Tuesday 13 December 2016

Talks Walking 2, Chris Bird-Jones: 'The Light, the Worm, and the Bone' By Fern Smith

On the morning of 22nd February 2016 I pick up Chris Bird-Jones from her house high on one of the hills above the city of Swansea and we head west to Rhossilli at the tip of the Gower Peninsular. It is a full moon day and the weather looks promising. This is a place known well to both of us – the jewel in the crown of the oldest AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) in the UK. It always feels like a special occasion going to Rhossilli - a place for high days and holidays - it has been one of my favoured Christmas day walks for many years. It’s a place of breathtaking beauty and spectacular coastal scenery, presided over by the majestic Worm’s Head, a long, dragon-shaped rocky outcrop. Facing the dragon stands the high ridge of Rhossilli Down, well-used by paragliders. Nestled between the two, is one of the longest unbroken stretches of golden sand in Wales.

Rhossilli Beach

Chris is the second artist I’ve asked to walk with me as part of my new ‘Talks Walking’ project. The idea is to discuss an invited individual artist’s work and their relationship to ‘spirit, soul and the sacred’. My first walk (A Walk in the Woods) had been with theatre maker Lucy Neal. The project was inspired by a book I’d read recently by Jacob Needleman that literally shook my world. In ‘An Unknown World’, Needleman asks the ultimate and ever so slightly daunting question, “what is the purpose of life on earth?” So no pressure then…

The drive to Rhossilli is taken up with sharing all our news, projects and challenges since we’d spoken last. There is lots to catch up on and the day could easily have continued in this way with us both sharing the day to day challenges and opportunities our daily lives present. This day is different. I have an agenda and want to put the focus on Chris, her work, what motivates and what keeps her doing what she does. Chris Bird-Jones was the ‘Creative Ambassador’ for Wales in 2015 - a highly prestigious and sought after award bestowed on a particularly prominent or questing artist in recognition of their work. It involves working closely with a venue in Wales as well as one overseas that the artist has developed a significant connection with. Chris is a glass artist, or more specifically one who works with light as her principal ‘material’. Chris had pioneered techniques and new ways of working with glass whilst a student at The RoyalCollege of Art. Moving away from more pictoral stained-glass windows, Chris instead worked with stacking glass, working more architecturally, experimenting with reflection and refraction. Twenty years ago, these ideas were so outside the mainstream of glass working that her ideas were not fully appreciated for what they were. However now, these methods and ideas have informed a whole generation of new artists who are working more experimentally with glass and the effect of light upon it.
Illuminated lens detail Hawaii 2015
Part of the deal with this particular project is that the invited artists get to choose the walk themselves. When I picked Chris up this morning, she immediately informed me, “I want to go to the sea!” We drive the forty minutes or so out of Swansea to Rhossilli and park in the National Trust car park. She has chosen an RSPB circular walk of around six miles which takes in the high cliffs, hidden bays, farm and heathland of this westernmost tip of Gower. Her school nickname was ‘Chris Birdy’. This feels appropriate given her attunement to things at the edge of consciousness, so often the case with a bird in flight at the furthermost reaches of our vision. Or similarly, a bird camouflaged by its stillness in the hedge or cliff top. Attending to the moment and to detail typify her work. Chris sees things. She notices and is continuously enchanted, “how can you ever feel tired of smelling a flower?”

She is someone who is often on the move. Currently she is living between North and South Wales, and appears as at home in Morocco as Hawaii, both of which she has visited this year. She speaks of how lucky she is to feel at home in so many different places. It is nature, she says, which helps her do this. She is able to dwell on this earth anywhere there are forests, rivers, sky, sea. Her attention to detail is striking and she is constantly drawing my attention to things I’ve barely noticed, like the way the water in the rock pools looks like snow - so strong is the reflection from the low wintery sun. She has the ability to connect with joy and the sense of adventure of a child exploring the world for the first time, as well as a desire to bend the rules, to climb over the fence marked ‘private’ – insatiable curiosity it could be called.
Illuminated lens detail Hawaii 2015.
Chris was 60 in January and has surprised herself that she is troubled by this. Since the beginning of 2016 there have been some notable high profile deaths of significant artists such as David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Lemmy. Added to this was the death of a dear school friend of Chris’s only a few days before. She speaks of the finiteness of time and how it is concentrating her mind. About the tension she feels between her art making, re-establishing an active connection with a Corbyn-revivified Labour Party and a desire to ‘just live’. By just living, it feels like it is the ‘art of living’ she wants to dedicate herself to – a simplifying, a re-aligning to what is important in life. And to walking. She speaks of walking as if it is an art-form, a meditation, an end in itself…

We speak about the fact that early on in her creative career, she left being solely an artist in order to teach. Partly desire and partly a pragmatic decision as she had her daughter to look after. Chris returned to her home of Llangollen and became head of department at NEWI (North East Wales Institute, now Glyndwr University), established residencies for Cywaith Cymru for a year and later taught the Masters course in glass at Swansea College of Art (now University of Wales Trinity St David), one of the nations most established centres for stained glass. She has always been an enabler and someone who found great satisfaction facilitating learning in others.

