THE THIN PLACE
I became aware of the paintings of David Marl over a decade ago. I saw his work at an exhibition and then visited him in his studio. I was drawn to the traveller in his work, the pilgrim … the everyman. I was about to see the journey of my own life signposted toward a brighter place and in a period of turmoil the paintings were calming, granting a permission to ease on forward.
Time has passed and I’m delighted to reconnect with David. As I drive through the narrow lanes crowded with cow parsley, the delicate white flowers remind me of one of his paintings.
Landscape in April
His works are mostly 5 x 7 inches yet mesmeric, insistent on scrutiny. Despite their postcard size they are windows to much greater landscapes of our imaginations. Not a geography of realism, there are no landmarks that are instantly recognisable, but places so intimate that the feeling of belonging is palpable, connecting to the great mysteries that we often consider when search for reassurance.
I asked David to explain how he can reach into these worlds and harvest these visions of wonder with such apparent ease.
I have always been interested in story. I have been influenced by a range of artists and writers that tend to use narrative as part of their work; Blake, Palmer, Spencer. Always in landscape there is a story to be told or a scene that might inspire the viewer to imagine some narrative of their own. I enjoy creating a scene using components that I have been thinking about or are an important part of my life. Then like a subconscious jigsaw puzzle I put the pieces together.
Landscape seems to be a fundamental source of your inspiration?
I am very fortunate to currently live in this wonderful countryside. The landscape here is beautifully English; rolling hills with copses that teem with life. I feel very close to that in recent times. I am now 80 years old, so it is sometimes difficult to get to a great vantage point, not because of my age, but the fact that it is difficult to park a car on many of these country lanes without blocking traffic. But when I do see a beautiful place it tends to stick in my mind and it might reoccur in one of my compositions.
When I am present in particular places, when I can feel the landscape and myself as part of it, then that is what I describe as the ‘thin place’. The Celts originated the term, referring to places where they felt that they had a particular spiritual impact as ‘thin places’.
I find that with some places you suddenly sense that they are special. They’re just different. I remember years ago having to illustrate a book on Sussex. I was driving around taking photographs and doing drawings. One of the places I aimed to draw was a Quaker meeting house. You drove down this long lane, and there was this 17th century building virtually untouched. You could go into it because it was still used and they hadn’t modernised it at all. It was just just a wonderful, wonderful sense that you got. You were somewhere else, a ‘thin place’. You felt close to heaven.
At the gates of Heaven
An extract from a poem by the 17th Century Buddhist monk Gensei comes to my mind
Fall floods have washed away the planks of the bridge;
shouldering our sandals, we wade the narrow stream.
By the roadside, a small pavilion
where there used to be a little hill:
it helps out our hermit mood…
I was born in 1942...
…in Tunbridge Wells to a mother with a heart condition. Although it had no significant effect at the time, being fostered for the first few months of my life while my mother regained her health, may have had some effect on my outlook. For the first 11 years of life I lived in so many places and had been a student of 5 different schools that I internalised most of my emotions. I relied on stories of fantasy to enrich my imagination, to replace the stability that was apparently ‘normal’. I was not unhappy, in fact I was quite garrulous and outgoing but the knowledge that things were all likely to change delayed my bonding to anything ‘real’ but it stirred my imagination.
How many miles to Babylon? II
When I look at David’s paintings now, I see the lone child and the desire for involvement in ‘story’; not necessarily a quest, more of a pilgrimage or a calling for reassurance.
Many of the characters in the paintings appear to be on a road, either alone or with a companion. Although a sense of journey is obvious, I feel the pause, a strong sense of stillness and it seems to me as if each one of his figures have approached their own ‘thin place’ within the painting itself.
How many miles to Babylon? III
A solitary person is rare...
…in David’s landscape. If a figure stands alone there is usually an accompanying animal, most often a dove, it’s flight majestic as if Gerard Manley Hopkins had taken the time to describe its poise.
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
As viewer, I vacillate with fascination between immersion in the role of one of his characters and the cool detachment of an external observer. The sense of a journey is one we can all identify with but here we are not on a simple walk in nature. The symbolism, as subtle as it is, forces you to accept that you are not seeing the familiar world but are immersed in a fantastically, evocative landscape of wonder.
There is usually a road or a path...
…an indication of where the figure has come from or where they are heading to. The roads rarely lead from or to anything distinguishable, often the horizon or falling into a lee between the hills.
A landscape from the dawning of the world
There is a source of light...
…be it a crimson sun in either dawn or dusk or the reflection of a silver moon on white snow. It is something comforting, a symbol of mystery and humility.
