Sacred Stories of the Body

A couple of weeks ago at 35 Chapel Walk artspace I curated an exhibition entitled “Sacred Stories of the Body: Gender, Sexuality & Spirituality”.

Drawing together 5 artists with varied backgrounds we wanted a show that celebrated humanities’ rich diversity of sexual and gender identities. Often the church operates with restrictive categories of male and female as well as being stuck in anaemic arguments about human sexuality so we sought to create a space that reflected the vibrancy of human experience as gendered, sexual and spiritual beings. My friend Sally commented on the show:

“Thank you for your theology of embodiment and art that is scraping off the shadows of grey after 2000 years of denial, that our very bodies are good and created in the image of God”

Whilst I wouldn’t make quite so grand claims I was delighted with the outcome and many visitors to the show were moved and challenged by the fleshy and sensuous celebration of body and spirit.

Here is a photo of me with the amazing artists who contributed:

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From left to right: Jay Gadhia, Amberlea McNaught, Ric Stott, Jade Morris, Jade Pollard-Crowe (Photo Jeremy Godwin)

 

This show was the culmination of 3 years of work in my studio, and I exhibited a number of paintings that I have published on this blog including intimacy with Christ, This is my body, and Gabriel.

I also showed some new work:

Image How I learn to pray (Photo Rebecca Litchfield)

 

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One day you will disappear completely (Photo Rebecca Litchfield)

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Solidarity (Photo Rebecca Litchfield)

 

It was a privilege to show this work alongside those of the other artists.

Jade Pollard-Crowe’s video piece ‘window licker’ which saw her dancing and moving between masculine and feminine energies was a beautiful exploration of non-binary gender. It was fascinating to listen to visitors discussing the piece and arguing over whether the person in the video was a man or a woman as if to understand it they needed to force the dancer into a clearly defined category. Listening to the voices and experiences of those who don’t fit so neatly into the duality of male and female is an urgent task for our time primarily because the liberation transgendered people is as important as (and often falls behind) that of cisgendered LGB people but also because in hearing of the rich variety of human experience our own humanity and sense of self is enriched.

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(photos Jeremy Godwin)

Jay Gadhia offered a startling compilation of images entitled “#whatmakesaman” in which he had invited men, via twitter, to send him an image from their phones that answered that question: “what makes a man?”. The images ranged from football and sporting identities, tender pictures of fatherhood, as well as cocks, breasts and drug taking. Standing to watch the 140 or so photographs through is like being immersed in the collective consciousness’ concept of masculinity.

His second piece “Shiva / Shakti” explored the divine union of masculine and feminine:

Image(photo Jeremy Godwin)

 

Amberlea McNaught tapped into the primal energies of creation with her terracotta and gold sculptures. Evoking ancient relics from forgotten tombs phallic shapes festooned with glittering sperm, masculine and feminine shapes work together: an expression of an archetypal creation myth deep within each of us.

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(photos Jeremy Godwin)

 

Jade Morris’ photographs and photo collage “Maga, Maiden, Crone.” seem part of a pagan dance and are beautiful Images of her body that are bold and confident in their sensuality. Her raw femininity connects her to Mother Earth in both rural and urban landscapes.

ImageImage(Photos Jeremy Godwin)

 

A selection of this body of work is available to show elsewhere so if you are aware of a venue that may be interested in exhibiting this show then please get in touch. Prints of some of this work will also be available soon to raise funds for the arts & spirituality space at 35 Chapel Walk, more details will be posted soon.

 

 

 

A Dirty/Holy Week

 

Communities are messy. As soon as we begin to engage with other people on anything other than a surface level we open ourselves up to getting hurt as well as opening up the possibility of hurting others through our own words, actions and ignorance of the consequences of our actions. I don’t want to hurt other people, much less do I want to be hurt myself; such is the risk of engaging with others.

This piece I made recently begins to capture the dirty ambiguity of being in community. I found the wood by the side of the road on my way into Sheffield. It was heavy and sodden in the rain, encrusted with mud, dead leaves and the grime of the city. Hauling it into my car I couldn’t help but get filthy.

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The image is based upon Rublev’s icon of the Trinity which was originally made in Russia in the 15th century. So much has been written about this famous icon and for many it is a symbol of community at the heart of who God is. The open space at the table that faces us is there for us to join in if we so desire, there is no compulsion, simply invitation.

The cup and the invitation resonate with sacred stories this Holy Week. Jesus shares a final meal with his friends, pouring wine to share with them, knowing that in a few hours one of them will betray him, one will deny he knows anything about him and most of the others will scatter in fear: A dirty and complex moment. Later Jesus kneels alone in a garden and prays fearful and alone that God would take away the cup of suffering that he was about to drink: dirty, on his hands and knees in the grime with beads of sweat like blood on his forehead.

