I wrote recently about my discovery of the late artist and teacher Roger Ackling. An article about Ackling in Resurgence & Ecology magazine had intrigued me; it was a review of a book – Between the Lines – memorials and tributes describing the artist’s life and artistic philosophy.
I’ve read the book from cover to cover; it has been added to my especial library, is one of a small handful of books in which I’ve underscored text on almost every page and will return to again and again. If you read my earlier blog, you will know that Ackling made his art by burning marks – dots, lines – into found driftwood, by directing the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass. The process typically required hours of concentrated focus, on all levels.
I learnt that Roger Ackling had had a house and studio in Weybourne, a village on the North Norfolk coast. Literally on the coast, for the house was the end house, nearest to the sea, of a short terrace of what once were coastguards’ cottages. I took the picture above in August this year of this terrace, of Ackling’s property, bought in the ’60s for a song because the sea was little by little encroaching by erosion on the group of dwellings and for certain, they would eventually be taken by the sea.
In the book, a photo of the group of dwellings shows a broad path between the edge of the cliff and Ackling’s house; in my photo, the sea has taken the path away, has advanced right up to a stone wall that marked the boundary between Ackling’s garden and the path. In time, too, the wall will go.
At the same time I discovered Roger Ackling and his Weybourne home and studio, I found I needed to go to Weybourne on personal business. Weybourne is a tiny fishing village in North Norfolk. It is of so little economic consequence, it seems, that the Government has ceased attempts to control the erosion of its coast by the sea. I cannot imagine the odds on anyone ‘having to be in Weybourne’. That it coincided with my discovery of an artist with whom I would have found so much in common must lengthen the odds considerably. And so my necessary trip to Weybourne became also a kind of pilgrimage – to a house that, even if I’d found its situation, might have already fallen into the sea. I was going to see a house that might no longer exist, that had belonged to an artist now deceased, whose entire body of work was made by redirecting the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass in order to burn lines onto discarded pieces of wood that happened to wash up on the beach near a house about to fall into the sea.
Whether there was a house or not wasn’t important. As Ackling said, in an interview with Dr Judith Collins*, rather than the landscape itself, he was “… more interested in a mental state of mind while working.” I deduce from this that it was not the artwork – the product – that was important, but the process, during which the artist would be transfigured. In the book I read that Ackling believed of art that it had “… the power to transfigure …” and that “… rituals performed in private can change the face of the world.” It follows that the change occurs following the transfiguration of the artist during the art-making process.
That Ackling used the term transfiguration, rather than say, transformation, I find significant. In the Transfiguration of Christ, Jesus and three of the apostles, Peter, James and John, go up onto a mountain to pray. While praying, Jesus begins to shine with bright rays of light.
There is nothing in the book to suggest that Ackling was a Christian. I suggest, however, that he clearly saw a correlation between Jesus’s Transfiguration, when bright rays of light began to emanate from him as he prayed, and his own artistic practice of using the sun’s rays to make his art. This is the ritual, equating to prayer, that has “… the power to transfigure …” first the artist and consequently through him or her, the world. The product – the artwork – is only important in that it is a manifestation of the invisible process. Said another way, the product is the process. Art as verb rather than noun, activity rather than object. It shifts success as an artist away from the cash or other value of his or her product, to his or her transfiguration during the making of the object, and by extension, to the transfiguration of the world. Enlightenment.
* Dr Judith Collins is a curator of 20th century British art at the Tate Gallery in London. Her writings include the exhibition catalogue for Cecil Collins: A Retrospective Exhibition. This book as well as The Vision of the Fool and Other Writings by Cecil Collins and Brian Keeble (Ed) are also in my especial library.