Questioning Jonah again

Storm, above, was a commission produced in 2007 for friends of mine. I produced a little text to go with it, which included the prayer from Jonah 2:1-7, and the following paragraph:

This prayer illuminates the moment Jonah decided to stop running away from God, to turn and surrender to Him. This is also the moment suggested in the image, where from a turbulent surface in the top half (with the glimpse of a ship submerging) one’s eye sinks to the absorbing blue in the bottom half. Jonah’s journey is in many ways a universal one, from a stubborn battling with the elements of circumstance to a relinquishing of control in the face of God’s power. And the sense of the deep in this image is not that God suddenly takes everything painful away and provides clear answers, but that He meets us where we are, protects us and binds us closer to Him in a moment of reconciliation.

I’ve just finished reading A Biblical Text and its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture by Yvonne Sherwood (CUP, 2000), which throws up some interesting questions for my practice and research, and in fact makes me look at my artwork in a different way. I readily scripted a universalist, monologic, what Sherwood would call ‘Mainstream’ reading of the text for my friends. I did this almost without thinking, or rather, thinking that the visual references to Hiroshige, The Blue Planet, biological/scientific crystalline patterns would form enough of a dialogic, popular culture collage to provide the visual fizz of something more divergent. All the while, however, I was safely harbouring (harpooning?) an illustrative interpretation that stayed close to the hermeneutical shore of Biblical Studies.

It’s what James Elkins might consider a verbally strait-jacketed appropriation of visual culture. There’s more going on here that needs critical exposure, all to do with the relations between the visual and the verbal, between the image and the Word. The key hinge is realism and the issues thrown up by representation – what do images of/from a text point to? The text understood as the real record of truth, which an image embellishes? Or the figuring of (not describing of) something unfigurable and indescribable? If the excess or scatter-gun of imagery and ideas in my piece is contained and delimited by the text I wrote, what does that say about Jonah the book, whose very fabric Sherwood shows to be a site of uncontainable excess and plurality? Biblical texts survive by virtue of their ‘chameleon-like’ capacity to evolve and dissolve within/through their contexts – the ‘lofty cultural icon’ is no longer in the position of ultimate authority. To suggest that it is, is to stay blinkered to the ‘ideology of the macrocosm’ within which much Christian thought on Jonah is offered.

So what to do with the equation of faith with literal representation? Not denounce it and posit the contemporary ideal of culturally-savvy image-heavy debunking instead, but rather to seek out the more complex, mixed modes of relations between the two. Neither the piety of art-put-to-the-service-of-faith, nor the cynicism of faith-put-to-the-service-of-art, but something else, something greyer, something more interdisciplinary.

Stole for husband Adam’s big day…

The finished article!

Here with this week’s work at a sewing machine and ironing board – my finished design and applique for Adam’s stole. The decorated scarf will be worn by the husband in question at his ordination this Saturday, Bristol Cathedral.

It’s an odd time. I slightly feel like I’m celebrating the kidnapping of my husband by the church. But the stole process was a way of weaving into that – 3 designs submitted to the board (below) resulted in the approval of one over the others. This is perhaps the more traditional of the 3, showing more self-contained emblematic symbols on the white background: in this case, DNA and Michelin star (at the top), Ghanaian symbols of adaptability and unity in diversity (in the middle) and an M.C. Escher tessellating pattern of fish and birds (at the bottom). The whole was linked and decorated with gold thread throughout.

To preempt the comments about vicar’s wife, I’m encouraged by the level of commissioning going on, at great cost and vision, for such vestment-decoration. It can’t help but have traditional associations that reflect negatively on creativity and value, but in amongst that, I’m liking the fact that John Piper did vestment design (see my previous post), and that symbolism can continue to find life in a visual vein of the church.

There may be more to come!

3 proposed designs

Elemental exhibition report

The Four Elements at Glenfall House

6 Days of Uncreation at Colston Hall

For more images and information about the work, click here.

This series of 14 artworks was shown at the Bible and Spirituality Symposium, held at Glenfall House, Cheltenham (29th – 31st May, organised by University of Gloucestershire and Bible Society). Part of my PhD in visual theology, these photographic prints and photo-based installations explore the imagery of the elements, as seen through Christian spirituality and biblical symbolism. As well as specific references to earth, fire, wind and water, there is imagery that considers nature and the planet as the stage on which expressions of faith are set.

Previously in May, this work was shown in Bristol as part of the Bristol Festival of Photography across two venues: Colston Hall’s Glass Room and St Stephen’s Church. The various contexts of church, public exhibition venue and academic forum have yielded some rich and ranging discussions: from art as contemplation in a spiritual tradition, to conceptual questions about art as knowledge. I’ve had the benefit of responses to a paper given at the Postgraduate Theology and Religious Studies Conference (Bristol University, March 2012), where I discussed this work-in-progress, as well as its presentation to two groups of artists and photographers who meet regularly in Bristol to share ideas (The Group and Second Look, May 2012).

