Thinking, Feeling, Trusting, Making
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
(Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘God’s Grandeur’)
At the time of writing, hundreds of thousands of people have died from the COVID-19 virus. We live with a heightened awareness of our own vulnerability and that of our loved ones. Every bereavement is particular and personal. One such irredeemable loss, which took place several years ago in what now seems like a very different world, is the motive and undertow for this online exhibition. Like so many who have surrendered their lives to the pandemic, Stephen Chilton’s (1975–2014) departure from this world was appallingly premature: unsought, unexpected, and unstoppable. For those who were close to him – his family and friends – their way of life was, in that moment, turned inside out. Since then, there has been a before time and an after time. The exhibition elides this division. Stephen’s past is integrated with our present once more, for to encounter Stephen’s paintings is to be reunited with his residual presence.
The images shown here are not so much a retrospective as a re-presentation of artwork that Stephen made at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. During his BA (Hons) (2001–4) and MA studies (2010–12) in fine art, and the period in between, he sought to discover a way not only of painting but also into himself. The two often go hand in hand.
For as long as I knew him Stephen possessed the qualities of earnestness, self-awareness, and good humour in generous and equal measure. Our tutorials were serious, focused, and probing, but always leavened with laughter. Throughout the final year of his first degree, he wore a white lab coat to protect his clothes while painting. It gave him an air of rationality and scientific detachment that was not inappropriate. Both then and subsequently, his approach to painting was measured and deliberate. But it did not imply that the outcome was either predetermined or predictable. His modus operandi was sufficiently elastic to enable him to be ‘joyed by surprise’ (to invert the title of C. S. Lewis’s partial autobiography). For Stephen calculation was always wedded to emotion. The artworks were as much felt and prayed as painted into being.
The same year Stephen enrolled on my ‘Contemporary Art’ module, which dealt with modernist abstraction in the United States principally. Inevitably, his questions about, and observations on, the content of the lectures spilled over into our one-to-one studio tutorials. He read books on art, theology, the Bible, and spirituality voraciously. Thinking, feeling, trusting, and making were interdependent in his scheme of things. He saw himself as working within a continuity that extended from Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840) to Mark Rothko (1903–70). In this respect, Robert Rosenblum’s book Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition (1977), which mapped this course, was his second Bible and guiding light. It helped foster the conviction that abstraction could be a spiritual language – an idea that would, in turn, provide the bedrock for his MA in Fine Art.
His decision to embark upon a second degree was hard won. Stephen kept a diary during 2010 in which he anguished over pretty much everything that an anxious young man does in his mid-thirties. At the time, he was employed full time at a secondary school. In common with many conscientious and well-loved teachers, he burnt the candle at both ends, felt socially isolated (as a result of the long hours he had to spend preparing and marking lessons at weekends), exhausted, discouraged, and unable to face the prospect of a further thirty-five years in post. Overwork and lack of sleep robbed him of the thrill of teaching. And, critically, he no longer had the time or the energy to exercise his creative abilities: teaching and living had become incompatible.
In choosing to pursue the MA, Stephen relinquished a steady salary and pension. But in the end his zest for life, both artistic and spiritual, outweighed all practical considerations. He was too desperate to be an artist to resist the impulse, and too much in need of rest, encouragement, love, and joy to contemplate not going down this path. Like Bunyan’s protagonist Christian, Stephen set out for the Celestial City. He hoped that the opportunity for further study would not only confirm his vocation but also deepen and define his spiritual identity, enable him to reinvent himself as a teacher, and improve his physical health and sense of well-being. Art grounded his ambitions and instilled in him a profound sense of purpose. Above all, Stephen wanted to make art out of a sense of personal authenticity as well as for the good of humanity: ‘I will paint what is me and hope I create a connection with others.’
Undertaking the MA Fine Art degree would not, he knew, be a panacea for all his troubles. Nevertheless, he was convinced that the School of Art could provide a context for a substantial recovery and discovery. In the course of his studies Stephen exceeded even his own expectations about what it was possible to achieve through painting, both practically and spiritually. There were times when, as he made art, one foot was placed in heaven with the other on earth. On such occasions, Stephen would turn effortlessly from prayer to painting and back again. His vision of a more considered, deliberate, and simpler life, a God-directed spirituality, and wholeness of body and mind intensified. However, the realisation of these aspirations proved elusive. Overcoming personal adversity and establishing a viable lifestyle (so that he would not be dependent on anyone) presented a far harder challenge than painting itself. The fight would see him oscillate between confidence and despair, clarity and confusion, and discipline and indulgence – a not unusual response in creative practitioners of a certain temperament – but that internal conflict fuelled rather than inhibited his painting.
His postgraduate studies took off where his undergraduate studies had ended in a seamless transition. In his final-year show as a BA (Hons) student, Stephen exhibited ‘Light Veils’, a suite of paintings that marked his emergence as an abstract painter. Light would be an abiding spiritual metaphor in his work. ‘Veils’ describes the process by which aqueous layers of translucent cerulean, cobalt blue, and ultramarine acrylic paint were thinly applied with a brush from the top of the canvas and, like a slow and gentle tide, allowed to flow downwards. The concept also invokes the veil of the Tabernacle and Temple, which divided the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place in Judaic worship, and which, metaphorically and theologically, represents Christ’s body (Exodus 26.31–34; Hebrews 10.20). This veiled religious significance would remain a constant in his work.
