Consolation and creativity in Gwenllian’s Jugs, a collection of 77 images by Stuart Evans
There is a long history of art produced in response to grief. Setting aside, in this essay, the tumuli, pyramids, stelae, ship burials that have served as monuments to the dead, I’m interested in artists dealing with grief by making something. This essay isn’t about grief itself, nor about art as a kind of outpouring. What interests me here is art as an exercise, a process of working through containment, a form of closure.
The archetypal poetic example, Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850), certainly long enough to be an outpouring, is actually 131 complete, small, classical poems, the larger grief broken down into many episodes, tightly controlled by the quatrain form and a strict rhyming scheme. The actual subject, Tennyson’s dead friend Arthur Hallam, is quite absent, concealed within the struggle between the tightness of the form and Tennyson’s grievous addresses to him; the true nature of his emotion impossible explicitly to acknowledge. Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters (1998), 88 poems written ‘to’ his first wife, the poet Sylvia Plath, were published thirty-five years after her suicide and only weeks before his own death, thus controlling his response through time: he waited, kept quiet under enormous provocation, and eventually said his grief, and quite a lot more, through this late poetic sequence. This counterpoint between the emotion of grief that stimulates a creative act, and the form of control that the grief response takes, informs the subject of this essay.
In summer 2022 an exhibition at the Jen Jones Quilt Centre in Lampeter, mid-Wales, provoked me to think about this. Stuart Evans, well-known as a printmaker who also makes three-dimensional work and mixes media, exhibited a group of prints, drawings and paintings in a variety of sizes and sub-genres, entitled Gwenllian’s Jugs. Gwenllian Ashley was a curator at Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth for most of her career. (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/jul/31/gwenllian-ashley-obituary) She and Stuart Evans were colleagues there for over 20 years. She died quite suddenly in 2019. She had been an energetic promoter of Welsh art, artists, and culture in Wales for the whole of her working life. She was and is much mourned by colleagues and friends. Stuart’s own loss was sore. Gwenllian was not his partner or wife, nor family, but was one of those fastest of relations, a good friend and close collaborator, one he had seen every working day for more than two decades.
Gwenllian was an avid collector of art, and, having trained in ceramics, she had a big collection of antique jugs. Her daughter gave Evans access to these, and he began by making displays and groupings, curating the things she had so lovingly gathered over decades; finding their substance, making a connection. Then he began to draw them, creating a new dialogue with his dead friend, through these objects that she handled and loved. Far from making a narrative work about his bereavement, Stuart Evans decided to interact directly with the objects she so valued, and to express that interaction through a new body of two-dimensional, mixed media representations. The process took three years, and both process and product were crucial to the process of grieving.
Evans’ best-known work is his woodblock prints. His series of Welsh tall ships was sold in Ceredigion Museum shop for years and they became iconic in mid-Wales as images of Welsh maritime history. He cuts text, too, into the woodblock, with a beautiful balance of word and image that is both insignia-like, narrative and iconic (see Poem Jug below).
What Gwenllian’s jugs brought out in him was an impulse to experiment with different media, to move objects and materials around in two dimensions, using different lighting conditions and grouping. Jen Jones at the Quilt Centre, who knew Gwenllian well and had worked with her, proposed the exhibition. Evans decided to make 77 images, one for each year of her life, using a range of colour, scale and media. Frames (not everything was framed) were to be painted blue, her favourite colour, and one with a rich seam through the history of ceramics.
There are many different blues across the 77 images. Some of the jugs recur, and although they vary in age and style, Evans managed to reduce Gwenllian’s huge collection to a nucleus. Jugs and images vary from tiny to large, from the pristine to the chipped and broken, from lustreware to simple, inscribed Welsh country ware. The scope of the collection, and of Gwenllian’s taste and interest—beauty meant as much to her as history, but it wasn’t just one idea of beauty—includes tourist jugs, fine porcelain, some in groups, some in isolation, and the work varies from quick drawings and paintings to layered works and finely-wrought etchings.
Tourist jugs, linoprint
Tourist jugs, lithograph
The media range through drypoint, etching, watercolour, ink, pencil, monoprint, linocut, lithographs, coloured inks and black ink. As in grief, mood and energy are erratic. The inclusion of damaged jugs implies a resonance with life’s accidents and scars, and in some cases the jug is prone, a fallen object. The mood varies, too, from ebullient and broad, dashing, colourful, full of light and space, to spare, austere, tiny, dark, the subject barely discernible but finely crafted, damaged and sad, like a winter’s day etching from Rembrandt’s studio. What also strikes me is the association of jugs with urns. They are a vessel, from which something may be poured out, but also poured in; a sub-conscious funerary association, perhaps.
