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.

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Wild Curating Iona part 1: Heavy rain forecast

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.

 

On the long drive from Sheffield to Oban in the midsummer sunshine the signs were literally there: “Heavy rain forecast” flashed with warning lights on the M74. After two years of planning and dreaming and doubting whether we’d be able to pull it off with so many logistical obstacles to overcome we were on our way, the car packed with art materials, film equipment and film crew and with a borrowed roof box taking up the excess luggage. My one naive prayer “please God don’t let it rain all week” *. There was so much I was worried about that could still go wrong but in the end none of the things I was worried about happened and there was so much that I should have been worried about did occur. On every creative adventure the troubles come from peripheral vision, never from the place I’m looking at.

And so, a few hours into the journey on a busy A road, the location of which remains a secret to protect the innocent, I gave a tap on the brakes and there was a bang as the roof box bounced off the car bonnet, sliding for some distance along the road ahead.

After a yell of surprise and then stunned silence we assessed the situation and the twisted remains of the roof rack as the cars backed up behind us. The only solution was to abandon the roof box on the grass verge and pack the luggage around the film crew on the back seat and so we worked quickly with the eerie calm focus that comes with a surge of adrenaline in crisis situations. What other choice did we have but to press on?

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Here I am gazing wistfully into the distance at Loch Lomond. 

I set off on the trip with such joyful naivety. En route the film crew interviewed me by the Banks of Loch Lomond on a clear Scottish afternoon and I spoke excitedly about the feel of creative energy and the joy of fulfilling a dream. By lunchtime the next day, sodden with rain at the quayside on Iona as I waited for the other artists to arrive all that had ebbed away because the reality of what adventure really means had hit home. The film crew struggled valiantly as rain seeped into their equipment and the water seemed to push against us and everything we were trying to do. My mistake was to think that this beauty was generous but the landscape of searing beauty is an unforgiving place, it is indifferent to our dreams. Tides have flowed for millennia and will flow for millennia more, there are impassive rocks and extravagant skies can change from sunshine to hail stones on a whim whether we are there to experience it or not. Soaking and shivering I realised that everything here would be stripped away, all of us would be cut to the marrow of our souls and there would be nowhere to hide. And that night, tired from the dramas of two days travelling, I cried with my friend who had helped me organise the trip and told her how foolish I felt to bring people from across the world to attempt something that would fail at the first hurdle.

It’s easy to romanticise these experiences, when looking back from the comfort of my sofa in the warm safety of home. On the last day after all that was going to be done had been done and all that was going to happen had happened I sat in the cloisters of Iona Abbey and wrote “Remember that this time you really thought you’d pushed too far.”. A message from myself to remind me not to allow the passage of time to let the harshness fade into softer nostalgia. Because next time when it’s hard I want to remember that this is what happens when you jump off the cliff to follow the source of extravagant and generous creativity.

The question that kept me going was the one that came to me at the roadside with the lucidity of adrenaline: “What other choice but to press on?” To say again and again “yes I’m going to keep going”. To say ‘yes’ when the sun is on my face and the world is shining, to say ‘yes’ when I’m on my knees in the mud and everything has turned to shit.

The alternative is to say ‘no’ to the creative energy that bubbles up from the recesses of the soul. ‘No’ only leads to the grey mundanity of a life lived sitting in front of a TV trying to drown out the quiet yet insistent call of the creative spirit with a million little distractions of Facebook liking and YouTube watching.

On your knees on a far flung island, exhausted in the rain may not be romantic but if we are to make a choice to be fully alive then maybe that’s what it takes.

The rain did stop (eventually) but nothing could have prepared me for the week ahead. Between us, as a group of artists I think we experienced every human emotion that has a name, and plenty that have yet to be named. That’s the deal on any creative journey as we set out into the unknown there is wonder for sure, but the warnings of old are still true: “Here be monsters”.

*hey kids, don’t try this at home, this isn’t how prayer works: God isn’t up there pulling leavers to change the weather at our behest. Or, if s/he is then God has a lot of explaining to do about his/her priorities.