Saturday, January 11, 2014

A pilgrimage of dreams

I was sitting at breakfast in the 'Solar' at Dartington Hall opposite a large woman with striking black hair combed back into a perfectly shaped, rounded bun whose carrying voice (befitting the singer she had been) lent over the wide wooden table and demanded, 'Are you a poet? You look like a poet'. 'No,' I replied, 'I am afraid I am not' but in a moment of unbidden and mysterious inspiration added, 'But I do dream'.

No response could have had weightier significance for, Thetis Blacker, my morning conversation partner, was a formidable dreamer, indeed her book, 'A Pilgrimage of Dreams' records some of her most significant and they have the quality of mythic story.

We exchanged dreams and became friends. By this time, Thetis had migrated from singer and textile designer to artist whose work graced both public and private collections and, most importantly, cathedrals and churches. Dream was often the starting point of her work. She would have an idea or a commission and would wait upon inspiration. This would often come, she told me, in a dream, often from a minute particular that would be the seeding of the whole.

Her paintings, based on her own unique refashioning of traditional batik techniques, were (as can be seen above) both saturated in colour and steeped in story. The above is from a sequence based on the Persian poet, Attar's 'Conference of the Birds' that beautiful exposition of how we passage from a painfully held together bundle of qualities towards a symphonic whole, mirroring the unity of God.

Birds were a continuing theme: each species carrying (as it does in Attar) a different symbolic presence within the living whole. The one she painted for me (the Dream Bearer) was a transfiguration of the dove who carries the olive twig back to the Ark and who carries with it God's covenant that out of the night (of the dark) henceforth there will always be meaning. The night, seen aright, is the fertilising of the day.

It was an affirmation that Thetis drew out of her own experience of the dark that were her searing, incapacitating depressions when everything appeared to desert her and yet light returned. It was, I think, the reason that the Phoenix was such a recurring motif in her work. The burning to ashes, the dark obliteration, being the prelude to new life.

She was utterly unique and a joy to know though she did carry the ability to embarrass one. Introducing her talk at a conference once on the relationship between dreaming and art, she declared that though she was herself a great dreamer, there was one in the audience who was an even greater dreamer than she because they were (in her eyes at least) a 'purer' person, followed by naming me (sic) such that for next three days I was hounded by conference participants wanting to share with me their dreams and me having to appear sagely!

On another occasion we went together to see an exhibition of Francis Bacon at the Marlborough and (appropriately) descending the stairs to the lower gallery, she declared in her unmistakeable and carrying voice, 'Behold Nicholas images of the Hell in which we no longer pretend to believe'! If only floor could swallow...even though the remark was the best critical comment on Bacon I have ever heard - the endless recycling of the same images of human being trapped in pain without end or meaning. Once would have been enough but, as Blake would recognise, Bacon was stuck where he was, what else could he do but repeat?

The highlight of friendship were visits to her cottage in Surrey, looking out over the Downs, a consummate lunch, vivid conversation, tea outside and, finally, a view of the work in progress and a discussion of its challenges and complexities. I cannot convey the privilege of this last part: an opportunity to help, in the very smallest measure the work in progress.

Pure gift.

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