Paintings and prayers have a life of their own

Sending a painting out is an act of faith. From the sanctuary of the studio where I pour creative energy into a piece of work I feel the gut wrench of releasing something precious and personal to the vagaries of the world. But when I find the courage to do this the work takes on a life of its own, it is no longer mine to control and as a painting travels through the world they often leave a wake behind them, things churned up for good or ill, spreading out to the horizon.

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These two images were made a couple of years ago when I shared in a day event with an organisation called Changing Attitude. CA is a group in the Church of England who seek the wellbeing and liberation of LGBTI people. Rarely have I met a more open, loving and vibrant group of Christians. We gathered in a beautiful Anglican Church and I worked throughout the day as an artist in residence. These two pieces, one taken from a drawing I made of a statue of Mary with her child and one of a drawing of a crucifix in the church, were for me the embodiment of the faith, prayers and worship I experienced on that day. They emerged from that amazing community of people.

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Over the last few days the Anglican Church has been in turmoil over questions about the inclusion of LGBTI people in its life and ministry. As an outsider looking in it isn’t for me to pontificate on Anglican machinations but I do see and hear of the deep pain that the Church is causing to LGBTI people across the world because of its current way of being. And so it seemed right to offer these images again as a sacrament of the prayers of faithful LGBTI people, a prayer that offers solidarity with those who suffer and also hope that the world can one day be different, a longing for a time of liberation and justice.

I never know what’s going to happen when I send an image out into the world and I never know what’s going to happen when I send a prayer out into the world. Both have an energy, both make a change, both leave that churned up wake in their path. And now I find that these images have been tweeted around the world to hundreds of people and my friend Sally has taken one down to Canterbury to confront a homophobic Archbishop.

Sally says, ‘They looked at my poster and said “well Sally, we do agree on your biblical quote” but were speechless in response to Richard’s crucified Christ.’ I’m happy for my work to render them speechless.

It’s a tiny thing, the tiniest fragment in the face of overwhelming injustice. But offered in faith in the Creator God and offered as a gift that is not for us to control or dictate an outcome then I believe that tiny things like prayers and paintings can spread out and change the world.

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When a porn star taught me how to pray

This piece is offered as part of the Queer Theology Synchroblog 2015“Let’s talk about sex (and bodies)”.

 

One day I found myself lying on a blanket in a dark nightclub with a hundred others all around me, they were moaning and their bodies writhing. This was a workshop my partner had invited me to that was entitled “ecstasy breathing for the creative process”.

The leader of the workshop, Annie Sprinkles, used to work in porn and now taught people techniques in using sexual energy to explore spirituality. She was pretty awesome and had a lovely way with language, using the suffix “–gasm” to add a frisson to any word. Assuring us that by the end of the hour together we would all have an “energy-gasm”. As she demonstrated the breathing techniques she warned us not to be perturbed if, during the process, she had a “cry-gasm” because her dog had just died and this might trigger the release of some of her grief. And so we crowded around to watch as her body twisted and pulsed on the floor with loud sobs of sadness and joy.

The whole experience veered between the utterly ludicrous and the deeply profound so it was, pretty much, just like sex.

 

At the end of the session we all emerged into the daylight, dazed and blinking with a dishevelled post-coital radiance. I felt my body buzzing with energy and couldn’t wait to get into my studio to start painting. Somehow she had helped harness the intensity of sexual energy and released it into a joyful and exuberant creativity.

I had a chat with Annie after the workshop and told her how much it had helped my faith and understanding of what it meant to pray.  My over-earnest 20 year old Christian self is now tut-tutting with concern for my soul but there’s nothing here that is out of synch with the life of someone trying to follow Jesus. At the heart of the Christian faith is a body. A real body with all the hormones, drives and desires of a human being. And, with the eyes of faith, this fully human body is also divine.

