A Long Slow Night Walk Home.

Regan O'Callaghan Night walk home Sachaqa Art Centre, Peru, Amazon, watercolour visual diary


A Long Slow Night Walk Home.

In 2004 I made the decision to relinquish full-time parish ministry to focus on what I believed I should be developing - an art ministry.    I had sensed even before I was ordained to the priesthood that I was a round peg with no hole within the Church of England and that I would need to forge my own way forward.    I had come to this conclusion in part through working in a parish as a pastoral assistant and observing and experiencing the running of a busy west London church.

The church was a good training ground for this future priest and was led by a faithful and hardworking vicar who taught me a great deal and even though I came to love parish ministry especially after I was ordained there was a deep sense of knowing that the creative/artistic itch in me would not go away and would need to be expressed.   Enrolling at theological college I sort permission to miss mass on a Tuesday so I could attend a life drawing class.  Permission was granted praise be!

I knew in time the demands of parish ministry would require a great deal of commitment but I wasn't willing to let go of the artistic skills I had learned and developed over the years.  I believed they were too important and could be used within a priestly ministry.   So after completing my curacy and after much soul searching I gave up my stipend and became self-employed.  A few art commissions thankfully started to come my way and I continued leading art and religious education projects in schools and churches.    Initially my income was tiny so I did house for duty for a couple of years but again this had its restrictions so eventually I stepped down from all parish duties, which also required me to give up my flat.   Along with this I ended up giving away most of my material possessions and stepped out into the world to see where the creative spirit would lead me.

Sounds crazy and it probably was for not only did I give up a roof over my head, a stipend, a pension, security, but also a community role, a church family and a little status.  Nevertheless, I held onto the advice a priest friend once gave me which was to remember that priesthood is not defined by parish ministry, wise words that some priests should really meditate on.

I say this because it has become quite clear over the years since I have stepped back from parish ministry that some clergy are quite dismissive of what I am doing.  Some are envious and some are strangely threatened and undermining.  For the ones who have been dismissive I believe their actions are motivated by ignorance and perhaps a little pomposity.  For those who feel threatened, try to bully or undermine I would suggest are operating from a place of insecurity.   To all of them  I would say  I am not out to prove anything and that the work I do is not really way out or "unchristian" it is just different and hopefully it opens people's eyes to the gospel in different ways.     To allow one self to be creative often means taking risks.  Is this not the role of the priest?  Are we not called to share the gospel and step out in faith?  The little white collar we wear is only made of plastic.   It doesn't offer much protection to shelter or hide behind and certainly doesn't indicate immediate trustworthiness of the wearer.  That really does need to be earned!

But I am thankful for clergy who have supported and encouraged me along the way.   One's confidence does need a boost every now and then.    These men and women are beacons of hope in what at times has been a difficult and dark journey. I can only admire and give thanks for clergy who selflessly, creatively and tirelessly continue to serve while retaining a sense of humour, vision and hope!  I understand that ministry can come at a cost indeed some of the most hurt and damaged people I have met have been in religious orders.   Is it their religion that  has not served them well for cynicism and bitterness to prevail?  I am not sure but thankfully for many, including some stung by religious institutions the priesthood is still regarded as an honour and the ministry of service as a privilege.   As I see it, if as followers of Christ we believe in a creative God, a God who created the universe then surely we ourselves must be creative and hopeful!

So where to from here for this artist/priest?   Well the 'itch' hasn't let up and I am about to start an M.A in Fine Art.   One rather probing but apt question asked by the lecturer interviewing me for a place on the course was "are you open to change?"  My reply? "Oh yes!"

Cosmic Snakes and Ladders

Regan O'Callaghan Stepped symbol and waves, Chazuta, Peru, CeramicsThe jungle speaks in so many ways!

So what were my intentions for travelling to the Amazon, Peru?  I left the leafy suburbs of West Hampstead early December flying first to the U.S where I spent a wonderful month in California which included leading an art workshop for the festival of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. James Episcopalian Church, Oakland, California.  The art scene in Oakland is fantastic! On the first friday of every month Art Murmer  stages an evening of open studios, galleries and workshops, music, food and entertainment in closed off streets in the city.   The creative buzz is contagious and I was especially inspired by Creative Growth Art centre  which serves adults with developmental, mental and physical disabilities. Absolutely amazing work!   I visited lots of galleries and museums in L.A and San Francisco and spent quality time with dear friends.  The month went by rather quickly and before I knew it I was on a plane to Peru where the Amazon beckoned.

I didnt stay at my first port of call Lima but headed straigth up to Iquitos and a trip down the Amazon River to the Refugio Altiplano. I had stayed at the lodge before and so was looking forward to my time.  Not surprisingly I got sick while there!  The city in this gringo was strong!  Bad spirits said the shaman after a night walk in the jungle.  Two days in bed and regular visits and good care by the shaman and I was better!

Ten days later  I caught a flight to Tarapoto and then a 45 minutes journey in a crammed taxi down a dirt road to the small village of San Roque de Cumbaza, home to 8oo people, 3 churches, friendly people and Sachaqa Art Centre my home for the next 2 and a half months. Here I was warmly welcomed by Trina, Daniel, Jacob, Grace Jones the cat and Arcoeides the Golden Labrador.

Sachaqa which is Quechuan for "spirit of the forest" is an artist residency.  I had come hoping to learn about natural pigments found in the region and other natural materials and be inspired by the Amazon.  One of my first experiences was a visit to Chazuta a small town a few hours away.  Famous for its handmade crafts, I was also planning to collect small stones from the river to make into pigments but the rain had other ideas.  However I did see some of the work of the locals including a visit to a small museum of ancient ceramic burial pots.  It is here I learned about the "The Stepped symbol and the Wave".

