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Interview: Jacquiline Creswell, art curator for English cathedrals

05 July 2024

‘There’s no room for error, potentially alienating those that work in or visit a sacred space’

Ash Mills

I am not sure that this role really existed before. It’s been created to bring to the cathedrals of England an approach to installing art that’s respectful and sensitive to each environment, and creates a narrative between the exhibited work and the cathedral. Cathedrals aren’t exhibition spaces for decorative art — they’re sacred spaces that can be used to communicate wider thoughts and ideas.

I’ve worked in a number of mediums — paper, wool, stone, and bronze. Stone carving is most demanding. One false move . . . but there is a meditative rhythm, and making sure that every hit is precise, almost taken over. Much of it is figurative, but I’ve also made a number of more abstract pieces. I can still be persuaded to draw when I find the time, but curating plays to my almost insatiable appetite for new ideas, the stimulation of working with artists in a given context. It’s very demanding, working with extraordinary people and cathedrals’ bureaucracy — sometimes wonderful, sometimes challenging — but I don’t think anything worth doing today is easy.

I worked as the curator at Salisbury Cathedral, among others, for over 12 years, where I pioneered the first rolling art programme, working with more than 60 artists to integrate their work with the cathedral’s community and liturgy. It was experimental and it drew countless visitors to visit the cathedral and to see it in a new light.

When Salisbury was afflicted by the Novichok attack, the city went into shock; parts of the city were quarantined, there were countless police and forensic investigators in white hazmat suits. I was working with Michael Pendry at the time, and he created this extraordinary flock of doves suspended in the cathedral nave (News, 11 May 2018). People came from all over the city to create a dove, to write a message or a prayer. This simple but beautiful installation displayed hope, peace, and reconciliation.

I’m inspired by particular artists, but at work I have to set that aside and consider the widest possible arena of art. My challenge always is to identify art that works in the context of a particular place, and sometimes at a particular time.

I’ve built a particularly close relationship with some artists, based on respect and trust built up over years. Remember, an artist’s work is their livelihood, their career; so I have to balance the needs of the cathedral with the needs of the artist.

It’s always immensely rewarding when an artist I’ve followed, but have never met, gets in touch because they’ve seen my work, and want to work with me.

Curating within the bounds of a cathedral requires painstaking attention. Nothing can interfere with the fabric of the building; so each exhibition is researched, planned, and professionally executed. There’s no room for error, potentially alienating those that work in or visit a sacred space. That’s not to say some works won’t cause some adverse comment, or sensitivities might be stirred. Often, an installation is successful because it stirs comment. That’s the opportunity to engage with people, and often the most productive conversations follow.

Wells Arts Contemporary is an international open art competition that’s run every year since 2012. I’ve been a selector of art for the installations programme at Wells Cathedral since 2022. I assisted with curating their 2023/24 exhibitions to encourage best practice, and train a team to continue to deliver exhibitions of a high standard. I’m currently a volunteer, director, and curator.

The “Black Mountain Project: Vessels” is a unique exhibition by Art + Christianity in collaboration with Friends of Friendless Churches, from 8 August to 18 October. It’s an art trail and pilgrimage to seven ancient rural churches in the Black Mountains, which hold treasures of outstanding visual culture, including graffiti, wall paintings, medieval screens, and other fine ecclesiastical features.

These beautiful, small, intimate churches engaged me at a very personal level, with evidence of the history of entire families from birth, through life, and finally at a resting place. I felt a deep sense of a closer community.

Our aim is to place a single work of art that represents a vessel within each of these ancient churches. The polysemic nature of vessels highlights the rich versatility of the term, and provides a rich medium for creative expression, symbolism, and the exploration of various concepts related to containment, transportation, embodiment, and transformation.

In Christianity, a vessel often depicts the human body or soul as a container for the Holy Spirit. Christians are called to be vessels of God’s love, grace, and power, and to carry the gospel to the world. Vessels are used in Christian worship — for example, the chalice and the font. Vessels also have a wider connotation in the biology of living forms as transporters of vital fluids and nourishment. This art trail pilgrimage brings all these elements together.

My first proper project with English cathedrals will be installing “Crossing” in Canterbury in October. Magnificent boats — incredibly beautiful and fragile, made from wood from forest floors and beaches — inviting local communities in to think about their spiritual journeys, and migrant journeys, in the context of this grand cathedral in Kent.

Churches have employed the visual arts for centuries, to celebrate their faith and communicate its truth and beauty. Art can also be a medium for discussing and exploring that faith by providing a catalyst for people who are otherwise outside the formal structures of belief or belonging to join in. It’s a doorway through which anyone can pass and discover what’s on the other side.

Parish churches can gain so much from exploring what contemporary art can offer their communities. Art can be used to advance or better interpret their missions and bring their communities closer together.

Cathedrals provide an inspirational spiritual and architectural environment for their permanent art collections and temporary installations, for liturgy and meditation. Sarah Mullally, once canon treasurer at Salisbury, now the Bishop of London, said: “ Art can often speak where words fail.” One of the most interesting projects we worked together on was at Erlestoke Prison, in the Magna Carta anniversary year, looking at human rights and justice from the angle of people who’d forfeited some of their rights because of what they’d done.

You get more out of these projects than you put in, and I certainly put a great deal into that. I try to view life through other people’s perspectives, and share that with people who find that process more difficult.

I have faith. My father was a cantor in the synagogue in Cape Town, and his best friend, Chota Motala, who was Indian Muslim, was my “godfather”. They always believed that we are created by God and they always looked for those aspects of our lives that unite us. My husband is a Christian, and my children were brought up in both religions.

My dad had a wonderful voice, and my son inherited that gift. His voice is both a reassuring and sometimes hauntingly emotional sound. I also love the sound of waves crashing on my favourite beach near Cape Town, where I grew up during the years when apartheid was overturned. They were exciting, often frightening times.

Injustice makes me angry, and those that are unwilling to engage in fair debate.

My family, children and my dogs make me happiest.

I’m blessed with children who have an amazing work ethic, and who’ve developed their own mission to be meaningful contributors to this very confusing world. They know how important it is to give back, to help build society.

I taught my children the Shema Yisrael prayer when they were tiny. We’d say it together every night before bed. Actually, we’d sing it, and I still do.

I guess if I was locked in Salisbury Cathedral, a conversation with the master mason who built it would be interesting. How did ordinary people come together to create something so extraordinary? I’d like to understand what it is about human beings and faith that can inspire such extraordinary creativity.

Jacquiline Creswell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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