Painting: Passion and Process


Paper by Alison Farmer 2001

He lay down to sleep, resting his head on a stone. He dreamt that he saw a stairway reaching from earth to heaven, with angels going up and coming down on it. And there was the Lord standing beside him. ... Jacob woke up and said, "The Lord is here! He is in this place, and I didn't know it!" ... Jacob got up early next morning, took the stone that was under his head, and set it up as a memorial. Then he poured olive-oil on it to dedicate it to God. ... This memorial stone which I have set up will be the place were you are worshipped.

Jacobs Dream at Bethel - Genesis 28

Standing Stone
by Alison Farmer
see My Gallery

In this Old Testament image Jacob saw the stone as an integral part of his revelation, it was the mediator between himself and God and he used it to mark a place of great pilgrimage.

Stone has long been used in ancient cultures marking tombs, boundaries or objects of religious veneration and due to its permanent qualities, relics still stand today land-marking an immense cultural history that existed between religion and art. Great Walls still stand, often marking more than just physical boundaries and huge obelisks puncture our skies as memorials of great people and historical events. Stone is also alive in worship and can be sought out in the arrangement of a typical Christian church with its central stone altar, and in Christian symbolism where the rock represents the St. Peter or the Church.

In primitive times rough natural stones were often believed to be the dwelling places of spirits or gods and in early history man tried to express what he felt to be the soul or spirit of a rock by working it into a recognizable form, often a hint of a human figure (the name "old man" is still given to many rock stacks such as "The Old Man of Hoy"). This spiritual animation of the stone was more or less a projection of the unconscious carver to invest the stone with more expressive power (energy/spirit/soul) than nature had given it. The Bible also recognises that the manipulation of the rock can change its purist properties. In the laws about building stone altars it states,

"if you make an altar of stone for me, do not build it out of cut stone,
because when you use a chisel on stones, you make them unfit for my use".

A poem by Duncan Livingstone about the Union Buildings shows this unintended transference can be of creative interest to the artist not just a spiritual and philosophical issue.

Clear to me is their hands' impression
On each subtlety and flourish,
Those men of skill who put a soul
In dead stone with their callings secret.
No building you are at all
To me, but God's revelation
That put soul-creating brightness
Into wood, and stone, and clay.

A more intended transference of conscious energy (soul) can be seen in the Black stone "Ka'bah", Islam's most sacred shrine in Mecca. According to popular legend, this stone was given to Adam on his expulsion from paradise in order to obtain forgiveness of his sins. Believed to have fallen from the stars, white in colour, it marks a place of pilgrimage were people go to touch or kiss this sacred object to cleanse their souls. Over the years the absorption of these sins has turned the stone black. Science has since shown this colour change is consistent with known meteorites which are white at first but oxidise over a period of time.

Stone has encouraged Andy Goldsworthy, a Land Artist and ambassador for contemporary art, to question his perceptions of time, stability, change and impermanence. He realises a stone charges a place with its presence, with time filling in and flowing around it, and is reluctant to carve into and break off solid living rock, or even move a large boulder from the place where it has been for a long time, unless in a quarry. In his quest to become part of nature he has explored the changing relationships between people and place and their transference of energies. His work with shadows leaves evidence of his being there, physically and spiritually bound to the earth, even though the image will disappear from view he does not feel it will be lost, it becomes part of the place - a visual image of the carver's and pilgrim's touch.

His latest works show his interest in the stones energy and how it changes and is changed by its surroundings. Instead of placing works upon stone he stacks it in various locations making walls walk, arches stride and sees boulders become sheep when placed in folds. Atmosphere and feeling direct him and seeks to understand the unbroken stone (its pure, natural energy). Cairns have become journey markers of his travels and arches and folds mark agricultural journeys, but it is his life-time work with stone that is the most important journey as it has become a pilgrimage to stone itself.

Relating directly to its history, Goldsworthy roots his stone work of walls and folds "firmly in agriculture, not art, otherwise they would loose their meaning as works of art" and it is this statement and his pilgrimage that can help us see a key megalithic site as not only a great temple of pilgrimage but as one of the earliest examples of Minimum Land Art.

Art is not simple, it never says just one thing, and that is especially true of minimal art. Art is the product of the most creative and forward thinking intellects, and that fact makes it so powerful.

