Dunedin, June 2021
Devastating bushfires swept across parts of New South Wales and North-Eastern Victoria a few short months before COVID-19 made itself known to the world. Images of the fires were published daily online. They chronicled the overwhelming suffering of billions of birds, animals, plants. In late November 2019, film footage of a woman named Toni went viral; a minute-long video clip showed her pulling off her T-shirt before running headlong into a burning forest to rescue a terrified koala from the flames.
During that summer’s especially catastrophic bushfire season, I felt compelled to make a series of paintings as tributes to the women who stepped forward to assist. I came to think of these first responders as Bushfire Madonnas, each one a warrior and Bodhisattva offering strength and comfort to animals lost, abandoned or suffering.
The first of my 2020 Bushfire Madonnas was modelled loosely on my Dunedin friend, Penelope; the second Madonna turned up in the form of Kwan Yin, a blue Bodhisattva, in a pose reminiscent of the pietas painted down through the centuries. She’s dressed in the clothes of a contemporary woman, wears jeans and a black T-shirt; in her arms she cradles a baby kangaroo, rescued from the fires and bound in a bright pink body cast.
In another of the paintings the Mother principle expresses through a bird. Recognizing how disconnected our species has become from Nature, she offers fruit to hungry Humanity.
Russian symbolist Nicholas Roerich painted his iconic Mother of the World in 1924. In late February 2020, this painting – one I’ve long found compelling – called again for my attention.
There have been times when I’ve kept a photocopy of this image pinned to a wall in my studio. Revisiting it in the context of our ‘world on fire’ – quite literally in places: Australia, California, Indonesia, the Amazon – aspects of this painting captured my notice in a wholly new way. The Mother’s veil, for instance, took on the appearance of a ‘helmet’ and I started seeing her everywhere – in the faces of women on the front lines of disaster zones, in refugee camps and hospital Emergency Departments; she turned up wielding firefighting hoses, delivering food supplies and emergency medical equipment. The badge she wore either on her sleeve or on her breast pocket was not that of the local not-for-profit or government department but Roerich’s Banner of Peace.
This archetypal Mother with her helmet headgear materialised as a teacher, a beekeeper, a homeless woman in India; I met her again in my daughter, in the delicate hooded mushrooms I found on my neighbourhood walks and in my 2-year-old granddaughter playing dress-ups on Waiheke Island.
I decided to lay down the grounds for a new canvas prompted by Nicholas Roerich’s Mother of the World painting. A female firefighter I’d seen in a news article had caught my attention. Seated in front of her fire truck at the end of yet another marathon day, she was surrounded by the tools of her trade. A torch. Her mobile phone. A hand-held radio. Her helmet with its clear visor lay on its side between her feet. She looked deeply weary. Contemplative, too.
I wanted very much to paint her.
I envisioned placing this woman at the centre of an overtly Australian landscape, drawing in various symbolic elements from Roerich’s painting, specifically the Mother’s halo, the floating Buddhas in the upper hemisphere and the figures meditating on either side of a small altar in the lower fifth of his composition.
Then came the morning we woke to find that the music we’d been listening to – rather, the frenetic soundtrack we’d all become accustomed to – had abruptly stopped.
Into our frames came a sinister yet strangely beautiful shape with a seductive name. Coronavirus. Quickly adjusted to COVID-19. Or C-19.
My painting efforts stalled, then ground to a complete halt. In those early lockdown mornings –as has long been my rhythm – I’d brew a pot coffee and put food out for the birds before stepping into my studio, intending to pick up my brushes and carry on from where I’d left off the day before.
My firefighter would be there to meet me, exactly as I’d left her, eyes lowered as if she was looking inward or perhaps at the ground in front of her. Reluctant to interrupt her reverie, I took to pulling my chair up and sitting in silence with her. I recognized that not only was her exhaustion my exhaustion, it was our collective exhaustion. And it was Mother Earth’s exhaustion, too. Her frayed nervous system had long exhibited multiple signs of stress and fatigue. As our species is wont to do, we’d turned a blind eye, not heeded the warning signs. When COVID-19 arrived and the world paused, many of us sensed on the other side of our alarm, the earth breathing a sigh of relief. Too long she has carried the relentless press of industry on her chest.
As the days went by I picked up my brushes again. I found myself wanting to help my firefighter out of her uniform, to peel off her heavy steel-toed boots so her feet could breathe. Perhaps dress her in lighter clothing. Tone down the orange. Tone up the beige.
She wouldn’t have a bar of it.
One afternoon, during one of our television updates addressing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, I noticed that first responders in New Jersey and New York city were dressed in the same standard-issue uniform as the one my Australian firefighter was wearing. I stopped wanting to alter her; she clearly wished to be left the way she was.
The helmet at her feet merged with the ground, made way for a face mask. One morning I gave her a haircut. Short hair would be easier to manage during her long hours of duty.
