You will notice a new addition to the Advent and Christmas display in the church this year: As well as our Nativity, Christmas tree, and Christmas Bowl, we have been “visited” by three ornately decorated Wise Men. Grace Mitchell has kindly loaned us her original artwork for the Christmas period, and gives some insight into her work below.
These wise men were originally commissioned by Newland Uniting Church in Victor Harbor, but are now back in my possession and I am excited to be sharing them with the Scots community and beyond. I am trained professionally as an artist and my dream is to be making a living from art that connects meaningfully with people. This commission was an excellent opportunity to create art such as that – in relation to an immensely sacred subject – the Christmas story! I’d like to share some of the process that informed my art making as well as the influences that have shaped my style (which come from far and wide).
Street artist Erone’s characters can be seen as an influence on my wise men. My figures are accessible but also alien in how they are depicted. Aspects of their makeup suggest both grand stature but also that they are foreigners. Their clothes are loose for travel; yet richly vibrant and decorated with complex, unfamiliar patterns. Their faces have slight smiles, inviting you in; and yet their eyes are all white, suggesting things unseen (perhaps wisdom? Perhaps reflecting the all-encompassing whiteness of the star, that compelled them to leave their homes and travel so, so far?) Their grand crowns, again, convey some kind of importance in a language that we understand, that of royalty; the markings on their faces seem to suggest meaning as well, but in a language that we don’t understand.
Award-winning illustrator Shaun Tan uses devices such as this: his work is always balancing on the precipice between the alien and the familiar. When we frame things we know in slightly different ways visually this can create a window to look at them anew, and I hope that my paintings help facilitate that experience for viewers.
To leave the skin ‘unpainted’ on the wise men was also a conscious choice. For one, I wanted to keep the palette minimal, but was also avoiding ‘Westernising’ the wise men. I’m trying to locate the story originating from a place that is away from us, as well as the wise men. The text in the speech bubbles and on the mound of gold lend more clues to where this story is coming from: these are the names of the different gifts in Hebrew.
I like to use words as a device to both visually and conceptually supplement my art. Words are another language of meaning that can add depth of understanding in tandem with visuals. Furthermore, words can also become stretched and placed strategically to supplement the composition as well, which is something of a street art and graphic design tactic that can be seen throughout the works. I integrated pieces of text – both taken from Biblical sources and elsewhere - to supplement the story, invariably tied up in my understanding of it and what resonates with me.
Another facet of the paintings that is a big part of my process is the pen-work. The hard lines, the patterning. Some aspects of art development I plan and others come about more organically, so that what eventuates surprises me as much as anyone else. I began these artworks by sketching out the figures, the ground, the text at the top and the vague sections where the patterns would be. I then painted them... I wanted to keep the colour palette simple but also to make the three pieces look cohesive. Rich colours have always attracted me so these came about naturally. They also, I believe, suggest the wealth and importance of the figures, who heralded from a time when such vibrant, decorated fabrics would surely be reserved for those of stature and importance.
After painting, the pen-work and patterning occurred. This is the most organic and also the most intensive part of the art making. Before I undertook this, I spent some time reflecting on the kinds of visuals that might accompany the Christmas story. The kinds of terrains that the wise men may have traversed; the sorts of plants they might have seen, cities they may have passed, the weather they may have been subject to, the days and nights these may have taken. I also thought about the visual language used to convey journeys...arrows, compasses, roads. These, combined with the slices of text and other patterns, combined to form the visual language that grew to decorate the pieces. I would work on a bit, reflect, then do some more, trying to keep the essential aspects of the Christmas story in mind. I was important for me to imbue these sections with meaning, not just visual fancy. My hope is that the more you look, the more you are rewarded with.
Thank you to Scots for allowing me to share these artworks with you, and I hope that the community finds them challenging, interesting and enables you to consider the Christmas story in fresh ways. My hope is that, like the real wise men, these paintings are on a journey and each year they will travel to visit another spiritual community. May you enjoy their stay while they are here.
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