HALF-HIDDEN behind the tall hedges of a narrow lane in Cornwall lies Caervallack, a seventeenth-century white-walled stone cottage that is home to the artist Louise McClary. If you venture past the unprepossessing wooden gate that guards its entrance, you seem to enter a magical space, a fairytale kingdom protected by high walls and luxuriant plants. In this enchanted realm, timber bridges cross ancient tracks and petrified mermaids lie washed up on stone flags. Under the shade of tall trees you can sit on elegantly curved metal thrones to contemplate the music of fountains, or you can push through the spiky embrace of climbing plants to enter dreamlike groves of light and air. In this Cornish Brigadoon, the boundaries that normally separate this world from the other are fragile and transparent; here solid matter seems to dissolve, and the interconnectivity of the universe is revealed, allowing us to see in the sinuous lines of trees the shape of birdsong.
In a quiet corner sits McClary’s studio, a peaceful hermitage filled with music, poetry, and bright Cornish light. It is here, surrounded by flowers, water, white cobb walls, children’s toys, and a lifetime’s accumulation of curios that McClary’s paintings are born, kaleidoscopic distillations of her environment, faith, and memories.
Like Peter Lanyon, one of her heroes, McClary studied painting at Penzance School of Art, a traditional art school founded one hundred and fifty years ago to provide ordinary men and women with the means and opportunity to discover their own creativity. Here she painted local landscapes and was taught about color, gesture, form, and line—rather than the critical theories that seem to underpin so much contemporary art education. In 1976, aged eighteen, McClary became a decorator at the Troika Pottery in Newlyn. Troika’s molded pots, which had been popular items at the fashionable London store Heals from the pottery’s founding in 1963 until its closure in the early 1980s, were a combination of strong geometric forms decorated with bold, simple patterns. Occasional visual links seem to bridge the gap between these ceramics and her paintings; a disembodied white hand and forearm that appear on a Troika wheel vase from the early eighties bear a striking resemblance to the white hand and arm of Christ that dominate her series of crucifixion studies painted in 2000. However, it was the conversations McClary had with Leslie Illsey, one of the company’s founders, that had the most influence on her subsequent career, filling her with a passion for artists such as Paul Klee and affirming her in her own ambition to be a painter. “Just do it, and do it more,” he told her.
A few miles to the north of Newlyn and Penzance is the coastal resort and harbor town of Saint Ives. Artists have long been drawn by the intensity of its light and color, and here McClary moved after finishing at Troika. Dominating the town’s northern side is the famous Porthmeor Beach, where white sands dissolve into the crashing surf of an almost turquoise sea and seagulls draw silver lines across azure skies. At the horizon, the boundary between sea and sky dissolves into a blue-gray nothingness. In the winter, storms can turn the beach and sea into a raging battlefield, but in the summer a very different struggle takes place, as visitors overwhelm the sand, transforming it into a carpet of living color.
Overlooking the beach are the Porthmeor Studios, whose tenants have included some of the great names of British modernism—artists such as Ben Nicholson and Patrick Heron, who along with Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo, Peter Lanyon, Sandra Blow, and Terry Frost formed part of the Saint Ives School. Beginning in the 1940s, this avant-garde movement swept aside seemingly rigid boundaries on a wave of abstract forms and bright colors. In 1990 McClary became a tenant of studio number six, where, like so many of the artists who had preceded her, she found herself inspired by the elemental drama constantly played out before her eyes. In particular, she was drawn to the beach in the winter, or on a summer evening when the tourists and holiday makers had gone home.
Despite the beauty of her surroundings, McClary’s years at Saint Ives coincided with a period in her life marked by unhappiness and addictive behavior. The strong colors and forms of this period radiate a raw and painful energy. And although she shared a passion for color with her fellow Saint Ives artists, she came to find the weight of the modernist tradition oppressive. Her depictions of women, birds, animals, and fishermen swam against the prevailing tide of abstraction.
By the mid-1990s, however, significant changes had taken place in McClary’s life that would profoundly affect the character and appearance of her work. A twelve-step program had not only helped her to tackle issues arising from addiction, but had drawn her into an engagement with Quakerism and Christianity and set her on the spiritual quest that has shaped her life ever since. In 1995, to the surprise of her peers, she left the artistic claustrophobia of Saint Ives and moved with her new husband, Matthew, to the Lizard Peninsula, where she immersed herself in the rural tranquillity of a very different Cornish landscape. Her work explored new subjects and themes, and exuded a sense of light and hope that had been largely absent up to this point.
