Farewell to an old Faithful friend!

Regan O'Callaghan winter coat, old man coat, studio, British

“Sitting in a park in Paris, France

Reading the news and it sure looks bad

They won't give peace a chance

That was just a dream some of us had

Still a lot of lands to see

But I wouldn't want to stay here

It's too old and cold and settled in its ways here”


Twenty years ago I arrived in London with £20 to my name.  In the space of a day I had found a live-in job in a pub In Hounslow a place where you didn’t serve bottles incase you got one in the face and you took your tie off at the end of the night so you didn’t tempt a disgruntled patron to drag you across the bar for not serving that last pint.    The Landlady a small but fierce woman didn’t put up with any trouble though so one was generally safe.

Winter was approaching and  this Kiwi didn’t feel prepared.   The landlady’s son knew where I could get a good coat to keep me warm from the cold grey English winter.  Early one sunday morning we made our way across London to Whitechapel Market in the East End.  Within 15 minutes amongst the plethora of things for sale I found my coat.  Thick, heavy and a great fit it cost me £5 and it was British made to boot!   Bargain!

Nearly twenty years later I sit in my friends flat in Paris after having spent 5 weeks traveling through Andalucia.  It is cold and grey outside.  I am here for a few days before travelling back to Mojacar, Spain where I have an artist residency for a month.  When leaving London friends said take a coat as it will be cold in Spain.   I duly took my beloved coat which I had christened my “old man coat” named as I believed it made me look like I had just emerged from down the mines especially when I wore my flat cap.  Wearing it on the plane so it wouldn’t be counted as hand luggage  I felt ready for my next adventure.

Southern Spain wasn’t cold for this seasoned Brit,  the sun shone and it was warm so my coat stayed bundled in a plastic bag carted from Almeria to Malaga, Cadiz to Cordoba.   In Granada where there was snow on the peaks of the Sierra Nevada the sky was bright blue, the sun warm and though at night it got chilly it was not enough for me to put on my old man coat.

My beloved old man coat.  Five years previously I had spent £80 having it repaired. It had become worn in places, the lining was frayed and the button holes torn.   But I wasn’t ready to say good bye to it then, my coat that had seen me through numerous winters including last winter heavy with snow which dragged on and on or the winter of ’94’ when I worked nights returning home in the dark and then getting up to a cold dark sky and leaving to start my next shift.   The coat which I had sometimes used as an extra blanket when staying in freezing rooms with summer duvets.    The coat which I wore to many a dawn service at church, to funerals where grieving relatives hurt and loss stayed with me until the next funeral.  The coat which I wore to my citizenship ceremony, friends weddings and parties.  The coat that kept me warm as  I wandered the streets of London.  The coat which I looked forward to wearing as it hung in my closet during sunnier months.

Traveling through Spain though made me realise I needed to say goodbye to my old man coat  Goodbye not only to the feeling of security my coat granted me, but goodbye to the need to have a protective layer, insulated not only from the cold wind that sweeps by but also the warm whisper that beckons me forward to new places, new people and new life.

Arriving in Mojacar at the beginning of my trip I had my coat repaired for one last time.  The seamstress told me of growing up in the surrounding hills, of caves, of found ancient objects and mysterious lights at night.  A generous and wise woman I listened as she restitched the button holes and sewed together the lining.


“Oh it gets so lonely

When you're walking

And the streets are full of strangers

All the news of home you read

Just gives you the blues

Just gives you the blues

So I bought me a ticket

I caught a plane to Spain

Went to a party down a red dirt road

There were lots of pretty people there

Reading Rolling Stone, reading Vogue

They said, "How long can you hang around?"

I said "a week, maybe two,

Just until my skin turns brown

Then I'm going home to California"

California I'm coming home

Oh will you take me as I am

Strung out on another man

California I'm coming home”


 Joni Mitchell.

Regan O'Callaghan Old Faithful friend, altar, winter coat,

Pilgrimage of the heart

Regan O'Callaghan altar, Gruenwald, Jesus, Colmar

Sometimes there is an artwork which stays  in your heart and mind.  The Isenheim Altar piece is for me one one such work.

My first degree was in Religious Studies and Art.  For my dissertation I studied the Isenheim Altarpiece attributed to Mathias Gruenwald and painted in 1506 - 1515. Originally painted for the Monastery of Saint Anthony in Isenheim it is now on display in the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, France.  The monks at the monastery were known for their work with people with skin diseases and from the Altarpiece's tortured figure of Christ on the Cross you can see the artist had this in mind.

I don't have a copy of my dissertation but I certainly remember writing it.  It was during Lent 1996. I was staying in the house of a Franciscan Nun (third order) who was away.  In Dove Cottage there was no television and few disruptions so I could focus on the task at hand. For hours I meditated on the crucifixion and explored its symbolism, form and theological meaning and of course the house was full of other religious imagery. Deep stuff but also quite poignant as I was myself going through a period of grief and suffering.  I can remember stuffing the stove with wood to keep warm and huddling beside it giving thanks that I wasn't called to be a monk!  My suffering though was not caused by the cold but rather was an ailment of the heart.

I wrote of the arms of the crucified figure of Christ being stretched out to the cosmos distorted by the hatred of man.  Hands that had once been the hands of a carpenter, hands that created. I reflected on the feet of Jesus so disfigured and grotesque a large nail tearing them apart.  It was all very disturbing.  I wrote a letter to Sister Wendy Beckett a famous art critic to ask her thoughts about images of the crucifixion.  She very kindly wrote back saying she found it to painful to spend time meditating on such images.  I cherish this letter. Fifteen years later I travelled to Colmar to see for the first time in real life the Isenheim Altarpiece.  Travelling through beautiful countryside on the train from Paris I shared with a friend memories of my time in the cold little house of the Franciscan nun, my need for warmth and of my inner turmoil at the time.  Memories flooded back. I remembered a retreat to a Franciscan Monastery in Dorset not long after my stay at Dove Cottage. Sitting in the chapel I gazed at the Franciscan Cross. Unlike the Isenheim Triptych the Jesus on this cross is sleek and beautiful. For a moment I visualised him leaning over and surrounding me with his arms in a warm embrace followed by the cross which enveloped us both.  I felt a mixture of love and empathy mixed with a little fear. I wondered about the significance of this vision (if I can be allowed to call it that). Is love never experienced without suffering?

