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
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
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.
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, 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
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
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