A Transcendental Journey

Twenty years ago today, I started a journey across country that I'm sure changed my life and helped me become, if not a serious writer, at least serious about writing. The journey continues, and I am grateful for both the mountains and the valleys.

Here is a little bit from A Transcendental Journey:

We know we're awake because our eyes are open.

By late afternoon, I was ready to stretch my legs. Following a particularly long swell of highway, I reached the top of a bluff. Spotting a rest stop across the highway, I pulled across and into the parking lot.

Set back a few hundred yards from the edge of the bluff, the building was long and low, mostly one big room, with a massive rectangular information desk in the center manned by several busy aides. Beneath the windows, low slung metal racks brimmed with brochures describing every attraction you could imagine, and many you couldn’t.

I strolled outside the building towards the bluff. The grass was tall, not Really Tall, but enough to hide a snake or two. So I kept my head down heading toward the brink. At the edge of the bluff, I looked up.

The slope fell sharply away hundreds of yards to where the Missouri River engraved a broad S through the grasslands. Beyond the wide impassive river, the brown flat earth stretched to the curve of the world, melding into a white horizon unguessably distant. But it wasn't the distance that held me to the spot.

There are qualities that belong to a place, that inhabit its essence and mark it in the memory. The quality of this bluff was Blue.

Blue has many names: azure, sapphire, navy, even cornflower. I have never seen a cornflower, or any blue flower for that matter. But cornflower blue I can picture in my mind: draw a luster from the earth, blend in sunlight, sift in moonlight.

What I saw from the bluff was not any blue I could imagine: not azure nor sapphire nor navy nor cornflower. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can't picture it. But I can remember how it felt, dodging my eyes and seeping unfiltered through the pores of my skin: Blueness, essence of Blue, narcotic Blue. Manifest Blue. True Blue. Transcendental Blue.

But there were two blues, not one.

We see the sky as blue because the blue electromagnetic waves of sunlight are shorter and are scattered more easily by the dust in the atmosphere. But nothing about this blue seemed scattered nor did sunlight seem required. Standing there, I realized that I had never truly seen a blue sky before. A stain had been washed from the stratosphere. Blue shone through.

Bodies of water are blue when they reflect the sky. But the Missouri had a different recipe that day, independent of the firmament above. Take a sea, fold it over and over and over like a translucent sheet, then glaze it in a tawny bed of grass. That is Missouri Blue.

Go to the Missouri River crossing.

Stand on the bluff on a cloudless day.

Blue lives there.

Copyright

© Copyright Stephen Evans 2017

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An Irish Photographer at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition

 

At the time of the 2010 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London, I wrote the following:  

It was an anxiously-awaited letter from a certain auspicious institution that stopped me in my tracks late that Friday morning. I ripped it open with suitable theatrical disdain. It dramatically announced that ‘with over 10,000 entries, the competition was extremely strong’, yes, yes I thought, get on with it, ‘however I am delighted to inform you that your work..........’ the rest of the missive faded away momentarily from view as I tried to take in the magic of what had been written by my correspondent, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw CBE and President of the Royal Academy. I could not believe that a photograph of mine had ‘been selected and hung in the exhibition’ – the Summer Exhibition no less at Burlington House.

I was a newbie to all this (on my second attempt) but I was determined to enjoy every moment of it and my wife has observed on several occasions that I have been floating on Cloud 9 since then. Enclosed with the letter was what my father many years ago used to call a ‘stiffy’ – an embossed invitation to the quixotically-named Non-Members’ Varnishing Day.

The big day arrived and thankfully a gorgeous summer’s morn beckoned. I journeyed up on the train turning up a little too early at the exalted address in Piccadilly with the unholy zeal of someone who is a reformed latecomer. Only the exhibiting artists are invited – not even significant others are permitted and I find myself surrounded by arty types presumably and larger than life figures standing on plinths disporting themselves in striking poses in the courtyard outside. Since I lead such an inconsequential existence in rural south-east England, I do not recognise a soul but even I begin to take the hint when I see largish medals worn demonstrably by various women and men; that’s what an Academician must be then, I surmise simultaneously discerning the remarkable sculptures of the late Barry Flanagan.

