The Colour of Ashes
Despite the best laid plans, working at the Senej Printmakers Workshop for two months in 1992 had an unexpected impact on me.
I had fully expected that researching in Moscow would revitalise my interest in, and use of church iconography through comparative study of Orthodox traditions with those of the Byzantine and Renaissance. I was also aware of, and could relate to a particular Senej style of etching not unlike my own in terms of approach to techniques.
Being partly right meant that I was actually wrong! For what I experienced was totally unpredictable. Within a few weeks the pure white snow in the surrounding forest and on the frozen lake began to melt. The ground began yielding up all sorts of interesting objects and I came home with a beautiful feral cat skull among other things. It was because of this and the particularly Russian images of the silver birch trees and ubiquitous hooded crows around the workshop, that my childhood interest in natural history and fascination for museums was revitalised.
Secondly we were witnessing the collapse of Communism at first hand. My friend and fellow exchange partner from the Glasgow Print Studio had just escaped from Zagreb in Croatia where the violent break up of Yugoslavia was still taking place and where she had been living and working. The silver birch trees that I had started drawing looked more like they were belching smoke rather than casting shadows (an old visual habit of mine).
In my present state of mind the skulls, crows and trees became synonymous with watching the news of the conflict on Russian television and hearing my friends horror stories. I had arrived at Senej with the theme of "a cloudburst of material possessions" in mind, having seen something of the misguided Soviet craving for superficial Western values during a previous visit to Russia. But I came away with "the colour of ashes" symbolising the frightening legacy left behind by the collapse of the political and social systems.
But perhaps the most personal and significant event for me happened right at the end of our stay. Our final weekend was Easter: the first to be allowed for over seventy years. Was it coincidence that the trees I was drawing (by his time in groups of three, another regular feature of my compositions) on top of a hill (taken from many of my Italian drawings and etchings) had one of the Russian skulls that I had found conveniently placed for aesthetic reasons under the hill? It was coincidence. But on the day that I made that drawing and sat back to look at it later in the evening, the realisation that it was also Good Friday brought me to my knees.
All too soon I was back home with my wife and twenty month old daughter. But the whole experience caused me to look again at a series of photographs that I had taken some years previously of Italian roadside shrines. The image of the crucifixion, along with the significance that I now place on the trees and the various animal and bird skulls - all seemingly innocent objects - has produced a vocabulary of images that I was to develop beyond the next three and a half years (spanning the Russian works).
Even now I am still coming to terms with them.