It is wild. It has all been wild. The weather is tempestuous and volatile, changing quickly from a sunny bright blue day to brooding glowering storms and to dense heavy grey fog that submerge the land into nothing, all in one day and all within hours. The ground is sodden and covered in bright orange bracken or bold bright green grass, soft and lush for the sheep with their coats of several painted colours. There are many sheep in these craggy hilltops. They merge with the rocks, once the colour of liver, now white with old lichen. Collected over the centuries, the never ending supply of rocks have partly become a lacework of walls flowing organically over the hillsides and down onto the cliff edges of the sea, containing a vivid patchwork of green and orange lit by turbulent skies.
It has been amazing here. I think you need the full month to get the full benefit from this experience. We could have left many times earlier. We got ‘over’ it, thought we had already ‘got’ it, but here we were, everyday clambering the same hills, thinking we had already ‘done’ this, and yet another revelation would come, another strange connectness to nature and the ancient past and an opening of the creative spirit to discover new doorways for our art. It is at first hard to appreciate the lack of distractions as at first you actually miss them. Long nights reading or writing or playing a game or talking when normally you might watch a movie or work on the internet or socialize. The change of habits has been great for our art as we only seem to talk about our art or this strange land we are immersed in. Hours are spent investigating, imagining ancient peoples, reinventing how they saw the world and in those imaginings, days have disappeared without once thinking about our normal living.
Noelle Campbell-Sharpe is a larger than life character who, famous in Ireland for her entrepreneurship and her wildish ways, has devoted the last twenty years to saving this small patch of coastline for artists to come and retreat from life. In amongst the ruins of cottages over the centuries are the ruins of the monks who came here after they left the skelligs around 1000 AD, their bones buried in the much older megalithic round houses or forts. Noelle has bought all the ruined cottages in the more recent pre-famine Cill Rialaig village and is in the process of transforming them into accommodation for artists creating a trust and protecting the area from the ruinous stamp of tourism and growth.
We read some great books while we were here, The Chalice and the Blade, written by Riane Eisler and The Megalithic Empire, co written by M. J. Harper and H.L. Vered. They were so appropriate for this part of remote farmland almost untouched by modern civilization at lands edge. The scars and marks of megalithic society are still here, and one senses the great mother of the neolithic societies still in the round forts and farmers homes, the little dome houses surrounded by their round protective walls and the sweeping curves of the entrances, even the ancient stone fences add another ring to the spiral, womblike. We found standing stones at the entrance to the ancient village above us on the hill, all the homes round, rings of foundation stones everywhere. We read that the neolithic society who lived here were traders so it made sense that there were ley lines reaching from these villages on the sea, from the Skelligs Michael, small islands near us where monks retreated in 500 AD., to Mount Carmel near Jerusalem passing through Mont Saint Michel in France and Monte Gargano in southern Italy (from where the knights Templar departed for the holy land). The ancients mined copper and gold and maybe even trained and traded crows! Crows are said to have been trained to fly in a straight line and for this they were used on the pre christian celtic trading ships, kept in the ‘crows nest’ . The crows were set free when the sailors thought they were near land, noting the direction the birds flew in, and if they returned, there was no land…
I’m afraid this time around our art was not influenced by sheep or crows, worthy though they are. But perhaps because we were so engaged in the neolithic world we saw ourselves in, our art had to capture some of the philosophy of those people. As we walked in this landscape on the edge of the great sea, the elements of wind and rain and sun our constant companions, we began to feel the oneness of it all. We did not feel more or less than nature, just part of it. There was a great feeling of impartiality, that nothing was greater than life itself. There was a great sense of reverence for life and the dearest wish to protect the earth and preserve it from greed and senseless consumerism. The wish to make life grow, in the same way of those neolithic people with their wisdom of the earth, their home.
