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

Some things I can only know when I paint

There are different ways of knowing and all have their place. I want my neurosurgeon, my aircraft designer and whoever it is that makes the internet work to be pretty good at the hard rationality of head knowledge. But we know with more than our intellect. Knowing, remembering even thinking are much more than cerebral activities. The language we use betrays this as we locate the experience of knowing in other parts if our body. So we have a gut instinct, I can wholeheartedly agree with something and sometimes I get cold feet.

Our whole bodies hold joy, sorrow, painful memories and amazing experiences whilst words privilege the rational knowing in our heads. Although, if used subtlety and skilfully by the poet or storyteller they can evoke deeper, more thoroughly embodied ways of being and thinking.

The mystics teach us this. They lead us to ways of knowing and experiencing that go deeper than words can reach. Even using the idea of unknowing, or the via negativa that help us to understand that all our words and concepts about God fall far far short of the deep reality of G-d.

For me painting is a way to explore this deeper, more embodied way of knowing. It is about colour, texture, the movement of my body, the way my eyes see, or perhaps more: an attempt to transcend the limitations of what my eyes see. Recently I have felt those deeper ways of knowing more and more as I make art. Rather than starting with words that frame some clever concept that I try to translate into paint I am trying to think with the paint itself. Smearing the colours across a surface becomes a way of exploring a deeper reality. Working alongside other artists helps me with this as they challenge me to push things further and not settle on the easy answers.

The images that are emerging surprise and disturb me and they are not easy to talk about. Not because it’s too painful to do so, although at times that is true, but because distilling a meaning down into words does violence to the thing itself. All I can talk about is the process that these images embody and then invite the viewer to take the journey for themselves, to bring their own experiences, desires and ways of being alongside the image to seek out potential meanings.

Here are 3 of my most recent paintings. I’m not sure whether I love them or hate them, I’m not sure whether they are better or worse than my previous work (whatever those value judgements might mean). But I do know that I have tried to be honest and so I will hang them on the wall of a gallery and stand by them because what does it mean to be an artist if not scraping away the layers of bullshit that cover us in an attempt to expose the raw meat below, real and alive?

In two images of the paintings I used photographs from my childhood but they are changed by the distance of time and the distortions of memory, the other includes my own son’s toy laser gun in the hands of a man blindfolded in the back of a meat delivery truck:

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Misremembered: The boy smiles in an orange Ford Cortina circa 1979

 Oil on canvas 1.5mx1.0m

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Lamentations I: Later days

oil on canvas 1.0mx1.5m

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Lamentations II: The boy laughs as he shoots an arrow circa 1980 or 2014

He drew his bow
    and made me the target for his arrows.

 He pierced my heart
    with arrows from his quiver

                                   Lamentations 3:12-13

The Wisdom of Landscapes

For those who are able to take the time and to find the stillness of spirit needed to allow it to happen certain sacred landscapes can imprint themselves on our souls. I’ve visited many amazing and beautiful places but only three have sunk deep into my being in this way. The Camino to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the island of Iona and now Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains, Ireland.

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What these landscapes have in common is the centuries of prayer from pilgrims walking the way or monastic communities with their liturgical rhythms. Just as the footsteps of thousands, millions of pilgrims wear a groove in solid rock so the centuries of devotion dig a deep well until the landscape itself becomes a prayer that holds a gift for us if we are able to receive it. This means more than simply ticking the place off on a list of places to see before you die. The tourist consumes a landscape or a history and then moves onto the next place (not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, I’ve done plenty of consuming in my life, but there are better reasons to climb a mountain than just to get a selfie at the summit to post on Facebook).

If we take time, to stay, to wander and to wonder and to push through the undergrowth away from the manicured tourist trail then slowly and gently the gift of place will open up to us.
Robert MacFarlane in his book “The Old Ways” says:

“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 only way to ask this question of a place is to deeply engage with it, smell it, feel the soft earth, swim in cold dark water, sit on hard rock or experience the pain in your legs as you climb to the precipitous waterfall.

So I’ve had a few days to wander and to wait at Glendalough which translates as “valley of the two lakes”. It is an ancient site of Celtic Christianity and was probably a sacred pagan site before that; a place where the urge for men and women to push deep into the world has been going on since before the birth of Christ. There is a sacred well not far from the Monastic City who’s opening looks like the entrance to the womb of the earth and there is a sense of life flowing into the world throughout the valley.

I was drawn there because in the 6th century it was home to one of my heroes St Kevin who I have written about before. I stayed alone in a hermitage further down the valley from the lakes (A place I’d highly recommend for anyone wanting to take some time out to reflect on life: www.glendaloughhermitage.ie/)

I learnt so much whilst I was there that can’t be put into words because the place has shaped the deeper parts of my being, and such stories can’t survive being brought to the surface, like weird deep sea fish that dwell in darkness beneath miles of ocean. But amongst all of that there is something in the story of the landscape itself that I know will shape my life and ministry.

The two lakes in the valley have very different characters. The lower lake is smaller with reed beds and a gently sloping bed so soft with the fallen leaves of ages that when I waded in to swim I sunk to my knee in the soft mulch. It’s near the lower Lake that St Kevin established what became a “Monastic City”: intentionally modelled on the experience of the desert fathers and mothers from a far off land and very different clime. The city was a community of sanctuary, abuzz with creativity, industry and a hospitable welcome for travellers.

The upper lake is larger and darker; its rocky bed quickly plunges to depths, cliffs tower on the south shore where Kevin would often retreat to his cell high in the forest or to “Kevin’s Bed”, a cave all but inaccessible without a treacherous climb. Wild waterfalls, glorious and dangerous swirl down the mountainside. This place is known as St Kevin’s Desert, the place he often retreated to for solitude, prayer and ascetic practices including standing in the cold water to pray whilst a monster wrapped itself around him, stinging him or praying in his cell with arms outstretched for days.

There is much to learn from these two lakes, connected by a twisting river. The oscillation between solitude and community is written in the landscape. I get the impression that Kevin preferred the former but his experience of Christ as he prayed alone in the forest compelled him to engage with others. I’m with Kevin on that one (although I’ll give his extreme asceticism a miss if that’s alright Kev). Sitting now in a cafe at Dublin airport after a few days of near solitude is almost overwhelming. Artificial colours brash and harsh shout much louder than the earth tones and greens of the valley. But in the stillness and sitting on the solid rock where Kevin’s cell used to stand I found a deeper place to rest and, like the waters flowing from the womb of the earth I know that even in the midst of the city it’s from that place that life will flow.

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Apart from walking and sitting in solitude another way to engage with a landscape is to paint it. I spent a day painting the seven churches in the valley. I rarely paint landscapes, and rarely use watercolour so the results are a bit rough and ready – not least because I only had a few minutes to paint each church. But this is my version of St Kevin’s Church.