7 DAYS: Art and the Sacred

Describing the ‘co-creative’ process of the 7 DAYS installation, Carol Marples considers how the natural environment can shape our experience of art, creation and the sacred.

Can seven fraying, dirty, decaying pieces of fabric be seen as sacred art and lead to an understanding of the sacred reality of God?

The installation 7 DAYS was initially commissioned for COP26 (the 26th UN Climate Change Conference) to be exhibited in the University of Glasgow’s Memorial Chapel throughout November 2021. 7 DAYS consists of seven (1m x 1m) mixed-media textile panels that took as their starting point the ancient Hebrew text of Genesis, Chapter 1.

The seven panels were created from re-purposed white and off-white fabrics, white emulsion (left over from decorating), candle wax, white and off-white sewing threads and gold leaf: a symbolic colour representing the sacred in art. Into the panels were stitched simple motifs and designs that reflected an element, or elements, of each of the seven days of creation. In addition, a word or short phrase was chosen to represent, broadly and poetically, the biblical text. Space was left within each of the panels for creation to make her mark; the idea was to co-create with creation. The panels were installed in seven different gardens, from July 2021–October 2021, thus handing the works over to the various situational and elemental environmental changes of these places.

7 DAYS is a ‘process work’, an important element of which has been the regular photographic and journalistic documenting of the panels. While, initially, the pieces were created for a set time and place, the work has been ongoing. Post COP26, the panels were returned to their host gardens in January 2022–June 2022. They have since been exhibited at the Solas Festival in Perthshire from 17th –19th June 2022, then on Iona for a Wild Goose Resource Group Worship Week, 30th July–5th August 2022, and at the time of writing they are in the garden of a Centre for Health and Pastoral Care in Thirsk, North Yorkshire. The documenting of the works is continuing.

A year on, the news is once again focusing on the environment as COP27 takes place in Egypt. 7 DAYS focuses on the earth as God’s gift of creation, given to humans to tend. The COP meetings seem to highlight our failures in this task and yet also offer hope that there is still time, if not to reverse climate change, then to change the destructive course of our Anthropocene age.

In April 2020 artist and musician Brian Eno was asked in an interview about his own increasing awareness of the urgency of the climate crisis, and about how he and others, as artists, might respond. He replied: ‘I think one of the ways, the only way actually, that we will save the planet is by falling in love with it, by realising how incredibly beautiful the complexity of it is’.1

Pope Francis stated in his 2015 Encyclical Laudato Si,

Creation is the order of love. God’s love is the fundamental moving force in all created things. ‘For you loved all things that exist and detest none of the things that you have made (Book of Wisdom 11:24); For you would not have made anything if you had hated it’…thus, every creature is the object of the Father’s tenderness, who gives it its place in the world. Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his (God’s) love and in its few seconds of existence God unfolds it with his affection.

Creation was, and is, loved into being, and the mystery that is God is infused and present in all of Creation. John 1 states that the Word was with God from the very beginning and that ‘Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made’.2  This is echoed in Colossians 1:15-16, ‘The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…’

Michael Symmons Roberts’ poem ‘Smithereens’ draws on the Hasidic Creation myth, where God holds back something of himself to create something new. In this initial withdrawal (tzimtzum),God then shines his divine creative light into clay jars, but the jars are not strong enough to hold the light and they shatter sending sparks of divine light all over the earth (Shevira). Symmons Roberts suggests that ‘the purpose of life is a redemptive one’, and that the role of the people of God is ‘to find and raise the sparks’ and make the divine light complete again’.4

‘Under my shell was a smithereen of sun,
hidden in snow among wild yellow olives’.5

The 7 DAYS panels and their documentation are a way to search for the divine sparks: to look deeper, to be attentive and so to become more aware of the love of God in the world around us, the sacred reality of the earth. The panels are quiet, subtle and contemplative works. Wassily Kandinsky, in his book Concerning the Spiritual in Art, states ‘White…has this harmony of silence…It is not a dead silence but a pregnant pause with possibilities’.6

These white pieces are not complete in themselves but are open to the world around them. Although initially created for an interior exhibition space they are most alive outdoors. They are constantly being transformed by wind and light, and the changing seasons around them. In documenting them I have been aware of several layers of transformation; the first the slow process of decay, the fraying, the tearing, the varied patterns made by the rain—the marks being more defined in places where pollution is higher, in others hardly visible. The second layer is the fleeting moments when strong shadows briefly create new temporal compositions on the cloth canvases, while a gentle breeze or a gusty wind ceaselessly sculpts the cloths into new, fluctuating forms. Add this to the constant changes of the seasons, nature’s cycle of birth, life and death that surround the panels, and there is the third layer of transformation.

All of this, as the artist, has led me to a deeper awareness of the sacred reality of the earth, of this gift of creation given to humanity and thus of a deeper love of the Creator. In exhibiting these works, my hope is that others will glimpse something of the sacred in them too. While I do not to attempt to claim that this has been the case for everyone, some comments from those who encountered the installation suggest that they also found something of the divine spark within it:

A subtle, sensitive and allusive exploration of our created and creative world.

Thank you for this lovely project. I really enjoyed looking at it slowly online, and then coming to see the actual panels. Good to be reminded of the different ways time works and tweaks changes, often barely perceived at first – the expanse of God’s time with humanity, barely a blip in the millennia.

