“PEOPLE TRY TO get you in one,” says artist Faye Dobinson cutting cake in her Cornish garden studio surrounded by an extraordinary mix of figurative, abstract and installation work. “But you’ve got to really look at artists; we lack a vocabulary around multi-disciplinary work to describe a very normal practice… whatever presents itself you give form to… ”
Dobinson is a serious artist, full of serious play, intellectually committed to exploring ideas of journeying and place, as well as thresholds, what she calls soul thresholds and female archetypes – particularly the feminine wild, what she lovingly calls the female largesse.
She’s also very funny, and carries, like her art works, a real presence, even charisma.
“We were working class,” she continues deadpan. “We couldn’t afford work experience … But my 14-year-old self wasn’t working at Sainsbury’s. Hats off to my parents for supporting our creative endeavours… Saturday jobs were with an independent bookshop in Greenwich, surrounded by freaks and brilliant nutters –people who walked their own paths. And that’s where I began.”
Born in south London (Dad was a butcher, mum worked for the LEA), like Tracey Emin before her she uses these biographical milestones, chronicling and examining life.
In actual fact the week we meet – and it says something about her own largesse and generosity – she is deep in grief from a close friend passing and of course in Dobinson’s extraordinary openness and questing,this private process generously becomes part of the conversation, a private experience examined for the greater good.
“It’s an incredible time at the moment…” she says. “I want to chronicle this incredible time – of thresholds – to ask myself questions and see where I go. The Quakers say let your life speak, and that’s what I’m doing, letting my life speak…. So I need to be quiet and let bits of me fall away…”
Her conversation is resonant, spirited, meaningful. Always honest – “I’m a feeler…” – even raw, visceral. I would say full of archetypal life force too. Jung would have loved her and it’s no surprise that she is currently creating art workshops around Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s book Women Who Run with the Wolves.
I’ve come specifically to talk about the narratives between her creative and spiritual self, her spiritual biography if you like – the more shamanic side. I’ve heard Dobinson lecture at the Newlyn School of Art, where she is a senior tutor, about her recent mixed-media art exhibition The Rhythms Don’t Walk Alone, and was struck when she spoke of the intuitive, compelling process of it coming together, as if, as she likes to say, the art made itself:
“I just got out of the way…” she says. “It was as if something was channeled. My own ideas literally, got out of the way…”
Does she really feel there is a shamanic side to her art, the artist as shaman?
She closes her eyes formulating a response – something she does a lot, a delicious habit, and which, like her paintings, is quite charismatic.
“Shaman as a word…if I’m constantly tapping into emotional states and trying to give them form – if shamanism has a foot in each world – the reality of seen and unseen, pulling from one realm into another – I’m in that lineage and happy to adopt that.”
Dobinson is a true seeker and her process of art making seeks to recover meaning. She talks with depth about her interest in topography and place (she agrees a metaphor for emotional inner terrain and calls it the trope of pilgrimage). In previous exhibitions she has worked with constellations and maps; in fact during her life she has experienced real geographical flux and exchanged (and examined) one place and space for another – London for Mongolia, then Tibet, Tibet for Cornwall; this has allowed her to develop what she terms ‘a responding to space.’
This is a long running sentence for Dobinson, and of the many things to be loved immediately about a conversation with her, the way she talks about space is one of them.
In fact the sacred interpretation of space, unpacking it and giving it meaning, sits at the front of her website in the form of a quote from Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Between stimulus and response is a space,
In that space lies our ability to choose our response,
In that response lies our growth and freedom…”
As well as an artist and tutor she is celebrant and was a registrar – babies, deaths and marriages – threshold cornucopia – and she talks of “holding the space” in each setting, in the same way others might talk about holding a baby, holding a hand – again, nurturing.
She notes nothing she says is not true to herself, there is nothingthat she can’t own – and talking with her now I can’t dispute that.
I quickly get the sense talking to Dobinson that this conversation is one she’s had with the world since she was a teenager. How great a time was it, that teenage threshold period?
