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Monday, 15 June 2015

Art as Gift

Here are my reflections on 'Art as Gift' as given today at the exhibition reception for María Inés Aguirre's 'Via Cordis - The Way of the Heart' exhibition at St Stephen Walbrook:

‘Had a song delivered
Through my door today
From an unknown sender
Far away

Had a song delivered
Through my ears today
Through the chords on this piano
That I play

Who is the sender?
I'd really like to know.

I wanna say thank you
To the unknown sender far away.’

Singer-songwriter Bill Fay asserts that songs aren't actually written, but found. "Music gives," he says, and he is a grateful receiver. It makes him wonder, as we have heard, ‘Who is the sender?’

Some years ago I read a book called Written In My Soul, a series of interviews with some of the most well-known singer-songwriters from the 1950s onward, and was struck by the extent to which these great artists – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison and others – felt that their songs were given to them in moments of revelation, that their songs were already written and ‘came through them as though radio receivers – without much conscious effort or direction.’

MIA has identified similar words of Paul Klee as describing her own creative process: “Everything around me dissolves and interesting works emerge as if of their own accord. My hand is entirely the instrument of a distant sphere. It isnʼt my head that is working, but something else, something higher, something somewhere more remote. I must have great friends out there – obscure, but also brilliant - and theyʼre all very good to me.”

What these artists and musicians are describing is a sense of art as gift. On a practical level, there are several different ways in which this experience can occur. The practices of the visionary artist Cecil Collins are instructive in this regard as they cover much of the relevant territory.

Collins said that he had ‘two ways of working’ and that he ‘alternated between these at different periods of his life.’ His first method was to ‘reflect on a particular vision within his imagination, often down to the smallest details.’ Because he had the ‘faculty of inner sight of the painting,’ it was ‘rare for him to make any preliminary studies beyond a rough sketch in pencil.’ In this, he was similar to William Blake who, when asked by a lady, amazed at his detailed description of a pastoral scene he had recently witnessed, where he had seen it, replied, “Here, Madam,” while touching his forehead. Stanley Spencer was another visionary artist to whom the vision of the painting was given first in his imagination before transferring this vision whole to canvas using under-drawing based on a grid. This method can be clearly seen in Spencer’s unfinished painting of ‘Christ preaching at Cookham Regatta’ which is at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham.

When Cecil Collins did not know what he was to paint but nevertheless had a strong impulse to do so, he would use a process he called ‘the Matrix.’ He would choose two complementary colours, then, with his eyes shut he would paint a number of brush strokes. He would then open his eyes and consider the marks on the paper or canvas. As he looked images would suggest themselves and he would select and paint the one that he wished to impose as the predominate image. The point of the Matrix was to ‘penetrate deeper into the creative imagination so that it is that which speaks to the artist and not the shallower levels of the mind ... The Matrix ... stands for all the hidden desires of the soul.’

This process of being led by the marks one makes on canvas or paper is also experienced by artists in terms of a sense of gift. In this instance, rather than being given the image whole, the artist is led to the image by the mark making process itself. MIA has, I think indicated that she may use a similar approach, in speaking about the emotions inherent in colour and line. As Michael Hutchinson-Uzielli has noted, ‘Mia's paintings map her emotions and imagination, with colour, texture and sinuous lines depicting the landscape of her thoughts.’ By following and depicting the emotions of colour and line the painting is gifted to her and she taps into the divine.

Another phrase which has been used to describe this process is ‘truth to materials’, a phrase that emerged from the Arts and Crafts Movement, through its rejection of design work (often Victorian) which disguised by ornamentation the natural properties of the materials used. The phrase has been associated particularly with sculptors and architects, as both are able to reveal, in their way of working and in the finished article, the quality and personality of their materials; wood showing its grain, metal its tensile strength, and stone its texture. Henry Moore, for example, whose altar is central to this space wrote that, "each material has its own individual qualities … Stone, for example, is hard and concentrated and should not be falsified to look like soft flesh … It should keep its hard tense stoniness." Such artists search stones or wood which of their own creative potentialities. In these cases, the sculpture is gifted to the artist by the materials they use and their sculptures retain the personality and characteristics of these materials even at the same time as they may be transformed into characters and forms of myth and metaphor.

In a Christian context, such experiences and approaches can be described as experiences of the Holy Spirit inspiring or coming on the artist. Certainly that has been my experience both in creating and preaching. I will often reflect or meditate on an experience, a song, an image, a Bible passage, by putting it in my mind, carrying it around in my mind over several days or weeks, reminding myself of it from time to time and just generally living with it for a period of time and when I do that then I find that, at some unexpected moment, a new thought or idea or image will come to me that makes sense or takes forward the experience or song or image or passage on which I had been reflecting. To my mind that is the Spirit coming and making connections, bringing clarity, making sense.

I have written about this experience of art as gift in a poem entitled ‘The Mark’:

Begin, begin,
let something be.
Make a blot,
a dash, a stroke.
Make your mark.
Obliterate the anonymity
of the white-blank page.
in the seeming
infinite abyss
of nothingness.
From nothing
to something
by means of
Creation waits
to be discovered,
never fully conceived,
growing through
Follow the trail,
the sign,
one mark
at a time
to a novel,
a poem,
a painting.
Begin, begin,
in the beginning
is the word,
the mark,
the world.


Michael McDermott - The Silent Will Soon Be Singing.

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