Articles

Smells of Words

Marisa Stratton, Zoom Class, 2021. Around 2.54 x 5.08 cm each. Private collection. Used with permission.

 

their smells are distinctive
on this zoom conference
one Catholic, advocating the Pope’s
universal love for the creation
one Protestant, speaking of the gospel’s
power for all people
their eloquence and passion
point to unity and faith

still
they smell different

their voices, tones, looks, manners
postures and positions
give unique smells
as herbs display themselves
in a tea house
for visitors
of the Zoom

after steeping them in water –
reflections, Q&A, more reflections
aroma rising
from their words

after tasting
which tea are you going to buy
or simply walk out?

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XIAOLI YANG IS A THEOLOGIAN, POET, AND SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR. SHE LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND AND IN THE MIDDLE KINGDOM.

Beauty and the Beast – the song of my four-legged friend

for too long
I’ve watched
my Beauty crawling over the words
soaring above the sky
dancing between the silent spaces

for too long
I’ve waited for
my Beauty getting up from her desk
walking to the pantry
picking up my favourite bone
          for a good afternoon chew

for too long
I’ve been locked with
my Beauty in this house
down in the garden
observing rosellas fleeting and resting on gum branches
gazing on shooting stars of the galaxy
and the yellow Moon in the night sky

for too long
I’ve dreamed of the day with
my Beauty climbing mountains
smelling fragrances of millions of flowers
chasing every hint of animals
tasting salt of every lake
and leaving my historic marks on every passing pole

Still
nothing is too long
as long as I am with my Beauty

although
sometimes I think
I am the Beauty
when she accompanies me on my royal parade
and I draw the attention and admiration of all
when she is busy cooking in the kitchen
and I sit on the sofa watching TV
when she cleans muck from my eyes
or mops the floor of my fur
when she hugs me tightly till I ‘purr’
or sticks her face on mine till I look aside

who cares who is whom?
We are a happy family
in the castle of Beauty and the Beast

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XIAOLI YANG IS A THEOLOGIAN, POET, AND SPIRITUAL DIRECTOR. SHE LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND AND IN THE MIDDLE KINGDOM. This poem was written during Melbourne’s sixth lockdown.

Braddon Snape: Liquid and Ecstatic States

There is always pleasure in looking. Things catch our eye. They lure us in and awaken memory, and in turn arouse desire. Looking at art is not just an exercise of intellect and imagination but it also activates our sense of embodiment, our connection with other physical things. This is especially so with works of sculpture that intersect with social spaces marked by human habitation and meaning. Sculpture has a long social history in providing gestures of past grandeur, markers of civic pride and powerful emblems of future hope. In more recent times, sculpture has activated the realm of both architecture and landscape to shape and understand the human imagination as embedded in the natural environment. Such artistic gestures help us touch the world through our eyes and grasp a sense of belonging in the world we inhabit. 

Braddon Snape’s work demonstrates a knowing confidence in dealing with the tradition of an artist working in three dimensions. In his case, it involves a somewhat gruelling physical and mental rigour in turning materials into things that resonate in our visual imagination. Since 2014, Snape has been working with a unique approach involving the welding of steel sheets together and inflating them into a variety of forms with compressed air. These works literally express the process of inspiration, with the breath of a pneumatic pump giving them a unique presence and personality. Imitating puffed-up pillows, paper bags, wine bladders, that are leaned, strung, and manipulated in ways that work against the expectations of minimalist sculpture to be true to form and materials, these works are poetic, inferential, and incite the peripheral imagination. 

Working with these same materials, this new body of work provides an exciting if not visually exhilarating turn. The liquid and refractive surfaces of these new works serves to blur and destabilise their orientation towards the viewer. They seem to be literally unzipping the firm signs of their manufacture as steel sheets and appear to be spilling out into the surrounding space articulating both the light and the air. Not just mirrors, but a transformation of the movement of air and light particles into a liquid dance. This is like a moment of rapture, or even rupture, where things that have been held in, come spilling out in an ecstatic release. Breathing bodies understand such states as the rhythm of expiration and inspiration, the slow release of breath. It is the state also of wonder, where clear boundaries are transcended, not as an idea, but as a felt sense of delight! 

Braddon Snape, Allusive Object (3 Chamber Strip), 2021. Welded and mirror-polished inflated stainless steel with accompanying acrylic rectangle wall painting, 38 x 110cm \ 150 x 30 x 27cm.

