Residency Day 12

Over the last couple of weeks I have been viewing the work of Bill Viola, first at the RA, where his video installations of life and death are presented alongside some exquisite Michelangelo chalk drawings, and then at St Paul’s Cathedral.  His works are particularly spiritual and I wanted to see how he approached the subject of suffering.  There is an excellent iMagine programme about his work on iPlayer.

I have also been to Dublin as part of the Ulysses reading group, and had the unexpected pleasure of some time in the National Gallery, and in particular in the Jack Yeats room.  I was aware of his work, but seeing in the flesh, I found his work emotional and very moving, particularly the later work.  One of the subjects he often painted was suffering, and I will be returning to his work to explore how he approached this subject.

I spent the first hour of my visit to the Chapel this time, considering the subject of suffering and how I could possibly create a site specific piece that would address this subject.  I would like to create something, possibly involving fabric, that evokes the suffering that Cornelia Connelly endured for her God.  The chain in the centre of the Chapel would be a perfect location.

Whilst considering the possibilities, the reflection of sunlight caught my attention.  Below are some of the beautiful images that were brought to life by the stream of light through the stain glass.

For me these images are the essence of the Chapel, the colours, the shapes, the representation of light.

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Residency: Q & A

The Blue Monkey Network at the Towner in Eastbourne is a group of professional/semi professional artists who meet monthly to discuss art. I was interested to hear their experiences of undertaking a residency to understand what else I could be doing or how I could approach this opportunity from a different perspective.

Only one of the artists had relevant experience, which I found really surprising.

Judith, who runs the network, introduced me and I presented a slide show of the Chapel, to enable the group to appreciate the location. I then briefly introduced my work, from work selected for the Royal Institute, through to work I am currently producing from my Residency.

The slide show is available to view, but it wasn’t possible to record the event.

Releasing the Feminine watercolour on paper 58 x 78cms

Father, Son.. watercolour on paper 58 x 78cms

It was suggested that immersion in the building for a prolonged period, say one or two weeks, could produce a different perspective. This wouldn’t have been possible earlier in the year as the cold has prevented spells of longer than 3 hours, but as the weather improves and my diary clears this is a definite possibility.

I am mindful that the building is listed and fragile. I am conscious that I have been afforded privileged access and wish to respect this. Suggestions to paint on site, pin work to the walls, scrape off the decay, leave work around, stay overnight etc, are, for me, impractical and disrespectful to the building. Where an intervention is non-intrusive, and may lead to further revelation, such as leaving paper to absorb the salt in the atmosphere to see what happens, or introducing objects/reintroducing work into the space, is certainly a possibility.

Residency Day 10

Today my visit has two purposes. Firstly, to ensure I have effective internal and external images of the Chapel for my presentation to the Blue Monkey Network artist’s group. Then, following a meeting with Judith, who will be leading the Q & A at the Blue Monkey, I am revisiting the building through the lens of site specific work.

For this exercise I am trying to set aside my practical nature. Can’t is not an option.

During my MA I was exposed to some extraordinary artists, who were able to produce work beyond my wildest imagination. Now is the time to step into their shoes.

I ease myself in gently with thoughts of a torn watercolour descending from the leaking ceiling over Jesus’s damaged leg.

The photo shows the south West corner of the Chapel, where the damaged leg is just visible together with the damaged ceiling.

The symmetry and majesty of the arches is ever present.

I muse over the idea of a knitted sculpture of Jesus, a tangible female thread running through the work. The presence and essence of Cornelia. I am used to knitting from a pattern. I can’t imagine there are many knit your own Jesus patterns around, but, as MPs are fond of saying, all options should remain on the table.

There are a number of tapestries hanging from the columns. A possibility. Again a feminine depiction.

I spot a chain hanging from the ceiling crying out for something, anything.

I chose today to work in silence, to be completely in tune with the visual. Open to whatever catches my attention. There are repeated motifs everywhere.