"Calanais" lies to the west coast of the Isle of Lewis and is known to the locals a "Tursachan", a place of mourning or pilgrimage or "Na Fir Bhreige", false men. It is an arrangement of mysterious and monumental standing stones, a mastermind of design and construction, and a powerful image. In the late 1960's Alexander Thom, an engineer, deduced the function of megalithic sites as astronomical observatories and the site of Calanais as a lunar map. He realised that the site's builders must have been masters of mathematics and great engineers.

Made from one of the oldest rocks of the earth, Lewisian Gneiss, the stones own memory acts as a messenger of the universe; they have absorbed the unknown intentions of their builders and charge their surroundings with mystery. Their past roots the work and makes it resonate with place and it was Thom who first saw their location of absolute astrological importance as the site had been set up and a rare and precise point of intersection of earth and heaven at the edge of the unknown.

Thom scientifically relates the stones intimately to the landscape in which they stand just as Andy Goldsworthy's work does in a metaphysical way. It is this sense of place, landscape informed by a grand design, by a sense of the metaphysical that has been so important to visual artists as well as the spiritual impulse of creation that they seek to create.

Fay Godwin, a landscape photographer, sees a difference between "those who really choose to travel to the stones as opposed to being packaged there by the tourist industry" and it is through this kind of pilgrimage in 1975 that Richard Demarco first brought the stones of Calanais back to the attention of the wider community of artists.

"To Calanais from Hagar Qim" was a journey across Europe that sought to reclaim for art, metaphysical territory that it had first occupied with the building of the stones if not before, but which it has struggled to maintain as society has become progressively more secularised. Similar to Andy Goldsworthy's later work and many other contemporary artists, Richard Demarco sees

artists speaking of their work in terms of pilgrimage, of journeying,
searching and finding and when they do, it is in spiritual terms.

It is Demarco's work as an explorer and his record of the countless expeditions and travels that has come to be known as "The Road to Meikle Seggie". It is a road that travels along the long-lost road to the Isles, an exploration of time and space and the ancient pre-Renaissance culture that Scotland shared with most of Europe, a metaphor for all the roads that lie beyond it in our poetic imagination and a symbolic title for the journey of the spirit. It was an adventure that almost inevitably ended in a concern for the well-being of this planet.

The road can only be found by those prepared to make proper use of all the signs and symbols and one Artist who saw this road enlightened was George Wyllie. Born in 1921 this Glasgow artist avoided art until in 1965 he started his journey of self-discovery when he intuitively commenced pursuit of the Question Mark. At the Edinburgh Festival of the arts in 1970 it was Wyllie's first encounter with Richard Demarco's Road to Meikle Seggie that influenced him to take his art out of the galleries to places where people congregate to make a symbolic statement and hopefully change the world through art. Metaphysics and the environment have been as issue of his art for some time and he has erected many and varied flexible Spires to celebrate our planet just as Demarco's adventures hope to achieve. Wyllie produced his own satirical version of the Road to Meikle Seggie at the Edinburgh Festival fringe in 1985 with the March of the Standing Stones.

In 1995 he also produced his own imaginative response to the mystery of the Calanais stones, a variation of one of his spires, "the Truth of stone" uses a piece of rock from the same source of the stones themselves - taking the pure metaphysical energy and suspends it in a gimbal which is surrounded by clutter symbolising the tourist industry to which the stones now inevitably belong, trivialising their permanence and that of the landscape which they are part of. Wyllie also says he requires the integrity of untouched stones as stone contains its own invention.

But then we must look for the intentions of nature in things Which retain their nature, and not in things that are corrupted.

George Wyllie sees all our understandings of these beautiful and mysterious stones as suspect, as their energies have been rendered impure and the theories themselves are human. We need to journey to the point of no corruption, to where the stones were removed from nature.

No truth is greater than the fundamentalism of stone

Books: Good News Bible published by Collins Fontana; Calanais published by an Lanntair Steornabhagh (10th Anniversary); An Tuil edited by Ronald Black Polygon; Man and his Symbols by Carl Jung published by Picador; Stone by Andy Goldsworthy published by Viking; Arch by Andy Goldsworthy published by Thames and Hudso; A Life in Pictures by Richard Demarco published by Northern Books; ScuL?ture Jubilee by George Wyllie published by Third Eye Centre; Minimum by John Pawson published by Phaidon
Websites:Christian Symbolism; Paintings of Ka'bah; Ka'bah and Encyclopaedia; Megaliths and Office Machines