There is great pleasure, mixed with a measure of anxiety, in looking at these works. I want to measure, categorise, establish boundaries, define understanding, while all the time the work is moving in the other direction, spilling out in excess. And then I remember what it is like to hover in the in-between spaces of existence, like hovering on a threshold or on the brink of a discovery. It is the fluid space of negotiating the collapse of edges, and the rush and ecstatic joy of letting go and finding release. Here, I want to reach for the geographies of the spiritual to explain this moment of ecstatic potential; the empty space between the fingers of Michelangelo’s God and Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, or the tension of edge and centre in the shining white stone of a Zen Garden, or the stark light and dark shadow on a walk around the water-worn edges of Uluru. In these works, boundaries are let loose, no longer seeking definition, but allowing for the excess of freedom and visual ecstasy. 

Art has long carried this alchemical impulse to apprehend moments of transformation and change, like observing the moment when ice turns into water, and then setting out to turn lead into gold. The dance of particles that surround the liquid surfaces of these mirrored steel pieces allow for such imagining. Surface and depth merge, inside turns out, and the proper boundaries of definition and classification are left aside for the liquid transformations where art spills out into life. 

[Source]

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ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.

The Visitation

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.

Kerry Holland, The Visitation, 2021. Oil on canvas, 150 x 120 cm. Artist’s collection.

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.

Kerry Holland, Tears on the Beans II, 2021. Spray can and oil on canvas, 90 x 74 cm. Artist’s collection.

 

Kerry Holland, Hearts Burning in a Field of Diamonds, 2021. Oil and spray can paint on canvas, 91 x 74 cm. Artist’s collection.

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.

Kerry Holland, Contemplating the Wildflowers, 2021. Oil and spray can paint on canvas, 94 x 74 cm. Artist’s collection.

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.

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Kerry Holland lives on Meanjin country and is a Brisbane-based artist working with paint and ceramics exploring narrative, imperfection, and tenderness. She coordinates the Art and Justice Project for Milton Anglican in Brisbane, and gives Ignatian Spiritual Exercises with the Faber JISA Centre.

On Max Ernst’s ‘The virgin chastises the infant Jesus before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter’ (1926)

Max Ernst, The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child before Three Witnesses: André Breton, Paul Éluard, and the Painter, 1926. Oil on canvas, 196 x 130 cm. Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany.

It appears that to bear the weight of mum’s judgement means not only a sore bum but also a dropped halo. It appears that the Aryan half-pint might have again stolen her favourite manicure set from the middle drawer of the bathroom cabinet while he was supposed to be tidying his sister’s bedroom. It does not yet appear that in this act of descending freedom, of vacating a head that others might gild mockingly with thorns, the embarrassing shape of kenotic love is taking costly form. And it’s not as if

there is chaste indulgence here; this act of discipline reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Christ, this act of judgement upon cobalt and rubicund outlining her own contorted arm and deepening her own overtaxed gaze. A foretaste of arms bearing sin-gnarled stock and hers, those eyes that again will grieve as arms not her own are brought to bear upon her bare first-born, this unexpected fruit in whom her future and that of all shall find shape. And an open roof. Did it fly off with upswing arm so that one who sees everything could weep?

It has been some time too since Paul and Vincent came over, and now this other Paul, and André and Max; seemingly unsedated risk now transformed into dispassion. Was Gala really the benchmark of our friendship, our means of communication, our shared wife? What kind of love did we make to each other in her? And what of love once promised now turned, love now come to assault me? A naked face turned away in a sensuous spell.

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND FOLK FESTIVAL TRAGIC WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Advent: But then … they appear

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1558. Oil on canvas, mounted on wood, 73.5 x 112 cm. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium.

After W. H. Auden had visited the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, and seen Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, he went away and penned the following words:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The American theologian William Willimon recalls Brueghel’s painting, and Auden’s poem, in his book On a Wild and Windy Mountain (Abingdon Press, 1984), wherein he observes that we trudge past bleeding crosses with a shrug of the shoulders, that Good Fridays are so commonplace among us as to be unnoteworthy, and that tragedy achieves nobility only in the theater. ‘Everydayness and ordinariness’, he writes, ‘become our best defenses, the most effective relativizers of the tragic in our midst. Some young Icarus falls from the sky every day, so one had best get on with the business at hand until the extraordinary comes. For now, go to work, eat, make friends, make money, make love, mind your business – that’s the best way to cope, for the time being, with the expectedness of the tragic. The old masters knew best’ (p. 15).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Numbering at Bethlehem, 1566. Oil on panel, 116 × 164.5 cm. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium.

Willimon proceeds to compare Landscape with the Fall of Icarus with another of the Dutch masters’ works: Numbering at Bethlehem. He notes the ordinariness of the depiction, a day mundane and unpromising – in its highlights at least – and nothing beyond the expected.