Detail from one of the smaller alters.

I visualise them as paper cutouts desperate to dance in the stillness.

I find a beautiful pattern in the recess to the left of the main alter.

The ravages of time, gossamer in its delicacy.

I need time for connections to be made, ideas to bubble.

Residency Day 9

For the last few weeks I have been exploring colour and abstract mark making for a large scale watercolour commission. Interestingly the limited palette that I am working with, at the request of the client, is the same palette I am finding in the Chapel.

This has resulted in a number of preparatory paintings that I felt I needed help to resolve. As a result I booked myself onto the Creative Painting Space course with Emily Ball at Seawhites. Courses like this are a great way to reflect on and refresh my approach to my work. We considered mark making, connection, integration of existing work. I acknowledged my weakness with structure and form, a particular issue for abstract work. Emily suggested I researched a subject, and whilst not explicitly painting the subject, be mindful of it, during my process.

Maybe it is me, but when the blindingly obvious is staring at me, I fail to see it.

At a loss to suggest a subject matter, I chatted to Emily about my residency and the images I was processing. The face of Cornelia, the sculptures of Jesus, and there they were in the paintings we were discussing! The unconscious in action, absorbing, processing and delivering. Yet if I had set about painting such images, the result would have been more consciously contrived.

WIP Watercolour on paper 78 x 58cms

Cornelia her life as struggle.

WIP watercolour on paper 78 x 58cms

Damaged Jesus.

Residency Day 8

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Charcoal on paper 42 x 59 cms

I return to the bronze.  Having started a charcoal work at home I realise that my reference material is lacking.

 

Detail from the bronze.

I focus on proportions.155FAFED-6222-4015-BFA5-9E882410E34A Charcoal on paper 120 x 42 cms

My intention is not to replicate but to connect emotionally with the work.  My experimental drawing classes have started again, one life drawing, one self portraits where the aim is essence not likeness.  This is an extraordinary process which takes time and trust.  Much of the drawing is completed using the non dominant hand, focusing solely on the subject without referencing the work.  Scary but illuminating.  It is only when the work is ‘complete’ that you work into the generated image looking at the subject and the work.

The other sculpture I am keen to work with is the water damaged Christ.

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The damage gives the sculpture an eerie, otherworldly quality.  I will be using the same experimental drawing process.

 

 

Residency Day 7

Back in the Chapel on an unseasonably warm February day. My plan is to spend three hours working in charcoal on a larger format, 65 x 50 cms.

I am not used to working on site, so haven’t really thought through the practicality of production. I wanted to replicate how most worshippers see the building, so I am on my knees looking up. Tavener is playing and I am trying to suppress the nausea that comes from constantly looking up and down. This is laced with the dank smell from proximity to the floor, plus the unsettling sound emanating from the abandoned floor heating grill. The knees and back plead for forgiveness.

My view from the floor.

The resultant image has a softness, a femininity that I hadn’t expected. Clearly drawn by a female hand, but is the life of Cornelia Connelly feeding through from my reading?

I consider a more sustainable approach and select the draped table in front of the main altar, my paper perched on my art case. I am drawn to the bronze work deep in the shadows.

The bronze barely visible beneath the altar.

The bronze in close up.

Charcoal on paper 65 x 50 cms.

I am drawn to the suffering, the mother’s response, to the feminine. I will be revisiting this image in charcoal and other mediums.

Next week I plan to return to the subject of suffering.

Residency Day 5 & 6

A nasty chest infection has coincided with my intention to learn more about the building and the people, but first an interesting question from a reader. What does looking at the charcoal drawings I produced on my last visit invoke in me, in particular the second drawing?

This was the drawing where I introduced music, which I felt blurred the desire to replicate. I can sense ghosts and torment in the detail, housed in a structure that transcends. I can see the layering of years and emotion. I can see this medium is a perfect way for me to explore, perhaps on a larger scale.

