Spring Abundance and the Festival of Beltane
By The Crone.
I think that a sunny morning in Britain in May sums up just about everything good about living and enjoying the natural world. May in Britain is so beautiful; the white drifts of cow parsley along the hedgerows, plump green leaves on all the trees, lilac in flower and the drifting snow of falling hawthorn petals. Birdsong, blue sky and everything on the cusp of fruiting and blooming. I have seen some beautiful places in the world, but Britain in May, to me, is the loveliest time and place anywhere.
In the past and among contemporary pagans, Beltane is the festival that celebrates this moment of ripeness and beauty. Beltane, on the 1st of May, celebrates the Maiden becoming Mother, the gift of life, the lushness of nature in balance. Beltane is vigour and energy and is the first breath, and in that spring freshness lies the promise and hope of the harvest. In Beltane, this time of energy and vigour, the memory of Winter still looms, like a shadow in the corners. We feel great relief that the cold and dark has passed and celebrate the banishment of Winter (in Northern Hemispheres).
Traditionally, the time between March and the end of May was known as ‘the hungry gap.’ This was the time when stores are almost depleted and when there was very little in the garden to harvest. This hungry gap was the moment when the work you had done, or not done, in the previous year showed itself. If you had worked hard and been blessed with a good harvest, then you might well have enough stores to ride the hungry gap. If you didn’t then you would be suffering and maybe making promises to yourself to do the work to ensure a better harvest than the last.
So the May festival of Beltane is a time to celebrate abundance; the riches we have now and the riches (hopefully) yet to come. Most of all, Beltane is about energy, which for artists is also the energy of inspiration.
Artists are asked where they get their inspiration from and the reply should probably be, it comes from work. Because to harvest the abundance of inspiration as an artist, you have to turn up and do the work.
Those times when you are not making good work, not getting sales, not building successful relationships and networks, that funding you didn’t get; those times can be considered to be our artistic winters. The question is, how to hold on during those dark ‘soul’ winters, how to build a store that gets us through the hungry gap?
Probably, there are as many strategies for coping with our artistic winters as there are artists experiencing it, however I think there are certain strategies that should work for everyone.
Firstly, (and as a solitary person I struggle with this one) find people. The most important thing you can do as an artist is find other creatives. You need to know people who think expansively, people who are open to and actively seeking new ideas. The company of other creative thinkers is the most important resource to help you keep going when times are dark. After that, it’s a question of “fetching water, chopping wood.”
There is a well-known Zen koan that says:
"Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."
In other words, turn up, do the work. Don’t wait for Spring, for Beltane, for things to get good before you start. Make work all the time, even in the darkest deeps of winter. Get into notebook or sketchbook keeping as a daily discipline at the very least. Make bad work, make hasty work, make ill-considered work if that is all you can manage, but above all, keep making work.
Every piece of work you make, every thought you note, every sketchbook you fill is food in the stores to protect you against the hungry gap. It might be the equivalent of an ancient jar of pickles at the back of the larder, but it’s there and in a pinch, it can help to keep you fed.
So, turn up, do the work, keep going.
Maybe you will have a mild winter, maybe a hard one and perhaps Spring abundance seems a long way away. Hopefully it will come, hopefully you will be able to celebrate the abundance of success, whatever that success means to you. And when it comes, remember to celebrate, enjoy the abundance of your successful Spring and don’t forget to invite friends to the party. Share the riches, invite others to collaborate, have a blast.
Then keep on “fetching water, chopping wood.”
A Huge thank you to Curious Rose photography for shooting these great shots of our opening night. So many of you have visited or shown support. We look forward to more content, events and shows to be announced soon!
Burning beyond the logical lake
Dominic Shepherd in conversation with Tom Hicks
TH: Width of a Circle is an interesting project in that it doesn’t appear to have a didactive manifesto. From a personal point of view, I only get involved in projects where there is a collective aim but one that allows individual freedom. What drew you to the idea?
