A Quest for Mary

Joan Sullivan
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Gerald Squires shares his vision of the Virgin

Gerald Squires is an artist long fascinated with the mystical and spiritual. He has created a series devoted to St. Francis of Assisi and composed the Stations of the Cross and The Last Supper for the Mary Queen of the World Church on Topsail Road. For the past two years he has concentrated on Mary, the most famous woman in history, the most depicted women in sacred pictography. The resulting exhibition of 29 drawings and oil paintings, with one sculpture, opens today at the Emma Butler Gallery in St. John's.

The works, framed in patterned gold wood, glow on the walls. The colours are rich and warm, the paint thick, incandescent and at times worked in eddies and scratches. A few paintings have words inscribed, like a few lines from a poem by John Keats. They all show a woman: sometimes just her face, sometimes her face and figure; in simple realism, or veiled surrealism; emerging from darkness, or water, or a flurry of lilacs; draped in a plain red cloth or looming, as huge as a prophecy and substantial as ecstasy over the barrens.

Left, "This is the Hour" 2009 oil on canvas, 24x16 inches. Right top, "Birth of Venus" 2009 watercolour, 20 3/4 x 28 inches. Right bottom, ... A Woman Clothed With The Sun '1' 2009 oil on canvas, 24 X 36 inches. Submitted photos

Gerald Squires is an artist long fascinated with the mystical and spiritual. He has created a series devoted to St. Francis of Assisi and composed the Stations of the Cross and The Last Supper for the Mary Queen of the World Church on Topsail Road. For the past two years he has concentrated on Mary, the most famous woman in history, the most depicted women in sacred pictography. The resulting exhibition of 29 drawings and oil paintings, with one sculpture, opens today at the Emma Butler Gallery in St. John's.

The works, framed in patterned gold wood, glow on the walls. The colours are rich and warm, the paint thick, incandescent and at times worked in eddies and scratches. A few paintings have words inscribed, like a few lines from a poem by John Keats. They all show a woman: sometimes just her face, sometimes her face and figure; in simple realism, or veiled surrealism; emerging from darkness, or water, or a flurry of lilacs; draped in a plain red cloth or looming, as huge as a prophecy and substantial as ecstasy over the barrens.

Some of the paintings were done with a model, Emily Pound. "She's the right age," Squires said, speaking in the gallery where his show was newly installed.

"Mary would have been young, 14. And (Emily) is at that stage where she's not sure how beautiful she is."

The physical and facial features in others come from an old photograph of an Italian nun, or classic Renaissance imagery ("I borrowed from them, but didn't steal from them."). In a sense, Squires could have drawn his inspiration from anywhere, because this Mary is not ever meant to symbolize a specific person, nor do the paintings tell a particular Biblical story.

"Leonardo da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa,' to me, that's Mary. Vermeer's 'The Milk Maid' is Mary. There she is pouring milk forever, nourishing mankind forever. Frida Kahlo with all her painful portraits is Mary."

Kahlo famously painted her physical traumas, which gave her great misery, but Squires said it was not just the element of suffering which links Kahlo to Mary. "Pain is part of life, and to Kahlo that pain was a part of being alive and being human."

The title, "A Woman Clothed With The Sun," comes from Squires' reading of Revelations: Chapter 12, "And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun." Biblical scholars can interpret it this way and that. To Squires it was a poetic depiction of Mary, an archetypal and powerful figure that resists restrictive outlines, explored in an exhibit that is, fundamentally, "about light."

The pieces are descriptively titled: "Madonna of the Night," "Madonna of the Moon," "Madonna of the Flowers." The last watercolours he did are "Vision I" and "Vision II," when he began "bringing the figure into open space, and the face became less realistic and more abstract, abstracted away from nature." Visions, of course, are an inherent part of Mary's history, as people have been seeing her everywhere, even in fast food.

"People have seen her in a doughnut. But the vision in the doughnut is no less important than the vision in the side of a mountain."

Squires' egalitarianism on this theological point is well thought out. People today tend to admit religious ideas solely through an intellectual door; "if the brain doesn't accept it then it only goes so far." Early versions of Mary are rendered with a sincerity that cannot be recaptured, because our perceptions of the world, and God, have changed too much.

Still, this takes little away from Mary as a resonant and stirring model. "People are recognizant of the unconditional love, the care, the concern. That's why Mary is the most prominent figure is religious iconography, even more than Christ."

Squires next plans a series of large female nudes, taking those forms and placing them in space, or landscapes. "I've been doing landscapes the last couple of years, which I didn't start until I came back to Newfoundland. Newfoundland made me a landscape painter. But landscape painting is also spiritual. In my opinion you could fill a church with landscapes."

"A Woman Clothed With The Sun" continues at the Emma Butler Gallery until Nov. 17.

Organizations: World Church, The Sun

Geographic location: Topsail Road, St. John's, Newfoundland

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