This redemptive experience of the holiness of the body came to me on the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I walked the ancient pilgrimage route (pilgrimage being another wholly embodied exploration of faith) as I wrestled with my understanding of my sexuality. At each town and village along the way I’d stop and pray in a Catholic church and in every church there would be a visceral sculpture of Jesus hanging on the cross, sinews taught, red wounds gaping, eyes gazing down to meet mine. And, always, with a six pack abdomen to die for. His body was so beautiful and drew on my deep desires to reach out and touch. I began to understand what it meant to pray with my whole self. Not just my head and my heart but with all of my body, offering every part of my sensuous human experience to be transformed by Love.

And so it is that, whatever anaemic rules and petty theologies I may have clung to in the past, that this glow of sexual energy in my guts is a good thing. A life giving source of creativity, at times capricious, but at its heart a force that instinctively reaches out to the other. My experience on the floor of that night club reminded me of a prayer technique I had come across before in Urs  Mattman’s wonderful book “Coming In: Gays and Lesbians reclaiming the spiritual journey” . He suggests making space to still ourselves and become aware of the sexual energy inside us, noticing its quality, colour and feel. Becoming aware of where in our body it resides. Visualising it as a glowing ball of light on fire in our abdomen we then allow it to grow and flow through our whole bodies, moving up through our heart to our throat and then to the top of our head, flowing down our arms to the tips of our fingers and down to the end of our toes. So that our whole body is suffused with this God given life. There are countless other ways to pray of course but this technique taps into an aspect of our lives often neglected by the Church. And whilst some people are genuinely asexual I suspect that for most of us this sexual, sensual energy forms a core part for us of what it means to be fully human. If we are made in the image of God then it’s source is divine and it reflects an aspect of who God is.

So now, when I take time to acknowledge this place in my being as I orientate my whole life towards the love of Christ, I really do hope that Ms Sprinkles would be happy to call the experience a “prayer-gasm”.

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John holds a cardboard sign in the Land of the Free

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“John holds a cardboard sign in the Land of the Free”

Ric Stott (2015) Acrylic, oil and gold leaf on board. 123cmx160cm

I met John one evening in Times Square, Manhattan. It’s a remarkable place that seems to express capitalism and consumerism distilled down into its purest form. Neon signs and bright screens as tall as sky scrapers flash and flare in the night with adverts, twitter feeds and scrolling news telling us to buy this, be this, need this, feel this. A digital world searing itself on your retina whether you ask for it or not.

In the midst of the crowds John stood with his cardboard sign. It said “Jesus Christ, Jesus Loves You”. No message of condemnation and no sense of a need to repent for the end is nigh, just a simple message of love written onto a tattered white square.

Painting is a search for meaning and a way of thinking beyond words so in creating an image of that experience I try to listen to the deeper rhythms of the soul. For me, the freedom Christ invites us to is a limitless expanse of possibilities; possibilities of encounter with God, with ourselves and with each other. And so, in the middle of Times Square where countless gigabytes of information are poured out of bright signs 24 hours a day, the message of love is shown as a blank space: the love of Christ is an invitation not an imposition.  This is the invitation to freedom in a digital world.

For me this is an echo of the experience of Christian mystics throughout the centuries. They show us that freedom is not found in Christ through receiving more information about God but through the path of unknowing: that entails a laying aside of our preconceived ideas, frameworks and neat theological formulae. Whatever we say about God, even if we filled the digital message boards in Times Square for a thousand years, would never be enough, it would always fall short of the reality. But the quieter way, the space of possibility that opens up in the midst of the bright lights, the place that calls us to grow into the person we were always made to be without demanding that we become bigger, better or more beautiful, that is the place of grace and true gift.

Wild Curating Iona part 4: The Soul Antenna

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 and part 1 of the story here.

It was said of the American poet Anne Sexton that she lived her life with all her nerve endings on the outside of her body. Having spent two separate weeks on Iona, two years apart I could sense the different way of being in that place when I went to make art. The first time I went was certainly a powerful 7 days but I went with the nerve endings on the inside of my body. On this second visit the experience was different. To engage deeply with the place: the landscape, the history, the people in order to make art I had to remove my skin. Then the nerve fibres crept out as cautious tendrils sensing, drinking in and entwining with the reality of the place. Like a soul antenna quietly and slowly tuning in to the deeper story. This is a listening much deeper than words that ultimately lead to a dead end but which are so often a beguiling place to hang our experience on.

