Wild Curating Iona part 2: Here be Monsters

This series of posts tells the story of my trip to Iona in July 2015 with 3 other artists and a film crew. We went to explore an idea we call ‘Wild Curating’. The background to this project can be found here and part 1 of the story here.

If, like me, you are an introvert then you will know the sense of dread that accompanies communal living. The monsters that we fear are so personal. The second day on Iona was a Sunday and I preached a sermon in the abbey, full of people from across the world. Whilst public speaking is often high on the list of peoples’ greatest fears it doesn’t bother me much at all. However, when living amongst the community at the Abbey the prospect of sitting with a stranger at dinner and being expected to make conversation, particularly when I was at such a low ebb of energy, made me want to run and hide. This sounds ridiculous to me as I write it; the Iona community are an amazing bunch, the volunteers, guests and staff are kind, generous spirited and friendly. Nevertheless, I’d rather stand in front of a thousand people to give an impromptu talk without notes than sit with a group of people I barely know and be expected to make small talk over ratatouille, not least because I’d hate my silence to be interpreted as a dislike for the people around me. Suffice to say, after a couple of days of the traumas of travel, Scottish rain and communal living on an exposed scrap of land that felt so far from anywhere familiar, I was in need of sanctuary. And just when I thought the final thread of the frayed rope was about to snap I found it in the Abbey’s Chapter House.

The other artists had set off around the island to scout out locations that inspired them but I stayed within the solid stone walls. As the rain came once again, driven against the windows, I unrolled the watercolour paper I had brought on the trip. With the door closed and my headphones on I started to paint. I finally felt safe as the monsters of my own dreaming were barricaded outside, I could feel my shoulders relax and my soul unfurl.

The utter elation of the freedom that solitude brings.

As my music played I knew the warm glow of being truly at home. Rarely have I used paint with such life and vigour. The brush flicked and swept with abandon across the pristine white as colours splashed and flowed. This is the sanctuary of the studio, a cocoon where engaging with life, mess and disorder leads to transformation and new life.

My plan was to produce a series of watercolour paintings that I could take out around the island, to allow the elements to interact with the paint. To try and share with the island in the creative process. I thought that the images I made that afternoon would come out half formed, with something missing and that that dissatisfaction with what I had produced would encourage me to take them out and submit them to the vagaries of the Hebrides. But as the pictures emerged I realised that I loved them. When I paint at home I use oils, they take time: weeks, even months but watercolours are lithe and capricious. The quick paintings I made there encapsulated the life and joy I felt in that warm sanctuary space after a tough few days.

And so, as the afternoon drew to a close and the dinner bell rang I surveyed the work and felt a connection, the pang of ownership, that here was something of me, something precious that I wanted to keep safe and not open the door to take them to the monsters waiting outside.

This was another moment of decision and a definite choice. I could keep the paintings safe, even bring them back home and show people what I had made on our trip to Iona or I could send them out as a sacrifice to the gods of stone, sea and sky. It made me think of St Columba who has washed up on the shores of the island so many centuries ago, alone and exposed.

A painting, when it is made honestly is a little fragment of the soul and the decision to offer that up and to expose it to the big bright sky was a moment of liberation. An admission that, as much as I long to be in control and even live under the illusion that I am, the forces that shape the universe are beyond me. This liberation brought the realisation that the only monsters on the island were the ones I had brought with me. As much as dark rain clouds filled me with dread that disconcerting feeling was from me and not from them. When it falls the rain is simply being what it is, the rocks are being rocks, and the tide is flowing as the tide. The struggle only starts when I want them to be something that they are not.

And so I sent them out into the world (I also had some wonderful conversations with fascinating people over dinner, but I reserve the right not to have to speak to anyone first thing in the morning at breakfast). Here is what became of the five images I made in the warm Chapter House that day:

A painting of Myles, our sound technician, I put under overhanging rocks at Columba’s Bay where the Saint landed all those years ago. The drip drip of water filtered through the earth and rocks above made tears stream down his face and the dark blue paint began to move and flow.