In her current garden studio, three rudimentary sculptures of winged towers made over ten years ago still hang amid the paintings, postcards, and posters that cover the walls. Made of cardboard, tissue paper, and found objects, these fragile constructions are the three-dimensional realization of one of her recurrent subjects from the early 1990s. The image of the winged tower has a childlike simplicity, a sense of wonder and fantasy that speaks of other worlds and other realities. And yet these are also sophisticated symbols that afford countless readings and interpretations. They prompt associations with fairytales, the “happily ever after” that McClary herself found in the stones of Caervallack and Quaker meeting houses. Within the tower walls we find the offer of shelter, while their golden wings promise escape and freedom. In one sculpture, a disembodied head in a nest of scrunched-up tissue paper evokes thoughts of reliquaries and sacrament houses. In an untitled painting from 1993, the structure becomes a church, a metaphor for the faith that enables the figure that looks out from within the safety of its walls to see a transformed world, one full of light and vibrant color.
Other forms that appear alongside the winged towers include angels, flowers, boats, and figures standing by empty tombs, each a gentle echo of the themes then dominating her daily life: resurrection, love, journeying, and light. Light fills McClary’s paintings, both as a constant theme and a tangible element. Her use of vivid colors produces this luminous quality in all her work, but in the early nineties McClary also used candles as a more specific symbol of illumination. Their metallic, teardrop flames cause miniature explosions across the picture surface, disrupting the tactile viscosity of paint with puddles of fluid iridescence.
If McClary’s paintings have been shaped by the contours of her inner, emotional landscape, they have also been affected by her physical environment. Cornwall is a subtle but persistent presence in her work. Candles have specific associations there; for generations they were worn on the safety helmets of tin miners. For the countless men and boys who risked their lives down Cornish mine shafts, a flickering flame provided light in damp subterranean passages. A candle’s form is also a stylized reminder of the lighthouses whose luminous warning wraps this treacherous coast in a necklace of light.
Cornwall’s maritime heritage has been particularly influential for McClary. In her recent works, the creeks, beaches, coastal plants, and wildlife that form the backdrop of her life subtly tinge her forms and colors. In the early 1990s, however, the influence was more obvious: boats were a recurring subject, symbolizing danger and trust, despair and rescue. That simplified form embodies the spirit of the fishermen who ply these coastal waters, and of the lifeboat men and women who risk their lives to save those in danger. The boats also seem to carry with them the voices of the seafaring Celtic saints, whose names still resonate through the landscape: Saint Allen, Saint Austell, Saint Buryan. And perhaps in Starboard, a small undated drawing from the early 1990s, the two figures gently rocking in a small open boat beneath a starlit sky might offer a residual, seashell echo of the legends of the young Christ and Joseph of Arimathea traveling to these rocky shores to trade in tin [see Plate 1].
A quality of innocence and wonder pervades McClary’s work. Her paintings ask us to marvel at the beauty of the world and to see miracles in the everyday; they also ask us to enter them like children, open to the impossible. Anatomical accuracy is set to one side, as McClary paints from the inside out, from internal emotions to external reality, using the simplified graphic codes of childhood: an oval for a head, an almond shape for an eye, a bow for a mouth, ten lines for fingers and ten for toes. As the layers of learned technique and artistic convention are peeled away, the viewer is left with an image more primal and essential, a glimpse of a reality that is not our own.
The world we enter through McClary’s paintings is one familiar from dreams and early childhood. We see only what is significant, and even then what we see is a general impression rather than a detailed depiction. Scale and size are fluid qualities manipulated for contrast and tension. Important things are inflated, while peripheral objects become smaller. At times, minute figures are dwarfed by vast spaces; in other paintings we enter a world of giants, where figures are either squeezed into the constraints of the picture frame or explode beyond its limits, their limbs reaching out into an unseen reality. These bodies have the strength and stability that as children we look for in adults, and as adults we can look for in the divine, in the rock that protects us in the tidal flow of life. In this childlike world, emotions are clearly on display, exposed on the surface of the work. Hearts speak of love; oversized limbs express pain or strength, just as in animated cartoons. This emotional narrative is reinforced by McClary’s use of color and line; without the constraints imposed by realism, these tools become a calligraphy of emotion, an alphabet of hope and pain, love and sadness.
In 2001, McClary painted a series of Stations of the Cross. Here the contorted poses, elongated forms, and elegant curves all serve to carry us along with Christ on his journey. In Christ Nailed to the Cross, his right hand and head take on supernatural proportions, throbbing and enlarged by physical pain. Their oversized presence draws us into his suffering. In Christ Dies, his bloodied head, hands, and feet dominate the canvas—the rest of his body is a diminished wedge that has imploded in agony [see Plate 3]. But through this pain, the right-hand side of his body has become an exaggerated curve that sings with hope.