Japanese ceramics pay respect to damage by not mending, or by highlighting a repair using gold paint, a method called kintsugi. It is a way of honouring the history of a piece, letting damage resonate in the object, as we see here in Evans’s images. The exhibition brought to mind the work of a contemporary Japanese artist also working in response to grief: Motoi Yamamoto’s Return to the Sea, Saltworks, which responds to his sister’s death of a brain tumour in 1994. This loss gave rise to the idea of returning elements to their source, as an extension of the funerary rite of ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Where Evans in Gwenllian’s Jugs is working with earth material, Yamamoto is working with the sea, and with salt, in performances that were long in the gestation. They began in 2006, with different manifestations over several years, conceived and executed as a way of absolving his loss. Visitors to the installation were invited to take some salt away with them and return it to the sea, both to share in the artist’s bereavement and perhaps to honour one of their own. The issues in Yamamoto’s piece are profound and complex, and a full discussion is beyond the scope of this essay, but it’s an interesting parallel that is about elemental handling, process and connection as much as presentation. https://www.motoi-works.com/en/works/return-to-theseaproject
Lustreware dancer jug, watercolour
A number of the compositions have musical references. There is a jug called ‘Dancer Jug’, which appears as both a watercolour and a monoprint. and another that features dancers but is cracked. ‘Red Pencil Sketch to Music’ gives the music to the artist rather than the subject, but ‘Dancing Couple’ returns it to the jug.
Dancer jug, monoprint
Dancing and grief find a poignant partnership in the waltz. One thinks of Sibelius’ beautiful ‘Valse Triste’ (1904), and Giya Kancheli’s ‘Valse Boston’ (1996), written when his wife was ill— ‘for my wife, with whom I do not dance’—but for whom he has written this exquisite piece of music, far too slow to work as an actual waltz, he must be dancing with her in his imagination, at his own pace, and through this gift of composition. Somehow the image of two people, close together in the 1-2-3 of their mutually sliding feet, has an almost unbearable aura of loss and isolation when only one of them is ‘hearing’ the waltz. That poignant absence is entirely consonant with the sight of a personal collection of objects, still on display, whose owner is no longer there.
The framing devices—the number of images (77, close to Ted Hughes’s 88 poems), the blue frames, the curation of the jugs to be represented—are ways of placing creative limitation, but also of channelling grief. In poetry this might be the form, the rhyming scheme, a sequence of carefully chosen motifs, and in music, the key and its relatives. Mozart’s Requiem, for example, written for a patron whose young wife had died (and simultaneously, as it turned out, for his own funeral), is in D minor, a key of soft sadness that also encloses a gleam of hope. Sibelius’ Valse Triste is written in G major but begins in, and slides to and from, its closely proximate F sharp minor, just a semi-tone away. Kancheli’s piece also seems to move between C major and C minor. In both cases the major-minor shifts, so close on the scale, rhyme with the triple-time footwork of the dance. Where Evans’ compositions involve several jugs, it is almost as though the jugs themselves are the dancers, and indeed, his initial sorting and arranging of the jugs was a kind of dance in which the shapes changed and regrouped as the mood of the days shifted.
Two jugs, drypoint
What was especially moving about the exhibition, was that this range of moods that is the dance partner of grief comes through in the choices the artist makes: scale, palette, medium. Some, like the vibrant Dancer Jug monoprint above, captured the energy and vitality of Gwenllian herself, others were still, grounded and quiet, the determined ’carrying on’ of the bereaved. Some of the most poignant were the tiny, dark, intense etchings that spoke eloquently of the deep winter of grief, darkness inside and outside.
Some artists have represented themselves through their objects, like Van Gogh’s Chair, as a kind of self-portrait. The artist Frances Hodgkins, in the 1930s, made self-portraits in which she is entirely represented by her things: handbag, beret, shoe, necktie, all laid out as if on a picnic blanket seen from above.
Frances Hodgkins, Still life, self-portrait, c. 1935 Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa
Gwenllian’s interests and personality were expressed through her home and her collection, as well as her work, even down to a literal pun: one of the tourist jugs proclaims on its side ‘Llefrith a gwên nid ewch ynhên’, which has two possible translations in English: the charming, hopeful, ‘With milk and smiles you will never grow old’, and the more mischievous ‘Milk and Gwen will not go away’.
een as an installation, the exhibition is a bridge across from the 2-dimensional to the 3-dimensional, from the maker to the curator, from the interpreter to the collector. The objects take up the dialogue because their owner is gone. I see the same absent presence in Birthday Letters: the person whom they address is gone, it’s too late, and yet it’s not too late. She is present in the public consciousness, in history, and on the page, because Hughes addresses her directly, talks of their life as though sharing a memory, even if that memory is, at times, one of disagreement or conflict. This is quite different from Tennyson’s desperate reachings, and yet both, like Stuart Evans, seek to honour the bereavement with a facture of their own. This is what you meant to me. This is who you were, the person I saw and appreciated. I wish you could see these, see what we have created together. This is the person I am, and this is how I honour you.
1 thought on “Lindsey Shaw-Miller: Grievous Gifts”
Reblogged this on The Wombwell Rainbow.