According to Behance ‘Sheona Beaumont is a visual artist and writer based in the South West of the UK. Her work and research explore the ways in which photography imparts or contains spiritual meaning. She has exhibited widely, producing solo exhibitions every other year, and is currently writing about biblical themes in contemporary art for her doctorate at the University of Gloucestershire’.
Beaumont exhibited at the RA’s 2014 Summer Show and between 2014 and 2015 she became artist in residence at Trinity College, Bristol. This review / exploration is prompted by the recently published culmination of her Trinity project, Eye See Trinity. Beaumont is of interest to myself predominantly because of her literary and visual approach to sacred art and spaces. Beaumont describes her ongoing doctoral thesis, Towards a Visual Hermeneutic: The Bible In / As Photography as ‘reshaping the artist’s entire oeuvre’. I look forward to the results of this interdisciplinary consideration.
Beaumont’s work is incisively intelligent, her turn of phrase considered but lively and refreshing (even a little poetic on occasion), and her works are sincere. Eye See suggests her time at Trinity produced a series of thoughts and works that continue to be probing, revealing and unexpected both for the artist and the community with which Beaumont has a very personal connection to. Beaumont’s opening words describe how she is looking at a 1977 photo of her parents taken at Trinity. This was the birth of their relationship and the birth of Beaumont whose own children attended the nursery during the period of her residency. This personal connection is described by Beaumont as ‘an invisibly pregnant relation’ ‘zooming in across time and space’. It is presumably this fascination with time and history that makes photography appeal to Beaumont’s own art practice and academic writing. It seems fair to say that Beaumont does not intend to uncover the ‘truth’ of any image or place, but rather to re-learn and re-think or reconsider the history or agency expressed through photographic narratives.
She says she imagines, or hopes, her view may be comparable to the young man in the photo of her parents who stands with his head turned resolutely to the side. It is this combination of agency, looking, and opening things up to examination and teasing out of ideas that Beaumont successfully achieves in her time at Trinity. She knows this is a two way process and her learning journey is apparent through her honest prose, even her dedication captures this with her reference to those ‘who saw me’. Beaumont’s work is personal, but it is no autobiography. Who she is, is integral to her work, and her work integral to who she is. As viewers we are somehow connected to those gestures of giving and loving which Beaumont seems free to bestow upon us.
Reverend Dr. Ineson describes Sheona’s presence at Trinity as ‘a prophetic voice proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom and reflecting the values of humility, service, worship, courage…that form the back bone of community life at college’. Ineson’s words have a touch of corporate hyperbole somehow, they feel a little too contrived and considered; this is not to say that Ineson’s experiences of Beaumont’s works were not genuine but her tone belies her consciousness of Trinity’s external appearance and function.
The Trinity corporate brief is:
At Trinity, our passion is to see people embrace the call to live like the Kingdom is near. But what does that actually mean for us? How do we grapple with the now-and-not-yet tension; partially experiencing Kingdom life through our relationship with God but still waiting for it to come in all its fullness?
Trinity’s concept / marketing line of ‘The Kingdom is Near’ was one which was evolving during Beaumont’s residency and I suspect, although she is too diplomatic to say, that it may well have impacted her artistic freedom on occasion. I refer to the lack of a tree root in the final version of her major and permanent contribution to Trinity, the Canopy Compass Rose installation. Although they claim ‘Therefore we want those Kingdom values to permeate every area of our lives, affecting how we live and work each day, how we learn more of God and how we lead his people in being a light to the world’, I suspect they, as is often the way with conventional institutions, were not quite ready for Art (for un-convention) to ‘permeate every area of our lives’.
More revealing are the words of Reverend Dr Heim who describes the residency as ‘a challenging, surprising, inspiring and at times baffling experience’. I imagine Beaumont’s gentle unveilings were on occasions surprising and indeed baffling, and I also suspect Trinity were not quite ready (taken by surprise? underestimated?) for the all-inclusive and provocative experience that is Art (and that should be Art). Art is not wallpaper, it is there to provoke a response, not a negative combative one (or certainly not in this context) but to ‘surprise ‘delight’ and ‘humble’. Beaumont’s works do indeed humble, and her pathos is where she excels. Heim was caught off guard by Hope’s Promise II (2008) and triggered his intellectual consideration of theology and his perhaps more emotional sense of his responsibility and communion in giving ‘wings to God’s word’.
For Beaumont the ‘Kingdom is backwards, unseen, hungry, and little’; she has not been defeated by any of the difficulties she may have experienced: she is astute enough to know they are part of the artistic and creative / intellectual learning process. Her openness and non-judgemental and un-cynical view remains seminal as shown by her description of The Kingdom is Little which appeared in Trinity. Beaumont captured four children from Trinity College Day Nursery from up above. She writes ‘In their littleness – ‘The Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’ – they are central to a Kingdom community. To notice them, we need to physically look down, and the perspective change of a view in plan (rather than a view in profile) is a reminder not of adult aloofness and control but of childish absorption and delight. Littleness can be everything’.
