My world has contracted, the dining table replacing my studio, my watercolours small enough to occupy that limited space. It’s my habit to begin each day with a watercolour reflection on the state of things around me. I’ve been comforted by small pleasures; knitting, cooking and our sunny balcony but saddened to see empty shelves and abandoned playgrounds, birthdays celebrated alone and embraces from afar. The idea that this too will pass sustains us and the creative impulse never wanes. – Margaret Ackland
I have become so very conscious of the empty spaces, and all the in-between manoeuvres that I have had to negotiate to keep my distance from other bodies. This is especially focused when I take an afternoon walk in my local park. It is filled with other bodies longing to break out of confinement. Bikes, wheelchairs, dogs, and runners are all vying for space on the footpath. At every potential meeting, there is an awkward hesitation of give and take as we work out who goes where. My eye is on the space to make it through, no time to recognise faces. I imagine this is what footballers do – looking for the opening space, with their eye on the prize. Freedom at last!
In the last nine to ten weeks there has been an abundance of space. My diary was the first thing to empty out; first in days, then weeks, and then for the ‘foreseeable future’, a phrase now in constant use. Space appeared as the garden called for nurture, half-finished projects reached their completion, my floors appeared from under piles of paper, and small things found an unexpected level of importance. Space appeared for cakes, slow cooking, vegetables, art-making, sunshine, and that elusive sensation of actually feeling time pass. I loosened demands that I had on myself. I got bored. I watched re-runs of old comedies. I felt nostalgia. I made no plans. I wasted time and did not feel guilty. I slowed down and actually felt life, like a pulse under my skin.
I could sense the expectations peeling off – of getting things done, of tidying up, of always being cheerful, on time, efficient, careful, spontaneous, and always great company! I lessened the strangle-hold that the consumption of products has had over me. I purchased nothing for weeks and found I was not in the need for anything. I discovered online shopping, and I thoroughly enjoyed the arrival of luxury in the post! I was inconsistent and enjoyed it. I have enjoyed this isolation. I have been an indulged introvert! As things begin to open up, I want to treasure this sense of finding the space in between. This might prove useful in negotiating the bigger spaces of my life and work, and especially how I judge my life to be productive, useful or full!
Artist Margaret Ackland has pictured it well. In a series of small watercolours, she presents moments of intense stillness and empty space that become the centre of her interest and awareness. This intensity of looking indicates a refined observation of things usually overlooked and pushed the edge of vision. Palm Sunday, the fifth of April, now so many weeks ago, Margaret Ackland captures the profile of a priest leading a televised service in a church empty of a congregation. The placement of this robed figure to the left of the page, leaves an accentuated empty space held in place by a shadow and a curled palm frond. It is as if there is a tug of war going on for our attention between the figure intent on religious ceremony moving to the left and the space that opens up to the right. There is an interplay between activity and rest, movement and stillness, presence and absence, that leaves this otherwise empty space alive with possibilities. I remember how busy I was, that time now so long ago, when this emptiness arrived and piqued my interest.
In another work, we see people busily going about their activities, jogging, shopping, or incessantly checking their mobile phones. This evidences a search for the new choreography that we have been told will express our consideration for others. Suddenly our personal boundaries are being pushed out and our physical edges take on new meaning. We need to find a distance that is clearly more than one breath away. Alert for coughing, and the slipstream of joggers and getting our tongue around that new phrase ‘respiratory aerosols’. The bright pink lines of geometry represent that process of retraining needed to find the correct level of distance between us and the other. Such is the evidence of this discipline that even the pigeons seem to be following the lead. We are all re-crafting our world with our eye not on things, or even people, but the illusive and moving spaces of the in-between.
Presumably on the kitchen bench, two cans of imported Italian tomatoes have sorted out their positioning. A larger-than-would-be expected distance between them accentuates this awareness of space. How did we not see this before, this negative space, this void, this shadow, that allows what is present to pop out into our visual awareness? In taking the time to look at these two objects in space, we become acutely aware of the space that is enveloping and giving frame to what has firm edges and solid shape. After a while, the two elements of what is and what is not play a game of grabbing our attention, taking it in turns to hold our awareness. Our eyes remind us that we live in this space, and that we are not the can of tomatoes! Life does not consist of firm edges, but also welcomes the shadows and empty spaces that are full of lively potential, or of nothing at all. How restful and yet also how exhilarating are these possibilities.
A space of potential is explored in a final watercolour, as two skeins of wool lie next to each other, with one strand rather seductively unravelling into the void between. Is this accident, or comedy, or fate, or chance, that a thread relaxes so easily into such a place. In the emptiness of this space, I begin to see my mind at work looking for meaning, connecting threads, cause and effect, patterns, portents, powers. I fill such empty spaces with signs that confirm my own anxieties, wants, desires, and hungers. In my mind, I can see this tendency to draw endless lines over the surface of existence. I am looking for meaning on every surface to reflect back to me my freedom or my struggle. And then I become amused by the meanings that a single twine of thread keeps generating in my mind; it shows me how furiously the wheels are turning to keep the world from dissolving into nothing. And yet there is nothing to be anxious about. In the end, there is nothing, and there is nothing I can do about it.
Living with space. Living in space. Who knew there was so much space! What I find in these humble and small works are scenes of the ordinary that have taken on the gravity of something keenly observed and considered. They carry the weight of significance and the attention to detail that is found in acts of contemplation. They carry an aura of devotion. This is the stance we would adopt in front of a religious icon, or a work of great spiritual significance. These works carry a sense of gravitas usually reserved for images inviting a form of devotion, where looking is rewarded by an experience of grace. This is a form of looking that leads to life, where my own insignificance is held in the gaze of another where I sense my own existence as a gift. These fine moments of looking become the empty spaces where we experience what we might term at this time ‘a choreography of grace’.