But then … they appear.

They appear. ‘An inconspicuous, thoroughly ordinary young woman on a little donkey led by a stoop-shouldered, bearded peasant who carries a saw. Here is Mary, with Joseph the carpenter, come to town to be counted. They are so easily overlooked in the midst of ordinariness. Old masters like Brueghel’, Willimon suggests (and we might add Rembrandt, for example), ‘were never wrong’. Rather, they understood, and bore witness to in their work, the truth of Emmanuel, the scandal of the unostentatious God living – and dying – with us, of God stained with the sweat of human bondage and soaked – baptised – in the blood of human violence, of God incognito. ‘They understood our blindness not only to the tragic but also to the triumphant in our midst … In life, the Presence goes unnoted as we thumb through the evening paper. And so we wait, sitting in the darkness of the everyday until something extraordinary breaks in. Someday God may break into this world, we say. But for the time being, it is best to work, eat, make love, pay taxes, fill out government forms, and mind our business. The old masters knew it best’ (p. 16).

I have posted elsewhere on the pseudonymous activity of God, suggesting that ‘in the economy of holy love, the locus of greatest clarity equates to the point of greatest incongruity and surprise’. It is precisely that we may see what Willimon so beautifully refers to as ‘the triumphant in our midst’ that we are graced, and that we might witness to the day when good will triumph over all, certain that the grace of holy love will win at last because it did not fail to win at its most decisive time. In the meantime, such seeing typically requires what is another great advent theme: waiting, or what R. S. Thomas, in his poem ‘Kneeling’, referred to as ‘moments of great calm’:

Moments of great calm,
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me, God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

– R. S. Thomas, ‘Kneeling’, in Not that He Brought Flowers (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1968), 32.

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JASON GORONCY IS A THEOLOGIAN, ARTIST, AND FOLK FESTIVAL TRAGIC WHO LIVES AND PLAYS ON WURUNDJERI LAND.

Toward Joy

This monologue, written by Amina McIntyre and performed by Stephanie McFarlane, tells the story of ‘a woman on the cusp of a restorative journey’ who ‘ponders the need for joy in the world right now’. It is part of the Virtual Downstage Monologue Series, an online initiative by Actor’s Express.

You can support the work of Actor’s Express here.

The process of making: The Name of Grief

L–R: Gabby Willmott, Waiting for the Dawn, 2017. Ink on watercolour paper. Karly Michelle Edgar, The Name of Grief, 2021. Mixed media. Karly Michelle Edgar, Preservation, 2016. Ink pen on paper.

Recently, I re-arranged some of the artworks in my home. One of my walls housed one of my black and white circle drawings titled Preservation, coupled with a black and white bird painting by local artist Gabby Willmott, two pieces that come from very particular times of my life. I recently added a third piece in the middle of these two. This piece is titled The Name of Grief, and its style and colour settle nicely beside the original two, complimenting in style but, more importantly, in theme and meaning. This piece began with quite a specific idea, but now that I see it housed beside these two other works and in relationship to their meaning and narrative, I have begun to recognise and engage with its potential for encompassing a broader experience of grief. And there is a lot of collective grief at the moment, both for what has happened but also for what hasn’t. Much of my experience of grief is for things that haven’t happened due in large part to chronic illness, even though this piece didn’t originate specifically within chronic illness, nor within COVID-19.

This piece had a gradual creation. I first thought about it a few years ago and I’ve begun it a few times without success. A few months ago, I picked it up again eventually figuring out how to complete it. I discovered that my original ideas had been too neat, with the names neatly written in rows and columns. Once I figured this out, I began scribbling the names over and over, eventually filling the page, at last recognising something that worked. I started again on another piece of dry, already ink-stained paper, building up the words in layers, gradually increasing the size. I then left it where I could observe it as I went about other things. It felt alone. In some ways this is an appropriate feeling for this piece, but it wasn’t quite the right type of ‘aloneness’.

Soon after, I broke the glass of a frame I was putting a new alcohol ink piece into. Not being one to ever throw out a frame no matter how damaged, I kept it – broken glass, and all – and this is where working within a bit of mess is quite useful. The broken glass and frame lent against the table leg. The unfinished names sprawled across the paper lay on top of the table and this proximity allowed me to see how they might interact. The image of the red thread spilling out of the frame was prompted by the placement of the broken glass and my ongoing love for, and use of, a spool of red thread I found in an op shop years ago. It is useless thread – it is so thin and fragile that it breaks immediately; but it is red and glossy and looks beautiful cascading down a white wall.

Karly Michelle Edgar, Detail of The Name of Grief, 2021. Mixed media. Artist’s collection.

