His new paintings are inspired by the Seamus Heaney poem, St. Kevin and the Blackbird, and they exhibit stunning shades of blue and very real sensations of tenderness, patience, and love. In them, Kevin seems to embrace the world.
And then there was St. Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity:now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing's imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love's deep river,
'To labour and not to seek reward,' he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river's name.
St. Kevin was a Celtic saint who died in 618, at the ripe old age of 120. His name, meaning "of gentle birth," was given to him because his mother experienced no pain at childbirth. Throughout his life, he would continue this gentle and loving relationship with the mothers of many species.
His particular practice of contemplative life involved extreme solitude and painful physical exercises meant to increase the concentration of the mind. According to Phyllis Jestice in Holy People of the World, "that this contemplation was meant to conform to nature rather than oppose it can be seen in two stories from the life of Kevin." The one is the legend of St. Kevin and the blackbird, illustrated here in these paintings and in the poem by Seamus Heaney, a story that according to Jestice "affirms that spiritual and natural rhythms can and should conform to each other"--for it is said that he prayed continually in perfect stillness until the birds had hatched and left the nest. In the other story,
"Kevin was in his hermitage when he was approached by an angel, who indicated that a pleased God had promised Kevin a vast monastery and great city in the valley below. Furthermore, no one buried in the monastic cemetery would know the pains of hell. The four mountains surrounding the valley would be leveled to accommodate all these wonders. But Kevin refused, calling the animals of the mountains his housemates, and not wanting to move them on his account."
For many years, Saint Kevin slept on a raised stone slab "perched on a perilous precipice that an angel had led him to--" hopefully not the formula for such a long life. Today you can visit the 2 meter-deep cave called St. Kevin's bed, which stands 10 meters above the Upper Lake in Glendalough. Monks later did come and build a monastery in his honor (though not the mountain-destroying small country the angel had suggested), but he visited them seldom, still choosing to live as a hermit. When you visit the sight of its ruins, you can see the "Deer Stone," where another legend regarding his special relationship to nature and mothers has it a doe would wait for the saint in order to give him the milk he needed for two orphaned babies. According to Fionn Davenport in his city guide to Dublin, "The stone is actually a bullaun, used as a grinding stone for medicines or food. Many are thought to be prehistoric and they were widely regarded as having supernatural properties; women who bathed their faces with water from the hollow were supposed to keep their looks forever. The early churchmen brought them into their monasteries, perhaps hoping to inherit some of the stones' powers." (223)
"I've borrowed the Renaissance convention of simultaneously viewing an exterior and an interior... in this case the saint's cramped hermitage... by rendering the wall of the building transparent. We've been discussing planting some pencil cypresses in our garden here, and in the painting I've wish fulfilled the intention into a mature avenue! The rowan (Mountain Ash) and the soft fronds of fennel are already in the garden, as is the box-hedge and archway. Alas, we have no hermit, though the blackbirds are legion."
These paintings of St. Kevin will be shown at the one-man exhibition entitled "Touch," at the Martin Tinney Gallery in March 2010.
"Study for St. Hervé and the Wolf"
I had the great luck to be able to discuss with him some of his works concerning the story of the Breton people's Saint, Hervé, and I discovered that he expresses his ideas verbally with just as much poetry and art as he does when he's painting them. He explains:
Clive: "He [St. Hervé] was blind from birth. The story goes that a wolf came down from the woods and ate Hervé's dog, and thereafter the saint was never seen without the wild beast at his side, as though it had decided to do penance for its crime and to replace the dog as the young man's companion."
"St. Hervé and the Wolf"
As seen with the previous paintings of St. Kevin, Clive's paintings often address the extraordinary connections between man and beast that form an important part of the tales of many saints. The vivid red of the above wolf, and the expression on both wolves' faces are very striking; the proximity of that ferocious expression to the calm face of the saint highlights and makes very immediate its wild nature. The painting underscores the ability of the saint to both keep his calm and develop a very close relationship with the wolf without "stealing" from him his wildness. When I noted this aspect to Clive, he responded:
Clive: "I have no interest in expressions of the stories where the nature of the wild is perverted from its true self, as though the intervention is like that of the patriarchal God of the Sistine Chapel, changing things by dint of a flash of lightning from his finger tip. For me the true miracle of relationships that break the usual mould is that the animal moderates its behaviour because it's moved to."