We arrived on the weekend of the great storm. When we woke in the morning we could barely restrain the door of the house as it leapt out of our hands. The waves on the cliffs below were spiraling high into the sky, the wind skimming the tops of the waves, gathering its plunder into walls and towers before it was thrown back down into the sea in wild abandon. We danced with excitement on the top of the cliffs outside the little cottages of Cill Rialaig and with adrenalin high in the racing wind, we took off up the narrow road towards Bolus Head, the rain and wind simultaneously wetting and drying us as we bowed beneath it. Then the unimaginable happened, just as we began talking to another walker, the wind suddenly scooped low and hard and lifted us off our feet, airborne, and threw us with unyielding force back onto the road, pushing us on uncontrolled feet and clutching useless hands, into the rock walls whereupon the other walker and I fell on top of each other into a ditch, soft with muck and tussocks of grass. Mike at the last moment managed to catch hold of the wire fence where he clung for dear life till the wind’s attention went else where…. Nature. My feeling of great connection and exuberance simmered into brooding caution and fearful respect and I tottered home suspicious of every gust, stiff and sore.
We are in Cill Rialaig, artists in residence in one of the seven available pre-famine cottages for artists on the cliffs of the Atlantic and off the ring of Kerry on the Iveragh Peninsula. So wild and so beautiful. We have been here before, 15 years ago. We came with Sollai while Jake was at his school for gifted young musicians in America. We thought a sojourn here would be closer to Jake if he needed us and in the meantime we would create and be inspired in this amazing environment. We loved the residency so much, we rented a house for four extra months in the same area after the residency finished and developed a great series of our work, Mike on the Vikings and me on the Skellig Monks.
It’s a tough time of year to be here, but we were here fifteen years ago during the same period and we have been waxing lyrical for the past fifteen years on the extraordinary light during the winter period and we wanted to experience it again. How lucky are we! Here in this magical light, the air so clean and up here on the cliffs, the weather patterns before us are constantly changing, emptying out and refilling with light and grey and black and aqua and gold and pink, tipping the crests of the water with silver and creaming up the sky under blue black clouds, piercing rays of the whitest light searing the water and touching sodden cliff horizons with a golden edge.
We walk for a few hours every day, drawing and painting as we go, up into the hills through prickly wet paddocks, clambering over fences and rocks. We have found two of the most amazing ring forts, and have wandered over them, mapping their abodes and tunnels and entrances and burial places. One of the ring forts, for sure, is an ecclesiastical abode with the enclosed burial ground outside the main circular building, a standing stone bearing the insignia of Christianity. The other one, in the hills above our little village, looks like a farmer’s home and it is in sight of the other ecclesiastical fort. It has what looks like a chase that runs alongside the home paddock and up over the hill top where four standing stones, sentinels of varying height, seem significantly inline with the islands of the two kings in the sea.
One day, on one of our walks, sheep were grazing on the succulent grass on the edge of the road, scattering as we came near, except for one, solid and muscular this sheep was a ram and he glanced balefully at us, his body rigid, his lip curling and ripples of flesh creasing up over his nose. I could feel that age old sensation of danger up and down my spine, but he let us pass and I knew once again how out of touch I was with earth. Sometimes we are so civilized, we become too safe and sanitized, our instincts become neutralized and our language of our experiences is about how beautiful it all is without any real respect for the deep primal wildness in its essence. I feel the touch of the wild here. I am not comfortable at all. But I feel deeply, passionately alive. It is great for my art. My work is in an uncomfortable state of transition. Is it good? Will it be good? Maybe not, but it doesn’t matter. I am creating and it is all fodder for the best work to come.
I must write about this magical month in October before I forget. Our life goes so fast sometimes, I forget to take note of the extraordinary experiences we have and that are wonderful to share.
