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The Cathedral Exhibition in Norwich

The Interview


In this interview, Richard Caston reflects on some essential questions and candidly reveals the various levels of his approach, of his thinking and of his work.

Richard and Beatrice Caston

BC
Why did you choose the title LIVING STONES?


RC
The carved blocks of stone, as such have a life span. One can easily see which ones are the original stones brought over from Normandy and which are the newer, less worn blocks, which replaced them. As with us, life is gradually etched onto their faces – these are the stones I like to look at – the craggy ones that tell a story or the worn smooth ones that have taken on soft new forms. I imagine what they must have lived through - almost as if the past is recorded in the stone itself.

One can sense the past everywhere, in the walls, on the floors or on the worn steps – it’s not difficult in such an ancient building– one is reminded everywhere of those who have come and gone before us. Of course we are just temporary witnesses – walking in the ancient footsteps, as it were – and we will be followed by others. We are looking at an ongoing process of erosion.

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The time element runs through all of my Cathedral work, especially in mixed media, where I have introduced imagery and lettering into the depiction of stones. In Looking Back and Moving Forward, for example, you can see a juxtaposition of the ancient - a Byzantine mosaic from St. Benedict’s time, next to the new contemporary fragments. In this particular piece I also tried to show time in sequence – left to right.

Fortunately for us, thanks to some serious maintenance in time, the Cathedral is standing today and we can still walk into this extraordinary building, as they did nine hundred years ago. It is still fully alive, more so probably than at any time in its history in terms of the variety of religious and educational programmes- not to mention the cultural events, music and art.

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BC
The second part of the title - silent journey – is somehow mysterious. Both silent and journey tell a lot about you. What would you want us to know about them?


RC
Yes, it is silent, in working quietly, waiting and not forcing it, not imposing – together with the sense of journey– a journey of eighteen months, (although now I’m not sure it will ever end, as I’m just getting into it) – a journey into the unknown – baggage not required! You could say I needed to start at the beginning.

It goes back to the first visit to the Cathedral in order to actually start work…I was a bit overwhelmed by the prospect – there was so much potential. All those sense perceptions going off at the same time! What a building! I knew the Cathedral well of course, but where to start?

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Ruth Barker had brought us there to draw, when I first started at the Art College. I had always been attracted to old and historic buildings, especially ruins, including churches. As a boy I remember cycling around exploring churches – at places like Ranworth and Hemblington, making drawings and plans– then later came all those years of drawing in Florence, so I was quite used to church architecture and to working in churches. I thought it was going to be like that – but it didn't turn out that way. The prospect of producing an actual exhibition (eighteen months was not very long for that) - was a bit daunting. So there I was, in the Cathedral, with my drawing book and pencil in this huge, magnificent building, with over 900 years of history! What would Rubens do? That thought made it worse!

I had to slowly, calmly, feel my way into it. It was not up to me to impose myself. I soon understood that I couldn’t do much with the Cathedral – it rather looked like the Cathedral might do something with me, and in retrospect, that is what happened. It took time… time to be there - quietly there. I was experienced enough to know that keeping a record was going to be vital, so I made drawings and I made notes and jotted down reflections in the workbooks. This way I could, later on, see where I had been, even if I didn’t know where I was going!

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BC
This catalogue looks like a workbook tidied up… You tell us about your entire journey, not only its milestones. Why did you decide to compose or design it that way?


RC
The workbooks became such an important part in my working practice, that it didn’t make sense to just print the finished works in the catalogue. It needed to capture what went into making this exhibition – to capture something of that journey and to put it into context – process oriented as they say. So I wanted to design a catalogue more in the style of my workbooks – tidied up but still an open book.

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I like to read catalogues with plenty of pictures – there is a bookshelf full of them in the studio. Some go into process and context – I’m thinking of the Van Gogh at Work exhibition catalogue from Amsterdam and of course the one on David Hockney’s landscapes. Stephen Taylor’s Oak also documents a whole creative journey he experienced, centred around a particularly meaningful oak tree, a sacred oak as it became, over a three year period

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BC
Your birth-place, your birth city Norwich has a sacred connotation for you best found in its historical places and architecture. After having seen and worked in many parts of the world you have come back…


RC
I just read today in a letter, that you may leave the city of your birth, but it never leaves you. Norwich has always been home. This is Norwich - my city - home of the Canaries and Cotman - my family is from here!

Now being a visitor to the city, I think I appreciate it more – especially, as you rightly say, the historical architecture… the churches. Everywhere you walk, especially in the Cathedral area, is just packed with beautiful buildings – some fine examples of stone and brickwork and of beautiful windows - not just Elm Hill; also some fabulous Victorian factories. When I have to drive into the multi-story parking, I always keep going to the top level, just to enjoy the panorama. The Cathedral still dominates the skyline. Norwich is a treasure and is important today for art – there is a lot of it going on.

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BC
You live with great intensity, you keep sharpening your senses, especially your vision… all this through drawing?


