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Issue No.117
13 November 2018

Born of the struggle

Click to enlarge

Ali Hutchison describes her experience of painting Stations of the Cross


ARTISTS SOMETIMES DESCRIBE THEMSELVES as "emotionally invested in their mark making". I used to dismiss such remarks as fanciful or pretentious; until I painted The Jesus Doors Easter Stations earlier this year.

The journey started during Easter 2015. Singing When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, I found myself longing to paint "sorrow and love flow mingled down", that crucifixion paradox of tragedy and triumph, hopelessness undergirded by hope.

I've still to create such visual mingling satisfactorily but meanwhile, painting a series of stations for a church in Manchester during Holy Week in 2017, I did discover what it might mean to be emotionally invested in the mark making.

The idea was to augment an existing set of 15 brass numbers round the church with images that would explore Passiontide themes, such as Sacrifice, Betrayal, Violence, Community, Mourning and, for the entombment, Waiting. "How do you represent waiting in paint?" I enquired. "I don't know, you're the artist," was the minister's reply!

We chose doors for supports, to continue my existing Jesus Doors project, and because eBay helpfully yielded a set of 15 double-panelled doors for much less outlay than 15 canvases. They were washed, sanded, taped and the panels gessoed ready for layers of charcoal and translucent acrylic in a limited palette of blue, red and both siennas.

I also pored over the Gospel accounts of Jesus' last days on earth. I was particularly moved painting the sorrow of the women who mourned Jesus en route to the cross, and by the love shown by the woman with the jar of nard. Onlookers criticised her extravagance; "the money should have been used for the poor." But Jesus said 'yes' to her, "Yes, your love is acceptable, your actions are acceptable, and what's more I am now anointed unto death and you will be remembered forever." There I was in a suburban kitchen studio remembering her, her actions and bringing her before others to remember too.

But several other doors left me more than just 'moved'. The studio felt more like a prayer cell than an artist's workplace. Some sort of synergy seemed to birth more than the-sum-of-the-parts of the artist, the supports and the medium. And just as in real birth I felt the labour of it.

This happened particularly while painting the Violence Door depicting Jesus' torture andfloggings. A red under-painting was slashed at with a wax candle; actions which felt like participation in the flogging and cries of 'crucify him'. After wiping highlights from charcoal mid-tones and adding blue shadows and background, the whip marks were revealed by gently lifting the wax with a palette knife. This was the most exhausting day. I was spent.

Several Christians found these images unbearably painful, yet an agnostic friend said she appreciated this painting but wasn't moved at all, proving that the viewer, with their hinterland of experiences, does play a part in the creation of meaning through art and that we should not assume everyone will see things as we do.

Struggling to create an abstract 'Waiting' for that last entombment station yielded the door which elicited most feedback and response. All day I repeatedly paused to wipe back my unsatisfactory efforts. Eventually even the gesso started parting company with the door, leaving scrapes and scratches. The door looked as though it had suffered great agony. It seemed fit to depict only the greatest suffering of all: Mary holding her crucified son. I had to leave it for an early evening social engagement, despite my nails being indelibly impacted with teal from scraping back the mix of raw sienna and blue. Later in the evening, I sat before this door and almost asked it to show me if it concealed a Pieta as I started to block out the background. I was alone in the house and there was a reverential atmosphere as the virgin and her son emerged, born of the day's struggle.

In art theory there is a school of thought which believes the materials themselves have vitality and play a living part in what they are becoming. I had always dismissed this too as fanciful but a similar thing happened while painting Christ's face during the crucifixion. My hand marks from spreading the charcoal almost dictated where the images should emerge and, rather than forging my pre-determined composition, I urged the charcoal to show me what lay hidden.

One could argue that if the studio has become a prayer cell, the Holy Spirit might play a part. To many this would seem more fanciful still. Even relating such musings seems to confer a puffed-up importance that the art may not deserve. Yet if ours is a God who knows the number of hairs on our heads, surely God is interested in our efforts when we try to serve him - just as Jesus affirmed the woman with her jar of nard.

What I can confess to is that, during the creation of these Easter Stations, I was both emotionally and spiritually invested in the mark making. I hope that doesn't sound fanciful or pretentious. My working hands were covered with paint from time to time and I had no nails to speak of for the duration. Yet my prayer was that the work of those same hands would glorify God. When the last stroke of paint was finally done, I remember whispering in prayer, "I wonder if you're pleased?" During their exhibition, I know some people were moved, even to tears, so the works might have played some small part in helping others visualise Jesus and his sacrifice more clearly. And that, for this artist, would be worthy of a heartfelt 'amen'.


To learn more about Ali's work see w: or w: