Over the months that Ian McKinnon produced the Parish House Series, I received regular correspondence from him – hasty emails describing the process of painting, along with the latest parish news; images of the work; and once, a pair of photographs taken as the morning light fell through the stained glass windows of St. Paul’s church, landing in coloured patches on the pews.
The paintings in this exhibition were created in an attic studio across the street from St. Paul’s Anglican Church, a space that was provided to McKinnon as part of an artist’s residency offered by the parish. So, to call this body of work ‘The Parish House Series’ is simply to acknowledge the conditions of its creation. But there’s more.
As the series developed, it came to reflect the rhythms, relationships, themes, and spaces that delineate McKinnon’s life within the community of faith – a life of artistic endeavor and engaged Christian practice. Occasional subtitles indicate lines of scripture or moments in the church year that insinuated themselves into McKinnon’s process of artmaking, but these paintings are never illustrative or didactic. Rather, they are like the stains of colour pressed upon the wood of church pews when light passes through stained glass: sources may be discerned, but the beauty and mystery of these impressions transcend a simple account of origins.
The current series represents McKinnon’s return to painting after a period of working in graphite on paper. Through drawing, McKinnon developed an approach to artmaking that is both contemplative and disciplined. Pencil in hand, he would scratch repeated marks across the page until images began to emerge, inviting – even enticing – him to examine the interior space from which memories, dreams, and associations arose, even as the outward forms took shape at his fingertips. At the outset of the Parish House Series, the artist transposed this method from graphite into oil paint. He set parameters on brush size and palette, using paint straight from the tube and layering small marks across the canvas or wood, building up a dense hatch of pure colours and vibration.
In this approach, the completion of a work is, of course, not simply when the surface is covered, but when the relationships between colours and marks resolve into a coherent whole. This calls for the careful attention of the artist, who is both held ‘on course’ by the parameters of the process, and perfectly free at every moment to respond by varying or expanding those parameters in order to bring a work to its proper conclusion.
Surveying the entire series, we may identify several key works in which there is a substantive shift in the artist’s method – and its outcome. Often, these changes are signaled by subtitles – ‘transfiguration;’
‘kingdom/dawning;’ ‘full of grace’ – as if new vision and language have been given simultaneously to the artist. That the subtitles often bear religious overtones is not incidental. In the midst of a disciplined, even methodical, practice the artist is overcome by grace – unexpected, as grace always is – in the form of breakthrough, revelation, and insight.
This dynamic of discipline and grace finds a parallel in the religious life. Many religious communities – in mountaintop monasteries or urban parish churches – have as their mainstay practices of prayer in which adherents repeat familiar words and gestures in a familiar pattern, day after day. Larger patterns – cycles of sacred reading, seasonal hymns or psalms – give a shape to the seasons that is gradually internalized through years of repeated practice. So much repetition may seem perilous to creativity but paradoxically, it’s the discipline itself – simply showing up to do the practice – that brings the religious practitioner within reach of previously unimagined territories of understanding, insight, and experience. And sometimes, on a day ordinary in every way, the practitioner tumbles headlong over the border between the familiar and the undiscovered. Words known by rote suddenly seize the heart with their significance. The sounds and shapes of a familiar place are suddenly filled with light.
To experience these breathless moments is extraordinary, but to capture and communicate them is a true gift. McKinnon’s paintings are a record of dedicated practice, yet embedded within them are the imprints of the ineffable; the traces of holy speech and holy freedom visited upon the artist as he gave himself to the discipline of painting.
In the later paintings of The Parish House Series, McKinnon’s markmaking is looser, his paint more fluid, and his colours more melodious. His correspondence at this time was likewise more exuberant as he described moments of surprise in the studio, moments when joy and gratitude overcame him and he staggered through the grace of it all. Now, by bringing the series together in this exhibition, McKinnon invites us to follow his steps and perhaps, to find ourselves washed in a most unexpected light.
Nicole Uzans, January 2016
Nicole Uzans received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Ottawa in 2000. For several years, she maintained a studio practice and was involved in Community Arts initiatives in Ottawa. In 2013, she was ordained in the Anglican Church and now lives and works as a priest on the north shore of Nova Scotia.