project and the small incidental ‘words of wisdom’ that we intended to install all over the dusty pavements, the little things that help you along you way, on a bigger journey.

In total we installed fifty unique ‘words of wisdom’ pavement asphalt vinyls, each in handwritten type to give that informal sense of a person being behind the words. Each vinyl also includes a knitted background texture – borrowed from the knitting group at the Brownfield cabin. Some Bow school students helped us install the vinyls along the route, giving them a sense of ownership over the work; being able to say “I put that one over there!” helps ensure the work is better looked after and cared for by those who encounter it most often.
During one of our original workshops with the CCG, one student, Nicky (photo above) visualised bold words being printed onto the steps. This idea has been realised onto the step risers just outside the school which read “you can’t always go back, but you can always go forwards”. Upon exiting the underpass, school side, there is also a large sign-written piece of wisdom guiding clearly: “believe in yourself”.

For us these motivational words of wisdom are not only about guiding you on a daily journey or commute somewhere, but about leading you on a bigger journey – through life’s ups and downs, offering that unexpected but welcome guidance and confidence that we sometimes glean from simply catching a stranger’s smile or hearing a pearl of wisdom from a neighbour.

– AW