RC
I was lucky – I had brilliant drawing teachers – mostly in Norwich. John Wonnacott was a sensation…I remember having pre-match nerves before his classes! What intensity! John taught me that it wasn’t the drawing that mattered, rather the seeing.
I also learned much from Colin Self - how to take a drawing further and further. I saw him one day at Waterloo Park. He was drawing a hedgerow. Seeing the intensity of his vision made a deep impression. It wasn’t just the amazing drawing itself, but seeing him actually at work. After that I always tried to teach drawing by demonstrating and by drawing together with students – especially in Florence. There we would all sit for hours drawing together in museums and churches. Nobody seemed to mind that we were in the way. Whole parties of tourists would come by and signal to each other to be quiet - drawers at work! The point of it was, we were not just drawing - each time there was something specific to understand, for example in a particular sculpture or piece of architecture, and the drawing method would help students to see it.

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In Norwich I wondered what my specific understanding would be in the Cathedral (to anticipate your next question)…what kinds of drawing would bring me to a deeper level of seeing. How should I draw?

I decided to just jump in with an open, loose approach to allow for something to happen. It had to be felt, in the same way I would draw a figure or a tree – not intellectually analysed, not an architectural study. I could reach out with the pencil into the spaces and stone structures and become absorbed, almost dissolved, as though I wasn’t there. In this state of mind reached only through drawing, one is in fact intensely there, at the same time it is not the same self who is thinking about lunch and tomorrow’s football match.

It helped if I allowed the pencil to move freely – now on a pillar – now dashing across a space and hitting the back wall – that kind of freedom. Losing control of the pencil point by holding it loosely at the far end also opened the gates of feeling. It was later enhanced by using wooden boards as a drawing surface instead of paper – the resistance of the hard wood made the control of the pencil point even harder. Nearly all my work for the exhibition started in moments of intensity through drawing.

Drawing changes consciousness – the actual brain frequencies. You can sense it with the children groups in the Cathedral. One time, while I was at work in the Jesus Chapel, a teacher told me that thirty tiny tots would soon be coming in to draw. They were suddenly all around me and I was just thinking that now was probably a good time to leave. But within seconds they were all fully focused and intensely drawing, so I stayed with them.

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In February I spent an entire week working at the Cathedral mostly in the Jesus Chapel. It was here that I had felt best, secure and peaceful, able to concentrate for long periods. During one session I became aware of feeling cold. It had been several hours of sitting and the weather outside was grey with a cold east wind blowing. Looking at my drawing I felt disappointed with the result. What was I doing here anyway? At that moment a shaft of sunlight shot across from a small window on the south side, across the high altar, hitting my paper. I almost jumped out of my skin! Apart from the drama of the moment, it was an insight into the theatre of this architecture, designed to produce extraordinary moments. It came right on cue.

BC
This is a real hymn to drawing! Its complement in your life as a painter is painting, is the creative process. How does the one serve the other?


RC
Drawing at the Cathedral provided the direct experience of actually being there. Working later in the studio I was able to recall not only how it looked, but also how it felt. In my studio work I tried to find a way of expressing those feelings and the ideas that they stimulated. There was obviously going to be a collision between the loose pencil drawings and my enjoyment of precision and detail in painting. Both are serving a vision, be it in different ways. To bridge the gap, as it were, I began to experiment with different materials and techniques. First came the drawings on wood, enhanced with colour and then the mixed media works – these were completely new and really only came into being because of the process documented in the workbooks. They had been a sort of missing link in my work as a whole. The body of my work is more integrated now, without being hampered by a particular personal style. I feel that I could do anything next.

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BC
How do you see your role and responsibility as an Artist in the world?


RC
The role of any artist must be to communicate a vision – and, at the same time to hold up a mirror for the viewer and show a familiar reflection in a new way – one the viewer has never seen before, but one that afterwards will never leave him or her. It is hard to imagine life without our favourite works of art or pieces of music. That is what makes creative work as an artist so demanding and such a tremendous challenge. In the days of the great 15th century artists, such as Masaccio and Fra Angelico, it was an honour to paint for the church. Here the artists reached their highest level for that particular society, touching their deepest beliefs and spiritual values. Their work was celebrated. Today it is not so clear. Gerhard Richter’s window in Cologne Cathedral may not be considered to be his greatest achievement by everyone, fabulous as it is.

The vision I try to express is based on human experience – my own experience, so both the agony and the ecstasy as I know it. It is however basically life affirming and is linked to the value of human life and our position as part of the natural world in a mind boggling universe. So I would like my work to bring a sense of hope, the value of human life and the wonder of life. These are certainly the aspects I have felt most strongly during my work at the Cathedral.


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BC
We already saw in a previous question that you live intensely – we also read between the lines in your research workbooks. Where (on earth!) do you find all your inspiration?


RC
I have always been inspired by nature, particularly Norfolk landscape, and by ancient sites, such as Avebury in Wiltshire. I have exhibited in several exhibitions connected with earth mysteries. This is what led me to the Cathedral in the first place.
It is probably part of my romantic nature – as I like paintings of ruins by artists such as John Sell Cotman and Caspar David Friedrich. Much of my inspiration comes from looking at paintings. I have already mentioned a list of artists, some being my actual teachers, others being my masters via their work.


