One of the Christmas cards we received this year shows a panel from a Fra Angelico fresco, The Chorus of the Prophets. Sixteen figures with gold halos, cupid pouts or extravagant beards look down from discs of cloud that lift them above the chapel congregation. Each makes a gesture or carries a symbolic object. I don’t know why.
The lovely narrative strangeness of these early religious works is a benefit of my own ignorance. The symbolic gestures were at one time deliberately readable, as were the arrangements of figures, the colours of their clothing, the objects and animals tucked in with the people. Saints hold objects that name them as though each were displaying their very own pub sign. Keys mean St Peter, fingers in a wound, Thomas, an anchor, St Clement. I have to look all these up, and don’t know who the main players, guaranteed to be recognised by all when they were painted, would be. But for early church goers, familiarity with these symbols ensured the wall paintings would tell a story without the intercession of words, let alone google or wikipedia.
It was a happy choice of image to light upon. Earlier this morning I had been thinking about the two strands of my work, writing and teaching art. When I was an erratic, stimulus-seeking youngster I hated this time of year. The Christmas high already spent, the wild abandon of New Year’s Eve fully days away – it felt a kind of torture. Now I love it. The luxury of boredom, the absence of urgency. These are states that I long for year round but rarely manage to secure. Like many in the arts, making a living from precarious practises and unreliable sources, being self employed feels like a constant state of shoring up, of capitalising, of castigating oneself for failing once again to capitalise. I have freedom to live a creative life, and that is a great blessing. But I pay for it in security and an inability to do anything, however enjoyable and necessary some of it may feel to my soul, that is not work.
So, early this morning I was thinking about how my ambition for 2022 must be to make some of it feel like today. A dampening of the scrabble of practical thinking for long enough to get bored. The sporadic muting of tedious attempts to become something other than precariously rewarded. One thing I know now about writing is that I need time. Time to notice, time to change direction, time to rethink, or reshape. Time to spot a rich possibility, snuck in like a burred seed on the hem of another idea. I believe that this time must come without words – within a kind of precious and productive boredom. And writing being the thing I most care about, finding that time is important.
This morning I realised that the two strands of art and writing belong more closely together. Perhaps a delta of tributaries within the one practice, rather than two separate streams that both need banking, scoring, damming, clearing, fishing, nurturing, watching. Both are essentially a form of observation, and a reaction to and reshaping of what has been observed. Both, whether the notion of narrative is in fashion or favour or rejected, are a type of story telling. The need for time is in effect the act of creating a practice within which to produce work. It applies to both art and writing.
I don’t quite know how this will work, as predominantly my art practise now is one of online teaching, but picking up the card with its pyramid of prophets this morning seemed appropriate. These pictures were the writing of their day. They told stories for people who couldn’t read.
Whether using words or pictures we are sharing stories. It could be the story of an investigation into material, or a description of memory, a passing interest in the curl of a winter leaf or a habitual exploration of the wild array of shared myth.
Even if I can’t quite grasp the shape of it just now I am sure that removing the barrier between these two streams will enrich both, and leave me more beautiful, dull, damp, quiet time, and if I can let my head be quiet for long enough, I am sure it will work out how.