DP: When I heard about Width of Circle, I knew it was a good thing to be part of. The questions it raises have been floating in the ether for some time but recent zeitgeist changes, both in the UK and globally, make this very timely. There is also the location of WOC, in the Black Country, at the heart of England both historically and geographically. It feels right, the centre of a circle.
Your work draws upon nature but also a strong interest in magic, the elements and the unseen. I’m particularly interested in your ideas around creating work with intent
This interest very much started when I produced the work for the exhibition ‘Bare Foot Prophet’ that was held at Charlie Smith London in 2015. I had just seen the exhibition ‘Artists and prophets: A secret history of modern art’ at Frankfurt Kunsthalle which looked at 20th century German artists/visionaries who acted as prophets, such as Gustav Nagel and Hundertwasser .
At the same time when making the work in my studio the ancient woodland that I am surrounded by was being ‘managed’. I painted to the sound of chainsaws, that sound was the harbinger of change. I created the work in response to this, with an intent that the works act as a spell though both imagery and within the act of making; using prediction techniques to decide on figurative elements of the work and acknowledging the intuitive zone within the act of painting. Strangely I realised and others noted that the political turmoil that the UK fell into is reflected in the images created.
Magic, occult workings, in practice is the manipulation of reality through will. A bit like art.
Recently, I’ve been making work about the act of contemplating water. In the woods where I live there are a lot of bodies of water, puddles, streams, lakes, weirs, storm drains. The act of water-gazing serving as an oracular/ clairvoyant mirror. Water surfaces also have a metaphor for painting: there’s the matter of surface, the reflection to the viewer but then through changing one’s focus there’s the depths. As above, so below.
Alchemy, witchcraft and the occult have long held a fascination for artists, both as subject matter but also or personal revelation/inspiration – I’m thinking in particular of artists/filmmakers such as Ithell Colquhoun, Kenneth Anger and Derek Jarman. These unknown/arcane areas of knowledge are generally mispresented as being dark or evil
Nazi occultists, Aleister Crowley and black metal have definitely made their mark. There is a danger in falling into simplistic categories. Magic is a force, there’s dark, there’s light. As with art, the occult isn’t ethical, people are ethical. As with needing a gun to shoot the bad guy, beware of putting yourself on the side of what one perceives as ‘good’.
That said, the occult has been a major force in changes within our society. The heralding of modernist approaches to western occultism in the late 19th century was very much in conjunction with the birth of female emancipation; paganism has strong links with environmentalism. Last year I was joined by the artist Jesse Bransford for a panel discussion at NY Volta titled “Alternative Myths’ where we explored progressive forms of magical thought as a form of resistance against the nationalistic myths of the far right.
Your project ‘Black Mirror’ is a wider examination of magic and the unkown
Black Mirror is very much my academic hat. It is a research network that explores magic and occults relationship with modern and contemporary art. Co-coordinate by Judith Noble of Plymouth College of Art, Robert Ansell of Fulgur press, Jesse Bransford of New York University and myself at Arts University Bournemouth. We promote exhibitions and events, (I curated Black Mirror: Magic in Art last year) conferences (one this week on Ithell Colquhoun, Seeking the Marvellous at PCA) and have been publishing a series of volumes (the third edition Black Mirror: Elsewhere is being launched later this year). It’s very much opened up debate, when Judith and I first formed Black Mirror we were initially were faced with scepticism in some quarters but that rapidly changed. Serendipity, in the truly magical sense, has been at work but more so a burgeoning interest in both the academic and artistic spheres.
There seems to be a storytelling element in your work that allows the viewer to both examine your methods but also to ponder the overall message/narrative. Do you prefer to leave your work open to interpretation?
When creating these works I do not wish to know why I make choices. Intuition is a very important part of the seeming narrative. The narrative appears by osmosis, the subconscious message appears through the act of creating the work. Painting is a language that goes beyond what is depicted. I only begin to understand and title works when they’re finished, the narrative appears after the event. A bit like life.
An area that I’m interested in psychogeography and how it can be used to spark artistic practice. What role does place play in your work?
The English landscape is weighted with its past like an albatross. Part of an island that hasn’t been invaded for nearly a thousand years, built upon a history of both blood-soaked hypocrisy and yet also enlightenment and anti-authoritarianism. It’s a paradox.
The subconscious layers of place are very real to me. The cottage and woods where I live are part of a feudal estate in Dorset, still owned by the same family for half a millennium. The current incumbent is a fairly right-wing member of parliament for the conservative party. My immediate environment is a mirror, I search for signs; clues in tree stump rings, patterns of dappled light, wind on dew ponds and interlacing branches.
As well as featuring figurative work, one aim of Width of a Circle is to explore landscape. You draw upon the wood in which you live and presumably the surrounding countryside. Would you enjoy the challenge of a new environment - perhaps even an urban setting?
The hermit nature of my existence allowed for a complete immersion which I wanted when I initially left London the year of the millennium. As part of a family I’ve been bringing up children in the woods. I like them, they populate the work. However, they are now becoming adults. I’ve been invited next year to do an artist’s residency at Sichuan School of Fine Arts in Chongqing in China, a very different place. From remote Dorset woodland to a brand-new city of 30 million is a big change, let’s see what happens.
Is each work created in a specific place or do you create hybrids based on memory and imagination?
Place, memory, imagination and time are inseparable. The place is these woods, where my mind stops and woods begin I’m not sure.
We talked about the role of music in your working practice
I was young in the late 70s and was acutely aware that I had missed something momentous. Brought up in Bournemouth, then sinking under genteel empire decay, it was the progressive rock of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, Black Sabbath’s first album and Genesis’s Supper’s Ready that cleaned my doors of perception.
I shared this awakening with my best friend who went to Cambridge to study philosophy of mathematics and ended up a chronic alcoholic. We used to bow down at the gate of Tolkien’s bungalow. I remember white doves. The dangers of romanticism.
My collection of vinyl still grows and feed into my work. Music is a hauntology, it crushes time and allows one to emotionally experience different possibilities. That possibility of alternative futures and counter culture utopias bled into my practice. I would incorporate imagery from gatefold sleeves, ecstatic faces from this golden age. A bit like a séance, conjuring up ghosts amongst the dystopian ruins.
An early Black Mirror experiential production was ‘Absolute Elsewhere’. Myself and musician Matthew Shaw curated an evening of aural and visual experiences at Shelley Manor. In honour of the occult science of Frankenstein and Bournemouth’s esoteric links we gathered musicians including English Heretic, Heather Leigh, Alexander Tucker and Urthona with artists Mark Titchner, Graham Gussin and Cult of Rammellzee for a night of esoteric immersion.
Finally, could you talk about the work you are showing in the Width of a Circle show
I made this work, ‘The Beast’, last spring. It’s starting point was William Blake’s ‘Nebuchadnezzar’, an image of a king as he is transformed into a wolf before wandering in the wilderness. I took myself to the brook that runs behind my studio and crawled naked downstream. It was cold. The work came out of that.
The Beast had connotations to Crowley and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, those were my initial thoughts towards it. As 2017 progressed the work also took on an aspect of ‘la Bête’, the wild man who is only tamed (like Nebuchadnezzar) by female ministrations. In the current climate white, middle aged men are being taken to task, and rightly so. But being one, it hurts. So, I crawl naked down the stream, in both atonement and resentment.
Dominic Shepherd is a painter and an Associate Professor of Fine Art at Arts University Bournemouth. He is represented by Charlie Smith London and is Co-ordinator of Black Mirror: fulgur.co.uk/black-mirror
Tom Hicks is a writer, academic librarian and artist. He is a founder member of The Wolverhampton Psychogeographical Bureau (WPB): instagram.com/blackcountrytype
Welcome to the WIDTH OF CIRCLE Journal.
Over the coming months we will be sharing and curating content here that supports our exhibition programme and acts as exploration of the projects interests. We will be sharing contributions from exhibiting artists and guests.
We are also interested in hearing from people who would like to contribute and feel their practise is relevant.
Thank you for your interest