Here we are in southern Goa, on Palolem beach, sitting in the Nest cafe bar restaurant next to our cabin, fans whirring overhead, an Indian woman doing her telemarketing in front of us, all attached to her headpieces and computer while gazing out on the sunlit sea, the gentle whoosh of waves rhythmically lapping the shore. Burred northern English and Scottish accents penetrate through soft electronic music, peaceful.
We woke up early this morning and walked this beautiful bay, our feet sloshing in the shallow waters, cows resting peacefully on the sand, dogs twirling in play and amour. The little fishing canoes supported by their shaggy tree bough arms coming home in the early morning mist with a small catch. All day we have been swimming and soaking in the warm opaque water of the Arabian sea, drifting to beach lounges and roasting in the sun. Everyday.
It took us around 1 and a half hours – or maybe 2 hours – to get here by taxi from the Goa airport for around 2000 rupees, about 22 euro. Arriving at our Nest accommodation was easy with really lovely staff greeting us. Our cabin is on the beach and is sparse and spacious with overhead fan, air con if we want, and a refrigerator – which we haven’t used yet because of the bar next door!!
This is a beautiful place. The beach is about 1.5 kilometres long, curving towards a tidal river. It is lined with copious palm trees and beach huts and bars and the sand is soft and white and walking is wonderful because it is flat with a very slow decline out to sea. Next to our little stay is a sweet clothing shop, owned by Geeta, that we raid every other day for thin summer clothes to tide us over the days and maybe even another summer. Geeta is like a little spark of sunshine intermingling with the guests and staff, telling stories and sharing her philosophy for a good life. She not only runs the clothing shop but she also does hair braiding, henna painting, pedicures….
At night the sand is set upon with tables and chairs and candles and all along the beach people are wandering in the balmy air, children still playing, music competing amongst the bars. After the eating and the drinking and the laughing, the music stops around 10:00 and finally all we hear are the waves coming up closer and closer to our cabin, and all we see are the shooting white lines of the waves breaking in the mysterious dark of the night.
Leaving the house in the shadows of winter, the trees bare and bleak rising toward the cold blue blue sky, we emerge from the village into the light, into the sun, along the narrow roads winding through the rusty vines, filled with wellbeing as we soak that wonderful warmth into our bodies. Locked down in Provence in a corner of the planet so beautiful, how could we complain?
Our funny little old house, with its up and down floors and rickety uneven stairways, climbs four floors with thick stone walls and is now so warm and comfortable we find it a wee bit hard to go to our more austere studios. It is an act of immense decision to undress there and get into our old work clothes in those frosty rooms, but we soon warm up, sculpture is so physical and we can light a fire on the top floor if we want to be doing something gentler and less arduous.
Michael is about to start a huge painting. He has been eyeing the canvas for days now, cleaning up his space around it, arranging the enclosure of the space and the heating, messing about, a bit excited and nervous too. He’ll go like a crazy cat when he starts, and I’ll be lucky to get two words from him for days. He has just completed two large sculptures, one of which he intends to be included for the exhibition at the Citadel Museum in St Tropez. He is really happy with his giant ‘Little Bird’ with its joyous face and little raised wing. Perhaps it says something about the feeling we have, like little birds in the nest waiting for our first flight out. We are sort of careful and sort of anxious, not quite sure if we are ready to be ‘out there’, but busting to be free.
In my studio, filled with my sculpted shields, I am inspired by the shield of life, protecting the warrior. I love the shape and form of this shield, it is a bit gothic surrounding the central figure, and it is a bit shell like, with its grooved patterns on one side and worn and pitted on the other. It also has the immensity of a Zulu shield, there to protect the great warrior completely… it feels ceremonial and I think it comes from my Guardian figures, the feeling of protection one creates around oneself in times of crisis.
Just now and once again, we are in lockdown. We have spent nearly the whole year in our little village and with each lockdown we have gotten to know the place more intimately. Some things have not changed, like the old men, sometimes ten or twelve of them gathered closely on the benches outside the Tabac, most of them in their masks, grumbling away as their glasses get foggy. We are so lucky to have the few shops here open, like the Alimentation, Tabac, the Health food shop and Boulangerie. Everything we need is here. We walk in the countryside and gather mushrooms and herbs, it’s beautiful, and the people we pass in the street are very kind and friendly. Our french remains terrible and is especially worse behind our masks but once things normalise I am sure our french will pick up again with the inevitable socialising in this very gregarious village full of music and happenings.