"The Blind Boy and his Beast"
He had an opportunity, while in Nantes (Brittany), to visit the large moated park surrounding Nantes Castle to see the wolves that had been temporarily released there. From a parapet high above them, he was able to study their movements and behaviors.
"For an hour or more we studied them, fascinated by the way they were so completely un-dog like. Their feral lope was odd, more that of cats, and the pale gold of their eyes was hypnotic and unnerving. They have a very direct stare. Our friends Dave and Philippa were captivated too, though both Peter and Philippa felt that anyone falling into the park would have no mercy from the wolves. The male was particularly large, and much darker. The females fawned on him, and there was evidence of affection between the individuals within the pack. Between them Peter and Philippa concocted gruesome scenarios of what would happen if anyone plummeted into the enclosure, and it was not pretty. But on the last evening of our stay we went back to view the wolves again. To our astonishment we saw a slip of a girl appear through a gate into the enclosure, and the pack swarmed toward her, fluid as a river. But when they reached her instead of the expected carnage, they greeted her with clear pleasure, standing on their hind legs to lick her face and play. It was quite wonderful. Suddenly my Hervé paintings seemed a lot more plausible."
It is immensely pleasurable to see these seemingly contradictory aspects of the wolf captured together in these paintings.
At the end of last month (September 2009), a special edition of Equus, by Peter Shaffer, was published by The Old Stile Press, illustrated with commissioned images by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about it for this post.
Me:For those of us unfamiliar with the text, could you explain a bit about the main ideas in it which influenced your illustrations?
Clive: Peter Shaffer's play is about a psychiatrist persuaded against his better judgement to take on the case of a disturbed teenage boy accused of having blinded the horses in his care. This horror is known almost from the outset of the play, although the motives behind the terrible act are unpacked slowly so that the drama unfolds as a psychological mystery.
From the first performances Equus caught the imaginations of audiences. The director and designer imaginatively made use of masked and stilted actors to represent the animals, and the action of the play was stylised so that the violence, although disturbing, was represented in a manner that was theatrical rather than unwatchable.
While John Napier's iconic designs for Equus undoubtedly played a significant part in the success of the play, I didn't want to to reproduce them in the book. For the Old Stile Press illustrated edition of Shaffer's text there was an opportunity to create an alternative experience to that of seeing it in performance. My conjuring of Alan Strang's fevered imaginings could be quite different to what had been possible using actors in horse masks. In the book the horses are fluid, transforming from page to page. Sometimes noble and muscular living creatures, sometimes blinded apparitions mutely accusing their young tormentor from the margins. Sexuality underscores play. Alan strips naked and brings himself to orgasm while riding the horse Nugget by night.. He constructs an alternative religion for himself, with Nugget transformed to the Horse-God Equus as the object of his worship. It's a potent brew.
Me: Could you describe the process used for creating these?
Clive: The book illustrations are relief printed from polymer blocks. The images were originated in multiple layers. Pen and ink on paper (sometimes collaged) layered with acrylic on acetate into which were scratched the 'sgraffito' elements. These 'layered' drawings were photographed with a plate camera and the blocks then generated from the negatives via an ultra-violet light-box that 'cured' the exposed areas of polymer through the transparent parts of the negative. (It's an updated version of the the old... and slightly obscure... 'cliché verre' technique once used by printmakers using sunlight through inked glass onto photo-sensitive paper.) The result is as you see. No greys of course. Only the illusion of tonality generated by spacing the marks. The Old Stile Press has made a bit of a speciality of this relief printing from polymer blocks, and I've been the artist who has used it most. It's been a learning curve!
Equus is an edition of 200 copies, with a special edition of 10 copies which includes this edition relief print:
The book can be purchased by making inquiries here. On Clive's website, he has an entire section devoted to "Saints and their Beasts."