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Exhibition review: Tree of Life and Open Heaven at Southwell Minster

08 November 2019

Pat Ashworth reviews Jacqui Parkinson’s tapestry and installation

Jane Wyles/Southwell & Nottingham diocese

Open Heaven by Jacqui Parkinson and Southwell Minster

Open Heaven by Jacqui Parkinson and Southwell Minster

JACQUI PARKINSON takes a simple approach to her work: “I’m a stitcher. I stitch.” She was a school head of drama at an earlier stage in her career, and there’s a strong storytelling element in her latest work, as there was in her largest to date — the 14 panels that made up Threads of Revelation, which finished a two-year cathedrals tour last year.

The three panels that Tree of Life comprises (News, 11 October) are a more modest offering, but no less vibrant, and with all the marks that make her accessible to viewers of all ages. You are drawn to them in Southwell Minster as to a fire: they glow with richness. Parkinson works with strips of fabric, dyed from bedsheets — a deliberate choice of workaday material — quilted and overlaid with layers of silk. The effect in Tree of Creation, particularly in the suggestion of God at the top of the panel, is of pulsating movement.

Here, the Garden of Eden is a green enclosure with openings to the outside world. It contains both the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil — a fig and not an apple tree, which makes sense of the fig leaves that become aprons. The shiny red serpent has a gold tongue, and the black raven already has some of the dropped fig seeds in its beak. Appliqué figures of animals include the lion and the lamb; and, as the slightly grotesque forms of Adam and Eve slink out of the Garden, two angels stand guard, their faces undefined.

The vivid yellow and gold, green, purple, and scarlet colours of the Garden yield to a savage maelstrom of wild colours: cobalt, midnight blue, black and silver for the second panel, The Easter Story. Christ is on the tree, whose branches bear the silver fruit that is now hung low and there for the picking.

A stream of water flows from his side through a crude slit in the fabric, and out to the world. There’s jagged silver lightning. Christ’s head is cruelly angled, almost detached from the neck and shoulders. Outlines of human figures look like etchings on glass and display a range of reactions, some with raised arms, others with head in hands.

The outline that was the Garden of Eden in the creation story is the outline of a walled city in The Final Story, based on the last page of Revelation. Now, in this new heaven and earth, the waters of life surge freely through the openings in the walls, and the tree has at its apex the Lamb on the throne. All the pulsation of the Creation is evident again in this panel, where the New Jerusalem is made up of countless busy mansions, and all the figures are swirling joyfully upwards in the tide.

It’s something of a jolt to turn from all this vibrancy to the starkness of the installation, Open Heaven, located in the sanctuary. This is a clear departure for Parkinson, one where she admits to having stepped way out of her creative comfort zone. All her work is informed by a solid and unwavering Christian faith: this one comes from a Jacob-like vision of Christ which she had on a warm and sleepless night in 2017.

A rope ladder extends from a high parapet. The full-size figure of the crucified Christ, a plaster cast of a young man in his thirties, is hanging on the ladder by threads of red and gold which anchor him to the earth. The cast has been covered in fine, white, frayed silk, like a shroud. Christ is clearly climbing up to heaven, but his hand is extended outwards, as though offered to a drowning man below. It reminded me of the perilous iron ladders that cling to the walls of a mineshaft or a harbour wall, structures that it takes courage to ascend.

It is unsettling, not least because Christ’s eyes are open, looking down. But the bright red silk threads that wrap each sharp point of the crown of thorns and stream from the wounds pool into shape below to form the words, “My love is for you” and “Take my hand”.

Tree of Life and Open Heaven are at Southwell Minster until 1 December, before touring to the cathedrals of Exeter (7 January-22 February 2020), Carlisle (19 May-4 July), Manchester (7 July-8 August), Guildford (11 August-26 September), Ripon (29 September-1 October), and Peterborough (4 November-13 December).


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