It feels like my first day at school with attendant ‘butterflies’ but many others greet each other warmly as long lost friends and display the insouciance of being on familiar territory. A carnival atmosphere is palpable as a steel band is playing and a television crew is going through its paces with smiling media personality, Andrew Graham-Dixon in full flow to camera. While waiting I strike up a conversation with Austin Ruddy, a Yorkshire-based artist (with Irish roots, he proclaimed) and who has been here before. He seems so cool and relaxed, detached even. As I normally have a camera with me, I snap away.

We are then gently called to order and led by the ‘great and the good’ of the RA world to an age-old ceremonial of thanksgiving. This is a brief moment where a main London thoroughfare, Piccadilly falls silent for artists as we march proudly to St. James’s Church nearby. The tone for the service and also for the Summer Exhibition is set with an uplifting but warm atmosphere bolstered by a gentle reading from Sir Nicholas as above, some superb choral music and a riveting sermon from Professor Tina Beattie of Roehampton University who forcefully says that art has direct relevance for us today quoting the poignant account of an ill-timed delivery of lipstick to a Nazi concentration camp at the moment of its liberation by the Allies in 1945 and how the former inmates then used this item of make-up to strike an artistic blow against the depravity of their inhuman surroundings. Not one for emotional display, even I felt moved and dare I say it, tearful, at this point.

After the service, we all trooped back to the Academy for champagne plus canapés and naturally to see our own work on display. For the record, my photograph with an Irish theme, Four Courts Dublin was eventually located by a member of the Academy staff in the Porter Gallery (Room X) near to the exit high up on the wall. While milling around in one of the galleries where mutual congratulations are being exchanged, the sound of a bell is heard and someone says that a speech is being given. We make a move to the Central Hall where the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Nicholas himself was discoursing on the high number of entrants to the Exhibition and the challenge of choosing the final successful supplicants with this year’s focus on ‘raw’ in mind. Sir Nicholas then introduced a coterie of fellow Academicians who went on to make a number of awards to the winners of various creative categories.

I bump into Austin again and as he recalls I have a camera, he requests that I take a picture of his painting in the Small Weston Room. ‘No problem’, I say but as it is quite high up, getting a decent angle on it would be a dilemma. Unperturbed, Austin turns around and sees a fancy bright red step ladder – presumably placed there conveniently and with some forethought to enable us artists to touch up or varnish our works on this very day – after all, it is Varnishing Day. Austin and I haul the piece of equipment near to his painting and he offers to hold the ladder securely as I mount it; I notice that we have become comrades-in-arms by now. No worries as I leapt up the contraption like a ferret after its prey. Very conveniently the restraining bar at the top is at just the right height to balance my camera on and I take two snaps of Mr Ruddy’s painting. At that moment, a polite kerfuffle beneath me ensues – I guess all such encounters at the RA are conducted with such finesse – where Austin is now locked in an exchange with an official who warns of the dangers associated with our actions and that health and safety is being infringed. As I feel confident about the pictures just taken, I decide to descend the ladder and meekly comply with this jobsworth’s ruling. Just at that moment, a young lady barred my path downwards with false bonhomie, asking mysteriously: “Is that a G9?” while pointing at my camera. Fortunately we photographers are switched on to such exciting developments in our lives and I immediately clicked into ‘techie mode’ recognising her rather impudent inquiry about my equipment. I crisply replied: “No, actually it’s a G10” showing my camera to her as best I could as I endeavoured to evade the steely glare of the gallery apparatchik who was by this time tugging at the step ladder to wrest it from Austin’s grasp lest we use it again. The impetuous camera lady then melted back into the crowd. As an Irishman abroad, I noticed that the fuss with Academy officialdom was amicably concluded in that quintessential English manner but this little vignette of an episode is emblematic of how a modern Britain is seized with a new tyranny: that the infantilising dogma of health and safety abuts awkwardly against certain well-oiled artistic practices of the past. But I digress.

