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Visual arts: After the Storm at St Stephen’s, Norwich

17 September 2021

Jonathan Evens views pandemic reflections in a Norwich church

photo Jonathan Evens

Detail of A Long Overdue Reckoning by Liz Monahan. More images in the gallery

Detail of A Long Overdue Reckoning by Liz Monahan. More images in the gallery

“AFTER the Storm?” results from conversations between St Stephen’s, Norwich, and seven artists from the Norwich 20 Group, which enable reflection on our own experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The project is an excellent example of collaboration with local artists in ways that benefit both while maintaining the integrity of all. Canon Madeline Light began the conversation with a verse from Ezekiel 34: “As shepherds go after their flocks when they get scattered, I’m going after my sheep. I’ll rescue them from all the places they’ve been scattered to in the storms.” Frances Martin, who organised the exhibition, says these words were “the genesis of the exhibition”. Martin has contributed a strong and yet tender female Farmer Gathering Sheep which, in Canon Light’s phrase, “links our present phase of the pandemic with the idea of being collected up after being scattered”.

Two other large drawings by Martin frame the altar, both featuring animals, including sheep, with female saints, giving a sense of all being safely gathered in. One of these, A collection – alabaster Virgins and sheep gathering, includes a drawing of a historic alabaster that was buried at the Reformation but is now in the Treasury of neighbouring St Peter Mancroft. Its pair is also to be found at St Stephen’s.

Projected on each side of the altar is Traces of birds and winds and breath by Helen Wells, a layered hand-drawn animation meditating on “the ever-changing nature of the sky, the clouds, the gathering storms, the clearing skies”. In her reflections, Canon Light links this to Ezekiel’s prophecy calling on the wind to bring the breath of life to dead bodies. The changing skies also feature in L. S. Walker’s paintings titled View from the window. These show changing skies and light through a lockdown window, and Canon Light connects them with the stark thought from Jeremiah that death has climbed through our windows.

Breath and death are also linked in Living with COVID and Drawing with my Eyes Closed, an intervention by Mandy Rogers using bamboo roots, rubber tubing, charcoal, and paper. Rogers had Covid and recovered, but, while doing so, spent a lot of time lying in bed, listening to minute details of life. Her “intervention” with bamboo that had been dug up in her garden is an instinctive reference to lung formations and the invasiveness of the disease. Her breathing partner in this time, through the sway of its limbs, was a walnut tree that could be seen through her bedroom window. She has made papier-mâché moulds of sections from this tree and displays these as lung-like shapes.

Gwyneth Fitzmaurice and Richard Cleland ask us to look in different directions for solace and inspiration. Fitzmaurice beautifully recreates the bark, lichen, and leaves of Fallen Branch by adding strips of brown paper to a wire with glue and graphite. “Seeing ourselves in nature”, she writes, “wasn’t only a question of looking upwards, but also down at the ground.” Canon Light reminds us of a line from Psalm 85, “Truth springs up from the ground.” Cleland asks us to look out at A mousing owl, “the first to recognise the storm has passed and leave their place of shelter to seek out what will sustain them”, suggesting that “those brave enough would be wise to follow.”

Liz Monahan’s triptych A Long Overdue Reckoning brings us into urban experience to tell the story of lockdown through iconic images from face masks to anti-vaxxers, clapping for the NHS to social-distancing signs, and Zoom rooms to Amazon deliveries. Across her canvases, she takes us on a journey from darkness to light and the hope of a brighter, albeit uncertain, future, through a Stanley Spencer-like focus on the incidental details of everyday life. She also draws attention to the disparities present within our society which the pandemic has highlighted, and makes a homeless man central to her story enabling Light to suggest that it may be Christ we see in the face of this central character.

The exhibition is woven through the café space at St Stephen’s, bringing this art to some who might not otherwise view it. On the day when I visited, a group of schoolfriends who meet monthly at the café were loving the collage of lockdown scenes in Monahan’s triptych, while a retired magician, promoted by the saints in Martin’s drawings, showed a coin he had had made with St John Bosco, patron saint of magicians, portrayed. The café, with its principle of “eat, drink, share, pay what you know is fair”, is a place of welcome; and so Canon Light hopes that this exhibition in that space will give the community “a small window of opportunity to process what we have been through, and what we might yet go through as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic”. That hope is being realised.

“After the Storm?” is at St Stephen’s, Norwich, Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., until 25 September. ststephensnorwich.org

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