One of the things I love about working alongside other artists is the way in which they affect the way I make art. Not in the sense that I try to copy their work but, with nerve endings outstretched, each person’s unique sensibility has an effect on my own experience of a place and the way in which I express that experience. The day spent with Elisabeth and Atle in the white circle challenged me to strip everything down. Their simple intervention in the landscape seemed to focus the latent beauty all around and to open up a sacred space.

I have heard some people argue that no one place is any more sacred than any other. Wherever we are then the transcendent reality of God (if I can use such an inadequate word) is present. But if everywhere is sacred then the word loses any meaning. Just like if everyone is special then the word ‘special’ dissolves into grey mediocrity (but YOU, of course are special xxx).

I would go with the idea that every place has the potential to be sacred. But that this potential needs opening up or earthing. The soul antenna needs to stretch out and pick up the latent presence of God just as the radio mast hears and expresses meaning from the electromagnetic buzz all around us. It seemed to me that the white circle acted as just such an object: a sacrament, a physical manifestation of a deeper reality. The circle earthed and expressed the sacredness of the place all around.

And so, putting aside my elaborate plans for grand pieces of art, I sat and waited in silence. Waiting for grace to lead me to that simple intervention, a physical action, a real and solid thing that could be an antenna of the soul. This would not be something loud, but quiet, not a blaze on a hillside but hidden.

My walking was a meditation and my seeking was a prayer. I found a cleft in the cliffs by a sandy Atlantic beach. Clambering over rocks I pushed my way through to the end of the fissure where I found the spot to place a soul antenna.

The secret chasm was like a chapel of prayer with a fallen boulder for an altar and I made a circle of gold on the rock. Real gold. Icon gold.

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As I sat in silence I wondered what was meant by this simple thing and I thought of the Celtic cross which is so central to the aesthetic of the Christianity in that part of the world. Remove the cross shape and a circle is left. Remove the identifying mark of my specific faith and something universal remains. It would have felt wrong for me to the mark the landscape with a cross in order to claim the ancient rock for a particular creed (And the cross has indeed been abused in this way ever since the Emperor Constantine held it as a banner for his armies).

The soul antenna is not about conquest but a gentle revealing. The circle includes rather than labels and divides. The circle is the universal: the whole world, the life giving sun and the dark heart of the black hole where the universe ends. It is the iris in which we see the soul when we hold another’s gaze.

The sun tracked across the sky and the light shimmered on gold as if on fire. Time flowed, and as the fissure fell into darkness then the circle shone, reflecting the faint light of latent twilight.

Twilight, and Naomi waves a flag on the cliff top as the gold circle shines in the shadows

Twilight, and Naomi waves a flag on the cliff top as the gold circle shines in the shadows

Wild Curating Iona Part 3: Elisabeth shines beneath the earth

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 and part 1 of the story here.

A few months ago, in one of my infrequent and brief spells of trying to do more exercise, I went to the swimming pool. After getting changed I found a queue of people shivering in their swimming costumes at the entrance to the pool. In the door way was a little sign blocking the way: “Pool Closed”.

I waited with the crowd for a moment and then walked round them, past the sign to the empty pool. The life guard was sitting up in his high chair, oblivious.

“Excuse me, is the pool closed?” I asked.

“No, why?”

“Because that sign says so”

“Oh”

“Shall I move the sign?”

“Oh, yes please”

So I moved the sign and dived in. Which is why I have a sleek swimmer’s physique and am not still stood shivering in the changing rooms.

In my experience, artists tend to be the kind of people who will walk past the sign rather than queuing up in obedience. And this is how we got into trouble on Iona.

