Holiness & Justice 1: Called to make a difference

This is the first of a series of 7 paintings I have made for Methodist Conference 2016, an introduction to the series can be found here.

H&J 1 High Res

Before I began in my first station as a Methodist minister I travelled to the Northernmost tip of Europe. I sat in the endless summer sun, way above the Arctic Circle amidst the tundra and looked out North across the Barents Sea. The air was still and pure as midnight approached and the sun drifted gently down to touch the horizon before rising again in the same instant.

From the top of the cliff I realised that all there was in front of me was the smooth, cold sea, then ice, then the North Pole, then oblivion. It was a moment of peace and clarity. Behind me lay the whole wide world, almost every other soul on Earth, with their noise, pain and clamouring need. As I thought of all that going home entailed my prayer was simple: “Why can’t I just stay here?”

And yet, strong as that desire was, I felt the call back. Back into the complex and wonderful world behind me where joy and sorrow intertwine. Back to a world that was far from pristine, a world who’s dirt made it real. I was called from the place of stillness to re-engage, in a deeper way.

In recent months it feels as if the pain of the world has never been more real. Here in the UK there is an increase in racially motivated attacks by a far right emboldened by the recent referendum result, a bomb explodes at Istanbul airport, latinx and other members of the LGBT community are targeted and gunned down in a night club in Orlando, and on and on. These days I can feel the hope drain from my bones. As a white cis-man living in a western country my privilege shields me from the worst (although as a gay person the news of homophobic attacks provoke fear as well as sorrow), but for some reading this the horrors may well be much more immanent. There is a strong temptation to run back to that pristine tundra, to disengage because the sum of the pain is too much to bear.

This painting is based on an image of Sophie Scholl, a political activist in Nazi Germany. In 1943 her work of non-violent resistance against the government led to her execution by guillotine at the age of 21. Here she is: still, strong and resolute.

I wonder what happens when you find a place of stillness. What cries do you hear from outside or within? Do you ignore them and try to drown them out with all the noisy media so easily at hand or do you turn to face them?

For me when I’m in that still quiet place, I find that choice. And even as hope ebbs away there is still an incessant call that is gentle and truthful that beckons me to re-engage once more. There is no romantic heroism here and the costs may be very high indeed. But each day, in our waiting or going, in our action or inaction; we choose.

H&J 2 High res detail

 

PRINTS FOR SALE

A limited edition series of A3 size high quality art prints of these are available for purchase signed by the artist. All profits from the sale of prints will go towards funding the creative at 35 Chapel Walk, Sheffield.

Prices: £30 per print or £200 for the full set of 7. This is a strictly limited edition of 25 prints for each painting.

If you are interested in purchasing prints then please email me: rjstott@hotmail.co.uk

In addition the framed original paintings are for sale at £425 each.

All views on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Methodist

 

Holiness & Justice: A series of 7 paintings for the Methodist Conference 2016

Earlier this year I was approached by the President and Vice President elect of the Methodist Church here in the UK to produce a series of paintings for our annual conference on the theme of “Holiness and Justice”.

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I was keen to make some paintings that didn’t just attempt to illustrate a series of concepts but that tried to evoke and challenge feelings and ideas from within the viewer. Rather than attempting to tell the viewer something and persuade them to a particular way of thinking (which would just be propaganda) I seek to enable the viewer to take responsibility for their own ideas and experiences and for the way we live in the world.

For me, painting in this way is doing theology without words. So often the church drowns in words, as we try to say things about God.  Words are clumsy tools as we attempt to grasp the transcendent.

So with this work the onus is on the viewer to work through their own experience of God (or absence of God) to provoke an experience deeper than the rational, wordy stuff that goes on in our heads.

For each of the seven paintings I’ve used watercolour and spray paint. There’s a tension between these two mediums. Watercolour: soft, capricious and luminous, with connotations of classical and respectable art. Spray paint: harsh and oily, dense and heavy as it resonates with the subversive and illicit nature of street art. It was certainly a challenge bringing the two together. Spending a day or so on a watercolour image as I gently coaxing it’s flow and glowing colours followed by a decisive moment: laying a stencil over the image and then one bold spray of dark, sticky paint from which there would be no going back. It was remarkable to see the meaning of each painting change in an instant as I overlaid the stencil image. And so, in each of the finished paintings these two images are in dialogue with each other, sometimes in tension, sometimes pulling in the same direction. In that dialogue the viewer can find our meanings.

The theme of holiness and justice, whilst perhaps couched in language that would not be commonly used outside the church, is a vital one. For me this is about how our internal experience (which for me I would describe as a spiritual experience of God, rooted in the life of Jesus Christ) relates to the way we live in and interact with the world. It’s all very well sitting and praying and having a heart strangely warmed by a spiritual experience but this becomes self indulgent if that moment doesn’t catapult us out into the world to live and work for justice and peace. In the other direction, if we live for justice and peace, what is it that sustains us on this hard and often lonely road? Without spaces to stop, wait and breathe we will quickly burn out. And so the two elements of holiness and justice intertwine and speak to each other. It is my hope that these paintings go a small way to enabling people to reflect on how this is played out in our own lives.

The original paintings will be on display at the Methodist Conference 30thJune-7th July in Westminster Central Hall. I will be posting one image a day on this blog with some thoughts about each piece throughout the week.

H&J 7 High Res detail

 

All views on this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Methodist Church

 

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 enable conversation with people around the primates meeting.

Sally says of one person she encountered ‘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