The subtle halo behind her firefighter’s head sprouted corona-type spikes. Around these, the suggestion of trees, with life-line limbs reaching into the ethers, a phalanx of protection that coiled loosely through and around the Madonna’s hair and her new COVID crown.
This shapeshifting Madonna and I kept each other company during those early lockdown days. I found myself turning a raft of questions around, visiting strange states and places in myself. I was beset with concerns about the fact each of us was having an entirely different experience of self-isolation; that the solitude I value and protect as essential to my nature might feel like lonesome confinement to an elderly neighbour, or like a potential death-sentence to the woman living a few streets down from me with her violent, now unemployed, partner, both of them barred access to their usual systems of support.
What, I asked myself, are the ways in which we inadvertently exclude others? What do we shutter ourselves from because to do otherwise would be difficult, inconvenient or discomforting?
Six weeks into lockdown, my workspace was in its own state of lockdown, cluttered with Madonna paintings in various states of incompletion. The ‘unfinishedness’ felt appropriately congruent with the shared experience of uncertainty our global family had found ourselves in.Taking a closer look at my emerging COVID Madonna, specifically my sketchy rendition of her firefighter’s helmet-turned-mask, I noticed that inside the mask was a fire nest, small sparks safely contained, flickering with provocations, comfort, potential.
I took to keeping company with my Bushfire-turned COVID Madonna for a chunk of time each day. She drew me into a process of self-enquiry that insisted on my full presence.
The masks we’d been instructed to wear –the mask lying as an object of contemplation between my COVID Madonna’s feet – are an opportunity for us to unmask so many of the things we’ve become blindly identified with or that we’ve avoided engaging with altogether.
What might this coronavirus be revealing to us? To me? What new ways of being or perceiving was it asking us to consider? How was I doing with the blind spots of my privilege? What monsters of our collective shadow nature might it be exposing? What angels?
The questions kept coming. This was a time for eyes-wide-open interrogation, an invitation to release my grip on stale, fixed stories and surrender instead to the unknown—that deep, dark space where new songs shudder into being.
‘COVID is delivering a different perspective on all our traditional frameworks. We humans have a hierarchy of values that does not exist anywhere in the natural world’, said Philip Shepherd, ‘and we’ve wanted everything to fit within the constraints of those values.’ Come hell or high water. Mercifully, the web of interrelationships that Nature recognizes and thrives by is being revealed to us again, reminding us of core principles we have (in)conveniently forgotten.
We will continue to see significant disruption and suffering in the coming days, weeks, months and years as our already-failing economies and ecologies collapse and situations of dissent and trauma soar. The impact will once again be most palpably felt by the marginalised and by Gaia, Mother Earth struggling to hold us all. And to hold us all to account. Much of this fall-out has been a long time coming. We’ve known this, yet turned a blind eye. What if, instead of our compulsive focus on consumption and ownership, we apply ourselves instead to a review of service? The circulation of gifts? Contracts of care that are pliable and alive and informed by the rising sap of each new moment?
While I mightn’t have accomplished much in any outwardly measurable sense during our months of lockdown, I appreciated the pause it imposed on us, the directive it issued that we slow down, familiarise ourselves with uncertainty, and reset. Let this in no way suggest I’m not mindful of the harsh impact COVID-19 continues to visit upon so many –the losses, fear and grief it has brought. Its effects are rampant and raw. At the same time, I observe, and am grateful for, the process of review this virus has catalysed across the globe. Might we consider COVID-19 an unlikely teacher inviting us to apply ourselves to the peculiar lessons of this time?Our separation from the more-than-human world that David Abram writes of has come at incalculable cost, to the natural world and to all of us. The mechanisms of our achievement-oriented and consumer-driven world have much to answer for; it’s as if Humanity has been beset –for the longest time – by a kind of psychic virus that COVID-19 is laying bare, at its essence the dis-ease of separation.
As Gurdjieff posited, The only way we can get out of jail is to know that we are in it.
The clock in the cul-de-sac marks the hour
We have wandered wide, allowed for poetry
of a different kind; cadence and kerfuffle,
the heart’s rising above a familiar chaos
of subjects. On the late afternoon wall,
paintings in the making, canvas acrobats
hanging on our every word. Bare feet yield
to black water. Beyond the frame, life
is a risky business. Jack-in-the-box. Angel.
Thief. Some days a blackbird at ease with the rhyme
and chime of every unknown thing. Like the signs
written in dust after vultures have flown
or the bones a shaman rolls, clues clatter
and scatter; each piece falls to earth and order,
takes its place in the heart’s vast chamber.
Claire Beynon is a Dunedin-based artist, writer and interdisciplinary researcher. In addition to her solo practice, she works collaboratively on a diverse range of projects with fellow artists, writers, scientists and musicians in New Zealand and abroad.