getting to the heart of it

Phyllis Wolff

Over the years of providing web design and technical support for Phyllis she has become a friend. I’ve enjoyed many hours of meandering conversation about painting, poetry and all things of good spirit and in return she has patiently lent an ear whenever I’ve had troubles. She has given good council and reminded me of the joy and wonder of simply being alive and of being grateful to be here, now.

As our friendship has grown we’ve been in the habit of swapping poetry. These Mary Oliver lines below are one of Phyllis’ favourites poems and she sends it to me at least twice a year!

the summer day

These lines from the poem describe Phyllis quite perfectly, for me.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

Of course Phyllis is far from idle. She is busy responding to the final line of the poem.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

What Phyllis does is respond to wonder like this…

Melbury Hill and Compton Down oil on canvas 80 x 120 cms

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My first instinct when considering how to start this article (and I have started several times) was to talk about her painting. Several eminent writers have noted her work; Edward Lucie-Smith described her as a ‘rare British colourist’ and a ’21st century impressionist’ while Fay Weldon declared that ‘Phyllis gets nearer to the truth than most’. But our familiarity has reveled something much more about Phyllis than being a painter. There is something ‘crucial’ that I am finding difficult to describe.

It is, however, poetry that speaks most brightly when we talk.

widening circles

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.


I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

Rainer Marie Rilke

I gifted Phyllis a collection of poems by Rainer Marie Rilke. ‘Love Poems to God’. They had been a great revelation to me; a granting of permission to express gratitude to the divine. I hoped she would appreciate the intensity of Rilke’s poetry. Without hesitation, Phyllis read the first poem in the book;

‘It says everything I need to hear.’

I could not agree more. It is a beautiful welcome to the songs of love and humility that blossom on every page.

Rosy Melbury    oil on canvas    70 x 70cm

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I visited recently. The day was bright and we climbed to the top of the hill behind her house, nestled in the beautiful Dorset countryside. It is something she does for all of her visitors. The view of the Dorset countryside is spectacular and the contentment it provides, enriching. In every direction I could see a Phyllis painting. The elevation allowed a world to welcome me and Rilke lingered ‘am I a falcon, a storm, or a great song?’

‘Can you see the red kites? I watch for them every day in the hope of seeing the chicks.’

I could see them; soaring as if in a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, majestic and yet so tiny in the distance.

To the right I could see Melbury Hill. Its shape had become so familiar to me as I had helped hang several painted versions of it in Phyllis’ one person show at the Dorchester Museum. I could feel the ponderous weight of the hill itself and the delicacy of the trees which freckle its rise. I indulged in its colour but knew that it was best seen in a sunset glow for Phyllis had captured it in one of her many hill paintings. I could see the appliqued pattern of the fields rolling toward me in their varied hues of spring. I have seen them painted in all their season’s best.

 

Bright Field    oil on canvas    76 x 76cm

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The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R S Thomas

Fontmell Down and the Curlews    oil on canvas    100 x 100cm

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From this high vantage point I can see so many of Phyllis’ works and inspirations. The hills which have always played their part with permanent embrace and I can see the copses of trees; the unfurling beeches that I have seen in her work both in full leaf and preparing for winter’s rest. There are oaks, saplings which Phyllis and her husband have planted to bring life and history back to the currently bare soil. I know the hedges and the fruit trees will be full of blossom and I can imagine Phyllis at her easel, conjuring a map to impress all the senses; a retelling of its story from winter through spring.

In the rhythm of her brushwork I hear the words of Laurie Lee in his poem.

April Rise

If ever I saw blessing in the air
I see it now in this still early day
Where lemon-green the vaporous morning drips
Wet sunlight on the powder of my eye.

Our gradual walk back is abbreviated with pause. It is fuel for the soul. Whether it is to notice a new mushroom, to listen to the songbirds or to spot a hare dancing in the open field across the road. We reach her garden and stop to watch the chickens running riot in her flowerbeds.

‘They are such naughty girls.’

Hens and Washing    oil on canvas    60 x 50cm

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The vegetable bed is being prepared for the new produce, the fig on the wall still has its winter wrap. There is love and care in the nurturing of this place.

The large pond in her garden had several bound switches of willow floating on the surface, ‘to keep them supple, for weaving’. I had never seen that before and especially not in her several pond paintings. I suggested it might be a new composition.

‘Ah yes, but those are Summer paintings… when the ponds are at their best’

Pond III    oil on canvas    40 x 40cm

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I know that she has painted the ponds at least 20 times in various seasons. Whether the surface of the water dances with dappled light, bearing the delicate weight of a span of lily pads or showing the wintery cold being punctured by sharp, dilapidated reeds, she captures the moment with intense scrutiny. Reaching in to the essence of it to extract the truth of the scene, she commits the feeling to canvas without hesitation or stutter. The work is immediate, joyful and celebratory – a visual song.

Cool Pond Reflected oil on canvas 70 x 90cm

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The door to her studio is watched over by a madonna, a shrine decorated with flowers. Phyllis stops to reset a fallen pine cone beneath Mary’s hand. There is something far more real in that gesture than any ‘talking’ about painting.

We had been sorting out her paintings in an attempt to catalog them. Two tree paintings were out and leaning on the wall.

Tall Beeches    oil on canvas    90 x 60cm

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‘These are two of my favourites – painted quickly, straight off without fussing over’

Suddenly, I understand the single thing I need to convey in this writing. The clarity I require; the way that Phyllis expresses wonder. It is simply getting to the heart of it.

Trees in Snow oil on canvas 60 x 90cm

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Getting to the heart of it

This is painting that is direct, immediate and honest.

That is not to say that it happens without effort. After studying at St Martin’s and enjoying the company of contemporaries like Euan Uglow, Phyllis has painted with the same fervour and passion for the past 5 decades. This commitment to the craft has resulted in a style which is a perfect voice for her subject. Dedication and habit has not only honed her skills but opened her eyes to wonder.

Phyllis’ connection with her subject is entirely immersive. Her surroundings are… loved. The nurture and care that she pours into her garden and the rewilding of her small field are in tune with how she treats her family and friends. She is compassionate and passionate about all she loves and knows the right way to express it. Her painterly skill is accentuated by honesty and directness. There is humility and surrender to her subject. I feel the intimacy in every piece.

Hanging in her studio is a recently completed commission for gallery owner Stephen Friedman. It is a map of the local area painted by Phyllis. He sounds pleased, ‘I do really like the direction of the new work and think the maps are beautiful…

 

Map of Hawkcome    assorted media on paper    100x100cm

Even from an aerial viewpoint I can sense the connection. There is ‘Mother’ in this, the nurture, a harbouring of sorts, of gift.

Picasso said that the meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away.

Phyllis’ gift is not simply an appreciation of the landscape which makes these works so identifiable as her own; they ask more, with the assuredness of a practiced hand, ‘am I a falcon, a storm or a great song?’.

See Phyllis full portfolio

If you like the poetry on this page then please do treat yourself to full copies

New and Selected Poems

Mary Oliver
272pp – £11.33

Everyman Poetry

R S Thomas
128pp – £5.25

Book of Hours

Rainer Maria Rilke
176pp – £10.00

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