Tales of Clay

The opening night for the wilderness exhibition went really well – the18 artists involved have produced some amazing work which will be on display until Easter (see www.wilderness-exhibition.com for opening times). For those who are further afield I will post some photos here in the next few weeks.

For the rest of Lent I’m going to be reflecting on the experience of sending out and gathering in the children of clay. Of the 40 sent out 24 survived in various states of decay and deterioration. I have been struck by how people have been touched by the project and now, as I see their remains laid out in the exhibition along with gaps for those who never came back, I am particularly moved. There are so many echoes of our human frailty and resilience.

When I look at the photo of them all laid out in my studio, gazing up with longing eyes at me I realise that when I sent them out they all looked the same. Now, having been exposed to the world for 40 days, they have become individuals – each of them being affected by and taking on some of the characteristics of the environment in which they were left.


Nature/nurture  blah blah blah – all of that is fascinating and worth looking into. But I am left to wonder whether the person I am is simply the sum total of my experiences and my inheritance; the clay that makes me, in the space where I have lived.

Over the next few weeks leading up to Easter I will tell the stories of some of the children of clay. I couldn’t tell them apart when they left, now they have returned, ragged and changed, the world has breathed individuality into them – and they are teaching me all that they have learned…

To dust you will return

‘Remember you are dust and to dust you will return’. 

I’ve been thinking about these words a lot over the last week – it’s what they say at the Ash Wednesday Service at the start of Lent as they smear a cross of black ash on your forehead (and then I wonder why people are giving me funny looks as I walk through the city centre only to be reminded as I glance in the mirror when I get home).

The physicist Brian Cox explored a similar theme in his eye watering series The Wonders of the Universe  this Sunday. The proximity to Ash Wednesday was, I’m sure, coincidental but the resonances were startling as he explained how every atom in our bodies, every atom in the universe, was formed in the heart of burning and dying stars. Their detritus is flung across space by supernova explosions burning, momentarily, billions of times brighter than our sun. I’ve known this for years, but every time I hear it again my jaw drops in wonder as if hearing it for the first time.

And just as we are formed from the dust of dying stars so to dust we will return as our sun, in billions of years time, expands to a red giant, swallowing Mercury and Venus until it fills Earth’s horizon, boiling our world dry and searing it with fire. Everything is temporary; the pyramids will one day return to the desert, the mountains will one day fall into the sea and the earth will one day be swallowed up as a cinder.

I wonder if this is depressing or awe-inspiring to you. The more I think about it the more I see the beauty in the transient. If someone asks me whether there is anything beyond death I say I don’t know, but more than that, I don’t really care – does the searing pain of grief and loss go away if we persuade ourselves that there is?

Life does not lose its meaning if it doesn’t last for ever, just as a film or a novel doesn’t lose its power because it ends. In many ways its meaning becomes more intense, more beautiful – life blazing so brightly for a moment and then the silence of dust.

As I look towards gathering up the children of clay I know that some have already vanished and some have turned to dust. But they were never made to last for ever and therein lies their beauty.



Details of opening times for the wilderness exhibition, of which this work will be a part, are now available at www.wilderness-exhibition.com.

All that remains

Photos of the clay figures are beginning to come in, for which I’m very grateful. There’s something quite liberating for me in the fact that for these 40 days I don’t have any responsibility for them – whatever happens to them, let it happen. Unlike the paintings I’m wrestling with at the moment where every brush stroke seems to take me on a roller coaster between glory and despondency (which is why, for the moment, I won’t be showing how they’re progressing!).

Nevertheless, I still think about how the children are doing. Some of them I pass in the city centre and I see that one has become just a grey smear on the tarmac, others have disappeared completely whilst a few remain intact and keep up their quiet vigil.

Others are succumbing to the elements – like this photo I received from Ecclesall Woods with the comment ‘not sure what it is/was’:


This gets towards the heart of what I am trying to explore with this project, when I finally gather up all that remains (which may well be very little) we will be able to see what effect the world has had on these fragile figures. Some will be worn down by rain, wind and time, some will have been swept away by street sweepers or stolen, or crushed underfoot. One remains in a church where, I suspect, it will stay safe and unchanged.

I remember when my first child was born – he was so fragile and perfect, untouched by the rigours of life. I was aware as soon as we stepped out of the sterile hospital into the cloud of smokers congregating at the entrance that moving out into the world meant becoming polluted, becoming dirty and damaged. But what kind of life is spent in a sterile space? It’s when we start to get dirty that we change, grow and become more human.

If we have the courage to engage with the world rather than retreat from it, if we succumb to the danger of growth, people may looked at our messy and damaged lives and say ‘not sure what it is’. But in the end, when we survey all that remains, at least we will be able to say ‘I have lived’.


Details of opening times for the wilderness exhibition, of which this work will be a part, are now available at www.wilderness-exhibition.com.