Will artists have patrons in heaven?

'Lenten Spring' (2012) at Trinity College Bristol
‘Lenten Spring’ (2012) at Trinity College Bristol

Maundy Thursday in Trinity College sees the finishing of my Lenten installation in the dining room – a progressive installation where I’ve daily been putting up photographs of bulbs growing, both day and night. As always with Lent, it’s symbolic of a journey, and in this case it’s been a journey that has led through challenge and reflection with regard to the wider support for artists in their practice today. It’s fitting that I’m suggesting parallels with Lent and Maundy Thursday in particular, because most artists are sole practitioners, ploughing an individual, singular and sometimes lonely furrow; and most artists maintain a kind of interior spirituality that stays hidden.

Before I get where I’m going, I do want to emphasise that this is a good thing, and normal, and true. The spiritual landscape of prayer and connection to God that Jesus practised was often done in solitude, and was often ‘slow’ time. By which I mean that he resisted the world’s values of being ‘on it’ the whole time, of being always visible in his doing, of needing to build in justification for his singular life. Artists can be examples of this resistance too, which, although it opens us up to misunderstanding of all sorts, remains a positive and VERY culturally necessary thing.

The problems that can arise, as I’ve found them, are to do with a lack of trust that this is ok – a kind of self-destructive, victim mentality can change how we feel about our invisibility. ‘What’s the point? – No-one wants to buy/champion/visit my work.’ When I had to move this Lenten installation, a third of the way through, from its original starting place in a corridor (because some other work of mine had been allocated the space, in a very wobbly exchange relating to miscommunication and unsaid expectations), I really struggled with the motivation to put it up anywhere else at all. I went from feeling the wind behind me, to feeling like everything involved battling the wind. Not just this work in this situation, but I started to question all my aims with my work, all my ability in keeping a project together, and finally took on the assumption that in order to avoid future hurt/failure I had better exert my singularity with a programmatic self-control: lists, deadlines, working harder. At this point, and only very recently, I realised that (good) solitude had turned into (bad) isolation.

Now a logical answer to this situation, if you asked the artist, would probably be patronage. The answer is support – practical, financial, emotional, verbal. And ABSOLUTELY artists can’t and don’t live in a vacuum, we make work for the showing/telling/engaging/living. There is a massive crashing together of idealism with realism here, often uncomfortably so, and it is certainly the case that artists find themselves having to educate their friends/buyers/employers with respect to their needs. Even here at Trinity, where in one light I’m the beneficiary of patronage on a plate for a limited time (studio space and an engaging community), in truth there are deeper cultural gaps in understanding and it’s not the simple answer you might think.

Ultimately, I have to go back to practising trust. Ultimately, when Jesus reached his crunch moment of isolation and misunderstanding on Maundy Thursday, ‘knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, he loved to the end’ (John 13:1-3ish). All things into our hands? Yes, ALL things into our hands. The patronage from heaven is already here.

A visual theology of the Kingdom

'Kingdom Series', 2015
‘Kingdom Series’, 2015

When I gave out 25 disposable cameras to the Trinity College community in the autumn of 2014, I had every thought that I’d need to work a pronounced visual transformation in the results. But the messy, humorous, half-in-half-out, blurred faces and limbs in fact turned out to be the corporeal truth of this place. There is certainly a spirituality here that is rarefied and abstract (in music, conversation or essays), but these pictures reveal an embodied spirituality that is shared in food, in play, in the overlapping of life and space. I like the symbolism too of the underexposed images – approximately half of all the photographs look like a dark fog, where the camera flash was either not used, or was ineffective. ‘Through a glass darkly’ is quite literal here at Trinity! See YouTube for a slideshow I’ve put together of some of the unmodified images.

As I spent time looking through the images, four themes emerged: the Kingdom is backwards, unseen, hungry and little.

The Kingdom is Hungry is a collage from the multitude of eating and drinking photographs that were taken – there were more of these than anything else. The Kingdom as a feast is a key image in the Gospels, and the party at Trinity College happens over every meal and every communion and every cup of tea. Even as the circular form suggests togetherness, the spiral moves outward and upside-down to include honoured guests. Needing physical sustenance is a key focus for spiritual life here. See here for more on the process of making this piece.

