For Ric Stott, the urge to create has always been a part of his life, albeit sometimes subsumed by other concerns. But the serious commitment to being an artist (and the realisation that this is what he is) came about 10 years ago when Ric had a nervous breakdown as he wrestled with understanding his sexuality. In the midst of depression, Stott spent a year painting which, not only contributed to his healing but also enabled him to grasp his identity as a gay man and an artist.
Ric Stott’s artistic practice is primarily oil painting and drawing. Drawing on his diverse experiences in medical science, theology and art psychotherapy he explores ideas in his work around sexuality and spirituality and more recently the impact of place on our sense of self. For him, painting is an exercise in fully embodied spirituality. Over the last 5 years Ric has worked in Sheffield city centre to found and develop an art space that engages in enriching creativity, spirituality and community. Now that this art space is self-sufficient, and he has handed over responsibility for its management, Stott is able to go even deeper into his painting practice.
In July 2015 he organised an expedition with an international group of artists along with a documentary film crew to the Hebridean Island of Iona where they engaged in “Wild Curating” which involved making and exhibiting art out in the wilderness. Some of Stott’s paintings emerge from the experiences of that trip, they explore encountering the wilderness and resonances with other, deeper, aspects of his life. They are the beginning of a wider project for him as he explores the impact of place on who we are. In the years following this trip he has sought to travel to diverse places in order to explore, through painting, the question that psychogeographer Robert Macfarlane in his book ‘The Old Ways’ suggests that we ask of any strong landscape: “What do I know here that I can know nowhere else?” and “What does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?”. More recently Ric has taken time travelling along the Californian Pacific Coast to explore the same question.
Ric has recently completed his MFA in fine art at Sheffield Hallam University.
You’ve said that painting is an exercise of fully embodied spirituality. How does this work?
This is a quote from the artist Elizabeth Murray that really resonates with my experience of painting:
“There’s a kind of miracle involved with paint, it’s just this stuff in a tube…you squeeze it out. It’s this physical thing, yet you use it as a transforming agent”
There can be a tendency to see spirituality as an ephemeral, delicate thing that is separate from the rawness and realness of our lives with all their messiness and complexity. But body and spirit aren’t separate. What I do with my body can be a form of prayer and meditation: be that walking on a deserted beach, entangled naked with a lover or engaging with the very physical activity of putting paint on a canvas.
For me the studio is like the monk’s prayer cell or the shaman’s tent; a liminal space where the base materials of earth, oil and water are transformed. The physical stuff of paint and canvas embodies my internal experience as I move my body in that space. And then the finished piece goes out into the world as an artefact of that experience where, as viewers engage with the work, the paintings invite a dialogue, calling out the viewers own stories and experiences.
How does your work in medical science, theology, and art influence each other?
I feel that I have meandered my way through these various disciplines as my life has progressed, each one contributing to the person I am now. So I am the person I am now because of all of this and I make the art I make now because of the person I am.
But in more straightforward terms my experience of studying anatomy at medical school is really helpful when it comes to life drawing and figurative work (and I rarely make work that doesn’t contain at least one body). Theology has enabled me to take apart my ideas and belief systems and I understand why I believe what I do and what beliefs need to be discarded. And most recently, studying for my MFA in fine art has deconstructed my whole art practice, which is both painful and exhilarating, to give me a much deeper understanding of what is actually going on when I put paint on the canvas in my studio as well as a deepening understanding of how my work relates to the wider context of the contemporary art world and art history.
In all these fields you have gone almost as far as one can in terms of education, and qualification. How important is hard work in accomplishing your goals?
I think that’s an overly generous assessment of my educational achievements!
I’ve never been good at ‘hard work’ per se. I think there’s a lot to be said for taking time to wander, to stare out of the window, to allow your mind to ponder ideas and experiences. None of this looks like hard work but it is vital to the creative life.
More important than hard work is the idea of discipline. Anyone who is an artist will know this, but I find many people who aren’t have this notion that it’s a relaxing experience to paint and create: this is not the case. Art emerges from the discipline of going to the studio and putting the work in even when you don’t feel like it. It emerges from the discipline of keeping going even if you feel like your work is a disaster and is going nowhere. It emerges from the discipline of standing by your work because it’s what you honestly want to offer to the world even when everyone is saying it’s rubbish, you’re wasting your time or (as has been said to me several times) “this work is blasphemous”.
What are your influences in art and spirituality?
When I first started to seriously explore my identity as an artist I tried out a range of different media including ceramics, installation and land art but it was seeing the Gerhard Richter retrospective at Tate Modern that made me fall in love with painting. In particular his piece “Ema (nude on a staircase)” astounded me at what paint could do. The very presence of the painting gave off waves of energy in a way that a reproduction in a print or on a computer screen lacks. It’s the presence of paintings that excites and energises me: Rothko, Basquiat, Clifford Still, Justin Mortimer and on and on – so many paintings I have stood in front of and I have felt almost the physical force of the artist’s psyche and sensibility embodied in the paint. The danger comes in idolising and attempting to imitate these artist mentors it is much more fruitful to allow the energy to fill and inspire me but then to be who I am in the studio (which is much easier said than done) rather than trying to be one of my heroes. Because of this I find poetry very helpful in getting the creative juices flowing. Poetry and painting have an intimate connection; for a start both are as much concerned with the gaps: what is not said or not expressed, as what is said. Allen Ginsberg, Anne Sexton or contemporary poets such as Andrew McMillan all add fuel to the creative fire for me. Finding my energy from poetry ensures that there is no danger of my attempting to imitate another painter’s style.
