A Pretty Lie
14th October - 4th November
Marking five years of Gallery At Home, we are thrilled to welcome Maryanne Hawes back to the space for this deeply emotive solo exhibition.
There’s a woodland path leading away from the edge of a rural village in South Gloucestershire along which I walk with my dog most days. At a particular point the copse opens out to a spectacular view of a patchwork of fields that roll westwards down the valley towards the dark Welsh hills on the horizon. Every time I reach that place I have to stop and drink in everything that I can see. There’s something overwhelming and dramatic about it, like the curtain coming up on stage. And I love how the weather changes the mood of the scene: blue skies, rain, mist, dark clouds, frost, it’s always different. No matter where my thoughts have wandered to on my walk, the power of that moment brings me back into the present and to that place where I’m standing. There’s a sort of clarity in the sublime experience of nature. I don’t know how else to describe it. If there’s confusion or turmoil in my mind, it disappears as I feel my tiny place in the network of all living things. It’s an embodied response that always unfailingly calms me.
My conversations over time with Maryanne Hawes about her experiences of walking in nature and their impact on her artistic practice have clarified these feelings for me. Her fundamental work is deep self-knowledge, an ongoing process that continually strengthens her inner resilience, empathy, and capacity to give. Painting is the tool she has found to enable her to do this. Maryanne’s starting point came several years ago at a time of personal crisis in her life. Walking in the British rural landscape became a form of meditation for her, a way of managing overwhelming feelings. Back in the studio Maryanne recalled thoughts, emotions, associations, and memories that had emerged from her walks, capturing them abstractly in paint on canvas. The process of walking and then painting has become integral to her understanding of the distance between her internal and external realities. It has allowed her to mine what’s underneath the surface, and to understand herself in new ways.
In this sense her paintings are psychological landscapes; they are representations of the messy, non-sequential accumulation of self-knowledge. But they are also a record of the way in which humans use nature to access a deeper sense of self, to sort through our minds, and to cope with the craziness of this unintelligible world. In contrast to the idea that we can exist separately from nature, Maryanne’s paintings demonstrate our absolute interconnectedness and reliance on it; we are part of the natural world, not divorced from it.
As she walks Maryanne listens to her mind and body, collecting thoughts, colours, structures, textures, fleeting memories, emotions, bodily sensations, and connections between things in a jumble of voice notes, writing and photographs, consciously and instinctively recording them along the way. It’s an assimilation of mind, body and nature, a melange of the internal and the external. This process of gathering deepens her engagement and connection with the landscape and moment in time; later, this archive passes through the filter of her memory and combines with thoughts in the present, compressing time and space in layers and gestures of paint. Everything is inside us; it’s all just waiting for the moment to emerge and make sense.
Maryanne’s work speaks of the unity that exists between the external world and the internal realm of human consciousness, and how contemplation of nature can trigger personal memories and emotions that shape our identities. It speaks of the power of nature to switch us on to ourselves. And it brings to my mind the reflections of the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth on the interconnectedness of all things in his 1798 poem Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey:
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things
In recent times on my walks through the Gloucestershire countryside I’ve also clocked feelings of discomfort though. As a nature lover I’m aware of the rhythms and expectations of the seasons, and I’ve noticed disruptions in this little patch of the world: the mild temperatures that have caused unusually early and late flowering of the wild plants along the pathway, the increasing levels of fungus on leaves, weird numbers of insects in the wrong months, dried up waterways, the arid soil in the fields. Given how prevalent the doom of climate change is in our public discourse now, I often feel both awe and anxiety as I reach that sublime spot on my walk.
A feeling of powerlessness in the face of the climate crisis is the psychological reality of our times and is the subject of a recent book by Joanna Macy, an environmental activist and scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory and deep ecology. In Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy (New World Library, 2012), Dr Macy offers us a different direction for our thoughts — the concept of ‘active hope’, which is about identifying what you want the future to look like and personally taking steps to move in that direction. Central to active hope is the idea that we are interconnected with all living things which together keep the delicate ecosystem of nature in balance.
Active hope doesn’t require any optimism that we can solve the big problems of the climate crisis; rather, it’s a strategy for individual empowerment whereby each of us does what is within our capacity to strengthen nature. The part we play as individuals has meaning and significance. We all have our own starting points and portfolio of interests, skills, and experience that we can contribute. And we should seek out the tools that will help us do it best. This is not meant as a facile consolation for ecological disaster. In the face of a problem that seems hopeless, the intention behind active hope allows us to take a clear view of reality and to reclaim some semblance of power and control in our lives.
This seems to me to be very much at the heart of Maryanne Hawes’ artistic practice. Maryanne’s fundamental work is self-knowledge, but it has much wider effects. There is active hope and intention in what she does, and strength ripples out into the world from her centre. A public ignorant or indifferent to how the natural world sustains us in our minds and bodies won’t care if it is broken. In times of crisis it is visual artists like Maryanne as well as musicians, film-makers, photographers and poets who have the power to connect emotionally with audiences, to communicate complex ideas that implicate us, rouse us from indifference and show us why we should care. And it’s an urgent and critical task.
- Dr. Victoria Powell
Dr Victoria Powell is a writer and lecturer in modern and contemporary art. She has taught at the University of the Arts London and London Metropolitan University.