Spiritual serenity and John Lee Hooker

Fran Osborne, Chapel of the Cimes, Oakland, California. 2013

A typical view through the chambers and rooms of the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. Designed by Julia Morgan in the 1920s.

I love the idea of blues legend John Lee Hooker (August 22, 1917–June 21, 2001) resting in peace at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, as his music floats gently through the labyrinth of rooms and spaces in this extraordinary resting place.

By any measure this building reveals much about our attitudes to death and the afterlife here in the west. Functioning as a crematorium and columbarium, (a public place for the storage of cinerary urns containing ashes from a cremation), there are summer solstice jazz concerts  every year, and I’m sure John Lee Hooker approves.

Julia Morgan’s brilliance

Built in the early 20th century, and designed by California’s notable female architect Julia Morgan, photos or sketches cannot easily capture the intricacies of its architecture and layout, nor the silent peace and tranquility of its special atmosphere. The spaces are rooms within rooms, often with gardens and fountains. There are beautiful vistas, colorful wall tiles and textual inscriptions everywhere. Stained glass and mosaics pepper the moorish and medieval inspired interior, while steps up and down may remind the visitor of an M. C. Escher drawing.

Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland, designed by Julia Morgan

Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland, designed by Julia Morgan

Within each ‘room’ is a grid of enclosures with bronze-framed glass doors, housing an abundance of every size and style of dignified and restrained funerary vessel one could imagine. Each enclosure has two bronze rings for holding flower vases (provided). There are containers in the shape of books and buildings, elaborate greek and roman inspired urns, simple containers, large ones, small ones, plain and decorated. Most are engraved with the names and dates of the lost loved one, and very rarely, here and there, a small framed photo will remind us all that we are only here for a very brief time.

Angel, Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland

Angel, Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland

The angel as a point of departure

Painting there with my buddies several times over the last few months has had quite an impact on my work, and I’ve been busily engaged in a whole range of paintings inspired by a plain and simple angel statue of bare molded concrete with beautiful turquoise and gold mosaic wings. Normally I would shy away from anything to do with angels but something about the shape and decoration of this one kept drawing me in. After sketching it a few times from different viewpoints, a simple rendition of the scene seemed completely inadequate. The angel as an ancient and mysterious symbol, and all that it represents seemed to require paintings that incorporated more feeling, passion and abstraction.

Angel, watercolor, pastel, sumi ink, Fran Osborne, 2013.

Angel Peter

The mixed media sketch I’ve called Angel Peter (because it reminds me of Pete Townsend) began life as a watercolor, with several layers of pastel and ink added at different times. None of this seemed to be working either because the image was far too literal and illustrative. At least, the ‘angel’ was a useful point of no return, and suggested digging deeper and taking more risks.

I decided to detach from my usual approach and began using Sumi ink in bold strokes, applied directly onto recycled canvases. I like rescuing old canvases and re-purposing them because the previous owners leave traces that are useful, and I like working on things that have been blemished or thrown away. By some strange coincidence, my husband came home with five he’d found on the street that morning and I greedily snatched them from him and quickly covered them in gesso. I had some large unprimed boards that I also wanted to use and an assortment of small and medium sized canvases of varying ages and quality, as well as an old board that had been nailed to cover the broken glass in our front door by previous owners.

Work in progress, March 2013, Sumi ink on canvas and board, with oil paint, Fran Osborne

Work in progress, Sumi ink, oil paint on canvas

As I worked, I knew that I wanted to make bold strokes that were quite repetitive, emphatic and deliberate and that this was expressing a familiar basic urge to ‘make marks’ on something, anything and everything, using strong pigment and a simple tool. The repetitive strokes were satisfying to make and while some paintings became notional landscapes others are clearly related to feathers and wings.

Recently, I’ve been reading about some of the rituals performed for clearing space of any stale, lingering or ‘dead’ energy. I decided to have a ceremony in my studio, and set fire to a whole load of redundant old notes and scribblings. I realized that not only was I clearing the energy in my studio but that I could use the ash in my paintings in some way.

Work in progress, Sumi ink, oil paint and ash on reclaimed board

Work in progress, Sumi ink, oil paint and ash on reclaimed board

The ash linked back in a very direct way to the purpose of a Columbarium, although this link was not immediately obvious because I was still struggling to express  the intangible responses I’d felt at the Chapel of the Chimes. All of this work was done in quite a rush of play and focus.  I started to paint over the bold sumi ink marks with oil paint and rubbed the ash into some areas, smearing the sooty residue over the surface. A few are left in their black and white raw state. All this is still very much work in progress, and these are fuzzy snaps from my phone. I’ll post more when they are complete.

The painting below does seem to be complete. Elements of native American Culture have crept into this one, and the text is a phrase from a Cherokee syllabary I bought in a thrift store a few years ago.

Get into the Water

Get into the Water

My hubby and I have been thinking about walking the pilrim route to Santiago de Compostella, not for religious reasons but because it seems like a wonderful way to explore Spain and have a great adventure. There are a growing number of people walking the missions here in California and maybe my visit to this incredible and unusual building has been a gateway to a deeper, inner journey. I also came across the work of local scholar Kayleen Asbo whose work centers on myth, music, and art, and readers might enjoy her webinar on ‘Life as a Pilgrimage’.

Now I’m seeing physical representations of angels everywhere. Here is a window from local store ‘Tail of the Yak’ spotted yesterday. Fascinating where a visit to sketch can take you isn’t it?

Angel seen in Elmwood store window

Angel seen in Elmwood store window

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6 thoughts on “Spiritual serenity and John Lee Hooker

  1. Hi Fran,

    I woke up around 4:00 am and turned on Sandy’s I-pad and I’m glad I did. At first I thought, “We’ll … This is both weird and neat. I didn’t know anything about John Lee Hooker and the columbarium ( in fact I didn’t know what one was) but now I do but I had recently learned that the cemetery grounds had been designed by Frederick Law Olmstead.

    As I read I was amused that you tend to shy away from angels. Mary tried to shy away (wonderful phrase) from Gabriel and see what happened to her. One good thing that happened is that we now have all these fascinating paintings about the annunciation including now your Angel Peter which is splendid and haunting. Did you know that Hunter has been fascinated with cherubs for years and draws them wherever he comes upon them. I myself am about to embark on a “Panis Angelicus” journey and work on a series of encaustics where I reflect on the Japanese children at the Catholic orphanage that was ground zero at Hiroshima who were instantly vaporized and whose ashes rose in the atomic winds and became the bread of angels and merged with the body of Christ -an unlikely undertaking for someone who is neither Christian nor Catholic but who believes that to do this well i must suspend disbelief. I sense you did that with Angel Peter and that accounts for its sense of sacredness.

    This is all strange and wondrous stuff that you got me thinking about early this morning.

    It is now 5:02 am and I should try to sleep while thinking about your description of how art can lead us on pilgrimages that help us repurpose ourselves.

    Good night.

    Pat Sent from my iPad

    • Pat, so glad you enjoyed the post – I think you compelled me to get it finished and published somehow and am so looking forward to seeing what you do with your encaustic project.

  2. Fran, love this post! Yes, the Chapel of the Chimes is a gorgeous place! I also love the artwork! I had no idea about John lee Hooker, such inspiring information!

    • Many thanks Nancy! I find myself telling everyone about the place, amazing that some people have lived here for years and never been. It definitely has something special going on.

    • Thanks for the heads up. I always prefer the less walked parts of life and now feel even more determined to do it.

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