In a number of these stations, words are trapped within the paint. Passages from the Bible and from the Latin text of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion are reminders of the emotional context out of which these powerful paintings were created. Like the speech bubbles of graphic novels and comics, they transform a series of static, freeze-frame vignettes into an ongoing narrative, a journey with an inevitable ending. And just as the giant limbs extend into a world beyond the confines of the frame, these words reach into the narrative gaps that lie between each scene, a tangible reminder of the larger text from which the stations are taken. We might also see in these words an echo of the paintings of Albert Herbert, an English artist whose work, like McClary’s, seeks to adopt an innocent vision of the world in order to explore divine truths. Both artists use words as votive objects, calling the viewer to prayer or reflection.
Words and lines may enhance and contribute to the emotional intensity of these works, but the real drama comes from McClary’s use of color. Throughout the stations, Christ’s spectral white body leaves a trail, marking the other figures with light, a sign that they have been transfigured by the presence of God. In Christ Dies, this radiant figure hangs suspended above a gaping dark void, but it is held in the supportive embrace of a yellow field whose intensity has dissolved into a white nothingness, an abyss of infinite light, a sign of luminous hope and resurrection.
The application and exploration of color is the beginning and end of all McClary’s work. It is an extension of her very being, an external blush that betrays, and triggers, her deepest emotions. Orange, yellow, phthalo blue, violet, pink, cadmium red, magenta, green, and white erupt from the surfaces of her paintings. Sometimes a solar flare of color sears the retina of the viewer or delivers a punch to the solar plexus; at others a dark, rich, mysterious treacle teases the eye with constantly changing flashes of iridescence.
Having established the particular atmosphere for each painting with an initial patchwork of base colors, McClary then adds further layers of acrylic paint using a dry brush until the surface hums with the intensity she requires. Each layer is a shimmering veil through which we have a tantalizing glimpse of what has gone before; the result is a shifting sea of color of seemingly infinite depth. Boundaries are fluid and fragile; colors applied at the beginning of the process are visible alongside those applied at the end, while the edges of the forms are blurred and porous. Each color has an emotional tone that reacts with those around it, making the paintings buzz and crackle. This sense of latent energy is reinforced by the gestures McClary uses to apply the paint. Her brushmarks are no timid, regular strokes, but ecstatic as waves crashing against Cornish cliffs. The play of one color against another, one mark against another, creates not only an intensity of feeling but also an inner luminosity, generating a burst of energy that radiates out into the viewer’s space. Initially McClary used metallic paints as a shortcut to create this illusion of light in her candles and haloes, but as she has become more confident, she has learned how to use the reaction of one color against another to create her effects. The easy glitter of the metallic paints quickly disappeared, initially buried beneath other colors, then vanishing altogether.
McClary’s forms are born from these effervescent veils of color. In her earlier works, figures had clearly delineated identities, their bodies appearing distinctly against simple backgrounds that made only the briefest acknowledgment of earth, horizon, and sky. Gradually, this sense of solidity melted into air, and by 2000 her subjects had become integrated into the overall picture surface. Only the occasional block of color—an arm, fingers, torso, cheeks, or nose—stood out from the rest, betraying the presence of a figure. Her subjects are no longer solid forms but memories, dreams caught for a moment and held lightly.
Painted in 2000, Do You Like Butter? epitomizes this fragile solidity [see Plate 2]. The title refers to the children’s game in which you smudge a buttercup under someone’s chin to test whether they like butter. Quite clearly here the woman does like butter, for the side of her face lights up with a yellow glow. Although the figures initially appear solid and massive, we quickly realize that this is not the case. It is only the strong outlines of an eye, hand, nose, and foot that resolve the tension between abstraction and figuration, allowing this image to exist for a moment as a narrative before it collapses back into an abstract field of playful color. The fluidity is not only on the surface. The subject itself is multilayered: the depiction of this childhood question becomes a potential Annunciation, an image of Mary and the angel Gabriel. Gabriel here is an ethereal, transparent blue, a heavenly messenger who floats before Mary on green wings, holding the flower of traditional iconography. Mary, in turn, leans back, adopting the surprised curve seen in so many paintings. The smear of white paint that hovers above Gabriel’s feet marks him as a messenger from another realm. The white streak is a simplified version of the veil that McClary frequently uses as a symbol of passage from one world to another—a visual representation that God’s kingdom is part of this world.
In Captive (2003), the moment of Annunciation has just passed [see front cover]. Gabriel has disappeared, leaving only a flower and a golden ochre smudge. Mary crouches on the ground, cocooned in an almost solid veil of yellow and white that seems to leap out from the picture surface, an incarnation of light that thrusts the possibility of a third dimension into an otherwise flat world. Mary’s body seems to have vanished like the Cheshire Cat, leaving only two piercing eyes and a few simple lines that denote the outline of her limbs. A butterfly emerges from her hand, the sign of a soul leaving a body, or of the new life that will soon enter the world through her—for this image is both Annunciation and Ascension.
