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A quest for sanctuary in the city

07 March 2014

A Manchester-based Lenten art trail was launched this week, incorporating six venues and 20 artists. Pat Ashworth took to the streets


On the trail: above: The Prodigal Son by Ghislaine Howard

On the trail: above: The Prodigal Son by Ghislaine Howard

THE artist Lesley Sutton had a wish-list of venues for a Holy Week and Easter art trail across the centre of Manchester, a city where she has lived and worshipped for 27 years.

It included the prestigious Manchester Art Gallery, and the John Rylands Library, and when both of these - "to my absolute shock" - willingly said yes, she realised that something born out of a modest desire for building bridges between contemporary art and the Church was actually going to happen.

And it has, with a Lenten, visual pilgrimage encompassing more than 60 traditional and contemporary works of art, some in the permanent collections of the six host venues, others loaned or created for the trail. All reflect the universal Easter themes of grief and loss, love and kindness, and the longing for hope.

The PassionArts Trail is set at the heart of a city that has a vibrant arts scene, and which has itself experienced resurrection after the IRA bomb that destroyed a sizeable area of central Manchester in 1996.

The starting-point is the Art Gallery on Mosley Street, currently drawing the crowds with a monumental textiles work by the Portugese contemporary artist, Joana Vasconcelos. Three paintings by Holman Hunt - The Scapegoat, andversions of The Light of the World and The Shadow of Death - are part of the gallery's permanent collection, as is Henry Moore's muscular Mother and Child, a compelling look into the strong, unflinching gaze of Mary with the infant Christ.

Other contemporary works on the themes of the Easter journey have been slipped in, too, surprising the pilgrim on this trail. Is that a plateof chips and gravy among the 17th-century Dutch still-life paintings of overblown flowers, dying flowers, reviving flowers?


MAT COLLISHAW, a Brit Art luminary, has photographed the final meals of prisoners in Texas whom he visited on Death Row, and set them up in the style of the Dutch painters.

His series Last Meal on Death Row invites comparisons and reflections on the Last Supper, and, perhaps most movingly of all, includes the last meal of Jonathan Nobles, a 37-year-old who found faith while in prison and, on the day of his execution, asked forgiveness from his victim's family, and took bread and wine. The ruby glass looks three-dimensional, as though you could open up the picture, and lift it out.

Transformation is also the theme of metal work by Claire Malet and Cornelia Parker, in which beauty emerges and shimmers from discarded objects.

So close are the venues to each other that half an hour is all it would take to walk between them without stopping. The next stop is St Mary's, a Roman Catholic church on Mulberry Street, "Manchester's Hidden Gem". It is signposted as such, but you could still miss this stunning post-Reformation building, its tower lost among the tall office blocks that replaced the city's slums.

Inside, a sea of white marble takes the breath away. Apparently, the artist Norman Adams considered his 14 Stations of the Cross commissioned for St Mary's in 1993 by the parish priest, Canon Denis Clinch, on the recommendation of Sister Wendy Beckett, to be the greatest work of his life.

These great, bold, vivid pictures are also a favourite of Sutton's. "Each of the Stations is based on the face of Christ at one of those 14 moments. . . In every picture, Christ has flowers in his eyes," she says. "In the final one, the resurrection story, there is no face, no person, just a garden of flowers linking with the flowers in everyone's eyes. The images are so strong and so moving."


ON TO Deansgate now, across the great square in front of the town hall, and to the neo-Gothic John Rylands Library. Every artist exhibiting here has experienced grief in some way, and has woven it into his or her work - literally, in the case of the textile artists Jacqui Parkinson and Beverly Ayling-Smith. The magnificent library, opened in 1900, could be mistaken for a church, and its vaulted corridors, soft stone walls, and lattice windows merge seamlessly into a newly renovated, stunning, contemporary part of the building - all soaring white walls, glass, and chrome.

Parkinson is the widow of the Methodist evangelist Rob Frost, who died of cancer in 2008. She has embroidered her loss into a series of the Victorian handkerchiefs she collects, in what Sutton suggests are almost "letters to God".

They reveal her grief, her fears about ageing on her own, the struggle to sleep in the vast loneliness of a double bed, and her need to hold on to memories.

The contemporary embroiderer Ayling-Smith is exhibiting two life-size shrouds: one created from dried rose petals and lead crosses, the other from fragments of prayer books and Bible references stitched into dyed linen, buried in the ground, and then retrieved.

Sculptural work by Maxine Bristow, an artist shortlisted for the Jerwood Prize, features in the library, and also in St Ann's, in a linked pair of rails in tapestry and powder-coated modern steel. Their location in the two venues suggests that one might be a barrier to God and one a communion rail - together an expression of the complexity of feelings after loss.