She explains even within the house avant-garde 90s’ scene of south London weird things were happening and that actually she was introduced to the archetypal idea of the feminine wild- ‘this innate, rootsey sense of self’ – by John O’Donahue, back then a Catholic priest but who was later to become an internationally renowned best selling author on mystical states. He was the best friend of their parish priest, (‘just this guy who suddenly appeared in Catford’) and become mentor to the Catford parish of which her mother was a keen supporter. “Now he’s considered,” says Dobinson with much amusement, “An Irish Deepak Chopra. An international, mystical author. His books sell millions. Who’d have thought it?”
After GCSEs she won a bursary at a private sixth form college and at an evening course in Chinese brushwork she met Tibetan artist Gonkar Gyatsu, a bright light from the burgeoning Tibetan arts scene in London, and part of the Tibetan diaspora. He too, like John O Donahue, was later to become internationally renowned as an artist.
She joined the newly formed Second Floor Studios and laterbegan sharing a studio with Gonkar in East London. That was all twenty years ago but talking to Dobinson there is a cellular liveliness that seems to make the past present, if not real and acute.
From the Second Floor Studios she went to Mongolia.
Originally to explore our response to topographical spaces, what actually manifested were figurative paintings and drawings, usually nude – she ended up drawing herself, such was her archetypal life-force which nurtures her artistic voice on a deep level.
She then travelled to Tibet, met Gonkar’s students, holed up in Llasa and ended up having a secret exhibition just around ‘the back of the temple’ (actually the sacred Jokhang temple, politically sensitive, the focal point of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists.)
What did the Tibetans think about it? “They were very curious about it. They were just breaking apart the thangkas, the magical numbers etc., on how to make the perfect Buddha…” and – “… they weren’t quite prepared for my self-referential nude portraits…”
Indeed the paintings from that period are thangka-like, iconic, pure in earth-colours, symbolic.
Struck by her experience with Buddhism, I ask her, probably too casually about Green Tara, the female Buddha.
She throws a hand in the air and surprises me with a fluent rendition of the Green Tara mantra:
Om Tara Tuttare Ture Swaha
“I love that woman,” she says. “I love her. And Kuan Yin, god have a go…”
It turns out even long before Mongolia and Tibet were a glint in her eye, at 19 years old a girlfriend had bought her a Green Tara retreat at the Kadampa Meditiation Retreat in the Lake District. Although just over twenty years on she still carries the book from that camp around and recites from it:
‘Compassion is the source of all in growth and wisdom, it can transform ourselves and others so that lives become radiant and light…’
Soul threshold, the feminine archetype again, and literally, the female gaze (she has an image of White Tara on her mirror at home, female gazing back) – “It’s that positive roots-ey energy of the Tara – when you call her she’s there… Like Kuanyin – the Chinese boddhivista of compassion, the female Buddha…”
Would she say she’s a Buddhist?
“Buddhism like Catholicism… has a lot of bell and whistles… but I say the Heart Sutra every day…” – and repeats it:
gate gate paragate
paraasamgate Bodhi svaha
“… and I read it to my friend as she was dying…”
She pauses thoughtfully. “Mind you it’s very abstract – form differs not from emptiness, emptiness differs not from form, emptiness itself is form and so to us…“
Titles, chants, words resonate throughout our conversation (‘Have you listened to the podcasts of spiritual activist Marianne Williamson?’ ‘You’ve seen the Pavilion of Shamans on Artsy, right?’ ‘You should read Neil Klotz, the rewriting of Blessed are the Poor, so incredible and felt more real, authentic…’ ‘You know John Blofeld on the sacred language of mantras?’); and one of the many surprises is that Dobinson, under the political alias Fayedid, has an entirely funky line in tee-shirt design using an ‘art and the word’ motif – provocative hand-drawn printed slogans – Kindness is Radical Love your Sisters Keep Human Never Give Up Don’t be a Dick– all autobiographical motifs which could be easily applied for Dobinson’s ethical, political and spiritual coda.
We are back to Rhythms.
Through the room where she has given me cake, lies another room where some of the works from Rhythms rest after their exhibition at Circle Contemporary gallery. Dobinson is already planning that the collection should go on, grow, evolve – she has written to the Horniman Museum asking if she could work with their voudo collection.