The invitation in this image is to become intimately involved in the blood and guts of life in all its pain, joy, complexity and moral ambiguity. If you touch this piece your hands will get dirty, the grimy wood crumbles and frays around the edges. Just as the sacred stories of Jesus refuse to be cleaned up in order to be made safe and acceptable for respectable people (although the Church has often tried to do this by reducing them to doctrines and clever theological formulae). The stories have dirty and frayed edges.

That’s at the heart of the story of Holy Week. ‘Holy’ is often seen as a word that has connotations of purity, of being pristine and clean. That kind of ‘holy’ is separate and hermetically sealed off from anything that can contaminate it but this is the opposite of the holiness  in the Jesus story: with Jesus ‘holy’ means being down in the dirt. He invites us to follow him there and give our whole selves, to tear open our hearts and engage deeply with the messy, morally ambiguous, fucked up world we live in.

 

The importance of getting lost

It’s so hard to get lost these days and to be in the midst of the unknown.

I remember the first time, years ago, I heard the song “You’re the storm” by the Cardigans. It captivated me but I didn’t catch its name and so it was lost to me and remained a mystery. The next time I heard it was on my first date with the person who is now my fiancé, it’s from one of his favourite albums and it startled me when he played it. In re-finding the song those two moments of beauty were connected. But now, upon hearing a song in a public space that speaks to my soul, rather than waiting in wonder in that moment of transient beauty for the unnamed music to fade away, gone forever or to be rediscovered in a new place, I point my phone to the sound, press a button and it delivers me the artist, the song, the album and the opportunity to purchase the piece.

In a new city the GPS on my phone will tell me in a moment where I am and how to get to where I want to be, no more wandering the streets and stumbling upon strange and wonderful little corners of the world. The ability to become lost, to be in the realms of mystery is fertile ground for creativity and magic.

Of course I could turn off my phone in a strange city and start to wander but it takes courage to relax the grip on something that brings definition and certainty, particularly when we feel vulnerable in a foreign place. I have found that recently with the way that I paint. Here is a piece I have been working on called “A little shrine for the sorrows of separation”:

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I usually work from photographs that I take of the model. There are advantages and disadvantages of this approach. One of the significant problems is the tendency for me to be tied to the photograph as I work. Constantly referring back to check a particular line is in proportion or the shape of a shadow is correct. But in this context what does ‘correct’ mean? Every time I refer back to the photograph I reign in the free and lively expression of the paint. Rather than getting lost in the medium, allowing the swirls and smears of oily colour to develop a life of their own the photograph acts as a restraint to ensure that the image I’m creating doesn’t stray to far from reality. But with this image I am slowly, very slowly, beginning to release my grip and to genuinely get lost in the ebb and flow of colour and tone. The experience is both terrifying and liberating.

In the Christian tradition this is the season of Lent when we remember the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. For Jesus, getting lost in the desert was a transformative experience. Devoid of the familiar signposts and certainties of life, the labels of identity that we wrap around ourselves so tightly that we confuse the wrappings for our core being, all of this begins to fall away.

Our frameworks of meaning, religion and ideology work to reign in the creative possibilities of encounter with God, with each other and with our self understanding. I wonder what we would discover about ourselves and the universe if we take the courage to leave go of the rules, doctrines and presuppositions that we cling to; to turn away from the guidebooks, to wander and wonder through the possibilities of what it means to be alive.

 

 

Each moment holds everything you need

Yesterday I attended a day organised by Changing Attitude, a group for LGBTI people within the Anglican Church. I had been invited to bring along some of my paintings and to make some art at the venue throughout the day. The crowd at the conference were a delight to be with; warm, charismatic and courageous. It was energising to share the room with such a diverse group.

It’s always a creative adventure, going to an unknown place, with unknown people and setting up my easel to do something creative. If showing a finished piece of work in public is exposing then actually creating a work in public is even more so. When people squint and look puzzled at the early sketches and wonky lines that will disappear before the piece is finished I have to resist the temptation to justify what I’m doing and try to describe the vision of the piece that I have in my head. Better just to wait, bide my time and push on through the clumsy and ugly initial stages of a piece of work that are usually concealed in the solitude of the studio.

I arrived with my blank sheet of paper without any idea of what image I was going to create, sitting as inconspicuously as possible, I waited. It’s taken a while but I’ve learned by now to trust in the process of waiting. I waited in the space, a beautiful Victorian Church in Stockport UK, watching, listening and absorbing the feel of the place and the group of people gathered there.

In his 2013 Reith lectures Grayson Perry quoted a young girl who, when asked what she thought artists did replied “They notice things”.