He also maintained a preoccupation with the large colour field paintings of the American abstract expressionists Mark Rothko and Morris Louis (1912–62). Stephen’s canvasses were taller than him initially, but as his master’s year progressed they became increasingly intimate in size – ‘icon-like’, to use his own description. That phrase is key to appreciating the essence of Stephen’s relationship to both the image and the act of painting. He did not paint in order to express his ego. Rather, the artworks, like a church spire, were conceived to direct his and the spectators’ vision above. For him, the paintings also served to evoke sensations that lay beneath the surface of consciousness and a dimension beyond the realm of the purely physical. To this latter end, their conspicuous lack of painterly materiality represented the idea of a permeable membrane – the ‘thin place’ – between this world and the next, through which we may dimly glimpse a more glorious reality.
While seeking to ‘create a connection with others’, so as to elevate their vision, the paintings’ primary orientation was directed towards himself. They were the foci for his meditations, in their creation and in contemplation afterwards. By allying the aesthetic and the ascetic, he sought to deepen his awareness of God’s immanence and grandeur, and his experience of joy and hopefulness. He succeeded, at least for a while.
Like his final-year undergraduate paintings, the suites of works that he created during his MA studies revolved around the theme of light. The ‘Starlight’ suite consists of four paintings, three of which – Lyra, Cassiopeia, and Orion – are named after constellations. The fourth, Corona, refers to the aura of plasma that surrounds the sun (the word has connotations associated with darkness rather than light, presently). It is as though the emanation of myriad stars – incomprehensibly remote from us in distance and time – has been deposited on the surface of the canvases, like light rays upon the sensitised emulsion of a photographic glass plate. Stephen loved the unpolluted night skies above Ceredigion and Bwlch Nant yr Arian (ten miles east of Aberystwyth) especially. In an email I received from him in October 2013, he expressed his delight that the constellation of Orion had reappeared in the southern sky. The heavenly firmament had taken on a deep significance for him.
Stephen’s abstract sensibility was informed by his observation of natural phenomena and principles, as Piet Mondrian’s (1906–44) had been. The ‘Dark Light’ and ‘Evening Veils’ suites allude to the half-light of eventide, which he had enjoyed on his frequent solitary walks from Aberystwyth to the nearby village of Llangorwen. It was a time of day that seemed to chime with his temperament and outlook. The subtle graduations and nuances of colour and vaporous curtains of contrasting temperatures are also suggestive of the Northern Lights – a display that he dearly hoped to witness one day. Stephen also enjoyed the hues of flower: their saturations, complementarities, and harmonics. A response to colour was his earliest aesthetic instinct. In another email from July 2013, he recalled colouring in a picture of the three Magi in green and purple at the age of five. The combination of these liturgical colours (with which, as a Roman Catholic, he would have been familiar) excited him. In later life, simple pairings of colour constituted a sufficient means by which he would articulate a fundamentally spiritual outlook on life, and develop a mode of religious allusion outside the framework of traditional Christian iconography.
The ‘Musical Veils’ suite is predicated upon the analogy that he perceived between the slow rate at which his paintings unfolded visually and the gradual shifts of tonalites in the music of the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935). Stephen had an intuitive sense of the relationship between image and sound, and between colour and sonic tonality. For him, painting was a way of playing musically. These correspondences would have been explored further had he been able to embark upon a PhD Fine Art course in the years ahead. ‘God willing’ was Stephen’s caveat in every determination he made. His ambition to pursue a further degree lay outside the divine decree. (See my: Seven Prayers for Stephen Chilton: Requiem)
Following the successful completion of his MA Fine Art studies (he graduated with a distinction), Stephen and I corresponded and met only occasionally. In August 2013 he wrote asking to discuss the implications of a piece of advice I’d given him recently: ‘It takes time to find oneself. And time to purposely lose it again. (Which you’ll need to do in the distant future.)’ This had proven true in my own experience and, given that we were kindred spirits in some respects, I anticipated that it would in his too one day. In other words, I advised him that change is not something that you wait for to happen: you make it happen. For, without change, the artist atrophies. Stephen replied: ‘Thanks for one of the great[est] lines I’ve ever read. I'll remember it. You know what it means more than me – as I've just gone through something akin to the birth of a new star to find myself.’ That epiphanic moment of self-awareness on the Mountain of Delectation would stand in stark contrast to the Slough of Despond into which he would later descend.
Following his master’s studies, Stephen was eager to establish his career, move on artistically, find a way of returning to teaching (but on his own terms), and serve God and others as best as he could. After November 2013 I received no further emails until June the following year. Towards the end of 2013, he suffered a bout of flu, from which he was making a slow and halting recovery. The energy expended on his studies, employment, and volunteer work depleted his physical and psychological reserves considerably. Stephen was running on empty. We discussed the possibility that he was experiencing a type of recurrent post-viral condition, following the illness (his symptoms recalled those I had suffered at the onset of myalgic encephalomyelitis). I recommended that he rest and retreat.
Early in June 2014, following his sudden and unannounced departure from Aberystwyth and in response to my enquiry after his health, Stephen wrote: ‘I’m not too good.’ Constant lassitude, anxiety, mental incoherence, faltering faith, and a fear that he was becoming a burden to others characterized his life from then on. Everything had changed; he no longer felt the same person or in control of his body, mind, and spirit. While the comfort and security of elevated feelings ebbed away, Stephen’s grasp of God, and his assurance that God still held on to him as they walked together ‘through the valley of the shadow’ remained secure. ‘Keep me in your prayers’ was one of the last things he wrote to me. I honoured that request until the day he was found.
Stephen and I had, independently, visited St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in Tremeirchion, Denbighshire, for periods of silent retreat. It was there that Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89) lived and studied theology from 1874 to 1877, and wrote some of his most accomplished poems, including ‘God’s Grandeur’. It was much loved by us both. In a subdued and unassuming way, Stephen was a lighting rod that routed the discharge of God’s grandeur to the earth. His paintings shone forth with an inner radiance. Now he has passed beyond their veil and into the arms of him who made that good light (Genesis 1.3).