I’d not heard of thin places until just a couple of weeks ago, from Wheel of Seasons.
It seems I’m one of the very few who are not familiar with the expression. And yet, it is such an apt description of what I’m trying to achieve in my work, it seems almost impossible that I’ve only just now come across it.
A thin place is described as (for example): a place where one can walk in two worlds; a place where the veil between two worlds is thin; a place where heaven and earth are close together; a threshold or portal.
Eric Weiner, in The New York Times describes a thin place as “… not necessarily a tranquil place, or a fun one, or even a beautiful one, though it may be all of those things too. Disney World is not a thin place. Nor is Cancún. Thin places relax us, yes, but they also transform us — or, more accurately, unmask us. In thin places, we become our more essential selves.”
From a review at Hermitary: resources and reflections on hermits and solitude, of Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space: “Bachelard relates an anecdote about Rilke. One dark night, Rilke and his friends were about to cross a field when they saw “the lighted casement of a distant hut, the hut that stands quite alone on the horizon before one comes to fields and marshlands.” They felt like “isolated individuals seeing night for the first time.” For the dark background of our lives is assumed as inevitable until a flash of insightful light is seen. As Bachelard puts it:
One might even say that light emanating from a lone watcher, who is also a determined watcher, attains to the power of hypnosis. We are hypnotized by solitude, hypnotized by the gaze of the solitary house; and the tie that binds us to it is so strong that we begin to dream of nothing but a solitary house in the night.“
The expression thin place – Caol Ait, expressed also as Ait Caol (pronounced Coal Ate) – is Irish Gaelic, but the concept of thin places derives from peoples who inhabited Ireland before the Celts. These are those who constructed the cairns and the dolmen. From The Wild Geese, a site exploring the heritage of the Irish worldwide:
“When the Celts arrived, they interpreted the dolmen and passage tombs as structures built by the gods and goddesses who inhabited the land — the Tuatha de Danaan, or the Tribe of Danu. These gateways were portals to the Tuatha’s domain and venturing too close could yield disastrous results for humans.“
The images in the slideshow are excerpts from a series of paintings in progress. They derive from a little pond in my garden, and its environment. It is no more than a tiny man-made parcel of water, but I recognise this, now, as one of my thin places.
I’ve walked back and forth past this watery interval in the landscape, for over 13 seasons, as I write; and at times stood its edge just looking into and at the vegetation around it. There came a day it seemed to me, an eye, an ever-open, unblinking eye in which nature was endlessly reflected – through which it nature constantly passed. It was the eye of a hermit. So I came to know my pond as The Hermit’s Eye. And another day came when, passing by and glancing into it, it looked back at me. And I realised that whomever or whatever I was referencing as The Hermit was trying to converse with me and that my work was to find out whatever it was trying to communicate to me.
It’s been slow progress. Recently I’ve not been able to paint at all due to illness. But I have three series of six paintings (18) in progress. They are small, but this is the most work I’ve ever had on the go for many many years. I need to paint larger so I’m about to start on a series of slightly bigger works, increasing the size of the ground incrementally.
Painting in series is new to me. The principle is that you move constantly from one painting to another. The length of time spent on any one painting isn’t fixed, however – it can be as little as or even less than 15 minutes and this depends entirely on feeling. It’s a principle of the art programme I’ve been taking part in for most of 2021.
I couldn’t at first paint in series, but now I can’t ever imagine not painting in series. During an engagement with a work, you watch what’s happening with your emotions. I found that at some point there’s a freezing up. The painting has developed some interesting, even beautiful areas, that I want to keep, but the rest isn’t working and radical action is called for and I can’t take it. I’m anxious; I’ve become precious about those interesting areas; I can’t paint over them; the usual negative inner voices turn up. Instead of suffering, one moves on to the next painting. It’s a new challenge; enthusiasm returns. Each painting in the series stimulates ideas to carry over to another, or even sparks a new series.
That’s how I came across Caol Ait – thin places. I call this blog Poetic Mapping. It is the overarching name for my art work. The term came to me while I was living in France. I’ve no idea where it came from. It just dropped into my head that that was what I was trying to do. I saw that what I was trying to do was to map out where I was, but not in a cartographical sense. And now I know more, that what I am trying to do is find and map the thin places in my life.
There are books about what are considered thin places, indexes of famous physical places such as Stonehenge, or Iona, around the world. Such places are containers of energy, the quality of energy that compels conversation with a small parcel of water. The why of that conversation is another story.