THE ARTIST CATHY WARD RECALLS THE GENESIS OF HER “RITE OF PASSAGE” SERIES
Cathy Ward, brutjournal’s London-based artist-correspondent, created the 16-unit “Rite of Passage” series of small-format, abstract paintings that are now being offered as premium items in the magazine’s Option 3 subscription package (see the “SUBSCRIBE” page, whose link appears in the website’s main-menu bar, above).
Readers and other observers who have seen these works in person or in reproduction have commented on their psychic-spiritual quality; there is something about these monochromatic images, with their rhythmic, sometimes churning compositions that seems to evoke a sense of what the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) referred to as the “collective unconscious,” or a kind of common knowledge and understanding of the world, including instincts and archetypal ways of apprehension, that humans have instinctively shared for millennia
We asked Ward to tell us about the making and the meanings of her “Rite of Passage” images, especially with regard to our interest in art’s relationship with the spiritual and its power to provoke transcendent experiences.
Cathy Ward told us:
Starting late last year, even as the pandemic, with all its challenges and stresses, was still ongoing, a series of big, unexpected events began unfolding in my life. They brought unforeseen troubles and challenges. Even after making my way through the difficulties the global pandemic had laid at our feet, emerging more recently on the other side of this experience turned out to have provided no safe haven. Even now, aspects of my life continue to be in turmoil, and so these sixteen “Rite of Passage” works represent how I reacted intuitively to my situation, through my art, at an emotionally charged time.
Making these images, I reacted to unfolding events with considered gestural strokes, hoping that maybe, like some kind of providential marks, they might offer some hints of what lay ahead. It was like reaching into my subconscious to see if creating art could somehow help me.
To make these works, I used Japanese sumi ink, which is made from soot, on a clay surface. There is a shared element in the production of both of these earthy materials — fire. I paint quickly and I redraw into the surface with a scalpel in a way that’s very direct and simple. For me, there is definitely a spiritual aspect to working with such materials. I can sense it.
Looking at the “Rite of Passage” series, I recall that, as I was making it, some of the individual pieces seemed to reveal themselves to me — their compositions, their main motifs — like flows of images in fantastical dreams. In unit M, for example, an island-like destination seems to emerge from a seashell, while in unit O, exotic, erotic organza appears to hang in cascades from a filigree star.
In unit N, some kind of unknown, large, strange fruit with a teat-like top and thick, pitted skin grows in a dark clearing alongside a spindly black flower. In pictures J and P, I see anthropomorphic trees and evocations of animals and childhood toys, while K seems to depict an enchanted clearing in a dream forest. The raw material of all of these images is memories and shadows, or some of the essential elements that come to mind when we think about the spirit world.
As I was making the “Rite of Passage” series, on the world stage, Russia’s war against Ukraine was brewing, and every day’s headlines brought more unsettling news about terrible exertions of male violence or domination, and of loss, destruction, and invasion. See the phallic motifs that appear in images A and F. Symbolism!
Some of these pictures seem to evoke memories of people who are either old or deceased, or to suggest portals to the past or the future (units G, H, and I, for instance), while others hint at the sense of fear and danger we may feel when transitioning from one reality to another on journeys in the real world or in the imagination. (See images B, D, E, and L.) A sense of hopefulness — and adventure — might help propel us forward, where some kind of solace and sanctuary might await us, but there is still much to negotiate and navigate along the way (images C, G, and H).
Regardless of how I might feel today about the Roman Catholic Church and its teachings, given that my background includes many years as a pupil in a convent school (run by nuns of the Sisters of Mercy order, with their nearly shaved heads), that formative experience trained me to think about spirits and such notions as holy ghosts, saints with miraculous powers, and resurrections.
That was a visually rich tapestry of ideas to have grown up with, so maybe it’s no surprise that, today, I’m drawn to esoterica and the occult. It’s comforting to know that there is still a lot about the human spirit and psyche that we do not know or understand. Mystery and awe are important.
As an artist, I’ve always striven to be myself and endeavored to develop a unique visual language that is true to my life story and lived experiences. As a result, my work has not always fit easily into familiar categories or followed what many people have perceived to be the usual aesthetic line.
Nowadays, with so many artists presenting their work and communicating with the broader public and among themselves via the Instagram School of Art, those who desire to attain a heightened sense of belonging can enter the same fold as their icons; they can become members of communities bound by a few hashtags. But this kind of superficial community-building sometimes has little room for the real-life stories and personal struggles that can take decades for artists to understand — the kinds of experiences that can influence the ways in which they create unique forms of expression.
When I think about artists whose creations are spiritual in nature, refer to the spirit world, or evoke a sense of the spiritual, there are many whose work I admire.
There are the paintings of the Swedish mystic Hilma Af Klint (1862-1944), which I had the thrill of seeing at the Serpentine Gallery in London a few years ago; they blew me away. There is the work of the Swiss artist-healer Emma Kunz (1892-1963), the British mediumistic artist Georgiana Houghton (1814-1884), and Houghton’s self-taught compatriot, Madge Gill (1882-1961), whose art I was fortunate enough to be able to examine up close at Orleans House Gallery, in southwestern London, where I spent time as an artist in residence during the run of its Madge Gill: Medium and Visionary exhibition in 2013.
But it was the French-born artist Niki de Saint Phalle (1930-2002) whom I’ve always regarded as my artistic Spirit Mother, even back when she was virtually unknown in the United Kingdom. Her work and ideas do not fit into neat, familiar-category boxes, but her art is often both monumental in scale and spiritual in nature.
The month after my late mother was buried, I traveled to Italy to visit de Saint Phalle’s spectacular Tarot Garden in Tuscany. At that moment, it was a very important place for me to be, and I was very fortunate that, on the day of my visit, the unruly crowds had drained away, and I was able to experience an hour of great spiritual peace in a special place that had been born of a remarkably sensitive artist’s powerful vision.