As part of bigger events, including the festival and the symposium, this work has successfully contributed to wider forums for research – my own position straddling the areas of contemporary art theory/practice (with particular reference to photography) and theology/spirituality. In my capacity as regional representative for Art & Christianity Enquiry, I hope to extend both the opportunities to show this work and to further the connections being made across these two disciplines. A programme for 2013 is being developed.

My thanks to Bible Society, the University of Gloucestershire and the Christian Arts Trust, who sponsored the production of these artworks in their entirety.

Launch night at The Glass Room, Colston Hall

A fabulous evening last night at the opening preview of my show The Colour of Landscape with Walter Dirks at the Glass Room, Colston Hall. Followed swiftly by a look-in at the Grant Bradley Gallery’s RGB Finalists Show, where my Dicing with 6 Days of Uncreation had been shortlisted for Best Set of Images from over 1,000 entries. Also complemented by a full-page spread in The Post about my ‘hat-trick’ of shows during the Bristol Festival of Photography (read the text-only article). Phew!

The Colour of Landscape is on until 2nd June – do go and visit. There’s a brilliance in the saturation and quality of prints-behind-acrylic, which links and sets off our work. From the press release:

“Sheona Beaumont and Walter Dirks present photographic work exploring the rich, colourful and diverse landscapes of our planet. Their images range from global habitats to details of flora and fauna, combining awe-inspiring visions of nature-at-large and nature-up-close.

“Images of landscapes are often held to be emotive and personally meaningful: memory, document, evocation of situation, expression, spirit, wonder are all levels of meaning given to photographs taken of particular places. In this exhibition, two photographers draw on both their local connections to Bristol and their experiences living and travelling abroad, to consider the photographed landscape as coloured with such meaning. Sheona Beaumont uses digital manipulation to create collaged or inverted scenes, often highlighting the spiritual dimension of our relation to our environment. Walter Dirks captures the beauty in simplicity, reflecting on an uncluttered way of seeing as much as on the subtle harmony of nature’s forms and colours. Together, they seek to re-enchant our looking and to celebrate the brilliance of the world around us.”

Lenticulars unveiled at St Stephen’s Church


We’re now three days in to my exhibition at St Stephen’s Church, Bristol. I blogged the press release two weeks ago, but here I’d like to share a bit more about the two lenticular prints which are the highlight of the show. You have to see them! (Church opening hours are Monday – Friday, & Sunday 8.45am – 4pm. Exhibition ends 27th May)

Above is my piece Genesis, a 60 x 80cm 3D lenticular print. Lenticulars have two physical parts: the print, which is made by splicing a sequence of photographs together with extremely high accuracy; and the lens, which is a ridged acrylic or perspex sheet sealed to the front of the print. The ridges on the lens are designed to refract the light at slightly different angles (compared to normal reflection on a flat surface), which, depending on the interlaced images, can create animation effects, flips, or the illusion of 3 dimensions. Genesis, as a 3D image, looks like it has depth – but you have to see it in the flesh. My photo of it above doesn’t show this because a camera only has one eye. With stereoscopic vision, each of our own eyes sees a slightly different view, and the lenticular print recreates this when you stand in front of it.

For this picture, I set up a still-life by arranging butterfly wings in gel in a fish tank. I had several trial-and-errors with gelatin and other carrageenans (thank you biology-loving husband) – I didn’t want bubbles, but I needed to be able to move the wings around, so the set had to be just right. I lit the scene at night, and then shot over 90 images from slightly different angles around a central point. I’d never done this before, and my heart was in my mouth that evening. But, almost despite me, and definitely bigger than me, something special came together. The piece is about the opening verses in Genesis, about the Spirit of God hovering over the waters, about the fragility of a wingbeat becoming the whirlwind of creation, and about the butterfly as a symbol of new life.

Also on show is my piece The New Passage. This time, it’s an animation sequence of 14 shots showing half-hour intervals of the tide’s progression up the Severn Estuary. You have to walk past the piece to see the change, which reveals the pronounced difference between high and low tide – the second-highest in the world in fact. From this point on the Estuary, after which the piece is named, the Wesley brothers first set out to Wales & Ireland in the 18th century. It’s about walking through water to see massive physical and spiritual change – like the exodus through the Red Sea.

Big heaps of thanks to Ulf-Mark Pedersen and Jake Purches at Base2 Studio. One inspired the challenge, the other made it happen…

The New Passage