A Conversation Between Christine Sullivan and Marianne Gagnier
This conversational exchange between artists Christine Sullivan and Marianne Gagnier was catalyzed by artist and writer Paul D’Agostino. He encouraged them to engage in dialogue with one another upon noting that they had both produced new bodies of work, right around the same time, featuring bird imagery. Taking this as impetus for a fertile discussion, Marianne and Christine decided to interview one another regarding themes of journeys and migration, and they discovered a number of surprising points of connection in their lives.
Christine: Set the stage, Marianne. What led you to the birds?
Marianne: Bird imagery appeared in my work after I moved from an urban to a rural setting for the second time in my life. The bird forms were not planned, but emerged out of the process of painting. I was certainly aware that birds are cross-culturally potent symbols, and I had always watched birds carefully. And how could they not represent something big about freedom to us and appear as magical intermediaries? Ultimately, I did not resolve those paintings, probably because I was too uncertain about what the birds meant. I felt stuck on the image. Later, I wound up writing informally about birds that I observed, and projecting my inner life onto them.
Christine: How so? Were there certain birds you projected onto like that? Because of certain traits?
Marianne: Yes, to some extent. Here are a few examples:
I lay down with thoughts of lions in my mind. The October sun, slanting, mild, and angled from feet to head. A jay squawked loudly and I startled, a primitive fear. A black vulture sailed serenely above us both in the implacable sky, paying us no attention.
Alien eye. Yellow eye. Ultraviolet hyper vision.
Independence and singularity. Stealth. Thanatos. No struggle. Pure appetite. No qualms.
Shy, so seldom seen. Quick to hide. Golden morning, all plants gone to seed, a bright blue flock laces slowly through the weeds and beaten trees. We hold our breath. They move slowly on, not hurried.
Christine: Oh, these are lovely. So poetic. I can really feel how the birds were a path to guide you through your internal struggles. Did this also help you in the studio?
Marianne: Yes. At that time, the writing even carried more feeling than the paintings. I just had to accept that. It showed me something, although writing for me feels like the opposite of painting, perhaps an outlet or antidote. Later, I started a group of paintings based on the Sufi masterpiece, “Conference of the Birds,” by Attar of Nishapur. I continued to use an improvisational working method, incorporating collaged pieces of canvas that I shifted around on the studio floor and tacked to the paintings. I identified the paintings with chapters of the poem after their completion. The poem describes a difficult and dangerous spiritual quest by a group of birds. The endpoint is a mystical unity of the self with the universe, the idea being that separateness of the self is an illusion. It’s the kind of masterwork that transcends its time and place.
Christine: Those birds and their epic journey! What a good exercise. So many times when we are struggling in the studio, it helps to find a book and a good place to sit and ponder life’s meaning.
Marianne: Yes. But eventually, I could not stick in a premeditated way with the poem and the bird imagery. The paintings moved more towards evoked images of vectors or maps. I see that better in retrospect, of course. I’m sure you can relate to the idea that creative work has to start in an unconscious place to touch eventually on any force of truth. Sometimes we just have to allow ourselves to let it wind up in mystery as well. And, no surprise, this is one of great themes of “The Conference of the Birds.”
Christine: So I’m guessing these were the works Paul responded to?
Marianne: That’s right. But how about you? I know that you got involved with bird imagery at around the same time, and with writing as well. How did the “Language of the Birds” paintings come about?
Christine: It was a concept I’d been thinking about for a very long time, mostly for a potential book of poetry or possibly a memoir. When the pandemic hit, it was like the world was holding its breath. For me, as for many, nature quickly became even more of a place of comfort than usual. In the morning I’d be sitting out back with my husband having coffee, and we’d notice how the birds were very active, almost like they were playing with us. We watched and, for some reason, talked about people who were sick and dying. Such a curious juxtaposition. At the same time, I joined Michael David’s Yellow Chair Salon workshop. Painters from all over the country came together online to connect, and to share and discuss works, and we’d have these wonderful critiques with visiting artists and critics. I pushed myself into the studio and started writing, drawing, and really connecting my thoughts about the birds with my practice. One day, I was right in the midst of a new landscape when I shot up and grabbed a paint stick and started drawing over the painting, and the birds just seemed to appear, like they were helping me connect on a deeper level with myself. I was the bird looking out, seeking. This was when I had my first critique with Paul, which marked a new turning point for me.
Marianne: And what did you turn to?
Christine: I began really putting myself out there, right on the canvas. For the first time, I lifted the lid and started navigating the dark stuff. The deeper thoughts, all those questions about life. At the same time, I learned that my best friend Lori, a fellow painter, was in hospice dying of breast cancer. This hit me really hard. I was thinking a lot about her, about death, about the next journey, so to speak. It consumed me in the studio. I think this is when I really started to trust myself, my voice.
Marianne: The bird paintings were really a breakthrough for you, it seems.
Christine: Absolutely. A breakthrough and, often, a way out of the darkness. And what about you? Where did the birds take you?
Marianne: Mainly, I’d say they left me thinking about what it meant to have spent that time with them. I don’t think any experiences are lost, ideally, but get carried forward. Bird forms sometimes still appear in my paintings, simply as directional forces or traces. Massive change and migration are part of what we all face now. I don’t discount the present state of the world. But currently, in my work, imagery is subsumed into atmosphere – an atmosphere of feeling, perhaps. My experience of nature, awe, now coexists with a sharper awareness of its precariousness. Along with my formal concerns as a painter, I feel like I am also trying to reconcile disappearance, and even grief, with the present. I have always had an interest in fabric, and its historic associations with women’s creative work. A tension arises between the actual materials and where they have to go. I am always looking for the transformation, an experience of ‘seeing through’. I’m seeking transparency, in a certain sense, or a language to something beyond depiction.
Christine: Sure, somewhere else, some other realm we enter while working. I feel that too. And I’ve learned that grief is really a universal connection point, especially these days. The whole world was grieving, and still is in many ways. Looking back, I feel so fortunate to have found an online group of fellow painters to connect with. It helped me process what was going on. At first I was drawing from old family photographs to help comfort me after hearing about Lori. Then, since I couldn’t visit her yet, I started to send her small flower paintings to give us something to talk about besides her health.
After I visited with her, I went deeper and was painting portraits to express how I was feeling, how I imagined she was feeling. And all these doors started to open.
Marianne: What was behind the ‘doors’? Where do you see yourself headed now?
Christine: Funny, I’m still wondering that myself. Behind the doors, I suppose it’s pretty simple. It’s me. And I’m so much more aware, now that Lori has passed, and after moving from Indiana to North Carolina, about the time I have left. I think about what’s really important. I have a new studio, and I’m just now starting to get back to a regular practice. I don’t want to say I’m moving on, necessarily, but I’m definitely moving forward. The birds here are very active, and I’m listening and thinking more about what’s next on so many levels.
Marianne: It’s remarkable that for both of us the bird imagery functioned as a bridge. In a way, the birds fulfilled their traditional symbolic work as otherworldly messengers. They appeared, then fostered changes in our work, and then this whole exchange. Our many points of connection include mapping, the experience of nature, and coming to terms with loss.
Christine: Yes! The birds led us to many common discoveries. That’s a lovely way of summing it all up.
Marianne: Thanks. It really has been great for me to reflect and have this dialogue with you.
Christine: Likewise. It’s so helpful to talk to another painter, and to a fellow bird lover.
Marianne and Christine would like to thank Paul D’Agostino and Art Spiel publisher Etty Yaniv for fostering this exchange.