Her themes all meet in this most recent collection, and in fact they meet literally – a lot of her old drawing work from Mongolia and Tibet (what she calls works on paper or found work) is reused, recycled, used afresh – even consumed, aesthetically and spiritually. Rhythms centres around ideas of threshold and she says, “…on reflection it was because I’m ageing, my mother is ageing and my daughter is coming of age…”
Inspired loosely by voudou spiritual culture (how the anthropologist would love Dobinson) the paintings and sculptural works gathered themselves around Dobinson, in almost magical, mysterious and yes potentially shamanic fashion (as indeed she has defined it, “pulling from one realm into the other…’’ – a perfect description, I wonder, of inspiration?).
In putting the exhibition together she found herself surrounded by stuff. Old drawings and paintings from Tibet and Mongolia, past threshold costumes – her mother’s discarded wedding dress, her wool christening shawl – the ghosts of thresholds past – then, a sexy totemic red pair of stiletto shoes used in a previous exhibition Drawing Down the Feminine – and compulsively, slowly, put the mannequins together, fashioning them on spirits – called Lwa – to create a holding space for priestesses and priests. It is Separation Lwa that wears her mother discarded wedding dress; a hip-swinging entirely convincing Fetish Lwa wears her woollen christening shawl. Interspersed with earth-colour abstract figurative portraits with titles Dance Like You Mean It, Sea Soul, and a beautiful pure soft-cotton assemblage, cotton strips hung on a branch with the simple title Soul Armour.
This assemblage process and the making of it was, she says, at once compelling, and chaotic. She was on autopilot. Old drawings and sketches from Mongolia and Tibet were re-used, stuffed automatically into worn nylon tights, she notes the repetitive delving process was an interesting and metaphor in itself. These stretched, stuffed nylon sheathes mix with shredded paper and cotton rag to make up striking exaggerated, abstract assemblages, that are proud, provocative, nurturing (and nurtured) with energy and integrity.
And all this, or in all this – the ritual participation, what she loves to call the trope of pilgrimage – the inner emotional terrain – all this Dobinson owns.
Her work is authentic and honest, autobiographical and possibly because it filters (and literally echoes her life – the chapters or thresholds in her life) it does make her difficult to define, especially with the more day-tripping St Ives tourists and casual art voyeurs. It is totally relevant to her conversation that the exhibition was filmed for online access to be viewed quite as realistically as a gallery goer.
Dobinson did this originally so that another of her friends who was sick at the time might be able to partake of the exhibition. That says a lot about her – owning the space, sharing the space within and sharing it out.
Other strange, exciting influences are occurring. A recent commission resulted in working with painting in response to music – beautiful vibrant abstracts – and a fabulous portrait yellow, gold and orange of Nina Simone which felt once more like it was given (again she says, “I just got out of the way…”)
As I leave her she becomes philosophical once more about this threshold period of her life, her daughter growing up, friends dying… “These grief experiences teach you,’’ she says, “Walking the walk…leaning in, surrender, don’t run… a chance to examine it…”
Acknowledging the wild…
And I suddenly realise that Dobinson’s life is her art – the feminine archetype, the female largesse – she had said earlier she didn’t want to disappear into single motherhood and out of that fierce ambition came a fine art degree in Falmouth where she smashed a first.
But the map making by this fierce feminine requires no masculine; always part of a tribe – her mentoring at Newlyn School of Art, her participatory ritual work, her collaborative curating – essentially she travels alone, motherhood alone, ambition alone – I wonder that this feminine engine, a female powerhouse whose deep psycho-spiritual life is necessary to enhance, reveal and translate the female.
And I’m struck again how much women need women like Faye Dobinson, need the inner spiritual life as aesthetically interpreted by a philosopher-artist, curating the ontological, fast-talking, wolf-running, a psycho-spiritual map-maker of the realms of female abstract spirit.
Try fitting that on a tee shirt.
NOVEMBER 2018 Sophie Lévy Burton MONK