The Kingdom is Unseen shows the negative space of figures cut out from photographs. There are 5 groups of people whose ‘unseenness’ in the community was incredibly visible to me, who are found out in the Kingdom: (from left to right) The unborn who will come after us (there were 11 pregnancies amongst the community at the time), the quiet administrators, the leaders who have gone before us, those who didn’t want their photographs taken for this project, and the noisy caretakers. Jesus’ Kingdom made a big deal of those on the edges of society, and those who shrink from physical sight are nevertheless seen where they are.

The Kingdom is Little captures 4 children from Trinity College Day Nursery from above. In their littleness, ‘The Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’ – they are central to a Kingdom community. To notice them, we need to physically look down and the perspective change of a view in plan (rather than a view in profile) is a reminder not of adult aloofness and control but of childish absorption and delight. Littleness can be everything.

The Kingdom is Backwards highlights the physical viewpoint of those photographs where people sit in lectures, in chapel or in churches on placement. When people listened to Jesus speaking, there must have been a similar view facing the backs of others. As much as Trinity is training leaders to be at the front, it is this view that remains unique to the Kingdom’s focus: to positions of humility with each other and to the Old Testament echoes of the back of God. It’s not the place where you can’t see. It’s the place where you can see.

Each theme in this Kingdom series includes a cut-out style (to bring single colour themes to prominence) and a small visual icon as a point of focus. There is a glass of wine, a crozier, toy fish and an altar cross. These icons are directional in that each piece stresses the physicality of looking – we move beyond the contemplation of symbol into the embodiment of symbol. These are symbols which move, are lifted up, are consumed or carried or played with. ‘Living like the Kingdom is near’ (Trinity’s new logo) has that abundance and holistic embrace of life.

I do like to be beside the seaside

Clevedon Pier yesterday at 7.30am and 2.30pm.
Clevedon Pier yesterday at 7.30am and 2.30pm.

In contrast to last week, this week’s focus on my practice involved the opposite of deadline/brief close working at a computer screen: yesterday was the highest tide of the year (the spring perigean) at the Severn Estuary which sees the second-highest tidal difference in the world. I had to spend a day in Clevedon, thanks in part to my involvement on a college-organised quiet day, and so a seaside watch was in the diary a long time earlier. The weekend’s eclipse, supermoon and high tide are all the sort of ancient cataclysmic events that would normally be marked with deep reverence and ascribed symbolism. Here was my small equivalent armed with a camera and a thermos.

The best day of photographing I have ever had was something similar – in 2010, I settled myself at the point on the English side of the Severn Estuary called the New Passage, and photographed the tide going out every half-an-hour between 8am and 3pm. Yesterday, at Clevedon Pier, I followed the same rule, but increased to every 15 minutes. The experience is both systematically measured and exponentially felt. I think it appeals to my right and left brain simultaneously – on the one hand, I’m constantly clock-watching and horizon-watching and focus-point watching; on the other hand, the constraints against doing anything else allow your mind to relax and tread water. More than that, I found myself exploring a spiritual exercise of retreat: even as the tide pulled out, I was imagining a real perspective on my life in which events, children, emails, jobs weren’t all piling in a big wave, and were in fact ‘going out’ on the tide.

I have yet to decide how these images are going to go together for a finished piece – possibly an animated lenticular which plays on the vertical change, rather than the horizontal change in The New Passage. But I will be trying to hold onto the verse ringing in my ears, the verse I passed on to those 7 photographers who joined me for a different perspective in their day, Psalm 18:15. To me, this verse shakes the self-absorption out the equation, because the tidal perspective is not ultimately about me.

Then the channels of the sea were seen,
and the foundations of the world were laid bare
at your rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.

