Nesting 2020 is a series of oil paintings completed at home in Glasgow during the COVID-19 Lockdown. The bird’s nests depicted in the paintings are discarded nests which were collected during my neighbourhood walks. Initially I just wanted to paint a small, personal still life of an empty nest to mark the departure of our two sons from our family home.
It was during the process of painting this small still life that I reflected on the significance of the nest, especially at the time when so many people were bound to their homes as a result of the restrictions due to COVID-19. The bird’s nest represents a space of protection, safety, new life and nurture. At the same time, an abandoned, empty nest could signal decay and even death. It also occurred to me then that the bird nest had been a subject for many visual artists and authors over the centuries and had become a complex cultural symbol.
The idea of the bowl as a sacred vessel through the ages led me to approach the nest also as a sacred vessel. The shape of the nests reminded me of the shape of the bowl which had featured in some of my previous paintings. Further, as I viewed the nests from above, I could form associations with portraits or masks. In formulating my ideas for more paintings, I took miniature objects from my surroundings and playfully placed them inside the nests like small interventions, mostly unpremeditated. Photography played an important role in capturing these images of miniature interventions. During this process of looking through the lens, mostly led by intuition, the poetic image, meaning and painting reference would converged into clarity. The intensity and angle of sunlight onto the objects were also influential in capturing a reference image that would provide enough information and tension to paint from.
Each selected image from the photography process had to contain the potential for layers of meaning and not be bound to a singular interpretation. These layers of meaning would often reveal themselves more fully during the process of painting and in the layering of time and reflection. I’ve come to realise that on a subconscious level, the events happening around me would find their way into the works, perhaps in the same way that the surrounding miniature objects had found their way into the initial interventions. For example, Listening was painted during the week leading up to the presidential election in the United States. Grief was painted in January 2021 at a time when the death toll in Britain due to COVID-19 was particularly high.
Some of the paintings are accompanied by a haiku. A haiku is a Japanese verse form most often composed, in English versions, of three unrhymed lines of five, seven and five syllables. The writing of Haiku has become a supportive way for me to reflect and express ideas within the series. For example:
richly woven inner space
home tree universe
Before starting each painting, the colour pallet was carefully chosen to convey the desired atmosphere and to enhance the potential meaning. For example in the painting Piece the underpainting is a bright coral pink to evoke feelings of an undersea landscape and the background of the nest is the colour teal, associated with marine life. Maritime archaeology shows that the ocean floor had often become the final resting place for pieces of porcelain ware transported over centuries.
In Golden Thread the colours were inspired by The Goldfinch, a painting from 1654 by the Dutch Golden Age artist Carel Fabritius. Golden Thread was the first painting of the Nesting 2020 series. At that stage I was not sure whether I would paint another or even a series of paintings. In the process of painting Golden Thread, I used digital technology that allowed me to enlarge the image at hand to observe the details on a screen while painting. This close observation was not used in painting the initial small still life where I observed the nest with my ‘naked’ eye without the aid of photography or screen technology. With this enhanced ability to see, I found myself wanting to ‘construct’ the nest with brush strokes, a convergence for me in painting technique from wanting more to suggest with mark making. Initially I tried to resist this obsession with detail, for it goes against so much of the training I had received from my painting professors. Instead of resisting, I decided to embrace this fine observation technique and painted more nests with the same approach. I allowed this craft of painting to give me enjoyment and satisfaction at a time of isolation. I’ve also come to realise that each painting in a sense resembles a kind of embrace at a time when Humanity was longing for Embrace.