The accompanying prose in Eye See is marvellous and oozes Beaumont’s character. She describes the moment Jonah goes ‘off-grid’ and although her text is littered with words like ‘trounced’ and ‘teleport’, her writing is neither corporate nor embarrassingly wishy-washy Anglicanism; her writing is fresh and although she is responding to a religious text forever weighed down with and by history, she and her art, act as a bridge for those less theologically minded, or even secular minds. Her acuity is such that she can re-energise and in sacred terms, can actually bring the Kingdom near. For Beaumont, like Adide ‘What flows down quenches but doesn’t drown‘: she is not afraid of the dark or the dingy, not afraid of doing the work herself, nor of being dirty. ‘If that’s where God shows up, I want my work to be there too’. And this is why Storm appeared in the launderette where people go to wash, to cleanse and to rise. Jonah is absent because it is the journey which is important: ‘from tempest to depth’. Her engagement with colour returns one to the idea of raqia, the firmament of heaven, but we do not meet it by looking up, but by looking down, and around, by swimming in it and learning not to drown. As Beaumont regular says throughout her writing, it is by looking and learning to sit with what is ‘off-centre’ that we see the most.
The nineteenth century runs through Beaumont’s work and it is this I find particularly engaging. The request to engage with the past and the present is evident from the giving out of disposable cameras to the community. The capacity to trust and revel in the unknown is one of the many gifts artists have. Allowing people to affect or influence the output is a brave and modern approach and one that Beaumont applies to the present and in some ways to the past.
Beaumont’s in-depth archival rummaging turned up many photographs of Trinity in the past which she put to good use in considering how the space has changed, who uses it, what people do to it, and how it breathes still. Her aesthetic historical referencing also extends to copper-plate engravings by Kip (1712) and even to Turner, whose wonderful 1791 watercolour (what a find!) is reconfigured and reconstructed as the narrative of Trinity itself has been over the centuries, Beaumont Turneresque (2014 – 2015). Such is Beaumont’s well considered merging of histories that at first we don’t notice anything more than the Turner watercolour but then all of a sudden, we realise we are looking at a blue car, at bright green photographs of the trees in the grounds (by Dave Snell, 2016) until finally we have Beaumont’s ‘concept wallpaper’ a term that woefully undersells the finished object. Change is barely perceptible in its unveiling but the artist’s Eye is there to remind us of what we were and what we are, and may even become.
This revisiting of the past and making something new is most apparent in the culmination of the residency, Canopy Compass Rose. The nineteenth century is most apparent here, and in a way most unexpected by the viewer (but consciously acknowledged by the artist). The Mary Watts Chapel, Guildford, is one of several component references to the Canopy.
Mary Watts was the artistic force behind the creation of the still working parish church and she dedicated it to ‘the loving memory of all who find rest near its walls, and for the comfort and help of those to whom the sorrow of separation remains’. G.F. Watts financed the building of the Chapel through painting commissions before presenting it as a gift to the village of Compton. Both Mary and her husband G.F Watts rest here in what is now a Grade I* listed cemetery.
It is the intensely individual and stylised pottery of Mary that can be found in the extraordinary interior of the chapel. The highly decorative nature of the pottery tiles are replete with angels and art nouveau patterns, and it is these patterns and the view up above which Beaumont has responded to.
She has also incorporated elements from other major religious sites e.g. the twelve point star from the rotunda and aedicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem and the sinking and expanding space in the Ruthwell Cross (1877, Dumfriesshire). The muted echoes of such works are reconstructed into a new narrative for Trinity, they look down and upon the congregation whilst allowing them to look up at all that has gone before them. This approach recalls that of Neudecker’s In Those Who Came Before Us, And Us Who Are To Follow, another Bristol based artist.
The recreation of the exterior canopy of trees within the college grounds was brought into being in the interior of the college. Divine light and the physicality of light are central to this piece, and although Beaumont implies there were constraints of having to pare down the vertical theology of her original design, the resulting work is a resounding success. Layer upon layer of history and photography combine in a new and harmonious place for the transient community at Trinity to come together. This theological and aesthetic light provides inspiration, guardianship and inspiration to those beneath its warmth, and the subtle changes of the light when combined with the natural changes of the day reflect the ever altering community of ordinands and their families who create new histories in this space.
This final piece is testament to Beaumont’s vision, although it is also, sadly, testament to Trinity’s lack of vision. I hope they will ask her to return and install the root in the floor for Trinity should be brave enough to visually root in their chapel what is in their very brief: that ‘we learn more of God…[by leading’ his people in being a light to the world’.
Beaumont provides a gentle look at the light she personally experiences, and that which she encountered during her time at Trinity. She is appreciative, embracing and respectful of each and every person who encountered and supported and inspired her art during her year long work. Beaumont really did use her eyes to see and her writing invites us to partake in this looking, through her use of the personal pronoun, and because of her individual style we are able to live her first person narrative along with her, thus perpetuating the very essence of the works she has left as her legacy.
The residency and the book are a success, not just because of the deeply meditative undercurrent of the art and writing but the high quality presentation of the book. It seems Beaumont has set a high bar for the next artist to undertake residency at Trinity.