A PAINTING FOR ST BONIFACE’S CATHOLIC COLLEGE – PLYMOUTH
In the spring of 2017 I began a conversation with St Boniface’s College and also with the PTA (who very generously funded material costs) regarding the production of a large painting for their main hall. We all wanted the work to address the spiritual agenda within the college and to this end I adopted a set of six key words that the school was working with as themes on which to base the painting.
Overall I approached the themes in terms of our everyday rather than purely religeous understandings of them as it is upon these that I felt that all of our subsequent interpretations rest. I also hoped that this would provide an accessible platform for making connections to the deeper, more spiritual considerations that the themes refer to.
Clearly, any one of the themes contains more than enough to sustain the creation of a work of art. But here there were six, and I needed to find a way to let each play its part.
Hope and Faith
Considering these two themes together gave me the most clarity. In their simplest form it seemed to me that ‘hope’ is the feeling of reaching out to the horizon and willing one’s dreams to appear over it – whereas ‘faith’ is the conviction to start building the ship to reach one’s dreams before they have even been sighted.
In ‘hope’, one’s mind’s eye is looking to the distance. In faith, it is on the task at hand. In ‘hope’, things are imagined, in ‘faith’ they are present. The painting therefore needed a dialogue between distance and proximity, and to share the insight that, by moving our gaze from the distant to the ‘close at hand’, our activities already begin to bring our dreams closer. As I became absorbed in the making of the painting, what began as a prosaic activity became transformed into something poetic.
In mercy our ‘hand is stayed’. Through empathy and humility we choose not to wield power over another and in so doing an unforeseen path opens up. Mercy therefore opens a hidden door and transforms both the giver and the receiver. It shows a reverence to something beyond them both, and places us back ‘at home’ in the world. The wind eases, the clouds part and the voyage resumes.
Giving is letting go, but not just ‘on the surface’. Giving also feels like we are relinquishing control over a deeper part of ourselves. We speak of ‘giving ourselves over to’, and at the same time we feel something ‘giving way’ in us. Perhaps this is why giving can feel so thrilling, liberating and unsettling – why it is exhausting and yet nourishing. In giving we are unbalanced and then re-balanced. I therefore needed to find forms, marks, juxtapositions and alignments with a suitable sense of poise, tension and balance. During the creation of the painting I was also aware of needing to ‘give over’ my own conscious control for it to develop.
In love we are alive, and it imbues our whole world with its presence. Everything is lit differently. We are borne up by it and given a vantage point to see further than before. In the painting, the sails of our ship are full and a brightness glows through them. The water sparkles and a warm light rains down. We are exposed and sheltered at the same time, filled with trust and an openness towards the world.
In ‘giving thanks’ we offer something of value towards another as a sign of gratitude. In its archetypal form we are creating a ritualised space for a communion between the sacred and the profane – between what is above and what is below. The painting therefore needed to describe a similar space where these two realms might reach towards each other, and into which a sign of something precious might be placed. The form of a receptacle (both chalice and hull) being raised up became central.
In writing about these themes individually I may have given the impression that they were only considered separately. This of course is untrue – at all times what I hoped for was a synthesis. Indeed the most difficult times in the making of the painting were when I could not yet see some overarching notion that felt strong and relevant enough to guide its development.
Overall I wanted the painting to acknowledge the ideas that had arisen during its making – how the profane and the sacred are connected through action, how there is spiritual value in working with things close to hand, and to acknowledge the various metaphors of boatbuilding, seafaring, and spiritual voyaging that repeatedly arose. In the end, the notion of ‘Master Builder’ seemed to provide the unifying conceptual and aesthetic guidance that the painting was seeking. It also brought other associations that I felt enriched it.
Lastly, through working with the themes of hope, faith, mercy, giving, love and thanksgiving, I have continually had to ask myself ‘is this a religious painting’? I certainly hope it affords these interpretations as I feel that the role of art is similar, in that it allows us to apprehend the sacred significance within our profane daily actions. I therefore very much hope that the painting will support and enrich the College’s religious ethos.