What I noticed was a commonplace thing that began to intrigue me. The church had been festooned in rainbow flags and the way the fabric curved as it hung beguiled me. They echoed the folds of cloth on a statue of the Virgin Mary with her child at the opposite side of the church to me. So I brought them together and this image emerged:

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It was only at the end, when I stepped back to look at what I’d done that I began to reflect on the meaning of the picture. What started as a study of a very material and ordinary thing, the shadows in hanging fabric, became an image laden with significance.

I used to prepare for events like this with ideas, and sketches beforehand as a safe anchor to cling to, but no more. I’m reminded of what Jesus said to his friends when he told them not to worry about what to say because the Spirit would give them the words.  It seems to me that if we wish to live creatively, in any sense of that word, then each moment holds all that we need. So, as I waited with eyes and ears open and a blank sheet of paper in that vibrant space everything that I needed was there for me. Each breath, each sound, each image on our retina contains the potential of the whole universe.

Looking at the piece now it feels to me as if it reflects so much of the strength, warmth, dignity and courage I experienced in that place and with that community.

So I offer the image as a prayer for my LGBTI brothers and sisters in the Anglican Church.

Amen.

“This story ends with me still rowing”

Now and then I stumble across a piece of art; an image, a film, a song, or some writing that catches in my soul. Recently the poems of Anne Sexton did just that, particularly her piece “Rowing” which you can read here or, better still see her anthology “The awful rowing toward God” in which she wrestles with her longing for God which is never satisfied. Sexton opens her soul to us and has been described as someone who lived with “all her nerves on the outside of her body”; in her writing she is completely exposed. 20 weeks

There is a neat and trite Christian response to Sexton’s honest struggle: that Jesus brings down all the barriers that separate us from God and so we have full access to the divine and no longer have to engage in that painful wrestling with an unfulfilled desire for God.

Many years ago I led a Church group in a labyrinth service, where participants are invited to walk the winding path of a labyrinth. Unlike a maze there is only one path so you can’t get lost, but at times the route seems to be taking you further away from the goal rather than towards it. At the centre of the labyrinth they were then invited to offer a prayer and light a candle or something (it was a long time ago so I can’t quite remember but it’s a fair bet that candles, or maybe pebbles were involved somewhere along the line). One member of the group, when it was her turn to walk the labyrinth, eschewed the carefully drawn out path and walked straight to the centre to offer her prayer. Afterwards she pinned me down (conversationally, not literally) to tell me that she had always been taught that Christians have direct access to God and so she didn’t need to walk the winding path.

Whilst I understand her response, and I’m not criticising anyone if that is their honest experience of God, there’s something about it that  doesn’t ring true for me, it  doesn’t correspond to my experience. Rather than being able to confidently stride to the centre of the labyrinth I’m with Anne Sexton, rowing hard “as the sea blinks and rolls like a worried eyeball” but still longing for that glimpse of God in the ordinary places, those places that have all the “flaws of life and the absurdities of the dinner table”.

I wonder whether to embrace God is actually to embrace that eternal, unsatisfied longing. And more than that, I wonder whether all our desires: for food, status, success, companionship, sex and so on are actually smaller tributaries of this wider river. All echoes of that deeper longing at the heart of our existence.

Not that there’s anything wrong with fulfilling our desires for these lesser longings but that to stop there when, for example, our hunger for food or sex is sated is to miss out on something greater and deeper. The culture of consumerism has tapped into this and is mining it for all the money it can; there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with buying stuff, but the trick of the consumer culture is to keep us trapped in that tributary of the greater Desire. Certain strands of Christianity also stop us on the journey down one of those tributaries by offering the quick easy answer that “Jesus loves us and everything is going to be OK” (which may or may not be true; but even if it is true it can’t be a conclusion easily arrived at).

Today is the first day of Advent, the season of waiting and longing for something more, something bigger, deeper, more peac-full. I wonder whether that deep peace is found not in the discovery of the object of our desire but in following the tributaries where they lead to the great rolling river of the ultimate Desire and there to courageously set our course with the poet whose story ends with her still rowing.

Image “20 weeks” Charcoal on paper 3.0mx2.5m by R. Stott

The Money Emporium

ImageLast week an artist I know was visiting from London. Whenever he sells a painting he gives away a percentage of the money in a manner that he calls ‘interventions’. As we sat talking in the artspace at 35 Chapel Walk he said “I’ve got £100 to give away tomorrow as an intervention, what should we do?”.

And so we devised the Money Emporium.

In the shop front of number 35 on a busy shopping street in the heart of Sheffield, we laid out a display of £5 notes along with notes we had drawn ourselves. We then invited passers by in to buy a £5 note for whatever they wanted to give us.

