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As a man is, so he sees. As the eye is formed, such are its powers. William Blake

S. Billie Mandle: Reconciliation

ArtWay Visual Meditation 12 July 2020

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S. Billie Mandle: Reconciliation

The Light Without and Within

by Jonathan Evens

‘When you go to confession on a Saturday night,’ Dorothy Day wrote in ‘The Long Loneliness’, you go into a warm, dimly lit vastness, with the smell of wax and incense in the air, the smell of burning candles, and if it is a hot summer night there is the sound of a great electric fan, and the noise of the streets coming in to emphasize the stillness.’ She wrote of the sounds you hear – ‘the sliding of the shutters of the little window between you and the priest in his “box”’ – and the difficulty of going to confession, which is ‘hard when you have sins to confess, hard when you haven’t.’ She concludes that going to confession is hard ‘because you are “giving yourself away’, but ‘if you love, you want to give yourself.’

As a queer woman raised Catholic, S. Billie Mandle recognises the sights, sounds and complexities of confession as described by Day. Not only has she been there and done that in her youth, but she has revisited those boxes as an artist to explore them as metaphorical spaces suggesting the complexities of faith and forgiveness.

In the time between, the practice of going to confession has fallen off within Roman Catholic churches as awareness has grown of the sins of some priests who, in some circumstances, used confessionals to groom those they abused. Those who gave absolution were found to be those who abuse and that revelation has understandably impacted trust and belief in the sanctity of confession.

The confessionals that Mandle photographed over a ten-year period were pragmatic structures, often constructed with acoustic tiles, and more neglected than the churches themselves. Her images spoke to the beliefs that have defined these dark rooms and shaped this intimate yet institutional ritual. In the rooms themselves she found visible and invisible traces of people, communities, prayers and dogmas.

In the neglect of places and practices abandoned because of abuse, these seedy scruffy spaces that seem to share with us the shabby shame of sin, Mandle identifies the primary source of light and makes that the focus of her images. Light illumines and illuminates. In some images the light reveals the extent to which these spaces are rundown and gone to seed neglected. In others, the light irradiates the entire space transforming, changing, beautifying.

We look and look again because these images capture paradox. They interrogate us, posing questions about the depth of our confession and the illumination of our lives. The most sacred spaces are known as thin places because when the barriers between us and God are paper-thin that’s when people and places are lit up from within. Light within will only shine out through cracked or translucent surfaces. It is as we allow light to reveal our failings, fallibilities and flaws leading to acknowledgement, admission and confession that light within is then seen. Whenever we cover over those flaws, the light within is hidden and the light without can no longer penetrate.

In Mandle’s images light reveals and irradiates these boxes which contain both abuse and absolution. The paradox they capture is the human paradox. These images examine us and our institutions, asking whether we are those who cover up or confess.

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S. Billie Mandle: Reconciliation; Taken in the following churches: 1. Holy Family, 2. Saint Christopher, 3. Saint Thomas More. Copyright S. Billie Mandle

S. Billie Mandle (b. 1978) is an American artist based in Los Angeles, CA, and Amherst, MA. Her work is internationally exhibited and published, including exhibitions in Korea, Israel and France, and features in Aperture and Cabinet. Her monograph, Reconciliation, was published in summer 2020 by Kehrer Verlag (Heidelberg, Germany). She is the recipient of fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and the New York Foundation for the Arts and was a finalist at the Hyères Festival de Photographie. She earned a BA in biology from Williams College and an MFA from Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Mandle is an Assistant Professor of photography at Hampshire College in Amherst. 

Revd Jonathan Evens is Associate Vicar for HeartEdge at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. Through HeartEdge, a network of churches, he encourages congregations to engage with culture, compassion and commerce. He is co-author of ‘The Secret Chord,’ an impassioned study of the role of music in cultural life written through the prism of Christian belief. He writes regularly on the arts for a range of publications and blogs at https://joninbetween.blogspot.com/.

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ON THE WEBSITE   NEW ON THE WEBSITE   NEWS

1. EGBERT MODDERMAN WINS AWARD – Dutch artist Egbert Modderman has won the BP Young Artist Award this year. That is an important prize that is awarded every year by The National Portrait Gallery in London. It is the first time in thirty years that this prize has been awarded to a Dutch artist. The artist won the award with his painting Restless, which deals with the Old Testament figure Eli. Modderman not only wins a sum of money: his work is also given a place in The National Portrait Gallery and is exhibited during the exhibition around the annual prize. The work of Modderman knows, as is the case with Restless, often its origin in Biblical narratives. According to Modderman, the elaboration thereof is not tied to a style or direction. “I don’t know if my paintings belong to a certain larger group or style, I prefer to let you label it yourself,” says Modderman about his art. The award ceremony took place digitally this year. See the painting here

2. HEARTEDGE GREAT BRITAIN – Living God’s Future Now is a series of online seminars, discussions and presentations hosted by HeartEdge. They are designed to equip, encourage and energise church leaders, laypeople and enquirers alike. View past sessions, which include artist interviews and tips on doing art in churches, at https://www.facebook.com/pg/theHeartEdge/videos/?ref=page_internal. Hear artists from Manchester's PassionArt initiative discuss their work at 2.00 pm on Monday 27 July. Register for a zoom invite at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/passionart-the-art-of-belonging-tickets-112450346012.

3. DANISH WEBSITE MODERNE KIRKE KUNST – Moderne Kirke Kunst (Modern Church Art) is an elaborate website with contemporary art in Danish churches, covering 1400 churches, 1000 artists and 3500 artworks. Explore! https://www.modernekirkekunst.dk

4. NEW POSTGRADUATE PROGRAMME IN PARISH CHURCH STUDIES – The Churches Conservation Trust together with the University of York, created a new postgraduate programme titled 'Parish Church Studies: Heritage, History, and Fabric'. The online program aims to provide a better understanding of the changing nature of Parish Churches. READ MORE >>>

5. ART AND THE BIBLE WEBSITE – Throughout the history of art many great artists have been inspired by stories in the Bible. On this site an ever increasing selection of their work is presented, with every painting linked to a related bible passage: https://www.artbible.info 

For more exhibitions, lectures, conferences etc. inside and outside your country, click here

ArtWay is a website with resources for congregations and individuals concerned about linking art and faith.

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Other recent meditations:
- August 2020: Vasily Chekrygin: The Resurrection of the Dead
- August 2020: Augustin Kolawole Olayinka: The Transfiguration
- July 2020: Gaspar de Crayer: The Lamentation of Christ
- July 2020: Romare Bearden: The Visitation

For more Visual Meditations, see under Artists