Building rockets with no fuel

maquette for '6 Days of Uncreation' (2012) with money rocket
maquette for ‘6 Days of Uncreation’ (2012) with money rocket

… and the cold water of rejection letters. In a week where I’ve heard that 5 applications for funding have met with negative responses, I have to lift the lid on this financial side of working. This year I’ve had 3 tremendous ‘successes’ in the form of a commission from Birth Rites with respect to One Born Every Minute, in inclusion in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and in my appointment as artist-in-residence here at Trinity College. Yet none has resulted in income. They remain my high points and they are in themselves hugely affirming, but they are costly.

In 6 out of the last 7 years I have declared a loss on my tax-return, because the material costs of producing art work largely outweigh any sales. There are so many factors: It’s exceptionally rare to find any job as an artist that pays for time, some will attempt to cover expenses, and often galleries will ask for a fee rather than give one. On top of the material costs, there are innumerable other time/financial aspects of my work: administration, scoping opportunities, making draft pieces, visiting exhibitions, insurance, travel, advertising, managing/updating my equipment, learning new skills. The debit column is a long one.

But then, like the calling to church ministry, this isn’t about fulfilling a specific job(s) and marking numbers in columns – it feels more like pursuing a vocation. The hand on my life impels me to make artwork even when there is no ‘job’. I can’t not do it. And I am HEART AND SOUL in it for the vision of renewed, reenchanted, resurrected photography that won’t accept poor workmanship or trite symbolism or sentimental spirituality; but that will stand up for a theology of images that is alive, and DV, holy. So if, in the pattern of God’s vocational workers, I am to be self-supporting rather than stipended, how do I actually do it? How does relentless self-promotion and the contortion of criteria-meeting applications result in any ‘success’? What about shrewdness? Expectation? Trust?

I claim benefits for childcare, and Trinity College offers a subsidised rate for their nursery – without this, I would not be able to work. So I am creating, I am employed, I am making a number of computer-based projects – but I am not making a living. And without fuel (including my own), what’s the point of building rockets?

In the belly of the whale

Storm
Storm

I like the moment when Jonah goes ‘off-grid’ in the belly of the whale – a sort of drowning that actually ends up being a complete transformation, because, of all places, God shows up. It’s a vivid story, which I’ve always loved because Jonah decided to go off-grid on his own terms in the first place. God didn’t teleport him back to land, but trounced his effort to remove himself with an even deeper dimension.

The piece shown here, Storm, was originally made in 2007, and was a commission for a naval officer. I’ve incorporated photographs of the sea in Cornwall, as well as screenshots from the TV series The Blue Planet (about to be shown on the BBC again – see here), and sketched details of snowflakes, spirographs and echoes of Hiroshige’s The Great Wave. Last year, a version of the piece was also used on the cover of Paul Hedley Jones’ book Job’s Way Through Pain: Karma, Cliches and Questions. Jonah, importantly, isn’t visible, but his journey is – from tempest to depth. Blue almost becomes the subject, and I mean to cloud its traditional meaning in Christian art as heaven, with something that’s about a kind of washing and sinking before any sense of cleansing and rising.

The laundry room here at Trinity is a fitting place for this piece. Why not find Jonah at the bottom of the building, submerged in water, spinning next to the washing machines? In College, as in spiritual life, so much happens that’s off-centre, away from the spotlight, where things are still dirty. If that’s where God shows up, I want my work to be there too.

Everyone’s in my camera club

Through the lens at Trinity College
Through the lens at Trinity College

Today I launched my residential project here at Trinity College. In the tradition of Kodak’s ‘You Press the Button, We Do the Rest!’, I have invited people to press some buttons, and in the spirit of Dave Gorman’s ‘Modern Life is Goodish’, I will later attempt to recover the found film and bring some kind of picture out of it.

This picture will, I hope, be reflective of what happens here at Trinity. I have distributed 25 disposable film cameras around the community, some in the hands of individuals and groups, others to be found in various places on site (the library, the dining room, the games room, the chapel). It’s a free-for-all invitation to join my camera club, so that people see them and don’t just think ‘Oh, that’s the crazy artist’s project’, but ‘This is my art project’. I want to pile-up the visual evidence of life here – the only rule is that pictures have to have people in them – and from that, perhaps to see where the word ‘kingdom’ starts to define this place, rather than ‘club’.

What, after all, does the kingdom of God look like? Jesus told parables when people asked him that question, and there’s a sense in which photographic collage tells a story in a similarly oblique but down-to-earth way, rather than idealising or spiritualising the real. I don’t know what will be parable-like about these photographs, but I do plan something collage-like at the end of it. And if this seems to be showing only an inward-facing College, I’ve also started a parallel project for a companion piece exploring the external-facing aspect: I have asked people to identify particular churches in their life, and along more conceptual lines, I’ll start working on a kind of map that explores a global spiritual topography linked to this community.

Here’s to happy snapping!

Is there an eagle in this class?

Hope's Promise II
Hope’s Promise II

A beckoning space just outside Trinity College’s library prompted an invitation from librarian Su to bring something to the walls. Since I’m a library fan, having worked in my share of Bristol libraries and been a student in most of them too, it had to be book related.

But there are books, and then there is the Book. The Book surely creates this College, a ‘people of the Book’ in microcosm. Even when much of the work that happens around here starts from reading other books about this Book, it’s this Book that has the centrifugal force of something that goes beyond reading. So if I was going to get visual about it, I had to land on that emblem of the pulpit, the eagle, the winged spoken word.

The living nature of this word is easily characterised in the soaring flight of the eagle, its lifting power and glorious freedom – elsewhere in my work on bird imagery in the Bible, I created a partner image along these lines. But a verse in Deuteronomy reveals that there’s an aspect of it that stays close to the young readers, those wanting to learn to fly. An aspect which ‘stirs up the nest’ (Deut 32:11). This seems to me to be a different sort of living word, one which does the studying rather than being studied. A fitting image for a library wall?

Artwork has entered the building

Narthex triptych in the reception of Trinity College
Narthex triptych in the reception of Trinity College

I’m thinking about the phrase ‘making an entrance’ – I think my artwork here in Trinity College’s reception is introducing itself quite quietly, but hopefully so as to point out the process and the means, rather than as a showy full-stop.

Trinity itself is, after all, about the process and the means. The showy full-stop is God, and I don’t think anyone here has the visual, doctrinal or textual monopoly on describing who He is. I do, however, want to raise the curtain on what happens to people here, to their perceptions and to the reframing nature of faith.

These pieces were made in 2011, and were included in a Bristol exhibition called ‘Walking Through the Veil’. They are about transition – visually, from negative image to positive image, from forest as flattened pattern to 3D space. But also mystically, from self-involved relating to the world to spacious inter-relating. It’s the resonance of a entrance-way, which in a church’s structure is called the narthex, where you turn round to find yourself in a different type of space. A space that reframes you, rather more than you do it.