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A painting of Naomi one of our artists, I put in a river running over pebbles on the beach at the machair which was swollen by the rain. The water moulded the paper to the contours of the rocks making troughs, valleys and a whole landscape from her face as she gazed up at the stars from underwater.

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A drawing of Andy, Naomi’s fiancé, I gave to her to use in a performance piece and she took him to Columba’s bay to create a beautiful, holy moment.

A painting of my own fiancé Paul I kept safe, because some things I’m not prepared to give up.

And the final painting, of Elisabeth, now shines beneath the earth. The reason for her burial is the story of the most heartbreaking challenge we faced all week. I’ll tell that story in the next post.

Wild Curating Iona part 1: Heavy rain forecast

This series of posts tells the story of my trip to Iona in July 2015 with 3 other artists and a film crew. We went to explore an idea we call ‘Wild Curating’ and the background to this project can be found here.

 

On the long drive from Sheffield to Oban in the midsummer sunshine the signs were literally there: “Heavy rain forecast” flashed with warning lights on the M74. After two years of planning and dreaming and doubting whether we’d be able to pull it off with so many logistical obstacles to overcome we were on our way, the car packed with art materials, film equipment and film crew and with a borrowed roof box taking up the excess luggage. My one naive prayer “please God don’t let it rain all week” *. There was so much I was worried about that could still go wrong but in the end none of the things I was worried about happened and there was so much that I should have been worried about did occur. On every creative adventure the troubles come from peripheral vision, never from the place I’m looking at.

And so, a few hours into the journey on a busy A road, the location of which remains a secret to protect the innocent, I gave a tap on the brakes and there was a bang as the roof box bounced off the car bonnet, sliding for some distance along the road ahead.

After a yell of surprise and then stunned silence we assessed the situation and the twisted remains of the roof rack as the cars backed up behind us. The only solution was to abandon the roof box on the grass verge and pack the luggage around the film crew on the back seat and so we worked quickly with the eerie calm focus that comes with a surge of adrenaline in crisis situations. What other choice did we have but to press on?

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Here I am gazing wistfully into the distance at Loch Lomond. 

I set off on the trip with such joyful naivety. En route the film crew interviewed me by the Banks of Loch Lomond on a clear Scottish afternoon and I spoke excitedly about the feel of creative energy and the joy of fulfilling a dream. By lunchtime the next day, sodden with rain at the quayside on Iona as I waited for the other artists to arrive all that had ebbed away because the reality of what adventure really means had hit home. The film crew struggled valiantly as rain seeped into their equipment and the water seemed to push against us and everything we were trying to do. My mistake was to think that this beauty was generous but the landscape of searing beauty is an unforgiving place, it is indifferent to our dreams. Tides have flowed for millennia and will flow for millennia more, there are impassive rocks and extravagant skies can change from sunshine to hail stones on a whim whether we are there to experience it or not. Soaking and shivering I realised that everything here would be stripped away, all of us would be cut to the marrow of our souls and there would be nowhere to hide. And that night, tired from the dramas of two days travelling, I cried with my friend who had helped me organise the trip and told her how foolish I felt to bring people from across the world to attempt something that would fail at the first hurdle.

It’s easy to romanticise these experiences, when looking back from the comfort of my sofa in the warm safety of home. On the last day after all that was going to be done had been done and all that was going to happen had happened I sat in the cloisters of Iona Abbey and wrote “Remember that this time you really thought you’d pushed too far.”. A message from myself to remind me not to allow the passage of time to let the harshness fade into softer nostalgia. Because next time when it’s hard I want to remember that this is what happens when you jump off the cliff to follow the source of extravagant and generous creativity.

The question that kept me going was the one that came to me at the roadside with the lucidity of adrenaline: “What other choice but to press on?” To say again and again “yes I’m going to keep going”. To say ‘yes’ when the sun is on my face and the world is shining, to say ‘yes’ when I’m on my knees in the mud and everything has turned to shit.

