what is it with all the birds?

In 2004 I produced a painting titled Elijah and the Raven. My friend the painter Sigrid Muller saw the work in progress in the studio and afterwards thoughtfully e-mailed a poem by Seamus Heaney that she felt would interest me. The haunting Saint Kevin and the Blackbird is Heaney’s account of the the hermit voluntarily rooted to the spot for the time it takes a hen blackbird to weave her nest in the palm of his outstretched hand, lay a clutch of eggs, incubate, hatch and rear her brood. Although I felt the poem would lead to future paintings, for quite  a while all thoughts of hermit saints were vanquished while I turned to horses instead of birds, immersed in a commission from the Old Stile Press to illustrate their edition of Peter Shaffer’s play Equus. (Published 2009) However once the last images for the book had been packed and posted to the press, Kevin and his blackbird returned to preoccupy my thoughts and the walls of the studio began to quickly fill with taped-up preparatory drawings. Here are some of the paintings that resulted from those drawings. They’re for my forthcoming exhibition Touchat the Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff, opening in March next year.

So Elijah led to Kevin and Kevin to Francis. Where next?

9 thoughts on “what is it with all the birds?

  1. Kev was a is ….as oten is the case in the Celtic lands , a local god before Christianity and integrated into the Catholic dialoque…..or a special man, able to show a path into the collective, where self disappears and “we stand in the warmth of her mind”.
    The association with white, white cow is a pagan theme.
    Holding a bird in hand for an entire breeding season, while motionless seemed to me to be what a tree is.
    So token plant and milking cow leads me on.
    I began as I am intriqued by the evangelisation of Ireland by Welsh missionaries.

  2. Hi Clive,
    As it is St Kevin’s Day tomorrow, I would like to put one of your Kevin images on Instagram (@lamplifeboatladder) as part of my @twigsaints Saint of the Day project. I hope that’s okay with you.

  3. “Saint Kevin and the Blackbird” is an excellent choice for inspiration, Clive. That in the end he’s forgotten himself, forgotten even the name of the river upon whose bank he rests, yet he remains steadfast in providing for the bird and offspring… Good choice.

    These are all great works. The first one especially intrigues me, though. Something about him being the frame, not the center, about the bird and nest being of more importance than the man who shelters them. The second one captures that sentiment as well, but the first really, I think, speaks to Heaney’s intent with the poem, that in the end Kevin has lost his self-importance and given himself entirely to providing or, to paraphrase Heaney, given entirely to the labor instead of seeking recompense for the sacrifice.

    • Jason, I feel that the painting with the sunflowers is the one that’s given me the most trouble and yet has been the most rewarding to bring to completion. The process was interesting. There were unexpected sunflowers in the garden this year. As I hadn’t sewn any seeds I suspect they were escapees from the bird-feeders. Every time I went past the flowers I was struck by their structural formality and made a mental note to capture them in paint in their full glory before the petals dropped. Right from the outset I knew that I wanted to do the hearts of the sunflowers in sgraffito (wet paint scratched through to a contrasting under-colour) in order to make an interesting texture. The sgraffito was definitely the driving force of the idea. But time in the studio has been so constrained by all the building work here that somehow I couldn’t bring myself to do the planned still-life when I knew the forthcoming exhibition was intended to focus primarily on narrative painting. So I started it with misgivings, feeling that I might just end up by laying down the sunflowers and then leaving the rest of the work unfinished until a later date, perhaps after the exhibition. (Many paintings linger in the studio in this way, sometimes taking years to bring to completion.) But once the sunflowers had been painted the bird elbowed in, followed by Kevin himself at the last moment. The work started out as a simple still-life that grew up into a Saint Kevin painting. If you look closely you’ll see that the spotted jug the flowers are arranged in is only just visible because the blackbird ‘decided’ to stand in front of it. And you’re right about the hermit becoming the frame, his strong outstretched arm defining and protecting the heart of the painting. It is an intriguing compositional device. One I plan to explore again.

  4. Stylite of the Swallows sounds magical, I think you should go for it! Birds are very appealing and inspiring, I think. And these are some of my favorites of your paintings, I love these St. Kevins, the blues in them are transcendent. I am especially struck by the interplay of two blues in the first one above–Kevin’s shade and that of the flowers. But the particular intensity of the blue in the second painting, along with the way he and the bird fill its space so completely, giving that crowded sense of the hermit in his slightly too-low room, patiently holding the bird’s nest–also, now that I’m thinking of the story of it, and the birds serving in Jungian thought as the symbol of transcendence, it’s even more meaningful to me…not just a story of the saint’s unending patience, but how his patient inward-turning (again, that cramped monk’s cell) leads to birth, to the spirit taking flight, to a transcendence that is not “simply” individual…

    • Thank you Zoe for your thoughtful comments. I think you and I both have a bit of a thing for blues of all varieties. In many ways I think these Saint Kevin paintings are much less austere in feel than the images conjured by Heaney in his sublime poem. But then the challenges of conjuring ideas by visual means are quite different to the disciplines of poetry. Funnily enough my notebooks are as full of words as drawings. I’m just as likely to note down a description of what catches my eye when wandering around the garden as make a brief sketch. To be candid, words conjure colours, shapes and moods more evocatively for me than hasty drawings. Sometimes my easel flutters with flimsy papers scrawled with snatches of descriptions jotted down and tacked to it for the purposes of inspiration.

  5. It’s a very interesting focus. I wonder whether at some point you’ll shift from saints and prophets to naturalists and scientists? I am thinking for example of the 20th-century Iowa naturalist Althea Sherman, who constructed the first chimney swift tower and spent thousands of hours inside it taking notes on the birds with almost stylite devotion.

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