Reflections on Rebecca Solnit

Robert Downes, artist and psychotherapist, takes times to think on what Solnit’s writing means for him & his work

Rebecca Solnit is excellent company. Many photographers refer to her writing when they come to write about their work. She addresses so many dimensions of human experience in her writing where she engages with the arts, political activism, feminism, discrimination, the environment, the transpersonal and the colour blue. I am working with indigo ink for the ‘thINKing’ installation and she writes of the colour blue so beautifully in a piece called The Blue of Distance in A Field Guide to Getting Lost:

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving into the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest reaches of the places where you see for miles, the blue of distance. This light that does not touch us, does not travel the whole distance, the light that gets lost, gives us the beauty of the world, so much of which is in the color blue”.

Last night I saw fifty shades of blue in the Mayo sky as the sun made its setting. Stars appeared to decorate a deep blue mystery that became a blackness lit up with a zillion stars. I can get lost in the sky of night as well as the blue of day. Getting lost is important according to Solnit and I agree:

“Getting lost was not a matter of geography so much as identity, a passionate desire, even an urgent need, to become no one and anyone, to shake off the shackles that remind you who you are, who others think you are”. (A Field Guide to Getting Lost).

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My appreciation of Solnit has a lot to do with the quality of her writing, the thoughtfulness and honesty with which she touches the human soul and the range of human experience she addresses. Becoming no one as I wander is a reprieve and potentially generative of the kind of hope that Solnit speaks to in Hope in the Dark, her book on activism:

“The terms ‘politics of prefiguration’ has long been used to describe the idea that if you embody what you aspire to, you have already succeeded. That is to say, if your activism is already democratic, peaceful, creative, then in one small corner of the world these things have triumphed. Activism, in this model, is not only a toolbox to change things but a home in which to take up residence and live according to your beliefs, even if it’s a temporary and local place…”

In The Far Away Nearby she writes of her experience with her mother who was not an easy person. I have used that chapter in my teaching of trainee psychotherapists as a way into getting to grips with the social construction of ‘motherhood’, its trials and tribulations and routes to compassion. This is why I refer to her as excellent company, she addresses so much intimately and offers ways of being with and thinking about the detail of our lives. In a Facebook post on Mother’s Day she shared a Mother’s Day piece she had written for Salon in 2008. She critiqued the whole notion of Mother’s Day. One of the pertinent points she made came in the form of a question: “Where else do you get your mothering from?”

“Mother is both a noun and a verb. Some people had great mothers but lost them, some had or have mothers who never mothered them or stopped mothering them for some reason, treated them as adversaries or as worthless, and Mother’s Day can be a punitive day for all those for whom this is true. The other half of the question of what there is to celebrate is what mothered and mothers you, how you mother yourself, how you celebrate and recognize what cares for you and takes care of you, and what you care for in return.

I remember once looking at the Pacific Ocean, to which I often reverted in trouble, and thinking “Everything was my mother but my mother.” Books were my mother, coastlines, running water and landscapes, trees and the flight of birds, zazen and zendos, quiet and cellos, reading and writing, bookstores and familiar views and routines, the changing evening sky, cooking and baking, walking and discovering, rhythms and blues, friends and interior spaces and all forms of kindness, of which there has been more and more as time goes by”.

Robert Downes, ‘thINKing’ (detail), 2017

This invited my own contemplation on where else did I get my mothering from – or to put it differently, where else do we get nourishment, holding, and company? One of the answers that came to me was via an image of me as a child in the Gap of Dunloe, sat next to brown bog water emerging from the ground. This sight still delights me. Something of the steadiness and stillness of the mountains, the flow of rivers, the compelling nature of waterfalls were instilled in my psyche in some way early on that was sustaining and brings me back to the mountains, the water, and the land on a regular basis. Making visual work for me is a form of sustenance, a minding, and an appreciating. The planet is our habitat, that which holds our existence and something I continue to be in awe of. I am sat writing as the sun rises and in touch with one of those moments when existence feels amazing and at the same time I sense all that isn’t so amazing about existence right now too.

 

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Robert Downes: ‘thINKing’ (detail) 2017

Solnit addresses for me the potential that lies within visual art making that engages the psychological and the autobiographical in the making of something transcendent and meaningful. Love is involved. George Monbiot in an article titled Channelling the Joy addresses the need for an acknowledgement of ‘love of nature’ as essential for inspiring active engagement in environmental protection and sustainability. In this article from 2015 he refers to the work of Michael McC arthy (The Moth Snowstorm) and how closeness to nature can surprise us with “a happiness with an overtone of something more, which we might term an elevated or, indeed, a spiritual quality”. It is this closeness to nature that I am drawn to representing in some way, and it is a love of nature that Ansel Adams and Monbiot address that is required for us to unravel ourselves from the neo-liberal ‘shop-and-burn-all-the-fossil-fuels-that-we-can-until-we-drop’ paradigm.

 

I think of how my images speak to what I love and what holds me. They are deeply personal and hopefully that transcends the personal to touch others.

How we need to take care of and tend to what we love, and then manage how painful it is to witness so much destruction and hatred, whilst working out what a mature response might be.

Image making as refuge comes to mind again. Part of that refuge is also about being able to think, and Solnit’s thinking inspires and extends my own – and this is where the written word as a company of thought is recognised in the thINKing piece. I think books and images saved and informed me whilst I was growing up and they continue to do so.

Robert Downes: ‘thINKing’ (detail) 2017

James Baldwin spoke to the necessity of books as illuminators on experience, as thinking companions and ultimately as connectors. Ink is fluid after all.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”

 

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Here at Stillpoint Spaces London we are celebrating an ongoing conversation between the oft-divided worlds of Psychology and the Arts, with a whole range of events and engagements throughout the Autumn. Part of this has been the development of our first exhibition of artworks, by artist, psychotherapist, and friend of SPS Robert Downes. Robert has been making art alongside practising as a psychotherapist for several years, and as a result has been the perfect person to introduce our Lab space as a gallery, and as a place to contemplate the psyche through the visual arts. While this season sees a real focus on the Arts, we are passionate about keeping Stillpoint a place for collaboration and cross-disciplinary work, and our community is built on this notion of inclusivity and thoughtful exploration.

In anticipation of Robert’s exhibition opening at the end of September, we asked him some questions about his practice, his current plans for pieces to be shown at Stillpoint, and what has influenced his work up until now. This blogpost came about from an extended answer to a question about Solnit’s writing, someone he had referred to in conversation numerous times as we have planned his show.

Robert’s exhibition will open on 30th September with a celebratory evening, which will include an introduction to his work, and the reading of written responses to the works on show from writer Foluke Taylor. For details on this, and other events in the Stillpoint London calendar, head to the SPS London Lab website here, or find us on facebook

And finally, for more of Robert’s work visit his website or instagram page.

All images featured in this post are from Robert’s body of work titled ‘thInking’, which will be displayed in The Lab. 

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