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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.
My ears are aching from the wild ocean wind. The cobalt sea is peaking in ragged white out beyond the break water. We are in Warrnambool, a country town in the south of Victoria, in Australia. Warrnambool is not far from the twelve apostles, the stony giant monoliths cut off from the mainland by the fierce erosion of wind and sea. We are here to install my ‘Guardians’, male and female, 2.4 metres high, for the Warrnambool Art Museum, outside the entrance to the gallery on the Civic Green.
The Guardians have been part of my emerging language as an artist since the time my childish world was happily turned upside down at the age of 10. I was brought up in a slightly unusual family as my father, Brian Nunan, is an artist and was totally supported in all his dreaming by my mother. One year, he packed all six of us up in an old landrover and trailor and took us up into the desert where we finally settled in a derelict world war 2, concrete army block house across the bay from Darwin, near an aboriginal settlement. This period of time brought us in contact with the art of the local people, their corroborees, their connection to the earth and their own earthy characters. Their art seemed spiritual, with the figures of animals and people drawn in the caves and on bark feeling almost ethereal, as though the real message is their essence. I was aware even then of how extraordinary it was to be here in Australia amongst a people from an original culture, over 60,000 years old. Not much had changed till we got here 200 years ago. So it was still possible to touch that ancient history through the people themselves. From my perspective as a young girl, this was at odds with the strong physicality and ‘realism’ of the normal life I had come from down south and far from the figurative works of Rodin and Michaelangelo, artists who would become important to me as a growing teenager.
Some years later, when I was 20, I did a trip with my father into the outback to draw and paint and with a mission to find some caves near Arnhem land that he had been to in another year. We didn’t find the caves he was searching for, but we did come across another cave with a gigantic boulder at its entrance. Painted on the boulder were two big figures with their arms and hands outstretched warningly, their eyes huge and dark. To me they felt like ‘Guardians’. It felt as though we were entering a sacred area and these figures were warding away bad spirits. So, with a feeling of great awe and careful respect we went into the cave and saw the artist’s space, an elevated rock, its surface well worn from the centuries, perhaps millenia, of artists lying in this space, the divits where he crushed his stone and the bits of twigs for painting. All around the cave on the rock walls were beautiful xray drawings of animals and human figures hunting or collecting or just being. The space felt very peaceful and we left with a feeling of having experienced a profound spiritual connection. I can’t tell you of the impression this made for me in my life. I return to it again and again in my work, and I feel the presence of these Guardians always.
The Guardians emerged in my work at first as ‘Night’ and ‘Day‘ and then they became little fecund women figures on hilltops and single figures in the landscape, ethereal figures connecting to the spirit of the land. In other ancient cultures I have found Guardians too. The Etruscans, the Cycladic Greeks, the Egyptians, the Africans, the pre-Columbians… The Guardians are amongst the great archetypes of civilization and deep down, even today, and without hocus pocus, we know we have to protect the things that are sacred to us, our inner selves, our children, our homes. The Guardians at an entrance are saying, come in, but be respectful. For me, these Guardians symbolically represent the balance of life, they are yin and yang, male and female, conscious and unconscious, night and day.
The unveiling of my sculptures in Warrnambool took place on a mild Saturday, 10th November, 2012. I had the blessing of aboriginal elder, Mr Robert Lowe, or Uncle Robbie, who performed a smoking ceremony to cleanse the land and the sculptures before their acceptance. He placed burning gum leaves in front of the sculptures and their smoke billowed around us as we gave our speeches and the sculptures were finally unveiled. It felt significant to me to have an aboriginal elder here at the gallery whose cultural heritage has influenced my own and in particular these Guardians.
I am the luckiest person alive to have a patron like Professor Barbara van Ernst, who has been collecting my work for the past 20 years and has recently also bought my work for Hamilton Regional Gallery. Along with John Cunningham, Director of the Warrnambool Gallery, she commissioned me to create the Guardians for Warrnambool Civic Green. John Cunningham has such a visionary cultural belief in Warrnambool and somehow my art fitted into part of the manifestation. It is truly a great synergy when artist, patron and gallery can work together to help make culture grow.