The alternative is to say ‘no’ to the creative energy that bubbles up from the recesses of the soul. ‘No’ only leads to the grey mundanity of a life lived sitting in front of a TV trying to drown out the quiet yet insistent call of the creative spirit with a million little distractions of Facebook liking and YouTube watching.

On your knees on a far flung island, exhausted in the rain may not be romantic but if we are to make a choice to be fully alive then maybe that’s what it takes.

The rain did stop (eventually) but nothing could have prepared me for the week ahead. Between us, as a group of artists I think we experienced every human emotion that has a name, and plenty that have yet to be named. That’s the deal on any creative journey as we set out into the unknown there is wonder for sure, but the warnings of old are still true: “Here be monsters”.

*hey kids, don’t try this at home, this isn’t how prayer works: God isn’t up there pulling leavers to change the weather at our behest. Or, if s/he is then God has a lot of explaining to do about his/her priorities.

Wild Curating: Iona

Who knows what goes on down in the deep recesses of the soul but now and then ideas bubble up from the depths. I can only assume that these emerge from a combination of circumstance and Spirit: a mixture of the place we are in, the people we are with and the state of our own being. Some of these ideas seem exciting for a moment but as I mull them over they fizzle out over hours or days and it turns out that they were just bright, shiny things with no real substance. But occasionally an idea takes root that just won’t let go. These are the ideas that haunt me at night with their scope and audacity, that burn like fire in my bones until I can’t keep it in any longer.

This is the beginning of the story of one of those ideas.

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During the summer of 2013 I was privileged to lead a retreat at Iona Abbey.

Just 6 miles long and 1 mile wide the Island of Iona off the coast of Mull has been a site of spiritual significance and source of inspiration to travellers from across the known world for thousands of years. It is a rugged and treacherous landscape with spectacular views across the sea to distant islands.

Sacred sites on the island date back to pre-Christian times, the most significant of these being the Abbey established by St Columba in the 6th century AD and restored in the 20th century it’s graveyard is the resting place of Viking Kings. For centuries it was a hub of creative innovation who’s influence stretched far and wide. Today pilgrims travel from every part of the globe to stay in the Abbey and spend time finding space for reflection and spiritual sustenance in this remote place.

As part of the retreat we took a pilgrimage around the island and as we walked I talked to Elisabeth, an amazing ceramic artist from Oslo. We talked and dreamed and began to wonder what it might be like to curate and exhibit art in the wild spaces on Iona.

When I returned home I thought that this was probably one of the exciting but impractical ideas we often have when we’re in wonderful places and get carried away. But as the months went by the idea put down roots and so, very cautiously (because with the green shoots of a seedling idea the slightest critical word can crush it before it has seen any life) I began to talk with others about it.

There have been so many practical obstacles to consider but one by one they were overcome. At each point I was secretly hoping that the door would shut on the idea once and for all because, however this turns out, it’s going to be a tough project to pull off but the restless, joyful and generous creative energy has kept gently moving us forward.

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So this is where we are: Elisabeth and I along with Atle Naesheim from Norway and Naomi Gordon; an artist who works with me in Sheffield, will be travelling to Iona at the start of July along with a documentary film crew. We will go in order to make art and curate an exhibition outdoors in the midst of this spectacular and forbidding landscape seeking to explore the questions that Robert MacFarlane proposes in his book “The Old Ways”:

“There are two questions to ask of any strong landscape. Firstly, what do I know when I am in this place that I can know nowhere else? And then, vainly, what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?”

The film makers will chart the physical, creative and personal journeys that the artists make as we wrestle with these ideas; some of us encountering the landscape for the first time and others returning with powerful memories.

I have no doubt that there are still significant challenges ahead, plenty of physical and practical stuff as well as the creative work itself. And whilst the creative energy gives me life I do feel a sense of trepidation and the prospect of spectacular failure is very real.