Later on, when the throng had departed I walked around undistracted gazing in wonder at the inventiveness and creative skill exhibited. It was truly exciting but let me give you a very brief flavour of what is on show: David Mach and his striking collage, Babel Towers next to his incredible sculpture, Silver Streak (think of King Kong) made entirely of coat hangers; Bill Jacklin’s intriguing inkjet print, Wollman Rink 1; Norman Ackroyd and his enchanting etching on stainless steel, Gallapagos; The Crown of Esfahan: Mosque of the Sun, an entrancing and intricate creation of brass, paper and ink by Sara Shaffei and Ben Cowd. The whimsical but telling message contained in the topical sculpture, Crash Willy by Yinka Shonibare – winner of the coveted Wollaston Prize plus a cheque for £25,000; take note of the vehicle registration, if you can.

Irish artists are well represented and indeed triumphant with Elizabeth Magill’s large oil painting with a mysterious feel to it, Blue Hold which earned her the Sunny Dupree Family Award for a woman artist and Paul Murphy’s award-winning Untitled, a c-type photographic print. Other artists on show with Irish connections are: Carey Clarke, Francis Matthews, Terry McAllister Padraig MacMiadhachain, Séan Scully and Hughie O’Donoghue. The Exhibition is on until 22nd August.

No doubt there will be rumbustious critics who will lambast this artistic extravaganza with well-chosen bon mots based on entrenched prejudices fossilised sometime in the Kensington or Soho ateliers of the 1950s and who then enter into this post-modern world of wonder and inspiration sometimes verging on the anarchic only to weald an axe of destructive blithering ignorance. But I digress, again.

As a photographer, I should confess to a certain bias but Room X did have a number of striking images many of which were produced with the help of a camera rather than a brush, palette knife or chisel, such as Suzanne Moxhay’s Cablecar and Swarm, both archival digital prints with an indefinable eeriness about them. Also, Allen Jones’ Undressed Hatstand, a black and white silver print; Substrate Shadow, an archival digital print by Barton Hargreaves and Nicola Walsh’s Envelopes, a c-type digital print; all these images spectacularly observed the official remit of ‘raw’ for the Summer Exhibition. I was further heartened when chatting to Sir Nicholas Grimshaw towards the end of Varnishing Day when he voiced strong support for the photographic element of this event. This positive attitude should send out a welcoming signal to photographers that their images are now being taken seriously by the arts world; the Royal Academy has accepted photographs at the Summer Exhibition since 2006.

As a newbie, this magical day was coming to an end and I savoured it to the last knowing that for a very brief moment I had been privileged to play a small part in this world-class artistic occasion. It may never happen again but now that the lotus flower of the Summer Exhibition has been tasted ...............

©Nicholas Mackey 2010

 

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The Wind, The Moon and The Night

I remember mom on her birthday.

Bright as the moon and graceful as the wind blowing.

She stood tall on dark nights.

 

Elegant as ever no matter the chaos and adversity.

She took it all in with dignity.

Her inner beauty remains iconic.

 

In my sleep, I wish her a happy birthday in heaven.

I know she continues to look down upon me.

If not for her, I would not have survived the ghost of deceit.

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I'm Writing a Limerick about William Faulkner

What rhymes with Yoknapatawpha?

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Idle Thoughts about Bank Holidays

I love Bank Holiday Mondays.  Even though I now work from home, so weekends and Bank Holidays are of little consequence to my timetable, I nevertheless get out of bed with a sense of anticipation, of mild excitement, at the thought that it's officially a non-working day.  I feel very virtuous when I sit at my desk on Bank Holiday Monday, and only moderately guilty when I decide to take the day off.

