By sheer synchronicity :) just after posting my last blog – Beauty and Story in Unlikely Places – images of some of the exquisite works of artist Mary Snyder Behrens dropped into my email box. Trammels, she calls them.
She writes: “Beauty, genuine beauty, … is often found in unexpected spaces, in various states of being and decay.”
“By making art from these leavings, I interrupt their dormancy and renew their purpose and their worth. These trammels are, to me, homages to a life of utility, for it is in the work we do that we find our own dignity and purpose.” Also: “Trammels – containers for memory and experience, wrapped and bound in the discards of a society of excess and waste. The materials that form these trammels are ‘found’. The torn lining from an old jacket, or the scrim from the underbelly of a chair became tactile and visual metaphors for the invisible remnants that are inadvertently produced by our culture. Common materials that, having outlived their usefulness, have been relegated to the trash bin.”
I was pondering how to finish the little encaustics I’m making. I intuited that I had to use stitch and I bought some tough white flax cord, which I boiled in tea to reduce the glare of their newness. It’s been waiting (Ha! – another crossroads) for me to intuit exactly how to introduce it into the works.
My little encaustics are, on one level, like the Trammels of Ms Behrens, containers of memory. Some I am about to make will involve found objects, objects that once served a practical purpose. (In some cases these are unearthed; unearthing is one of a range of ways of finding an object and I look forward to a future walk from this particular crossroads). In this, that is, as containers of memory, wrapping and binding them would give them similar significance to Trammels.
There is always an overlapping, but others, including those I’m making now, of my Pavillon Chinois images, have different focuses. Some others are about experiences which could be said to be binding: in describing them I might say that they held me in thrall, rooted me to the spot in awe, were spell(binding). Let’s call these peak experiences. It was a natural impulse to want to share these experiences and to express gratitude for them.
Natural phenomena often stimulate peak experiences and the urge to express gratitude: a spectacular sunset, a chorus of birds at dawn; a ” … wind-warped upland thorn, …” (that line was pinched from Thomas Hardy’s poem, Afterwards).
Afterwards is in a way about gratitude. Hardy is pondering how his neighbours will recall him after his death. It’s clear he wants to be remembered as “… a man who used to notice such things …”, things being aspects of nature that rooted him to the spot in awe, like ” … the dew-fall hawk … crossing the shades … “, “… like an eyelid’s soundless blink …”
Is this poem also an expression of gratitude not just for the gift of the natural world, but for his ability to observe and to feel?
I think so. I think man is hot-wired for gratitude. And we want to bind our peak experiences up in poetry, art, music, as an expression of gratitude. I’d add scientific exploration to the list, for the peak experience is not confined to those of an artistic and/or mystical disposition.
The gratitude hot-wire begs the question: to whom are we directing our gratitude? I think man’s innate desire to express gratitude is one of the most obvious and compelling apologetics for the existence of a Supreme Being. And having written that, I can instantly see a counter to my argument. Ah, well.
Bundling, binding, winding-round – a way of containing the gift of a peak experience, a spellbinding moment. A way of holding in thrall that which held us in thrall and as an object, a manifestation of gratitude for it, the spellbinding moment. The act of winding and binding is about binding and spellbinding, placing and holding a peak experience in thrall; a dew-fall hawk moment.
There’s another kind of winding-round that’s also about peak experience. It’s about stimulating peak experience and about protection. It’s prayer. In particular, Celtic prayer. It’s the Caim. I found it in David Adams‘ Tides and Seasons: Modern Prayers in the Celtic Tradition. Here’s Holy Caim:
Circle of Witnesses
Circle of Apostles all around.
Circle of Saints
Circle of Martyrs
Circle of God
Circle of Christ
Circle of Spirit
“In time of low tide or of danger, the Hebridean Celts drew round themselves and their loved ones the caim. Using the index finger of their right hand they would point and turn a full circle sunwise; … This was no magic … no attempt to manipulate God. It was always surrounded by God, He is our encompasser, our encircler.”
” On the island of Barra an old dame said, ‘In such a peril draw the caim around you, and thou art in a fortress.”
Well, I think it is magic. (There are those Christians who denounce the Celtic Christianity movement as pagan. Personally, I don’t see a difference between praying by making a circle with a finger and making an arch with my hands).
There is also a Dressing Prayer, a prayer made while dressing for the day, “I bind … I wrap … I cover … I pull around me … I bind around me/The power of the Sacred Three.”
This is also about protection. In the Carmina Gadelica – a 19th century collection of hymns and incantations, prayers, charms, rituals, omens and auguries, gathered by Alexander Carmichael during his travels throughout the Scottish Isles as an Exciseman – there is this:
It was the custom to bind up a handful of straw, the last sheaf of corn to be cut in the field, to make it up into the likeness of a woman, with docken and ragweed stalks, and tied with threads of various colours, …”
Among the crofters of the Highlands and Islands, the last to finish harvesting would have to support for the winter an invisible hag (cailleach). When you finished your harvesting, you made your cailleach and passed it on to the crofter who hadn’t finished his. It was usually delivered on horseback, throwing it, at a gallop, into the crofter’s field, to the consequence, often, of violence.
The cailleach is elsewhere the corn dolly. The origin of dolly might be the Greek eidolon – apparition – that which represents something else.
If I bind an artwork then, I might at times be indicating that the work, while representing a peak experience (where it does) is also a representation of gratitude for the experience and its vehicle. It might also be that in the physical act of binding, I am expressing gratitude, i.e. I am in prayer. If I consider that, it is a far more personal and dynamic form of prayer than that found in the largely spiritually-bereft places that often are our contemporary churches.
Here is one of the little encaustic/Plaster of Paris (Pavillon Chinois) canvasses I’m working on. (It’s a close-up of the image at the top). I’ve started the wrapping process using the tea-dyed flax cord, some white upholstery stuffing threads and some gold-red recycled sari silk.
I’m fixing/embedding the various wrapping materials to the canvas using encaustic medium.
Do you bind and bundle? Does your work express gratitude? Protection?
I’d like to know – connect.