I began to see how it might all go together – the names, the thread, the broken glass. The broken glass allowed the thread to be both inside and outside. As I experimented with framing using the mat board, I was initially annoyed that it was one that was just the tiniest little bit too big for the paper. I placed them all together, so I could look at it while I decided what to do. As often happens, it was as I spied it out of the corner of my eye one day that I decided what to do: leave it and allow the slight ripple to be visible. Maybe this was a cop out, but I have always liked the ripple of wet paper even though it is normally then enticed to be flat again. But it worked here, being able to see the whole piece of paper and its buckling, while still being framed. Red cotton underneath the glass and outside of it. Encased but not contained.

The other element I struggled with was the starkness of the white matting. It was too clean, too bright. So, as I played around with the matting and placement, I didn’t clean my hands, leaving fingerprints and marks, adding myself to it. I scuffed it up with charcoal as I tried to merge the different elements together, the black ink, pen and charcoal, the red thread, the now-dirty white matting. I’m not sure if these were the best decisions for this piece but in some ways it makes no difference because each piece is simply the cumulation of the moments of creation and resolution. Sometimes the only choice left is to decide a piece is finished, or to let it be forever unfinished. I decided to resolve these particular thoughts, but just for now. I know I’m not yet ‘done’ with the theme or thoughts entirely, for are we ever really ‘done’ with grief?

Our names for grief may be different, as might be our experience, but the deep well where grief lives within us is our meeting point. Your name for grief might have to do with the loss of persons or people, time, opportunity, potential people, friendship, family or potential family, ability, or any other number of things. Your grief might have a literal name, or it might be something that you cannot yet properly identify, something that, for the moment, can only be glimpsed in your peripheral vision. Grief travels with us, not dissipating entirely, but rather somehow, slowly, becoming incorporated into who we become, affecting how we approach the world and our place in it.

Sometimes we can sit alongside grief, or within it, sometimes we are unable to control it, sometimes unable to name it, and sometimes we have the knowledge and ability to recognise it and walk our way within the experience. Sometimes not. I’m no expert in the experience of grief, but I feel increasingly as though it is something that I must continually recognise and allow myself to intentionally practice and sit with, and this piece was one way for me to do this. I was a practical way to allow my hands and thoughts to come to a mutual place of action and reflection.

Karly Michelle Edgar, The Name of Grief, 2021. Mixed media. Artist’s collection.

Each year, those of us who follow Christ are invited into the practice of preparation and grief (amongst other things) during Lent and Easter, but we are also given the freedom to engage as we can, and year by year this may change. Our practice of Lent into Good Friday, Easter Saturday, and then Easter Sunday may inform our personal, ongoing practice of grief throughout our lives; a grief that sits within and around other emotions and experiences of life. Sometimes we are facing a direction when we cannot see anything but the grief; at other times, it can be experienced alongside other experiences. Neither right nor wrong, but simply how life is.

For now, with the various types of griefs I and others alongside me are experiencing, I have this piece. And for the moment it seems to fit between the two other pieces that speak to very particular times of my life. Together there is a connection and an opportunity for ongoing self-reflection. I treat my house as a mini gallery, showing individual and groupings of artworks. Some of my own pieces have already been exhibited, some haven’t, and others never will be, and some artworks are made by other artists, but each contributes to a developing and ongoing personal narrative. So, for now, this piece will rest on my wall as I try to figure out if there is still further meaning embedded within it that I haven’t yet realised. I expect that there probably is.

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KARLY MICHELLE EDGAR IS a mixed media artist and PhD candidate researching a palliative care biography program through La Trobe University. She is interested in the story, practice, and connection of spirituality and creativity. Karly lives with the chronic condition fibromyalgia and lives and works on Wurundjeri land. You can visit her work online at karlymichelle.com.

Matters of Life and Faith

Paul Mitchell is a Melbourne-based author of six books, including a novel, We. Are. Family. and three collections of poetry. He’s renowned for integrating Christian themes into his work, and he’s won national prizes for his fiction and poetry.

Earlier in 2021, he released a collection of personal essays, Matters of Life and Faith (Coventry Press). The book brings together works Paul has published over the past decade in publications such as The Melbourne Anglican, The Melbourne Catholic, The Age, The Guardian, and ABC Religion and Ethics.

On Thursday 14 October at 7.30 pm, Paul’s hosting an event to celebrate the book’s release. Author Helen Garner will give a speech, and poet Kevin Brophy will interview Paul about Matters of Life and Faith

Here’s the Zoom link for 14 October, 7.30pm. If you can’t make it along, you can order Matters of Life and Faith through Coventry Press.