Dear Carol, I was feeling unwell and going to the Chapel to find some peace and quiet, I discovered your artwork and what it means to be a true artist and how art can help other people to heal, rest. I hope you find joy, love and peace ­while doing your art.7

One response, not written down but shared with me at the Glasgow exhibition, was from one of the artists who make up the art duo known as Gardner and Gardner. Early that year, Gardner and Gardner had created a crucifixion image for Holy week: Stilled Life (10th April 2020).  Searching for materials available to them in their home during Lockdown, they had gently folded and manipulated a simple bed sheet into the Good Friday image. In the process of creating the wounded figure, they found themselves gradually slowing down, tending to the fabric in gentler and caressing ways as the making became a sacred experience. Seven months later, something in the folds and the marks of the ‘Day 6, Humanity’ panel took one of the duo back to that moment, and they were profoundly moved. For them, there was a sacred beauty in the fragility of the stitches, creases and holes, stitches of tired and worn cloth, the wounded Christ present in all humanity.8

In a very different time and place, that of an August day on Iona in 2022, a visiting Anglican priest from Canada, Rev Eric Mason wrote a long reflective piece on the Installation, some of which I share here:

This is a piece that must be experienced in situ, in the outdoors, primarily because it belongs to a different paradigm than traditional art pieces. That is its strength and genius.

…I could see how nature was having its impact – how erosion and decay were shaping the pieces, how natural elements like dirt and soot were becoming part of them. Yes, it felt like they were being ‘dirtied’ or ‘sullied’ by nature.  But the piece invites us to see beyond that. It invites us to consider Creation and/or the hand of God or the divine in the shaping of things. As the wind blew I was struck by how it was also blowing the grasses around us and across my skin, and I was brought deeper into the moment, deeper into my existence at this particular place on earth, deeper into my own embodiment as someone breathing in the very wind itself.

Your piece…It is vulnerable to the wind, rain and sunshine. It is naked to the play of light and shadow across its surface. It evokes this story of how we are created in God’s image, and then is an example of the human striving toward creation. Of our own attempt to be creators. And as a piece of art, this particular creation, isn’t meant to be framed and hung under lights. Instead, it is turned back to Creation itself as an offering and sacrifice.

That brought me into the holiness and sacredness of it all somehow. You’ve let this piece of art be ‘ruined’ by nature, and so be transformed by Creation. It is a sacrifice of human-made beauty to a deeper beauty.

Eric told me that he was, initially, unimpressed, having first seen the work only online. But his words above clearly indicate a transformation on encountering the work in the flesh, so to speak. This, for him, was a very different genre and experience of sacred art, yet one which moved him to see more deeply the hand of God in Creation.

Others have followed the work online, some only encountering the work in this way, and have been moved and inspired by it. At least two people have been inspired to create their own works: a linen project in a private Scottish wood, and an Easter installation in a church garden. One of the hosts of the Day 5 panel regularly photographed the daily changing shapes and shadows, sharing them with me, but these shapes are now also finding their way into his own paintings.

It seems that this fraying, dirty, decaying installation, though far from the genre of traditional biblical or iconographic sacred artwork, can speak of the sacred reality of God. As Symmons Roberts writes, we are called to look for the ‘divine sparks’ in all things, and 7 DAYS points to the divine through its subtle painterly marks, stitches and materials co-existing in the gift of God’s Creation.

The documenting of 7 DAYS continues and can be followed at www.soulmarks.co.uk.

[1] Brian Eno, ‘Back to Earth: Drops in the Ocean,’ Serpentine Podcast, 24th April 2020, https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/art-and-ideas/back-to-earth-episode-3-drops-make-an-ocean/.

[2] John1:3 NIV.

[3] Michael Symmons Roberts, Raising Sparks (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), 68, Notes. Others spell this as tzimtzum.

[4] Michael Symmons Roberts, Raising Sparks (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), 68, Notes.

[5] Michael Symmons Roberts, ‘Smithereens’, Raising Sparks (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), 33.

[6] Wassily Kandinsky – Concerning the Spiritual in Art; translated and with an introduction by M.T.H. Sadler (New York: Dover Publications, 1977, c 1914), 39.

[7] Selected comments from the visitors’ book, Memorial Chapel University of Glasgow, COP 26 exhibition.

[8] An image of ‘Stilled Life’ 2020 can be seen here: https://www.gardnerandgardner.co.uk/portfolio/stilled-life/

Author

  • Carol Marples is the artist, teacher, creative liturgist and development worker for the Soul Marks Trust. Soul Marks was established in 2003 and ‘uses the visual arts as a tool for prayer, worship and community to encourage and enable creativity through the visual arts, to express and inspire faith in God’. Carol graduated from Edinburgh College of Art in 1988 with a BA (Hons.) in Tapestry. Since then she has regularly exhibited, created installations, taught courses and led workshops for all ages and abilities in Scotland, Europe and North America in a variety of contexts, such as conferences, retreats, churches, art schools and universities. She completed her PhD in 2019 from the University of St Andrews. Her research topic explored Contrasting Examples of Liturgical Installation Art in Christian Worship in England and Scotland from the 1980s to Present Day.

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