The Kingdom behind the scenes

A before-and-after of 'The Kingdom is Hungry' for Trinity College
A before-and-after of ‘The Kingdom is Hungry’ for Trinity College

This week at Trinity I unveiled my recent work of 4 pieces reflecting the College’s theme of ‘Live like the Kingdom is near’. My Kingdom series were the result of 25 disposable cameras which I had let loose amongst community groups such as the part-time students, the support staff and the College nursery, along with individuals, and a few left around on campus. The resulting 500 photographs were extremely ‘lo-fi’ and informal: grainy, often dark, with people both unposed and full of expression for the camera (including many a selfie!).

From such a gift of material, my (self-imposed) brief was to distill the results into artwork that drew out kingdom identity in this place, as well as being sympathetic to the new colour scheme incorporated into the College’s branding. As I spent time looking through the images, four themes emerged: the Kingdom is backwards, unseen, hungry and little. The set will come online soon, but for now, I thought I’d share the before-and-after of The Kingdom is Hungry, which was by far the hardest one to come together. There is something mysterious in the outworking of concept in/with photographic material, and I find the process entirely unpredictable – sudden revelations about connections happen when you’re not thinking about it (often in the middle of the night), but sometimes a piece needs gritty persistence with Photoshop’s tools. This one needed grittiness.

Photographs of people eating and drinking made up the majority of images in the camera project. But to digitally cut out food, hands, cutlery, arms half-lifted to faces doesn’t result in an easy composition of multiple images. In my early attempt here on the left, neither the centralising table framework, nor the conceptual framework of eating the Word really work to bring coherence – and I tried this with various technical ways of cutting out, selecting and layering portions of images. To provide the much-needed context to anchor the elements in this picture-making, I ended up by cutting out according to a planned circular composition, rather than around the outline of the subjects (hands), since this included just enough of the physical setting without making identifiable people as the subject.

The Kingdom is Hungry centres on a Christmas meal, with a particular visual hinge in the upside-down/right-way-up line to disband too much circular absorption. The Kingdom as a feast is a key image in the Gospels, and the party at Trinity College happens over every meal and every communion and every cup of tea. Even as the circular form suggests togetherness, the spiral moves outward and upside-down to include honoured guests. Needing physical sustenance is a key focus for spiritual life here, and this has particularly been the case for me when working alone in my studio and then chatting to others over lunch or a cuppa. There is certainly a spirituality at College that is rarefied and abstract (in music, conversation or essays), but the photographs reveal an embodied corporeal spirituality that is shared in food and drink. In line with an aim to include iconographic reference in each image in this series, I found the glass of wine here to be a visual key in holding it all together.

Because it’s all about the space, ’bout the space…

'Lenten Spring' installation begins
‘Lenten Spring’ installation begins

This week, as Lent begins, I’ve taken down my visiting See from the college chapel, along with other pictures in there, to bring our habitation of the space into the foreground. Taking things down, and presenting a ‘visual silence’ (thanks, David Baker!) is different to the tradition of veiling icons or statuary in churches during Lent. There, the symbolism stems from a contemplation of our separation from God, a re-enacting of the curtain that veiled the most holy place in the temple – in order to prepare the penitential soul before the dramatic unveiling and curtain-splitting of Easter. Here, I’m more interested in the awareness of how we move and inhabit the space holistically, rather than in the inside/outside symbolic dichotomy of space. There’s still us before God, but it’s pared down – literally flattened to a groundedness and simplicity of relating.

The intention behind this is to raise awareness of the primacy of relating to the chapel space with our bodies – over and above relating to the space with our intellectual assent and engagement. Spiritual life has this plane, and because we’re British and in an educational establishment, we often forget it. But my noticing of college life, of the outworking dimensions of worship and study, is its ‘3D-ness’ : the sensory aspects of eating, walking, talking, singing, sitting, standing. To be spiritual here is to be corporeally involved.

To highlight this, my latest work Lenten Spring, will gradually unfurl in the college corridor outside the canteen (see here for importance of corridor engagement). Currently empty, each day new growth will appear in a photographic sequence of bulbs growing, both at ground level and from above. At a later stage, 4 abstract pieces that celebrate biblical expressions of the elements will appear. Both sequence and stopping points, together with text, are hopefully catalysts for passing viewers to make their own connections and interpretations. Thinking and sense are thus paralleled over time and space to create a new experience which expands both. After the black and white, bring on the colour!