As a child, Cynthia Kirkwood would draw and paint with whatever materials she had to hand, looking on with wonder as the pen moved across the paper, observing the marks as they revealed themselves.
The three-time Bermuda Biennial artist begins her fine art practice in much the same way today. After a period of figurative work, Cynthia has returned in recent years to a more organic method in which a meditative approach allows the art to unfurl freely.
The Mystery Writing series, currently on display in the 2020 Bermuda Biennial, is the result of this unique approach in which one mark leads to another and one medium flows into the next. For the artist, the results – at once familiar and unexpected – bear witness to a moment of connection with the wider world; a reminder of her “thread in the universal conversation”.
We caught up with Cynthia to explore her process, discuss how for her art making is “a way of witnessing the moment of being alive” and why now, more than ever, we all need to connect with the universal conversation.
BNG: Your current art making process is a combination of drawing, writing and painting. Could you please talk us through your approach?
CK: I’d say it’s organic. Those three mediums – drawing, writing, painting (also sometimes collage and printing) – they all go together. Once I’m in my studio, with the materials around me, I’ll know where to begin. The actual materials help me know where to begin. Then one thing leads to another.
BNG: The two pieces selected for the 2020 Bermuda Biennial are both examples of Mystery Writing, dated January 5th 2020 and December 12th 2019. Does the Mystery Writing come to you often? How does it manifest itself?
CK: The Mystery Writing often comes to me. Or I go to it. I’m not sure which way that works. Anyway, I love it. The pen moving with such freedom. The sound of the pen on the paper. And then the paper with the writing on it is the result, the slightly unexpected result – it’s familiar but still somehow unexpected. It’s a confirmation of what just happened. And also a mystery. Something like that.
BNG: You have said that “the paintings expand from drawings into colour”. Could you please explain the process?
CK: Did I say that? I made it sound neat but there’s a lot of meandering. I do a large number of drawings and what’s revealed and made visible in the drawings can be a reference, like an alphabet, for future work.
It might go the other way too – paintings can take shape on their own and some quality of a painting may show up in a drawing. It’s reciprocal.
BNG: In your artist statement for the 2020 Bermuda Biennial you describe your work as “My gesture of witness. My offering. My thread in the universal conversation.” Could you please expand on this and describe your process?
CK: A pen mark is a kind of gesture. A brushstroke. A communication. The marks add up into drawings and paintings and years of working and together it feels like a way of witnessing the moment of being alive. Of just being alive in a body.
Remembering: Yes. This is now. Here I am. Here we are. All of nature. Underground. Above ground. All the continents. Ancestors gone before us. Children of the future. All of us together. And such gratitude. Honouring this holy mystery of life. Gratitude for my own small path.
I don’t go around all day experiencing this but there are glimpses of it. When I’m alone at work I can find that awareness in the continuous motion of moments. Through the physical work. It’s not linear time on the clock anymore.
Finding this way of being in sync, of belonging and finding an awareness of the eternal, of the wholeness and of being a part – has to do with our future, the movement of humanity beyond the arguments and beyond the archaic ‘us and them’ way of life. In this spirit, I offer my trust in the future, in the brightness of our collective future through my work.
Sometimes my work doesn’t seem like much to me, but more and more it’s beginning to feel like, Well, here it is. It’s my way of being alive. It’s all I have. And in this way it is my offering.
I keep this quotation pinned up on the wall as a good reminder, when I feel tired and lost:
“We cannot live in a world that is not our own, in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a home. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening, to use our own voice, to see our own light.”
– Hildegard von Bingen
BNG: Is this approach to creating artworks something that you have always done?
CK: It is, yes. Always. Since I was a young girl. I’ve always spent lots of quiet time alone with whatever available materials, drawing, painting. I’ve explored other things, other directions, but this mysterious, automatic work is a continuous thread.
I love to study the construction of flowers, for example. I’ve had periods of making paintings from observation. Still life paintings. Portraits. Self-portraits. I also did figures or sailboats from old family photos for a while. Last summer, I made a series of ink studies of iris in the garden. Line drawings on paper. The structure and geometry of an iris is really something.
But originally, alone, outside of any classroom, I started with the shapes and lines that come in when I’m just watching the pen nib move on the paper. Or I watch the brush make certain shapes and later I look at them and wonder what they are.
Back in the late 1980’s I had a show of these automatic paintings, shapes and symbols, out at the Art Center at Dockyard, when it first opened. In those days Dockyard was still completely abandoned. Everything windswept and raw. Just salty and rusty. No people anywhere. No shops. Nothing. Just that one place to eat right inside the gates, by Casemates, where you could get a fish sandwich. For a while I had a studio out there.
Those paintings were of triangular shapes floating in space. Lots of texture. Years later I had some work in a show there again, twice, but those times I was painting trees. Portraits of solitary trees. Anyway, no matter what else I’m doing, I keep notebooks handy, sketchbooks, where I make the mystery writings and drawings.
BNG: The ‘universal conversation’ is more important than ever as we navigate these uncertain times. How can we all connect with it?
CK: We’re all connected to it already. That’s the Oneness. When we’re true to ourselves, we realize it. We’re doing our thing and that sense of alignment lights everything up. And when life pulls us off center, we feel disconnected and lost. But there’s always a way forward. Like that Rumi quotation:
“Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come, come.”
There’s always another chance to find what makes us light up and to step into that. One small light changes everything.