The Start of my Bleach Period, 22 years ago.

Embrace of the Cosmic Christ. 2000×1420. Acrylic and bleach on canvas. 2000

I had been chaplain to Flinders University for three years when veteran Italian artist Orlando Tisato visited Adelaide to participate in the 2000 Adelaide Festival of Arts. I went along to a seminar to hear him. I was sitting toward the back, diagonally opposite the side-door entrance of the auditorium, waiting for the seminar to begin. We were over time. Then I noticed a couple of people lingering at the door, as if waiting for something, like waiting for some kind of permission to come in. The playful, dancing eyes of a wirey, elderly man at the door met mine. It was as if the rest of the auditorium was in their own world and only we were connected in this moment. ‘Perhaps there is no-one to welcome our guest? This must be him!’

I got up and walked to the door and greeted him. This is what a chaplain does when a stranger is ignored. The rest of his party seemed preoccupied. We stepped outside into the afternoon light and sat together on a bench. He lit up a cigarillo and relaxed. He spoke little English. Yet we were able to talk with each other in our own languages about the difference in the light in Australia compared to Europe. Soon the young man who was his host appeared and we returned to the room, where he was introduced.

He was the youngest of fourteen children. His father became an alcoholic after serving in the war. His mother would take him every year to the cathedral where he was amazed at the colour and the vibrancy of its drama. This was his inspiration. From the age of 12 he would skip school to draw and paint in the town square for a meagre income for his family.

A quick tour through his artistic accomplishments shows a similar development to his contemporary, Picasso – from beautifully drafted realism to greater and greater abstraction, to assemblages of found objects and most recently, to artistic public performance. We were shown a video, in English, of his latest development and were invited to join the audience of his Adelaide Festival performance.

I felt that I had found someone deeply spiritual with whom I could identify – someone for whom painting is meditation, a conversation between the intuitions of the artist and the canvas itself.

I went to the performance, and the next day to the exhibition of the work he had produced while in Adelaide. I sought him out for advice. I had given up painting because it demanded too much of me. It took me away from my family; and my work as a chaplain was all-demanding anyway. His advice to me was, ‘Do what you can’.

I took his advice. If, like Tisato, painting is meditation, perhaps I could paint during a church meditation service, but outside. It was approaching Easter, so a crucifixion scene was in my mind and in my mood. It would be a black canvas. As Rembrandt showed us in his etchings of the Biblical narrative, the sky gets darker and darker toward the time of his death – 3 o’clock in the afternoon. So during the one hour of the service, I made a start with some broad underpainting – a white central Christ and some dark green figures watching on at his eye level to one side.

The next day, when I went to bring home my canvas, I noticed that the underpainting had all ‘disappeared’ into the black. Oh dear…! Where to from here?
Painting outside at home meant leaning the canvas on the raised-step perimeter of our swimming pool. I never used easels. For some reason, I don’t know why, I got the idea of pouring some pool chlorine across the canvas. Wow! The underpainting colours were revealed wherever the bleach hit the canvas; and the bleach running down the gentle slope of the canvas, looked fantastic! It looked like a wing! So I ran some bleach across the other side of the canvas to mirror the left side. Yes! And there in the centre, I could add the body of Christ. Impressed with the bleach effect, I began to sprinkle ‘stars’ across the sky to suggest a cosmic event. The painting was no longer a crucifixion. It was a resurrection.

When I was satisfied, I turned on the hose to wash off the excess bleach. It was then I noticed that all the time I had the canvas upside down from the original I started with!

Much later, I decided to make the image less ambiguous. I added some red overpaint to represent the wounds and, later still, a crown of thorns. If the Biblical narrative has a resurrected Jesus asking a disciple to put his finger into his wounds, then Jesus takes his wounds with him into the afterlife.

I took the painting with me to Canada where I was presenting a seminar in my role as a university chaplain. On the way, I attended a three day conference of artists and writers of diverse faiths in New York City. The painting was used in a closing celebration, with various participants reflecting on it. It became the cover of the following quarterly issue of their journal, ‘Cross Currents’.

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