McClary’s exploration of spiritual themes is rarely made through the direct use of biblical subjects, however. Instead, like many artists since William Blake, she has sought out a more universal, mystical language with which to explore spiritual themes—a language of flowers, eyes, feet, veils, feathers, tears, souls ascending, and hearts. Gradually, however, these forms have started to disappear. By 2002, the human figure had become almost transparent, defined only by a few lines traced into the layers of iridescent color—the contour of an eye or mouth, a flower, or even a whole body. The forms appear trapped within layers of paint, consumed by color, hovering on the cusp between life and extinction like memories snatched from a dissolving dream.
In Traces (2003), the fragile, scratched lines of a face, flower, and hand are barely visible amid the overwhelming onslaught of pink, red, and white [see Plate 4]. But a closer look reveals that once again we are in the territory of Captive and Do You Like Butter? We are contemplating another Annunciation and Ascension, another image of spiritual rebirth, the veil of white paint a portal to another space. But the face behind it and the transparent wing that frames it also point to the earlier winged tower constructions, with their scrunched-up tissue paper and disembodied heads.
This apparent annihilation of earlier forms should not be seen as a process of destruction, however; it is the embodiment of those epiphanic moments when we feel ourselves fused with the universe, at one with something bigger than ourselves. This theme dominates McClary’s work: awakening and rediscovery of our spiritual self, the birth of our soul as a creature of a wider creation. Many of her titles allude to this, as do the handwritten quotes and poems that she pins to the walls of her house and studio:
Let the beauty of love be what we do. There are
hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
As the earlier forms have retreated into the depths of the canvas, new shapes and symbols have emerged, pushing through the layers of paint. These more personal images are the visual debris of a lifetime: the journey to school over tiny bridges, the fig tree that shades her in the garden, the white flash of egret wings, fallen tree trunks like the skeletons of long lost animals in the creeks near her home, filaments of bronzed seaweed moving beneath the surface of the sea. Absorbed into McClary’s subconscious, they are reborn as semi-abstract symbols which, while prompting memories of particular forms and objects, refuse any absolute association. They maintain an aura of mystery and incompleteness. They are, to quote painter Joan Mitchell—an artist who has inspired McClary—a fragile embodiment of “the mysterious flux of perception not as it is immediately seen, but as it is remembered and felt in the body.”
At the beginning of the twenty-first century in Britain we find ourselves confronted by an increasingly gray and secular world; we crave mystery and awe, but they seem absent. It is a largely colorless world we look down upon in Shift (2005), but in places, the artist’s brush has pierced the fog, parting the sea of gray cloud to reveal a vibrant, multicolored world beneath [see Plate 5]. This prophetic, visionary work reveals the possibility of the sacred. We seem to look down from another place upon a microscopic world, a landscape of love, where the fragmentary forms of creeks, birds, and plants are laid out before us as signs of the sacred, reminders of those places where we can meet the divine.
Bars of color are stitched across the rifts in the gray surface of this painting like the canvas bandages that McClary frequently applies to the small postcard paintings she makes. These works—painted over real postcards—are like pilgrimage tokens, records of the spiritual journey. In them, coils of energy and life confront more organic forms in scenes of annunciation, conversation, and healing.
We see the same coils of energy, like the double helix of DNA, in Echoes (2006), a painting that seems to overflow with exuberance and life [see Plate 7]. Areas of intense white and red leap out from a background that appears devoid of color. But look closer, and at different times of day, and in different light conditions, and this apparent vacuum of color comes alive with maroons, purples, and blues too intense and subtle for the casual eye.
If Shift offers us an aerial vision, then in Celestial Sea (2006) we enter an aquatic world where fig leaf splats of color gently descend into limpid depths [see Plate 6]. White wings strive to fly free of a rainbow whirlpool of color. Surrounding these symbols, holding them in place, are beguiling fields of color. Here is the well of unformed memories and abstract thoughts out of which the more realized forms are born.
At the beginning of her novel Sexing the Cherry, Jeanette Winterson wrote, “Matter, that thing the most solid and well-known, which you are holding in your hands and which makes up your body, is now known to be mostly empty space. Empty space and points of light. What does this say about the reality of the world?” Louise McClary’s paintings remind us that what might seem to be emptiness to some can be full of light to others; that light bridges the gap between things and manifests itself to our human eyes as color; and that color draws forth the joy, hope, and love that surround us all the time.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.