And, on a Juliet balcony, in a quiet and breathtakingly beautiful corner of a library corridor, is the emotional sound-work by Jane Poulton andLin Holland - based on the disturbed heartbeat of Poulton's dying mother, who herself suggested it be recorded, and used, in some creative way, after her death.

Poulton worked with the composer Holland to create a series of operatic arias based on the rhythm of the heartbeat, and on a prayer of her mother's. The ten small arias - separated by two bell-strikes - were played from the balcony of Liverpool Cathedral each day for a month. Sutton, whose own contribution to the PassionArts Trail is also in the library, says: "It's a really moving artwork."

The library has the biggest collection of Bibles in the world, as well as the oldest extant fragment of the New Testament, the codex Papyrus P52 - a piece of the Easter story in St John's Gospel.


SUTTON has a tree of wire rising and extending out of an old family Bible, bought through eBay. It is covered in more than 1000 paper butterflies - symbolising resurrection - all hand-cut, and made from prayer books. There will be a book of remembrance in this area, and prayer cards, discreetly placed. "I don't want people to think we've lifted a whole load of emotions and they have nowhere to go with it," she says.

Grace and forgiveness, leading to resurrection, are the themes depicted in the 300-year-old St Ann's, ahaven off the busy shopping thoroughfare, at the heart of Manchester. It is a building that the figurative artist, Ghislaine Howard, often visits to sit in quiet contemplation.

"Almost always there are other people doing the same," she says. "And I'm struck by the unknowability of their secret histories, and for what reason they have sought temporary sanctuary here."

A selection of her work here includes three studies directly relating to her series The Seven Works of Mercy, but she also wanted to produce a work specifically for the occasion: a large painting, eight foot by six, for the Lady chapel.

It is The Prodigal Son, at the moment when, in Howard's own words: "The son sinks to his knees, received by his father with an unquestioning urgent and receiving embrace," and it was seen for the first time when the trail opened on Ash Wednesday.

"The idea of painting the Prodigal Son was an enormous challenge - how to recreate a subject already given such magisterial form by Rembrandt, and the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky," she says.

"It is a subject that is perhaps at the centre of everything I do. It goes straight to the heart of what it is to be human - our weaknesses, and our strengths. It embodies the silence of the moment of forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption: in a word, compassion."

Also in this in this hushed and hallowed space are sculptures by James Sutton, Lesley's son, which suggest the Host on the altar in the Lady chapel, and the life-cycle of a child in the womb. And there are 3000 origami butterflies, too, soaring to resurrection.

THERE could not be a bigger contrast between St Ann's and the great glass edifice that is the National Football Museum. This is a busy, joyful space. Access is through the turnstiles, and ascending the stairs has all the same sense of expectation as climbing up to the stands.

Michael Browne's The Resurrection of Eric Cantona, wickedly imitating Piero della Francesca's fresco of the resurrection of Christ, has a permanent and prominent place here, on an upper level. Sutton's husband, Roger, a Baptist minister now working for the Evangelical Alliance's unity project "Gather", was chaplain to Manchester United when Cantona was there, and has written the accompanying reflection.

The trail concludes in Manchester Cathedral, neighbour to the Football Museum and Chetham's School of Music, across some imaginatively landscaped public space. Here there are 20 enormous contemporary paintings by a local artist, Rob Floyd, a set of new Stations of the Cross that had already been commissioned by the cathedral before Sutton's approach.

The final painting, the crucifixion, is life-size. The Revd Dr Andrew Shanks, Canon Theologian of Manchester Cathedral, is delighted to be able to publicise their presence in the cathedral in this way. "They're large baroque works, in the sense that baroque means theatrical," he says. "And yet this is ecclesiastical baroque, largely purged of its standard clichés, or its usual propaganda quality.

"It's a Passion play with a strong amateur-dramatics quality. Rob's a very gifted portrait-painter. He paints his friends in the sacred roles: his paintings come across, essentially, as transfigurations of friendship. There's a beautiful warm-heartedness about them."

Visitors will also be drawn to Mark Cazalet's altarpiece and window, featuring the Trinity having fish and chips, with bread and wine, among familiar scenes of Manchester.

Sutton has curated the PassionArts Trail and its associated events programme on a shoestring: a £5000 budget (much of which has gone on printing the free catalogue), and a further injection of money from the couple's own savings.

Creating what she calls an "opportunity for sanctuary in the midst of the busy-ness of modern life" has been a leap of faith, and a labour of love.


The Passion Arts Trail runs until 21 April in Manchester city centre.


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