Since leaving teaching four years ago Chris has been re-connecting with and re-establishing her practice as an artist. Motivated by a need to bring more playfulness into life, she began to make everyday objects which ‘hold’ light – containers, buckets and bowls - significant, archetypal, timeless objects. The bowls were initially developed from an idea twenty-five years ago when she had her first major international exhibition in Hawaii. One of the pieces was inspired by an Hawaiian tradition whereby each new born child is blessed with a bowl of light within his or her belly. A bowl which can collect dirt, stones and rubble but can be daily washed clean in the sea. Chris says it is the magic and alchemy of light which draws her. Not the facts or science of light but something about the otherworldly transcendent nature of sunrise, sunset and the golden hour which enraptures the film-maker. A connection established when a child by means of a fascination with fairies.

Bowl of Light Hawaii 2015

The buckets and the bowls also reference traditional creation stories in which the universe is formed out of the ingredients of a great cauldron, as in the tale of the Welsh goddess Ceridwen who inadvertently created Taliesin, the bard of bards. Even more magically, a mirrored bucket or bowl also allows the holder to collect whatever is needed – to fill one’s bucket with the sky, sheep, birds, flowers. A bucket which is never full and however poor the owner be, can be filled with riches. Chris’ buckets appear to send an anti-materialist message of the highest order, though her work remains always playful and never pompous. 
Bucket portal 2016
Chris spoke of her connection to the mysterious. Admitting to feeling that she was on the edge of making a choice to go through a kind of threshold. But that if she did, there would be no turning back. She connects to the mystery continuously and intuitively in the making of her work but has difficulty putting it into words. Working with light seems to her a good metaphor for the mystery – holding something that cannot be held. A paradox. “The light is inseparable from the shadow. It is impossible to see if we do not have the light as well as the dark. The world would be unimaginable”. We sit on a bench in a field cordoned off from the general public and I read her the opening paragraph of Jacob Needleman’s book ‘The Unknown World, Notes on the Meaning of the Earth’…

“A month ago, on the night of my seventy-fifth birthday, I dreamed of Elias Barkhordian. I was once again sitting on the low stone wall surrounding our neighbour’s lawn, where Elias and I would always go to talk about the universe. As it had been then, over sixty years ago so it was in the dream, late afternoon in October, the sun low in the sky; in the distance the shouts of the neighbourhood children at their street games. And as it also was then, I had been walking away from the noise, pretending I was walking aimlessly but knowing I would be meeting Elias. And as for Elias, who soon appeared from across Seventh Street where the rich people lived, he was also pretending to be just walking, and when we met we pretended to be a little surprised – that was our ritual, played out for several years until Elias died just before his fourteenth birthday.”

The light of that day when Chris and I sat there overlooking Rhossilli beach was phenomenal. It had been overcast and rainy for days, months even. This day - where we spent at least six hours on a four-hour walk since we stopped countless times to look at things in detail - we met no-one. It was an empty landscape except for the grazing sheep, horses and ever-present birds. The light of the sky was magical. Grey, blue, pink, silver ever-changing as we walked that afternoon, the winter sun appearing and disappearing tentatively behind clouds in the enormous sky. The full moon preparing to reveal itself as the sun set over Worm’s Head. The light was our constant. The ever-changing light. Chris spoke of a new project, one nestled closely to her heart, still yet to be born. One which she hoped would mix the playfulness, the shadow, the light and which would entrance. Chris is a serious player. Enchanted. She sees things differently.
Chris Bird-Jones Toronto 2015

She picked up a bone. The single vertebrae of a sheep or a rabbit. “Look at it this way” she said, “it’s a smiling face with wings. Look at it this way – the smile is even wider…”

Chris Bird-Jones, artist and Creative Wales Ambassador 2015, lives in Swansea. You can contact her via her website chris-bird-jones.co.uk or on twitter @chrisbirdjones. Also see bird-jonesandheald.co.uk, ttps://lightexpedition.wordpress.com and https://www.facebook.com/Alldaith-Goleuni-Light-Expedition-by-Chris-Bird-Jones-1104935502865257 

Fern Smith is an artist and Creative Director of Emergence

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