Cornelia Connelly 18091879

My writing in this and future research blogs is not intended as an academic work, but merely as background. My two sources for this post are Flaxman’s book and the Society’s own biography of Cornelia.

My quest is to make connections with the building. It is not to retell the life story of its principal occupant. However, a brief summary of key points will help focus historical context and also help clarify personal connections.

When I started this journey I was at a loss to understand how I, a non believer from the 21st century would have any connection with a 19th century Catholic nun. How wrong was I!

A cropped image of Cornelia from the cover of A Woman Styled Bold by Radegunde Flaxman, 1991.

Cornelia was the founding mother of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, founded on the belief that working class girls needed to be educated, a path chosen for her by God. Indeed Pope Gregory XVI’s declaration to her that she was called to do great work in God’s Church, changed her view of the world.

The journey that led to this decision was quite extraordinary. Born in Philadelphia, we join her at the age of 22 in 1831, just married to Pierce, an Episcopalian minister, they travelled West by stagecoach for nearly six days along rutted tracks to Pittsburg, where they boarded a steamboat for the 1700 mile journey to Natchez in the Deep South.

They bought a small house and by 1835 they had two children and Pierce was gaining recognition for his work. When passed over for promotion and increasingly drawn to the unpopular Catholic Church, he resigns and seeks introductions in St Louis via his Catholic influence. By November the young couple with a 3 year old and baby leave for St Louis, Pierce with thoughts of becoming a priest, Cornelia increasingly influenced by the Catholic religion.

By January 1836 they were on their way to Rome. It became increasingly obvious that Pierce was fiercely ambitious seeking introductions that ultimately led to an audience with the Pope. Pierce was befriended by the Earl of Shrewsbury and spent the summer on his estate at Alton Towers, where he met Augustus Welby Pugin, who would later design the Chapel at St Leonards.

It became apparent to Cornelia that Pierce was prepared to sacrifice his marriage for this ambition. Cornelia turned to God.

In 1837 their third child, John Henry was born while they were touring Northern Europe. A downturn in the US financial market prompted their return to Natchez and financial ruin. Pierce took a Jesuit teaching post in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. In the summer of 1839 at the age of 6 weeks, their fourth child, Mary Magdalene died. The couple attended a spiritual retreat at the end of 1839, after which Cornelia declared she belonged entirely to God, and Pierce was reawakened to join the Catholic priesthood.

In 1840 John Henry was knocked into a vat of boiling sugar by the family dog. Cornelia nursed him for 43 hours before he died, connecting her experience with the mother of Jesus, to help her find solace. By the autumn she was pregnant with their fifth child. On the 13 October Pierce confirmed his priesthood intention, a decision that required her permission and a vow of perpetual chastity. Years later she would state that the Society if the Holy Child Jesus was founded that day, on a breaking heart.

Ever single-minded, Pierce sold the house they bought the year before, took Mercer to boarding school in England, and travelled to Rome, leaving Cornelia, Ady and the newborn Frank with the Religious of the Sacred Heart convent. Cornelia was required to give her permission in person in Rome, so Pierce summoned her and she arrived with the children in December 1843. He petitioned for ordination in March 1844, when they signed a decree of separation. At no time had Cornelia’s wishes been taken into consideration. At this point in history women and possessions belonged to the man!

While in Rome Pierce continued to visit Cornelia and the children weekly, but once she moved to Derby, under the sponsorship of Bishop Wiseman, to start her Society, everything changed. The children were sent to boarding school and Pierce was not permitted to visit. It slowly dawned on Pierce that Cornelia was no longer his property.

As a mother of six (including three stepchildren), who has also lost a young child and one through tragic circumstances, it is impossible for me not to connect to her pain of motherhood. We took opposing paths but our decisions could so easily have been otherwise. Cornelia founded the Society on a breaking heart, while I find myself undertaking this residency in similar circumstances.

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