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Meet the artist: Mark Cazalet

PUBLISHED: 15:36 07 November 2016 | UPDATED: 15:36 07 November 2016

Mark Cazalet, artist in residence at Bury Cathedral for the past nine months, who’s holding an exhibition of his work.

Mark Cazalet, artist in residence at Bury Cathedral for the past nine months, who’s holding an exhibition of his work.

Tessa Allingham talks to Mark Cazalet, reflecting on his year as artist in residence at St Edmundsbury Cathedral. Images: Gregg Brown

Mark Cazalet, artist in residence at Bury Cathedral for the past nine months, whos holding an exhibition of his work.Mark Cazalet, artist in residence at Bury Cathedral for the past nine months, whos holding an exhibition of his work.

There are murmurings in the North Transept, the sound of feet scraping up stone steps to the gallery, the push of chairs against carpet, a pair of low voices, the strike of a match. Through gaps in the grey stone balustrade, it’s possible – just – to see a lit candle perched on a small round table, gently illuminating the space between the two strangers sitting opposite each other.

Then the steps and the voices fall silent. The comings and goings of church life – tourists, a choir rehearsal, a service even – continue below, but for 45 minutes the two strangers, artist and sitter, fall into a meditative silence, and stillness fills at least part of St Edmundsbury Cathedral.

Mark Cazalet, artist in residence at Bury Cathedral for the past nine months, who’s holding an exhibition of his work.Mark Cazalet, artist in residence at Bury Cathedral for the past nine months, who’s holding an exhibition of his work.

Mark Cazalet this month shows in full the fruits of an extraordinary nine-month artistic residency at the Cathedral. His project, A Great Cloud of Witnesses, has resulted in 153 portraits, painted in a makeshift studio in the North Transept, that reflect the faces of ordinary people as they meditate or pray in silence. He openly brings his own faith into his art, but it’s a conviction he wears lightly.

“I met Frankie [Ward, dean of St Edmundsbury] when she commissioned me to paint a portrait of her and her husband, and we came up with the idea of this residency. We wanted to capture something of the mystery of silence and the power of prayer and to bring a contemporary voice to the building.”

Mark Cazalet, artist in residence at Bury Cathedral for the past nine months, who’s holding an exhibition of his work.Mark Cazalet, artist in residence at Bury Cathedral for the past nine months, who’s holding an exhibition of his work.

Mark’s work certainly does that. His style is spontaneous and natural, more an observation – he uses the word “distillation” – than elaborate, detailed working, and the panels are often riotously colourful.

“I wanted to try and capture the divine spark in a person’s character rather than paint a traditional likeness.” How better to do that, he argues, than to paint a person in deep prayer or meditation, uncluttered by everyday worries.

Mark Cazalet, artist in residence at Bury Cathedral for the past nine months, whos holding an exhibition of his work.Mark Cazalet, artist in residence at Bury Cathedral for the past nine months, whos holding an exhibition of his work.

“I first asked the sitter to choose which background colour they like [the options, painted on panels of identical size, are propped up on pews] and two colours from my paintbox that appeal to them at that moment, that reflect how they are feeling. That’s harder than you might think – it took ages for some people to decide!”

He then encouraged them to meditate, or pray in silence, just the two of them, the flickering candle and an empty chair, the latter a symbol, Mark explains, that we are never alone.

Mark Cazalet, artist in residence at Bury Cathedral for the past nine months, who’s holding an exhibition of his work.Mark Cazalet, artist in residence at Bury Cathedral for the past nine months, who’s holding an exhibition of his work.

“I tried to explain the importance of being deeply silent, and of not letting the brain throw up concerns. I tried to get the sitter to breathe slowly, keep a mantra going in their head, and maybe to go in their mind to a peaceful place. One person retraced the path he took on a recent pilgrimage to Santiago.”

Mark’s portraits capture the sitter’s face in its rawest, truest form, not the prepared version posed at the right angle, the hair just so that we prefer to present. “We don’t keep the pictures of ourselves that we don’t like, do we! We like the ones where we’re smiling, looking good and are in control. Quite often, people have been shocked when they’ve seen their portrait – is that really me? they ask – and their partner might say, yes that is you, that’s what you really look like. Some didn’t like it at all. Letting go is very hard and when that happens, features can sag, people look older, sometimes quite grim.”

We walk round the portraits. They are dynamic and compelling – it’s surprising given that most people have their eyes shut or, if open, fixed on a distant point (he leaves that up to the individual). Mark remembers every encounter in detail, can relate individual’s stories, remember their moods though he insists he is in no way equipped to respond with anything more than a listening ear.

“Most of them I had never set eyes on till they came up the steps. All I would have was a name; I never knew what to expect. Some were deeply sad, some joyful, some had mental health issues, some were lonely, some curious, some came as couples, some found the experience deeply moving, one person giggled throughout – that was difficult!” He found young people with unlined, beautiful faces the hardest to capture. Far easier, he says, to capture an older, maybe bearded face, one grooved with life.

“I had a couple who came as a preparation for their wedding. I thought that was lovely. Another American couple came along as a way of marking the start of their new life in Bury St Edmunds, and I was delighted to work with a number of clients from Focus 12 [the rehabilitation centre in Bury St Edmunds] at the end of their treatment process.”

The life-size panels are hung round the walls of the Cathedral in the order they were painted. Mark likes the fact that one of the Focus 12 portraits hangs next to that of a local theologian; it supports, he says, the notion that the project is intended to create another layer of congregation and to reflect ordinary people from all walks of Bury life. The trigger, he explains, was two-fold: in part it tracks back to Fra Angelico’s vast 15th century altarpiece, painted for the Convent of San Domenico in Fiesole near Florence, that depicts a host of saints, angels and prophets praising God, and in part to the quilts made from scraps of fabric by the women of Gee’s Bend, a poor African-American community in rural Alabama. Both are works of praise in their own way, he explains, the women of Gee’s Bend claiming their quilts, often stitched to a background soundtrack of gospel songs and hymns, are a creative way of giving thanks for their God-given talents.

With his Suffolk residency over, Mark will return to city life. He teaches at the Royal Drawing School in Shoreditch and at Bristol University, as well as undertaking commissions, most with an ecclesiastical theme, in a variety of media. This residency has been exciting, but tiring.

“In my normal work I am in control. With this, I’ve never known who would walk up the steps, and that has made it emotionally exhausting. I’ve had to be spontaneous, work in a tight timeframe, not been able to fudge anything – everything has had to be done in the 45-minute slot, bar minor workings. That’s quite an ask.” He runs his hands through his hair, looks round the extraordinarily ordinary ‘congregation’ he has created, before climbing the steps to meet his penultimate sitter, a man called Jim.

To see more of Mark Cazalet’s work, go to www.markcazalet.co.uk. Mark’s Great Cloud of Witnesses portraits will be launched in St Edmundsbury Cathedral on November 4, accompanied with a day conference titled In God’s Gaze. Until December 4, sitters have exclusive right to buy their own painting. The remaining paintings are on sale from December 4 until the show closes on February 4. www.stedscathedral.co.uk

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