We just spent 4 weeks in the old medieval town of Pietrasanta where we carved in studio Shakti in the industrial marshland, walking into town each morning for our coffee and brioche, the pedestrian streets echoing in the early morning as we briskly made our way to the great piazza, home to Michaelangelo for a few years as he wandered the mountains searching for beautiful stone. He found the most beautiful statuario in Mont’ Altissimo, in the mountains above Pietrasanta, and opened a quarry there. It is truly amazing to be in the history of this original Roman town, that for centuries has had artists coming to make their sculptures in the many dusty studios, working with the artigiani; experienced craftsmen who could point up the model from an artist better than the artist, and execute the idea with truth to the artist, the great artists’ friend.
We lived at the studio in a small apartment, all day and all night the noise of machines in the surrounding studios and factories, churning and cutting the marble for facades of buildings, copies of old sculptures, kitchen benches and tiles, facades of pillars; the great inners discarded after the veneer was peeled off, a tragic loss of mountains slowly disappearing into the terrible maw of consumerism, temporary but forever gone.
The Shakti studio is very basic, but lovely with its great old Mediterranean pines towering over the makeshift sheds, catering for artists working here short term and mostly working with smallish pieces. You bring your own tools and you can work with the supplied air or by hand. There is no lifting apparatus, though the guys in the studio next door will come in and move your piece if it is too heavy with their little crane truck. You can buy your marble from these guys too. There are also artigiani wandering in and out, willing to work for the artists if they need their stone cut out in readiness for the finer work. One lady we met was so delighted with what the artigiani could do, she employed one of them full time, and simply told him what she wanted, asking him to be more graceful here, and more elegant there, I think she was innocent of her appropriation, but she annoyed a few of the artists for her shamelessness… In the studio next door an exquisite sculpture of two figures, one carried by the other, and destined for a British museum, had taken six months for the artigiani to point up from the artist’s model. We were there in its final days of finishing, and, the artist not in sight, but his orders were explicit, for the sculpture to be highly polished, lucido. Before the polishing, but finished if you chose, the light had entered the sculpture so that it was luminous and unbearably sensuous. Days later we went back, devastated to see the sculpture in its finished state, polished and plastic, the delicacy of form gone into slick hardness that could have been a white gloss resin.
I don’t think I have ever worked so hard in my life. From 8.30 in the morning till lunchtime, and an hour or two’s break and then till 6.30 at night. All day. I fell into bed each night and became entirely useless, I couldn’t clean or make a meal. We had our lunch at the Croce Verde in Pietrasanta and thank goodness for that because we ate really well, and then basically nothing of an evening, too tired to muster energy other than for a pecorino cheese sandwich which we thought was manna from heaven sloshed down with local red wine. I loved it. I loved finding my stone. It was the first time I had ever carved marble and I loved the process. My first piece I worked with from a model that I had originally cast in bronze. It equally suited marble. Finding the stone became the first step in the seduction process and then haggling for the price, knowing you’ll pay too much because you want it so much. Michael was my teacher, he knows me so well, he wasn’t in there at every moment, allowing me to find my way, but there to let me know when to change tools, helping me with the cutting, teaching me to listen to the stone, pulling me past frustration. It was wonderful. The process was wonderful, because bit by bit, as you got beyond the raw stone and refined its surface, you took the piece to be your own, you gave it its life, you allowed its inner light to shine. And shine it does. The light of the stone is so beautiful and I am sure the in-loveness you feel imparts something else that is symbiotic with life. It was also wonderful to continue the process till the end under your own hand. It makes you consider the surface more because it is not lost through another process.
It was four beautiful weeks together, devoted solely to our art. Our conversation was about art and our development and growth in our work. We forgot the outer world of busyness, totally immersed in the passion of seeing things differently. It was the great retreat into ourselves and Mike emerged with beautiful bird forms that had become the mother over her nest which was the universe or the cosmos, her great form shadowing the egg like planets immersed in the ether. My work in marble is spinning off the cycladic influences of neolithic art, loving the mother, loving the duality of male and female, finding a way back to a place in ourselves that honoured life and the earth.