Gwen John “Interior” 1924
The gift the artist offers is to share with us the mindful act of seeing for in order to make material their thoughts and ideas they have to spend time noticing, looking intently and making careful observation to the minutiae of things; the negative spaces between objects, the expression and emotion of faces, the effect of light and shadow, shades of colour, the variety of texture, shape and form. This act of seeing slows us down, and invites us to pay attention to the moment, not to rush and only take a quick glance but instead to come into a relationship with that which you are seeing and drawing, to understand it and make sense of its relationship with the world around it.
This language of seeing and being still, of encountering our own story and sense of belonging is demonstrated beautifully in the work of Gwen John who, using a limited colour palette, expresses her contemplative nature and the small attic room she used as both living space and studio. Bathed in soft light the wooden table is laid out for tea highlighting the ordinariness of the brown earthenware tea pot, the simple white china utensils and her journal, waiting for her daily thoughts and ideas, her prayers and meditations to be scribbled on their blank white pages.
Gwen John tended to work in solitude despite being friends with many of the leading bohemian artists of her time, Matisse, Brancusi, Picasso and Rodin for whom she became both model and mistress. She was received into the Catholic Church whilst in her 40’s, her notebooks revealing her longing for ‘the interior life’. She favoured indoor subjects painting empty rooms, still lifes and women seated alone in quiet spaces, perhaps an insight into the world she ached for having experienced much tragedy in her life through the death of her mother at a young age and a series of broken love affairs. Instead her paintings express a deep love and empathy with the objects she draws, a letting go of her pain and instead seeing beauty in ordinary and simple circumstances. Belonging isn’t always about activity and people, it can also be about discovering a sense of deep belonging at the centre of your being. I am drawn to the small grey cross drawn in the window surrounded by light, initially seen as the formation of the wooden window frame, after time changed to a crucifix in my eyes, an aid to her prayers and bringing the presence of eternal belonging into her everyday. Our relationship to everyday things can change when we take time to look mindfully, our perception of how things initially appear can alter as we allow our inner selves to look and listen and respond to the voice of stillness.
Spend a little time in one of the galleries and allow yourself to be drawn to one of the art works that causes you to feel a sense of belonging. Sit with the work for a while and begin a conversation with the artist, it’s subject and setting and your deeper self. Is there a particular element of the art work that calls you deeper? Is it evoking memories from years ago? Does it make you feel happy or sad, small or empowered? If you were to step into the art work what object or person would you be? Why? What questions is the art work asking you? What do you want to say back to it? What have you learned from the work?
Recognise how the artwork begins the journey of belonging and then leaves us to travel alone with our thoughts, to listen to the work and its setting rather like the words of a poem. You may want to write or draw your feelings or response.
Take some time to consider mindfully which objects you would like to collect together to create your own still life arrangement that tells your story of belonging. Consider things like colour, do you want a limited palette or do you want to create a splash of colour. Consider the meaning behind the objects you choose, do they hold a special memory, or represent an idea or period in your life? Decide whether to gather animate or inanimate objects for example a shell, a flower or a tea pot. Spend some time arranging the chosen pieces into a display that you find pleasing, consider the negative spaces created by the arrangement of the objects, the background setting, the lighting and shadows etc. When you are happy with your arrangement either take a pencil or paints and begin to draw what you see, taking note to really look and see beyond the expected. If you are uncomfortable with using a pencil then consider photographing the objects on your iPhone or camera. Think about how you would like to frame and position the arrangement in your viewfinder, do you want to use a filter to change the colour and feel of the image? When you have finished take a photo and tweet it to us telling us how you found the experience using the #ilongtobelong