Often the trees are shaped like vessels, with a striking, delicate capillary in contrast to the mass of the trees weight. They are like the wings of a butterfly, which also crop up fairly regularly. The graceful patterns will occasionally replace the foliage of a tree shape.
Unnatural Histories – the ghosts of Summer haunt grim Winter
The dove, usually in flight, sometimes makes an appearance in line as if it is invisible or ethereal. It flies in the direction of the figure, guiding or steering, always lending comfort through its closeness, a welcome spiritual presence.
The rich young ruler
There are appearances of angels. Whether it is a retelling of the annunciation or as a companion. Their presence heightens the spiritual content.
David’s angels remind us that although our sensual experience is limited the spritual experience of wonder is a constant.
These are deeply spiritual paintings with their own language and story.
I believe that some great artist’s work has the validation of prayer. An absorption of every sensual wonder. They say ‘look, see what I see’ … is it not miraculous?
Dreamer with annunciation
Cecil Colins wrote on the day of the installation of one of his own stained glass windows in All Saint’s Church in Basingstoke
The angels are a wind force of divine mind. They are the spiritual intelligence that connects all worlds; they unify and they help transform our consciousness and our awareness.
…is a Christian service or communion, commemorating the Last Supper, in which the host is symbolised by bread and the chalice is the vessel of the blood of Christ. As an ordained Anglican priest David was accustomed to serving communion at Sherborne Abbey. When covid arrived the Abbey was forced into lockdown and communion was postponed.
I couldn’t get to to preside at communion, because I was shielding and the Abbey was locked for a long time. I took to painting these pictures which became a way of engaging again with the Eucharist. Some elements appeared; the chalice and the host; the ideas of life flowing in and flowing out. I started with that and the paintings just kept coming. They kept me engaged with the idea of communion altogether. Visually, it was something to explore, moving freely from idea to idea. Sometimes the tree became a chalice, one became a cornfield with a tree and path running down towards the church. There are so many different ways of exploring and in that sense they were a new venture.
That’s interesting, because I’ve seen this shape in your work before but I hadn’t acknowledged that it’s a chalice.
But it wasn’t initially … it was just a tree. Then it became clear that the shapes echo each other, becoming interchangeable in the end. Certainly in some of them the chalice and the host are pretty specific. In others they’ve become subsumed into the landscape. There is a chalice in the house here (below), but this one is simply floating in front of it in some way that’s much more symbolic. Theoretically, as a priest, I could do it by myself, but the word communion suggests a communal thing. It was a very sad time.
I can see pathways...
…even in these Eucharist paintings, but to me, curiously, I don’t feel that they are about the journey at all.
They’re about pause and rest. They’re about a moment when everything stops, and our imagination opens up to something beyond the tangible, to something much more real, though unseen; the invisible that you need faith to see. The Wonder of it all.
Part of the journey
That’s why I was drawn to David’s work, particularly when he talked about moments when he felt close to something divine; ‘the thin place’ where he felt that communion with himself and his work. That is when the paintings are strongest.
That’s why I appreciate them, because I recognise these moments of pause and sensation – I acknowledge something, a sense of connection and joy.
I like the idea that a sense of heaven and earth meet. It has to. Several of my pieces have an Annunciation, Mary and the Angel, not necessarily in the foreground.
There’s another sequence I just called The Psalmist. The idea of a single person finding themselves engaged with strange landscapes or events, lost in wonder. A figure painted, very dark becomes integrated almost with the landscape. I did a whole series, imagining somebody’s engagement with the world other than that which is the seen world.
The Psalmist – Darwin
Five figures looking for meaning
I am intrigued by the modest scale of these paintings…
Ha ha .. well, yes, I think it has much to do with my working class background. As a child I was unable to got to galleries and the only access to artwork was in books. I still always think of the Sistine Chapel as being about the size of a postcard.
The odd thing is that occasionally, I make paintings that are slightly larger, but I find that I can trim off the excess. Everything I do tends to sit happily within this particular format. So the bigger they get the less dense, intense and distilled they become.
Still today, If I go into a gallery I will head towards the smaller pictures. It is not something I do consciously in that sense but I do love the idea of the world being contained in these tiny spaces.
A theologian missing the point
The lesson we might take from the work of David Marl is to make our journeys with gentle humility and accept the wonder surrounding us.
We are delighted to announce that The Wonderbook is publishing a selection of David Marl’s work as limited edition, signed, archival quality prints. Each image is reprinted on a 400x300mm piece of etching cotton rag 315gsm paper, with the image sized at 245x175mm (slightly larger than the original painting). Each title of the series will be limted to 24 editions and will be signed by the artist and numbered accordingly.