 

Bank Holiday Mondays.  Here in Britain, these three days are tacked on to the weekend.  Why risk a holiday in the middle of the week, when people might also take the days in between off?  Still, a long weekend is eminently practical for all concerned, I admit.  Bank Holiday.  I wish there were names for these days, rather than something decreed by the closure of cold and now not very popular institutions such as banks.  It's always made me feel a tiny bit uncomfortable.  A day when banks don't trade, when there is no financial speculation, instead of a day to celebrate something or someone – be it a saint, the First of May, or the anniversary of independence.  I wonder if any other European country has nondescript, apparently random days off.  When I first arrived in the UK, I asked where these Bank Holiday Mondays had originated.  Were they former saints days? Pagan festivals? Historical anniversaries? No, people replied.  They're just Bank Holidays.  It seems that in this country we've been ruled by banks for some time now... I can't help but wonder if this is why Britain has among the lowest number of holidays in Europe.  Economy in all things! Waste not, want not.  A penny saved is a penny earned, etc.

 

My favourite Bank Holiday Monday is the August one.  I can't really say why.  Perhaps because it's the last Bank-sanctioned day off before Christmas Day, nearly four months later.  In Catholic European countries, there's at least All Saints Day in the middle.  But we, with our staunch Protestant work ethic, work valiantly till Christmas.  

 

Perhaps, also because, having been brought up in Catholic countries (although I am not myself a Catholic), where 15th August, Assumption Day, is a major religious holiday, I feel cheated unless I have at least one day off in August, albeit at the very end of the month.

 

People change, I guess.  When I was young, living in Italy, I would dread the approach of August.  The month when, just because of that one Assumption Day, the country seemed to sink into officially-sanctioned torpor for a whole month – and still does.  Ferragosto.  Why do you stand in the crushing heat, waiting for a bus for forty-five minutes? Because it's Ferragosto.  Why are so many shops closed? Because it's Ferragosto.  Why are all your friends away, either at the sea or in the mountains, leaving you to be bored to tears in a ghost city? Ferragosto.  My family could not afford holidays, so as a teenager, I hated the month of August with a purple passion.  The intense heat, the lack of social life and entertainment, the nationally-approved inefficiency of the City of Rome.  I couldn't wait for the traditional, violent thunderstorms in the second half of the month, that heralded the end of this unbearable inertia.

 

In a way, something similar happens in the UK, when the end of November signals the start of general laziness, inefficiency and incompetence because it's Christmas. 

 

Now, nearly thirty years later, I find myself longing for Ferragosto in Rome.  As a freelancer who, noblesse oblige, never turns down work, I yearn for a government-approved month of quiet, of sleep, of doing absolutely nothing.  A whole month of lounging about, reading, writing, dozing in the sun.  I remember with unexpected fondness the streets outside the tourist-infested city centre almost totally deserted, the blocks of flats with the blinds of almost every window shut tight, the bliss of not hearing the neighbours' TV because they're away.  I long to have a lengthy afternoon nap, with the blinds half down, listening  to the maracas of a dozen cicadas rhythmically lulling me to sleep.  I have fond memories of lying on a reclining sun lounger on the balcony, until past midnight, staring up into the black, starry sky until I was no longer sure if I was falling into the stars or the stars falling on me.  And counting shooting stars.  Blink and you'll miss it. 

 

I miss being in a climate hot enough to eat watermelon.  Bright red, sweet as sugar, with large, black seeds I can then crunch – not the pathetic rubbery white ones of under-ripe fruit.  

 

Above all – and especially in view of these three months of grey, wet, chilly transition between last spring and next autumn in Norwich, that you cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, call summer – I long for bright light in my eyes, and hot sun on my skin.

 

Scribe Doll

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Latest Comments

Sue Glasco A Full August
15 September 2017
Thanks, Rosy. The funny thing about me and sports is that although I have spent many many hours of ...
Stephen Evans A Transcendental Journey
11 September 2017
Thank you!
Nicholas Mackey A Transcendental Journey
10 September 2017
Beautiful writing, Stephen and thank you for sharing your amazing journey with us
Nicholas Mackey An Irish Photographer at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition
10 September 2017
I appreciate the kind words in your comment and the words of that sermon I referred to in my article...

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