In terms of spirituality, from my time as a teenager I have been part of the Christian tradition. For a while I considered the idea of becoming a Buddhist as there is much in there that enriches and informs my experience, but a wise Buddhist told me I should be a better Christian instead! This led me to discover the writings of the Christian mystics and I realised that there is a deep and rich well of spiritual experience that I hadn’t engaged with before. This lead me to a much more expansive and inclusive view of what a life of faith could entail.
Is there a path to spirituality through sexuality?
All human experiences have the potential to lead us deeper on the journey into ourselves, into connecting with each other and to transcendent reality (which some of us call God) which is really at the heart of all spiritual traditions. Our sexuality is a particularly potent way of engaging on this journey. Sexual energy draws us out of ourselves towards the other: be that another person or towards God. It is an inherently positive and creative force within us. As with any powerful energy this can be used for good or ill but when used intentionally to take us on the deeper journey, rather than being a temptation or a distraction, the energy of desire can be transformative.
I remember when I was wrestling with my sexuality and in the grips of depression I walked the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. En route I would visit little Catholic churches to pray. These beautiful buildings always had exquisite statues of Christ crucified and he always had an amazing body. As I tried to pray I would find desire arising and, at first I’d try to put that to one side and think what I assumed to be purer thoughts. But as I did so I realised that I could bring this desire into my prayer and experience of God as it was a deep and beautiful part of who I am. This transformed my understanding of faith and later I found a rich tradition of prayer that celebrated an erotic union with Christ which echoed my own experience.
Constants in your work such as sexuality and travelling are both very intense ways of physicality. What is the message you want to convey with these depictions?
That our bodies are good and our desires are a force for positive engagement with the world. I’m interested in the idea of queerness as a blurring of binaries and boundaries: male/female, gay/straight, human/God, me/you. In the sheer physicality of encountering a new and amazing place or entwining bodies together something remarkable happens as boundaries dissolve and a sense of deep connection emerges.
I found this on a recent trip to California where I travelled up the Pacific Coast, meditating with the Ocean in the wilderness spaces there. It was a time of deep encounter with place, and the boundary between my own body and the beach, the Ocean, the redwood forests dissolved. I have tried to capture some of this experience in my most recent work.
You mentioned after reading Saint Teresa of Avila that you feel you are always at the beginning of your spiritual journey. What can one do to progress in this path?
In Buddhist thought there is the idea of the “Beginners mind”. One of the things I take from this is the notion that when we engage in the journey deeper, very often our concepts and preconceived ideas about what this might mean get in the way and prevent us from seeing a more profound truth. This is particularly evident when it comes to unhelpful ideas around the concept of “God”; a word that is so troublesome to me that I often wish I could jettison it completely! Throughout my life I have come to moments of conversion where I suddenly realise that after all the progress I thought I had been making and all the knowledge about God that I thought I had been accumulating I have barely scratched the surface of the vast richness of all that reality has to offer. And so, I go back to the beginners mind, not with a sense of despair, but with joy that there is still so much to discover.
We can’t walk this path alone so it’s imperative, if we want to embark on the spiritual journey (which is a genuine choice) that we find fellow travellers we trust to accompany us. These may be wisdom from the teachers of the past as well as people we can talk with and discern the meaning of our experiences together.
You also talk about synchronicities; moments of enlightenment as gifts from the universe when we choose to live with our eyes open. What is the most relevant of these moments you have experienced so far?
It’s almost impossible to gauge the impact of particular moments and events. Something that feels hugely significant and disruptive at one point may, in the end, have very little impact on the course of your life whilst the tiniest encounter, which at the time seems insignificant, may have massive and unforeseen ramifications later on. That’s why I do my best to cultivate an openness to possibilities.
One of my favourite wisdom stories is of St Kevin who lived in Glendalough in Ireland around the 5th century. He was a hermit and would go out into the forest to pray. One day he was praying with his hands outstretched and a blackbird laid her eggs in his open hand. He held that pose of prayer until the eggs hatched and the young birds flew away. This is the posture of heart I seek in my life and creativity which is an active waiting, open to gift and opportunity, not striving for it but trusting that something will emerge and not clinging when it comes but allowing whatever life is present to flourish and grow.
What are your artistic plans for the future?
Having just finished my MFA I’m now taking stock and working out what the most fruitful context to develop my art practice might be.
I am currently working on a commission with the British Army Chaplains who have asked me to engage with soldiers and officers and to produce a series of paintings that explore those experiences.
I’m also interested in exploring further the notion of queerness and what it means to make art from queer experience both as an individual and in community.
My dream is to build a life where I can engage with diverse communities and remarkable places. Listening deeply and encountering deeply and then to make artwork that expresses the grace and beauty that I find in these places and with these people. This is both a creative and a spiritual journey but more and more I’m finding it impossible to separate the two.
To find out more about Ric Stott’s work, visit ricstott.com
Follow Ric on Facebook!