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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Friday, May 28, 2004
    Presence in the absence
    Returning, I had for company Welsh rap-terrorist MC Mabon contemplating the question "How to define the divine - it's just not possible," with the appeal, "Find me an alibi for my existence." On the outward journey I'd been listening to a tape of Leslie Griffiths' Greenbelt 2003 talk about R.S. Thomas, another Welsh desert voice, exploring Thomas' eternal obsession, the absence of God.

    I've been in Bangor, to see the exhibition of John Meirion Morris's sculptures, Imagination: Source of Art and Religion at the University Anglican Chaplaincy. All of this - the impossibility and absence of God - is upfront in Morris's work, because he is a determined atheist. Which is astonishing because these sculptures shine with spirit.

    There's a questioning, provocative spirit, which the chaplaincy team have been bold to promote. This is evident in Rhiannon, a disturbing sculpture in which a passive young woman is giving birth to a foetal child, her legs and the baby encircled by barbed-wire and nails, evoking a crown of thorns.

    There's a spirit inspired by primitive art - in Morris's case the combination of African and Celtic influences which permeate his work, like Modron (pictured left). The 'Divine Mother' of the Celtic World, here placed enticingly on the altar, arms aloft, child (creation?) at her feet.

    There's a spirit birthed in personal grief and the illumination which comes through pain - in the pieta displayed in a tiny side chapel, a mother, her torso hollowed-out, supporting in her outstretched arms the collapsed body of her son; a work which Morris created whilst he and his wife were losing their son to illness some years ago.

    And... there's a spirit of defiant community, of rebellion and rebirth, in Tryweryn (below). Tryweryn is the name of the valley above Bala, which in 1957 Westminster's Government decreed would be flooded to make a reservoir to supply the city of Liverpool. The village of Capel Celyn was engulfed in the waters. It's become a symbol of what's perceived as a turning-point in Welsh history, when Welsh people became convinced of the need to govern their own affairs.

    What a statement, this Welsh phoenix, birdlike as so many of Morris's works are, with a chapel choir singing in its feathers. The artist says it expresses "a new Welsh era of hope and reconciliation." In the Chaplaincy there's a two-foot-high version of this sculpture. The plan is to raise the money for a 28-foot-high one with a wingspan of 24 feet to be installed on the shores of Llyn Celyn.

    Bird of Freedom

    From the darkness of an old disgrace
    And the old deep fears of our past,
    From the shadows of ruins,
    From the water's grip,
    Like a bird
    We extend, we arise,
    Our memory continuing
    To vitalise our being,
    The memory of lost freedom
    And its beautiful dignity;
    And our language too
    A breath in the breast,
    A lament and song
    In our mouths,
    A single shout in the mountains;
    Arise from the shadow
    As a heartbeat,
    A swelling breast
    To face the sun;
    From shame into the light
    And the wide sky,
    Beautiful, powerful,
    On wings of fire.

    -- Chief Bard, Ieuan Wyn