This symbol which I drew a copy of is one of the most recuring symbols in the iconography of the region including the Northern Andes.  Studies about the steps and spiral especially from the iconographic point of view seem to indicate that the symbol represents a close relationship between life and death (1).  Which made sense of why it is found on the ceramic burial urns. It also intrigued me due to my love of the Koru a Maori symbol of eternal life.   Chazuta is also a community in which traditional medicines is deeply rooted including use of the plant medicine Ayahausca  or "vine of death".

Even within my short time in the jungle it was easy to see why a symbol of life and death would be so relevant.  The constant rhythm of the jungle reveals an ongoing life and death drama!  From the quick lives and easy deaths of million of insects, the constant falling and rotting leaves,  to the local river which had washed away villagers during flooding after heavy downpours, death was ever present.  But so was life.  The crops of coffee and banana on steep hillsides were a reminder of the people etching out a living in what could be a harsh environment.   The creativity of the people and their crafts a powerful symbol of strength and perseverance.  The women ceramists of Chazuta's deep rooted belief in ancient traditions and crafts are seen as a resilient force even when the town was plagued by drug trafficking and violence. The leaf cutting ants even made me think of how amazing life is! And the huge variety of life in the jungle from the beautiful Azul butterfly that wafts past everday to the birds, and plants and animals and stars at night.

I had begun to understand that my time in the amazon was going to be so much more than just learning about natural pigments. I also sensed the jungles whisper was going to challeenge me to a some wild experiences and that my boundaried inner cityscape would be quickly overgrown and made moist by an ever expanding jungle.  I dont for a moment believe life is a board game but lifes ups and downs its joys and sorrows its passions and disappointments seem intensified in the jungle. So what next for this priest/artist?

1. "Chazuta Arte Ancestoral" J. Barta Del Castillo & A. Narvaez Vargas. Reg. Gov. of San Martin. 2000 pg. 61.www.stjamesoakland.comwww.oaklandartmurmer.orgwww.creativegrowth.orgwww.sachaqacentrodearte.com  

Titanium white pigment

Regan O'Callaghan Religious icon, Jesus, Pantokrator, egg temperaTitanium white pigment: a metaphor for modern times.

I learnt a very important lesson when I started to write religious icons do not use Titanium white for mixing especially for skin tones.  If you do the colour becomes bland and greyish or at best  Miami Vice pastel‚ as I call it.  Instead Zinc white should be used as it mixes with other pigments and lightens and works with colours rather than overpowering them like Titanium white does. Zinc white is less opaque making the coloured undertones more nuanced to a greater degree than pigments mixed with Titanium.

Zinc oxide was first suggested as a pigment in 1782 while it wasn't  until 1916 that Titanium white pigment suitable for artistic purposes was introduced replacing Lead white which had been restricted because of its toxicity 1.   Titanium it seems has become the white pigment of our times.

Titanium white is used in writing/painting icons but only sparingly. Traditionally the very last thing an iconographer would do is apply the highlights to the eyes of the saint with Titanium.  This is done on the edge of the iris but the pupil does not have a highlight for the figure portrayed ‚ is outside the condition of time.2  The true source of Light shines from Divine presence and permeates all things.  This in itself suggests unity, balance and perfection which is what an icon should reveal.

Broadening out this theme of unity and balance consider practices, structures and political and economic systems which when left unchecked or when a mandate becomes too large have a negative or destructive effect on people and the environment.

In his book Columbus and other Cannibals‚  Jack D. Forbes describes the Native American term Wetiko as referring  to a cannibal or, more specifically, to an evil person or spirit who terrorizes other creatures by means of terrible acts including cannibalism.3  Forbes then defines Cannibalism as the consuming of another  life for ones own private purpose or profit.4 Cannibalism as defined by Forbes is not the literal eating of another mans flesh but rather is the act of consuming the other, their values, their culture, their land and their voice by a oppressive regime intent on overpowering and destroying for its own benefit. This destructive culture is understood as rife with sickness, Wetiko.   A major symptom of Wetiko is greed particularly for wealth and power.

I don't agree with everything Forbes writes but I do appreciate what he says about the spread of this sickness.  This greed for wealth and power is not a trait of one particular race or culture but rather can be found everywhere.  But when this greed becomes normalised or excused  a culture becomes unbalanced and the tilt towards the greedy results in the manifestation of huge social injustice, disempowerment, then eventually a slow emergence of  simmering discontent and finally a full blown rage by the oppressed.

Also as a counter to the call for justice, some people in positions of power will use smear tactics and gross generalisations to undermine voices of dissent against greed and social injustice.  Such tactics are the domain of the intellectually lazy and greedy.  Their voice is in part motivated by a fear of loss, loss of wealth and status and yet calls for social and economic justice do not require this but rather ask for a system where people and nature are  not chewed up and spat out for the benefit of a few.  As we all know greed will always be part of this world but when the colours and diversity of this world become muted by a small overpowering element it becomes time to act.

Perhaps if we begin again to understand and believe in this world as an icon of beauty and that its mix of colour expresses a divine truth then we might begin to wake up from this slow destructive illness that can cloud our vision and harden our hearts.  Titanium white has its place on the universal palette but only in small controlled applications.

1:  Pigments through the Ages‚ www.webexhibits.org/pigments/indiv/history/titaniumwhite.htm2:  The Technique of Icon Painting‚ Guillem Ramos-Poqui, Morehouse Publishing, 19903:  Columbus and other Cannibals‚ pg. 24 Jack D. Forbes Seven Stories Press 19794:  Columbus and other Cannibals‚ pg. 24 Jack D. Forbes Seven Stories Press 1979