Nevertheless, it is worth trying, it is worth seeking to do something beautiful, risky and wonder-full in this world that so often focuses on efficiency and judges value by economic worth. Creative adventures are adventures of the soul and I hope this will inspire others to set out on new paths and not to ignore those terrifying and vibrant things that, if we take time to listen for them, drift upwards from the depths of our being.

One of the practical obstacles we face is finding finance for the project. We already have generous contributors covering our accommodation costs but we are seeking funds to cover travel expenses for the artists and film crew as well as equipment costs. If you would like to and feel able to contribute then email me at rjstott@hotmail.co.uk and I will send you details about how you can contribute. Thank you.

I will keep my blog up to date with our progress.

Here I am setting sail for Iona in July 2013

Here I am setting sail for Iona in July 2013

Empty God

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“Kevin Waits” 2m x 1m oil on found board

Ric Stott

I recently saw the documentary “Sans Soleil” by Chris Marker. It’s a remarkable film that seems to encompass the whole of human experience. One sequence shows a giraffe being shot through the neck, it runs through the wilderness with blood spurting from either side like red wings before staggering and collapsing. It shook me to the core.

In the midst of images of life, sex and death Marker shows religious rituals that seemed alien to my Western eyes but which were woven deeply into the experience and lives of people on the other side of the world. The narrator comments:

“…it points to the absolute whilst hiding it; that is what religions have always done.”

As someone who calls myself a Christian this resonates with my experience of religion.

At the heart of the story of Jesus is an emptying out. It starts through Lent as he wanders into the wilderness, devoid of direction, security and identity. It ends at the cross as he shouts out “my God why have you forsaken me?”.

The mystics of all traditions call us to this emptying out. And the emptiness the mystics invite us towards makes no sense if we try to dissect what they are talking about with a cool rational detachment. It can only be understood in direct experience. Because ultimately this emptying out isn’t empty.

A few years ago I experienced exactly that stripping away and emptying of any experience or thought I had about God until I was simply gazing into infinite emptiness. This wasn’t a loss of faith but a deepening, even so well meaning Christians tried to rescue me by pulling me back to a more concrete belief in God. As the narrator of Sans Soleil says, “The Western mind privileges being over non-being, the said over the unsaid”.

In my experience God vanished.

But then, over time, as I held that experience of absence then something remarkable happened that I find very hard to put into words. Dualistic ideas of God or no God disintegrated and I found something alive in the emptiness that seemed very much akin to the Buddhist idea of the void being at once totally empty and full of the potential for all things.
The resurrection of my experience of God from that time a few years ago has utterly transformed my faith. No clever theology can account for it and words are so inadequate, they grope in the darkness towards it. And whilst I’m usually most comfortable expressing these experiences in my painting, last year I attended poetry writing workshop and attempted to put the experience into words:

Empty God

This God is hollow,

And so are you:

Hollow face, hollow heart.

Empty.

Empty sky:

No birds

No clouds

No Sun

No stars

No Moon

No light

Empty God, empty words,

Ashamed to admit the empty life.

Creation empties itself into the ocean,

The ocean empties itself into the sky,

The sky empties itself into outer space,

And Space has nowhere left to go.

 

Here in the void, heart still beating,

Still going,

Pressing on into the hollow deep.

Empty sky takes a breath

Empty God is the source of all things.

Lacrimosa III: We mourn in lonely exile here

For the week running up to Christmas at 35 Chapel Walk we are holding an exhibition which focuses on the stories we hear about Bethlehem, 2000 years ago and in 2014. For most of us the events of Jesus’ birth and the current situation in the city are distant in time and space. All we have are the stories we hear; some are hopeful and some are heart-breaking.

The pieces I have made for the show are based on an icon of Mary and Jesus from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Painting over this foundational image I have begun to dig deeper into how the stories I hear from Bethlehem impact my soul.

