St Kevin’s Hand


St Kevin was a hermit who lived in Ireland in the 6th century. Some of the legends and stories about him that survive are starting to inspire the way that I make art and explore what it means to do the strange task that the church has given me here in Sheffield.

Kevin was a man who constantly sought solitude. He would go out into the forests of the Wicklow Mountains, particularly in the area known as Glendalough (the valley with two lakes) and then, amidst the deep dark mossy green, in the womb of the forest, he would pray. And as he prayed people would come to him. His fame spread and soon so many people sought him out that he ended up founding a monastery in the valley. From the stories that surround him you get the impression of someone unsettled by the limelight, whenever he is able to he retreats deeper into the woodland’s heart.

One of the stories told of his life tells of the time he went to pray in the forest with his arms outstretched. In the stillness a blackbird flew and alighted on his open hand. As he held that place of gentle meditation the bird laid her eggs. And so he held his palm open, cradling them, holding that still place, for the two weeks it took for the eggs to hatch.

I love this story of stillness beckoning and nurturing life. It’s the opposite model of Christianity that many churches seem to espouse today. This isn’t a faith that goes out and shouts about itself, urgently and eagerly trying to persuade people to a particular system of doctrines and beliefs. It’s a faith that takes an inward journey towards stillness; withdrawing into quiet. But that withdrawing isn’t a retreat from the world, instead it is a deep engagement with the world. It’s only in stillness that the timid creatures of the forest can emerge.

And so if we can find a similar stillness in our own souls then that enables us to be with people in such a way as to encourage their hidden riches to emerge. So often when we engage with others our own ego is to the fore: we’re thinking what to say next, how too look clever, cool or funny and how to forward our own agendas. It’s a discipline to allow our ego to withdraw from the shared space so that we can genuinely and deeply engage with the other person. If we can hold a space in that way, with St Kevin’s gentle outstretched hand, then all kinds of surprising life and wonders will come out of the shadows. Whatever does grow there we can be sure it will be outside of our control and that the moment we try to grasp it in order to own it we will destroy it as surely as a hand clenching around a little blue egg.

That’s what I’m aiming for in the space at 35 Chapel Walk in the heart of Sheffield, a place where all kinds of people hurry by each day. The desire is to create a still space, a sacred space, a beautiful and creative space. And in that stillness in the midst of the city who can tell what life might emerge from the shadows?

Even today, as I walked to the artspace in order to make the image to accompany this piece I was pondering on how to enable the premises to be used by art students in the city for their exhibitions. Who might we need to contact? What publicity might we need to produce? It turns out all I needed was the hand of St Kevin. When I arrived at Chapel Walk a handwritten note had been pushed under the door. It was a message from an art student who had been passing by and had looked through the window at the space inside. She was asking whether she and some of her fellow students would be able to show some of their work there for an arts festival this spring.

Slowly I’m beginning to trust that life will emerge if we take the time to find this stillness and to live with Kevin’s patient, open hand.


The beauty and tragedy of endings

“Portraiture suggests a parallel memory in the universe in which all things persist. Photography touches us so mysteriously because we have an intuition that all things are remembered in some invisible place beyond dreams, where everything that was exists in a sort of universal, divine amber.”

Ben Okri, A time for New Dreams


Very rarely a book will bring me to tears, when I read this passage from Okri’s sublime collection of essays I was cut to the heart. It made me cry because, as much as I might like it to be true that somehow, somewhere all things persist, I suspect that this isn’t so. Endings are real and the past no longer exists.

Okri is right that photographs speak to that longing. This is one of my favourite pictures of me:


It was over 6 years ago just after I had experienced a nervous breakdown. I was signed off work with depression, and with nothing else to do I embarked on a last minute holiday alone to Luxor in Egypt. I visited the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile and as I emerged from one of the tombs a guide took my camera from me to take the photograph.

And here I am, the moment preserved, emerging from the dusty darkness. When I look into my eyes I can remember who I was and what I was experiencing and then I think of who I have become and how vibrant and joyful my life is now and I want to tell him that everything will be alright. But that moment is gone and that person no longer exists except as a photograph on the wall and a series of 1’s and 0’s on my hard drive.

One of my art works saw its end recently as well. The street art angel in Parson Cross, Sheffield was demolished to a pile of rubble:


The sadness at its ending is also filled with a deeper and stronger joy. An ending means a story has been told and is now complete. Then I suppose a story lasts as long as it is retold before it fades from the collective memory just as a person’s life fades in the same way.

It seems to me that because of the endings, because nothing persists, then that gives all that we have right now a deeper value. A story that never ended wouldn’t be worth telling. Beauty is found in the fact that it is fleeting and will soon be gone forever.

But grief is real and the sharp pain of loss is real. Maybe that’s why we need to keep faith with the longing that Okri describes: the human instinct that everything somehow is preserved forever.

I don’t know what to believe and who can ever know for sure? This is a place where certainty and self-delusion go hand in hand. But I do know which version of reality is the most painful. Perhaps the joy and tragedy of the universe is that the realisation that endings are real, no matter how much we might long for things to be otherwise, may also be the most beautiful truth.