For this exhibition I concentrated on collections in several cities such as London, Cologne, Berlin and Amsterdam, not to mention Düsseldorf, where I saw an impressive El Greco exhibition. It was important to see works by Pieter Saenredam in Amsterdam and Jan van Eyck - his Madonna in the Church in Berlin is amazing, a tiny painting. I have incorporated some of my favourite paintings onto the walls of the Cathedral. In Prayer, Study and Hospitality you can find works by Giotto, El Greco and several others around the door. My tree paintings are actually inspired by the Japanese panel painting I saw in Tokyo. The shape of the canvas is the same format as screen paintings.

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BC
Before we draw a temporary line under this interview, two more questions:
How important is reflection for you?


RC
One needs to look back on what one has made in order to understand and to move forward. Much of the actual work on paintings and drawing takes place quickly and intuitively – usually after long periods of just looking and reflecting. The workbook is an ideal vehicle for reflection as one can even reflect later on the reflection and pick up conversations again. I am always surprised how all the strands of the reflection fit together with research and the everyday findings from other sources – becoming one whole integrated process. Everything seemed to fall into place on this journey.

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BC
You view this exhibition, this home-work as a tremendous challenge. You have very high expectations for yourself and for your journey. What do you hope your guests, the visitors of this exhibition, will see, understand, enjoy and …take with them?


RC
I would like visitors to first and foremost enjoy looking at the works on show – to be captivated by what they can see. Communicating with viewers completes the creative cycle, so I look forward to meeting as many of them as possible and to getting feedback.

I depict some archetypal images in my work, such as the doors, windows, trees and pillars – images one finds in painting throughout history – that have symbolic meaning in many different cultures - images that can also evoke personal meaning. I have listed some in the Glossary.

I would also like to think that through this exhibition, the visitors’ own experience of the Cathedral itself could be enriched and made more intense - that the work might bring attention back to the Cathedral itself. In this way it could help contribute towards the Cathedral’s life.

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Not everything I show in my work can actually be seen in the Cathedral, as it is imagined to make the stones come alive – to express something. This includes the lettering, historical and contemporary imagery in the stone texture and works of art from my favourite artists, some of which are shown as frescoes painted on the walls. The work is about perception and feeling – about being open to experience and not standing in one’s own way.

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Richard Castons Entschlüsselung der Kathedrale von Norwich

Richard Caston hat sich die Ruhe und Zeit genommen, die es braucht, wenn man mit einem kulturgeschichtlichen Monument wie der Kathedrale von Norwich in Korrespondenz treten will, um
sich ihre bauliche, kultur- und religionshistorische Geschichte und ihr gegenwärtiges Befinden schildern zu lassen. Über Monate hinweg hat er, mit Papier, Stift und Farbe gerüstet, als Porträtist und Ghostwriter sein Gegenüber aufgesucht und dabei einen erstaunlichen Dialog in Gang gesetzt, den er - über eineinhalb Jahre hinweg - mit Zeichnungen, Aquarellen und Textnotizen, gewissermaßen als Tagebuch, dokumentiert hat.
In diesen Berichten zeigt Caston zugleich mit baulichen Perspektiven und ausgewählten Details auch die Spuren, die die Zeit auf ihnen hinterlassen hat. Die Darstellung materiell vorhandener Bausubstanz, in der sich auf vielfältige Weise Wandel der Baustile und der Raumauffassungen, Fortschritte der Bautechnik, Verfeinerungen der handwerklichen Detailgestaltung, die Kunst der Bildhauer, die Ideen der Ausgestaltung mischen, ist aber bei Caston keineswegs Historie.
Hier wird ein hinterlassenes Werk, das dem Wandel der Zeiten unterzogen war und an dem Generationen von Architekten, Künstlern und Handwerkern in Abstimmung mit ihren Auftraggebern mitgewirkt haben, in der Weise neu entdeckt, wie es heute dasteht, unter heutigem Himmel mit seinem wechselnden Licht, zwischen nachgewachsenen Bäumen und so, wie es mit dem kulturellen Bewusstsein der Moderne gesehen werden kann. Es ist die zu entdeckende Atmosphäre, es sind Stimmungen, die gleißendes Licht, tiefe Schatten und die Bewegung der Bäume vor einem massiven Hintergrund hervorrufen, die Caston mit seinen
Zeichnungen, Aquarellen und in Texten als Material für seine Gemälde festgehalten hat.
So verquickt sich die Sicht des Malers auf Bauwerk und Natur auf der Suche nach der verlorenen Zeit mit der Wahrnehmung von Stimmungen und der Entstehungsgeschichte seiner gemalten Bilder von dieser Kathedrale. Diese zeigen die Integrationskraft der Kunst, die eine Beziehung zu Dingen und Erlebnissen hervorzaubern kann, wie sie durch Worte allein niemals wiedergegeben werden könnte.


DIPL. ING. ARCHITEKT JOACHIM SCHLANDT
MÜNCHEN

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