Here is the third painting:

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Lacrimosa III: We mourn in lonely exile here

Oil, spray paint, gold leaf and candles on found board.

80cmx60cm

Candles drip and hang like stalactites, upside down and as disconcerting as grief. I had to extinguish them quickly when I began to smell the paint burning and I was worried that the whole thing would go up in smoke and now a dark, charred shadow remains where the flame once burned.

So many candles burned in memory of those we have lost in Bethlehem, Peshawar, Syria, Ferguson, Didsbury and on and on.

The paint as blue as a nativity play Mary: Ultramarine, Phthalo and Cobalt, runs over the surface of the icon. Rivers of colour form islands of granulated pigment as the paint flows out of my control until it forms a curtain of tears.

In this final image mother and child are obscured and seen through a veil, but they are united, no wall separates them and no blood red obliterates the child.

O come, O come Emmanuel…

Lacrimosa II: Lift your hands up to heaven, build a wall, and shield your eyes from the Bright Sun

For the week running up to Christmas at 35 Chapel Walk we are holding an exhibition which focuses on the stories we hear about Bethlehem, 2000 years ago and in 2014. For most of us the events of Jesus’ birth and the current situation in the city are distant in time and space. All we have are the stories we hear; some are hopeful and some are heart-breaking.

The pieces I have made for the show are based on an icon of Mary and Jesus from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Painting over this foundational image I have begun to dig deeper into how the stories I hear from Bethlehem impact my soul.

Here is the second painting in the series:

DSCF3575 DSCF3580 DSCF3581Lacrimosa II: Lift your hands up to heaven, build a wall, and shield your eyes from the Bright Sun

Oil, spray paint, gold leaf, plastic bricks on found board

80cmx60cm

In this piece of work toy bricks draw the line separating mother and son. It is one of the first things that a child instinctively learns – to claim ownership and declare things as “mine”. And so we go on, drawing lines on maps, building walls to separate what is mine from yours. And sometimes, when the line is drawn then brutality ensues: as border controls are tightened due to the scapegoating of immigrants by press and politicians or concrete walls divide ancient lands.

And yet, the Bright Sun still shines, the child’s hand reaches through the wall and the mother’s tears breach it.

 

Lacrimosa I: “…and a sword will pierce your own soul too”

For the week running up to Christmas at 35 Chapel Walk we are holding an exhibition which focuses on the stories we hear about Bethlehem, 2000 years ago and in 2014. For most of us the events of Jesus’ birth and the current situation in the city are distant in time and space. All we have are the stories we hear; some are hopeful and some are heart-breaking.

The three pieces I have made for the show are based on an icon of Mary and Jesus from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Painting over this foundational image I have begun to dig deeper into how the stories I hear from Bethlehem impact my soul.

Here is the first painting:

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Lacrimosa I: “…and a sword will pierce your own soul too”

Oil, spray paint, gold leaf, nails on found board 80cmx60cm

 

The universe has few more violent acts to inflict on us than the separation of a mother from her child; be it through family circumstance, miscarriage or rocket shells fired onto a beach where boys play football. “A sword will pierce your own soul too” is what the prophet Simeon says to Mary when she takes her child to the temple (Luke2:35). So soon after Jesus’ birth the shadow of what is to come 33years later is already evident.

In this image red gloss paint explodes, vibrant as a firework with joyful loops of colour reminding me of a TV serial killer crime scene. It obscures the child and clods of paint hang on three hundred nails like blood clots.

And yet Mother Mary’s smile is serene and her gaze is calm. Perhaps she has found a deeper source of peace or maybe is in denial, misunderstanding the seriousness of the situation. Or could she be one more of the strong women putting on a brave face even though she knows that some wounds are too deep to be soothed with a simple “Let it be”.

 

These paintings will be on display at 35 Chapel Walk Gallery, Sheffield, S1 2PDfrom Tues 16th December – Christmas Eve