ImageAs an artist who is used to working away in the solitude of my studio it was exhilarating for me to be a part of a creative intervention like that. The confusion on the faces of the people who came in as they tried to wrestle with the concept was a delight. Were we for real? Was it a con? Were the notes genuine?

At times people seemed paralysed by the situation, not knowing what to do or how to behave. And then the only way to help them out of what seemed like a short circuit in their brain was to tell them “It’s art”. Once we’d defined what was happened, allowing them to put the experience in a box labelled ‘art’ they were able to move forward. I do wonder whether we gave people an easy way out by labelling the intervention as art, preventing them from deeply engaging with the how disorienting the situation was.

 Some people gave the impression that they felt they were getting one over on us by giving something that was clearly worth less than £5 whilst others wrestled with what to give us, concerned to ensure that they didn’t give us something too worthless. A lady, keen to give us not just any pen but her ‘favourite pen’, A man who wrote a haiku there and then, A girl who made a drawing but then hesitated because she didn’t think it was worth £5.

But then what does “worth £5” even mean? The more I freely gave the money away for whatever people wanted to give us then the more the value of money seemed to dissolve until it seemed to make no difference to me whether the piece of paper I gave them was a ‘real’ note or one of the notes that we had drawn ourselves. They were both pieces of paper with ink on, but somehow, our society agrees that one is “worth” £5 and the other isn’t. This seems to me to be an act of faith: if we all believe this piece of paper has value then it does.

Here is a list of the items we received in exchange for a £5 note:

  • ‘Love actually’ DVD
  • Paper plate mask made by a child
  • £5 note
  • £5 note
  • Twix bar and Capri Sun drink
  • Hand written short story
  • Drawing of a cow
  • Fantasy drawing from artist’s sketch book
  • Drawing of hearts
  • ‘Need for Speed’ game for Playstation 3
  • Hair clip
  • Three pens (including favourite pen)
  • Wrist bands
  • ‘Big Issue’ magazine
  • Student NUS card and store cards
  • A human hair
  • A haiku:         Money for the wind

                               Flutter away

                               Gutter day

                               My brother is dead

  • Cigarette lighter
  • Box of Tic Tacs
  • Bath Bomb

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I see with the light from my own eyes

 A few weeks ago we had our opening show ‘Hidden/Revealed’ at 35 Chapel Walk, our new space to explore art and spirituality in Sheffield City centre. Beneath the building, down steep steps, is the cellar. Its walls are dank and crumbling and it was here that artist Keith Barley worked for weeks on his installation piece ‘Everything/Everywhere’.

ImageIn the text to accompany his piece Keith writes about the child reading a book under the bed covers with a torch and descending into the cellar gave that sense of emerging into another world, a world that is familiar and yet fantastical.

Strange symbols are inscribed on the walls, plaster has been chipped away to reveal the brickwork beneath and it’s hard to tell what is the work of the artist and what is the intrinsic decay of the building. It feels like an undiscovered tomb or the site of an arcane ritual. Coloured lights and shadows twist and leap cast by maquettes on turn tables that are sculptures in their own right and look like tiny stage sets. There is soil and branches on the floor as well as urban scenes in the shadows and strewn broken glass as if all kinds of places and experiences are folding in on themselves in this one small room. And then, flickering on and off, a UV light reveals new shapes and symbols, invisible before. The space is dynamic and alive.

ImageImageImageAnd whilst, in some ways there is a sinister edge to the experience, what strikes me is the warmth. The dank, damp cellar has been transformed by the heat of the lighting so that I feel safe, held in the womb of the earth. One person has written in response:

“I have seen quite a few art installations in my life but not one had an effect like this one. I don’t have any words for the mixture of complex emotions it evoked in me. I can tell you what they are not – they are not fear, they are not anxiety, they are not disappointment or any form of unhappiness. They weren’t the opposites of these either.”

ImageFor me it feels like revisiting that childhood world under the bed covers, only this time the innocence has gone and we know from our experience of the world that the monsters are real. And yet this isn’t a cause for despair.

Before Aristotle it was believed that light originated in the eye to be reflected back by the world in order for us to see. This is clearly untrue in any rational understanding of the way the universe works but there is something in the nature of our gaze that transforms what we see and determines what is hidden and what is revealed to us. Just as the ultraviolet, red and blue lights all revealed something new and hitherto unseen in the cellar so the light from our own eyes illuminates the world and casts shadows. If we choose the gaze of love, of hopefulness and optimism we will see different things than if we look with fear or judgement.

The monsters are real, they do lurk in the shadows and sometimes in plain sight but we can choose the light that we see them by.

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All photos © Keith Barley