Mary spent about three months with Elizabeth. – Luke 1.56
If you have ever had visitors stay with you, you know that a three-week visit is huge. A lot can happen in three weeks. For Mary to stay with Elizabeth for three months, while both were pregnant (by the grace of God), has to be very significant for both. Just as the movements of particles and planets cause resonances that last billions of years, so the long stay of Mary with Elizabeth, traditionally named ‘The Visitation’, has had a ripple effect that can be detected in the Gospels, and beyond.
For four years, I pondered how I might fulfil a commission by a family at Christ Church, Anglican Church, Bundaberg to do a painting about ‘The Visitation’. In my searches, most artworks I could find on the theme were figurative – of Elizabeth’s greeting or of Mary’s Magnificat. I wanted to find a connection with the theme and express it in a contemporary manner.
I can’t remember when my focus became the many weeks Mary spent with Elizabeth, and their ordinary activities together while their pregnancies progressed. What was the detail of this prolonged experience only touched on in one sentence? Mary might have talked about it later in life.
Conversation was always going to be my starting point with the work. A red and white check, well-used tablecloth, inherited from my mother, lent me the structure for the painting. Many pivotal conversations are experienced over coffee or lunch. Mary and Elizabeth would have sat and eaten together daily and talked. They would have shared much, and deeply, making sense of their experiences, of their pregnancies, and of their encounters with God. As I considered this, I painted every inch of the painting with as much variation and nuance as I could manage, hoping that the parish might accept such a simply-structured work. I loved painting it, right down to the brushing on of the rickrack edging. This work is now happily installed in the church in Bundaberg.
The ideas kept flowing and with it has evolved a series, ideas sifting through multiple drafts as the paintings take shape.
As I thought about what they might eat, I drew on a memory of my grandmother coming from wheatbelt country, Western Australia, to stay with us at Christmas time. She would seat herself at the bench in the kitchen saying, ‘Give me the beans’. Then while slicing them finely for the pot, she and my mother would be catching up on all their stories, and sometimes there would be tears. Three paintings in The Visitation series are called Tears on the Beans, as I imagined Mary and Elizabeth with pots of beans and the tears flowing as they talked. By this time, I was layering with spray can and oil paints.
Everything is connected. A dear friend lent me her mother’s tablecloth with poppies on it. My own mother had shared with me her love of wildflowers. I am convinced that Jesus was aware of the lilies of the field because of his mother. Perhaps Mary and Elizabeth picnicked among the brightly-coloured wildflowers as they contemplated the future for themselves and their babies. A time of peaceful, abundant hospitality spread in the face of potential trouble.
There are nine paintings in the series, and more to come. I intend to also include ceramics.
The Visitation exhibition is currently showing at the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, St Francis College, Queensland, where it will stay throughout December. It is a part of the Art and Justice project for Milton Anglican Parish.