Tomorrow I will have a exhibition opening of my paintings at the crawford gallery at Asheville school. Its called Obair na mBan ( women’s work) I am showing with the artist Hannah Seng. It is a far cry from the work of my younger days. The 20 years quest took me in all directions and digging in the earth was a good start and low and behold I found an empty cavern. Life’s circumstances led me right into it. And it was stark in the most terrifying way. I summoned so much strength to sit in it and wait. Waiting I did, till I found love was waiting there for me, all along.
“And the keelson of creation, is love” Walt Whitman
It struck me this one afternoon not so many weeks ago, just when the weather was beginning to change and the first gold edges were appearing on the greens, that I am indeed doing what I had wished to do a long time ago.
When I was a young student back in Ireland, I was filled with avidity for my chosen path. I had an ernest and determined approach. Decided on Art, I was all in. But the more I travelled that and the deeper I moved into those circles, I began to question it and my dreams became unsteady.
It was about 1997 studying Art in Galway on the west coast of Ireland, when I came across a catalogue of a show in London called Rites of Passage. Here there was new conceptual Art made in such a way as I could truly say, “ I wish I could do that”. I loved the work in it. All of it.
About the same time conceptual art was hitting a zenith, a kind of fluorescent flurry with the sensationalist young british artists. I loved it all too, the energy and the infectious enthusiasm of their work, their youth, their drive, one boundary breaking after another. I could identify with it, but there was a a kind of cavern in it for me, a sort of empty side I couldn’t figure out.
I was grappling with all this amidst my aspirations. The Rites of Passage show offered me a glimpse of hope to some extent, particularly by an essay in the back of the catalogue. It suggested Artists, (and please forgive my paraphrasing 20 years later) were acting shamans. They had picked up the torches of priests and holymen that may have become lack lustre in their ability to soulfully connect with their people. That an awakening to the hypocrisy in much religious movement was causing a shift back to communing more with Art.
Art had somehow lost its central role in helping us understand and be ourselves and relate to our community in assisting us to express the deeper issues of our lives. This would have been its role in tribal communities and in our own culture too before medicine and Art and spirituality parted ways. Art and spirituality were once a complete couple and interwoven for centuries. It suggested conceptual artists were now answering again a deep call in our culture to experience or reawaken our awareness of our living selves. They could be the great explorers of experience in the world, allowing us new windows in which to view the suffering and the pain and even the beauty in a secular space, unhindered by religious commitments and offering another way to comprehend our place in it all. Were they really doing that? Where?
My 19 year old me took this very much to heart. I was at ease with the sense of vocation, I felt such a calling in Art. I was studying and building a web of information between buddhism and feminism, suffism and christian mysticism. Fascinated too by art history relational and performance Art, I carried all this fire with me along and under the strong influences of trending Art scenes.
Often I found myself very lonely in it and overwhelmed by my sense of purpose that didn’t quite fit the almost pop star status of the artist’s I was watching. I wanted to be open to new work but what felt meaningful was few and far between for me. I kept harkening back to the past for a more sincere* connection.
side note* sincere comes from the words san cere, meaning without wax , its an Italian term that comes from marble mining. High quality wax has no marks or breaks in it as the cheaper marble does. To make the cheaper marble look better the holes and defects are filled with wax, to make it look smooth. The word sincere means literally, without wax, no cover ups.
The Rites of passage work stayed with me, and I wrote a thesis exploring the ideas. I was particularly interested in works that seemed more cathartic in nature and that these artists were offering us ways to navigate our own winding pathways of self discovery and attempted comprehension of modern life.
A couple of years Later and about to show my work in Paris ( a great milestone in my young career) I had a real crisis of purpose. I had become very clever about Art making and a success, and that seemed to be jarring with my sense of vocation. It seemed a much more egoic pursuit then I meant it to be, and I had no idea how to make it differently. I was trying so hard to be engaged in creative process but understood very little about what that actually meant or felt like. I wanted answers but just found much more sophisticated questions. So what did I do? After my show, a duarational performance piece, with a fever and a throat infection, I abandoned Paris and went to the Pyrennees. I became, for two years at least, an archeologist.
20 years later, I am still digging, with my paint brush now, pencil and maybe these words too. I am in the park in West Asheville near the great French Broad River. Its a dark fall night. Cold chilly air moves around my cuffs as I write. I have my winter coat on, now ruined with paint ( some may say improved upon) from last winters cold studio days when I was careless with it. Its hockey practice. M, my daughter is working hard on the rink with the other kids. She calls to me avery 15 mins for her water bottle. Her hot breath makes smoke in the cool air. I love her determination and enthusiasm, it reminds me of someone……. The high way rings on the air at its constant pitch. This evening is quieter though, Summer’s rich orchestra of night sounds is getting softer each evening as we drop so willingly into the great Fall.
I think of my paintings at the show, shed from the studio like autumn’s leaves, leaving me, the tree where the roots are. I think about delivering them to the beautiful ground of Asheville School were I stopped the car for a moment to watch a gust of leaves spiral down in the goldening light, delivering themselves to the earth. I think of how much I love the leaves as each one of my paintings. Not because I think they are good or better work for that matter but because they feel so completely “san cere” and are so entirely and tenderly formed in the deep hearts core of me. It’s true, I can’t tell you a more accurate version of events.
“I bring to the altar of dawn the quiet loyalty of breath” John O Donohue
I go to my studio in the Arts District five mornings a week. I light candles in the morning to my ancestors and I pray. Sometimes I say buddhist mantras, sometimes the Hail Mary or the angelus from my catholic schooling, sometimes I just talk to my deceased parents and first husband and tell them about my plans for the day and ask them how they all are. I look at myself in the mirror over the altar and thank myself for turning up again and again and for this me, right here in this breathing body, this mysterious first gift of life. Then I get stuck in watching the Art come out of me with a curious mind, seeing what my hand does and what my brush does when I hold it that way, and then this way….Its deep meditation, not always but often. And then, I trust that what has formed is my hand taking part in creation, my leaves growing.
These years have been a real schooling. Finding my own rites of passage and forming my own rituals and what works for me. The circumstances of life answered so many of my youthful and urgent questions for me about Art making and creation. Holding the dying and giving birth blow away the dead wood of thoughts, leaving you a clean new slate to paint on. I learned to go within and look only there for answers. Answers come in all different shapes and sizes and now so often they appear on canvas for me and cannot be verbalized.
Here in the studio I am no priest, but I would like to share that I am having the most extraordinary connections with people who visit me here. My doors are generally open, work is for sale. Again and again I find I am making not only paintings but the relational Art too that I wished for. I am meeting, connecting and sharing this creative essence every day, and in the practice of that, its action is more apparent. The conversations and sharing of process are radically different to the Art world I had assumed I would be in. The lines of process and production are blurred and the relationships I am building in the community are interwoven into that. Buyers are coming back and telling me rich stories of what the work is doing for them in their lives. And in that moment my job feels complete. The creative energy that drew itself through my studio is now incorporated. I feel like the Artist in my vocation, as I wished to be, offering all kinds of windows into the mysteries and so very grateful.
New work on canvas, a wild like of wisdom.
Thank you for reading
Deep love to you