The naïve romantic in me had dreamt of expansive skies, lonely rocks and remote beaches that would entail the ultimate creative freedom. My mindset is so urbanised that it took a while for me to realise that even out there, at what seemed to me to be the edge of the world (although my edge is always someone else’s centre) that everywhere is owned by someone and that there are many organisations who are guardians of the land. And so we carefully picked our way through the various permissions we needed from a range of groups who are stewards of the land on Iona. One of these organisations generously allowed us to use their land for our creative work with the one proviso: no digging.

On the afternoon when I had remained in the Chapter House to paint, Elisabeth and Atle, our two artists from Oslo, set out to explore. They returned with tales of wonder at what they had created, and it was indeed a miraculous and beautiful thing.

On a patch of grass on a rocky outcrop overlooking the Atlantic they had made a pristine circle carved into the Earth, wider than the span of my outstretched arms, filled with white sand. They had dug throughout the rain of the day and shifted the sand from the beach below, a hard physical feat, to create a simple object that was peaceful and so pregnant with meaning. They showed us the photographs and it looked astonishing.

Our 4 artists at the white circle

Our 4 artists at the white circle

It was clear from the way my friends spoke about the piece that the whole process had been a profound experience. It was their deep soul response to the strong landscape of Iona and they had returned exhausted yet full of life.

This was the exact response I had hoped for when bringing creative minds to that remote island. The soul of the artist had said “yes” and the land had said “yes”.

But the rules said “no”.

Oh God, the pain of that “no”.

And so, the next morning after frantic conversations over dinner and breakfast to try and work a way through I had to tell them to remove the sand and fill it in.

That day Iona shone bright, clear as a diamond and we all set out to the site on the far side of the island. I can remember walking up to the crest of the hill to see the work for the first time, our chattering subsided and the group approached the circle with an awe-full silence. It’s hard to describe the experience but it seemed as if that simple intervention in the landscape had focussed the sacred energy of the place. We stood on the edge of the circle, afraid to touch it, with our hands hovering over the sand. It was a portal into another reality, a larger reality. Its existence evoked a deeper way of seeing and being. Then, one by one we removed our shoes and stepped over the edge onto holy ground.

We spent a while there talking quietly and some of us took turns to sit alone in the circle to meditate. We played on the beach below. And then, as the day stretched on, the time came to undo what had been done.

Wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow the sand returned to the beach. The white circle became a dark circle and then a muddy jigsaw as we returned the cut turf that they had carefully piled behind a rock. Piece by piece the circle grew smaller as Naomi, our performance artist, waved a gold flag on the rocks above us: a requiem for the little loss of something wonderful.

And then I brought out the image of Elisabeth that I had painted the day before. The painting was full of life and shone brightly in red and orange, it was an apt reflection of her disposition. On that hillside, along with her friend Atle, Elisabeth had created something that shone and her eyes were bright when she talked about it. And now that shining returned to the Earth. So we took her portrait and laid her in the centre of the circle. Then slab by slab, covered her with the thick dark turf.

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I’m well aware that there is an alternative narrative here. From those who don’t experience Iona as being on the edge but at the centre of their world. The custodians of the landscape could tell a story about the arrogant artists from the city who felt that they could just come and dig into the ancient Earth.

Perhaps both stories are true.

Everyone here acted in good faith, some were simply doing their job, and the representative we dealt with from the organisation involved, whilst understandably perturbed by what we did, was a decent and forgiving individual as we tried to set things right. I’m not angry about what happened, but I am sad that rules can’t be bent when something wonderful occurs.

It leads me to question whether the urge to walk past the sign that says “pool closed” is an act of arrogance or of courage. I hope it is a generous spirited audacity that strains to see the potential beyond the rules, not because we think we’re better than other people and the rules don’t apply to us but because we sense that the world is bigger than the limits that others have imposed. Sometimes walking past the sign might be a mistake and if so we need to accept the consequences of our actions, at other times it might open up huge possibilities and the potential for beauty. We will never know if we don’t take that courageous step.

I don’t endorse digging up land without permission but neither, in the end, do I regret what happened. For a moment there was something miraculous in an amazing place and I’m glad that Elisabeth still shines beneath the earth.

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.