Hope in an Age of Anxiety I Richard Kenton Webb
A conversation with John Milton’s Paradise Lost
Sunny Art Prize 2021 – Prize Winner Solo Exhibition at London Sunny Art Centre 1th – 31th. OCT 2021 Sunny Art Centre, London
This body of work is about integrity, dignity, and hope.
I believe that painting is an intrinsic human language that will never disappear. For centuries, the artist’s imagination and the alchemy of materials have fused to create truly remarkable works. Words can fail us, but by engaging with materials, we can translate our inner world into a composition. The materials and our imaginations fuse into a visual poetry, communicating a hidden realm and making the invisible visible.
My painting Wreck, which won the Sunny Art Prize in 2020, discusses what is not necessarily seen and yet has been experienced. Four years ago, I thought I would lose everything. I was told that my philosophy and pedagogy as an artist and educator of 35 years were ‘wrong’ and invalid. From this first meeting with my new manager, the undermining and disrespect for my vision continued for three years until my degree course was finally closed in July 2020. I made Wreck during this time of intense oppression. Painting sustained me through a period of deep distress. It enabled me to make sense of my situation, process the experience and give myself courage. This got me thinking about other people who endure harmful workplaces, especially in academia.
Wreck is a conversation about how people can use their power to damage others. I want to expose the underlying causes of some of the problems that we face globally by opening up a conversation about the values that lie behind our day-to-day decisions and behaviours. Cold-blooded damage by someone using their influence (just because they can) ripples through an individual, their family and society. The perpetrators camouflage themselves, but the victims, their families, and the local and global community face the consequences.
This is an exhibition of paintings completed between 2016 and 2018, with the painting Wreck right at the heart. Although it looks as though the boat is sinking, it has only run aground. By painting this picture, I was able to tell myself that the psychological and emotional abuse would not destroy me. The painting looked back at me as a reminder that at high tide, this boat (myself) would float away safely. This is precisely what happened because I soon found safe waters at Plymouth College of Art. It is also rather poignant that I am now living next to the sea, something that I have always longed for.
Creativity and the imagination can save us from running aground. In these desperate times of COVID, many are struggling with stress, depression, anxiety, grief, and trauma. Self-expression is therapeutic, enabling us to build hope. It empowers us to change our self-talk and send positive, hopeful messages to ourselves and the people around us.
These paintings are part of a large body of work inspired by John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. I used the metaphor of the vitrine to contemplate the idea of hell in Book I of Paradise Lost. This device enabled me to step back and walk around my problem, to view it from a distance, in the same way that you would a museum exhibit. It also separated me from my circumstances, enabling me to externalise my thoughts and find freedom from the bullying. This is how I made sense of my desperate situation.
I had already used the vitrine on the LARQ Residency in 2014 in Queenstown, Tasmania, when making work about the colour Yellow. I was invited to return in 2015 for a short residency with an accompanying solo show. This was when I started to make the drawings for Book III of Paradise Lost on the theme of Heaven. I put icebergs into the vitrine as I needed a metaphor for the visible and invisible. This was the beginning of my series about Integrity.
Over the centuries, many writers and artists have found clarity and direction by moving to a new place. In Tasmania I let my unconscious surface freely. I started to make sense of my circumstances through the vehicle of ‘open’ drawing. I was able to make a visual representation of what was weighing on my mind. When this suite of drawings appeared, it was such a relief to be able to put form to the manoeuvrings in my workplace. It was as if I had overheard a game plan for my destruction and I was playing a part in a contemporary Paradise Lost. As soon as I returned to the UK, the bullying increased, with individuals abusing their power and plotting against an executive strategy to achieve personal ambitions above policy. The success of my course and students only highlighted their ruthlessness.
It was out of a desire to create hope in a time of anxiety that John Milton wrote Paradise Lost. He was blind and there was a price on his head. Assassins sought to kill him. At this time, he was seen by the European community as one of the greatest minds of his age. His world had collapsed. Everything he desired for a new order after the English Civil War had come to nothing. The country faced more of the same corruption. Despite being a broken man, he was able to write this great love poem. He brought vision and expectation into a dark moment of history. John Milton was able to imagine hope, despite the darkness that surrounded him. I have taken great comfort from all of this. We are led through the darkest of realities as Milton discusses the concept of evil. There is no ‘happy ending’ to Paradise Lost, but it contains hope as a way though.
All artistic expressions have the power to mirror life and transport our imaginations to find hope. On the day that my course was closed, I was shortlisted for the Sunny Art Prize; I received 100% student satisfaction for the second time in three years from the National Student Survey; and I saw an advertisement for my dream job as Subject Leader of Painting, Drawing and Print at Plymouth College of Art. I applied for this role, and this is now where I live and teach. So, there is always hope, however dark things may seem. Yes, I have been victimised, but I am not a victim. Take heart.
Richard Kenton Webb, August 2021