Standing in front of the Isenheim triptych I gave thanks for past lessons. Lessons learnt? Well thats another blog entry but I certainly stood as someone without regrets.  I was also pleased to see the altarpiece had been displayed so that all the panels could be seen. The beauty and vibrancy of Gruenwald's resurrection stood in stark contrast to his crucifixion.  Here Christ dances in the air in a flamboyant display of joy and victory swathed in beautiful colours and divine light.  Fifteen years is a long time to wait to see the resurrection but I was happy.

For the remainder of my time in France I stayed with my friend's uncle and aunt who showed wonderful hospitality.  I sat in their garden feeling the warmth of the sun, ate great food  and listened to my friend play the piano while we sang songs of love and memories. www.musee-unterlinden.com/isenheim-altarpiece.html

Deep in this heart

Regan O'Callaghan Altar, studio, sunset, incense

Deep in this heart this heart of stone............

In the dream I sat up high at the top of a great tree beside me a beautiful black raven.  The raven flew to the ground at the base of the tree and began to dig and scratch amongst the roots.  I  dropped down and joined in.  As I dug, a hole began to emerge between the roots.  The hole grew larger  until I was able to crawl through a tunnel and then down into a large cave underneath the tree.   It was a safe space a sacred place.  I walked around touching the walls of this mysterious place.  I felt something in the wall.  It seemed to be a small rock but as I scratched away at the dirt it became bigger until eventually a huge boulder was revealed in the wall of the cave.  “What is this?” I asked the raven.  “It is your heart”  the raven replied.

Regan O'Callaghan

Savitri and Satyavan

Regan O'Callaghan Savitri spine, pastel, gold leaf on paper, satyavan"The childless king of Madra, Ashwapati, lives ascetically for many   years and offers oblations to Sun God Savitr.  His consort is Malavi. He wishes to have a son for his lineage. Finally, pleased by the prayers, God Savitr appears to him and grants him a boon: he will soon have a daughter.   The king is joyful at the prospect of a child. She is born and named Savitri in honor of the god.  Savitri is born out of devotion and asceticism, traits she will herself practice.  Savitri is so beautiful and pure, she intimidates all the men in the vicinity.  When she reaches the age of marriage, no man asks for her hand, so her father tells her to find a husband on her own. She sets out on a pilgrimage for this purpose and finds Satyavan, the son of a blind king named Dyumatsena, who after he had lost everything including his sight, lives in exile as a forest-dweller. Savitri returns to find her father speaking with Sage Narada who announces that Savitri has made a bad choice: although perfect in every way, Satyavan is destined to die one year from that day. In response to her father's pleas to choose a more suitable husband, Savitri insists that she will choose her husband but once. After Narada announces his agreement with Savitri, Ashwapati acquiesces.  Savitri and Satyavan are married, and she goes to live in the forest.

Immediately after the marriage, Savitri wears the clothing of a hermit and lives in perfect obedience and respect to her new parents-in-law and husband. Three days before the foreseen death of Satyavan, Savitri takes a vow of fasting and vigil. Her father-in-law tells her she has taken on too harsh of a regimen, but Savitri replies that she has taken an oath to perform these austerities, at which Dyumatsena offers his support.   The morning of Satyavan's predicted death, Savitri asks for her father-in-law's permission to accompany her husband into the forest.  Since she has never aksed for anything during the entire year she has spent at the hermitage, Dyumaysena grants her wish.Regan O'Callaghan Satyavan's visit, oil painting, koru, altar piece

They go and while Satyavan is splitting wood, he suddenly becomes weak and lays his head in Savitri's lap. Yama himself, the Death, comes to claim the soul of Satyavan. Savitri follows Yama as he carries the soul away. When he tries to convince her to turn back, she offers successive formulas of wisdom. First she praises obedience to Dharma, then friendship with the strict, then Yama himself for his just rule, then Yama as King of Dharma, and finally noble conduct with no expectation of return.  Impressed at each speech, Yama praises both the content and style of her words and offers any boon, except the life of Satyavan. She first asks for eyesight and restoration of the kingdom for her father-in-law, then a hundred sons for her father, and then a hundred sons for herself and Satyavan. The last wish creates a dilemma for Yama, as it would indirectly grant the life of Satyavan. However, impressed by Savitri's dedication and purity, he offers one more time for her to choose any boon, but this time omitting "except for the life of Satyavan". Savitri instantly asks for Satyavan to return to life. Yama grants life to Satyavan and blesses Savitri's life with eternal happiness. Satyavan awakens as though he has been in a deep sleep and returns to his parents along with his wife.

Dancing with Death

Meanwhile at their home, Dyumatsena regains his eyesight before Savitri and Satyavan return. Since Satyavan still does not know what happened, Savitri relays the story to her parents-in-law, husband, and the gathered ascetics. As they praise her, Dyumatsena's ministers arrive with news of the death of his usurper.  Joyfully, the king and his entourage return to his kingdom."

The story of Savitri and Satyavan is found in "The Book of the Forest" of the Mahabharata. Article from Wikipedia 2010.

Titles of art workSavitri's SpineSatyavan's VisitDancing with Death