Getting to grips with a mystic

Veteran painter Damian Ebejer speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about his latest exhibition, The Seven Mansions, currently on display at Il-Hagar: Heart of Gozo. The discussion takes a rich turn – hardly surprising, given that the set of paintings forming part of this latest collection are inspired by the titular Seven Mansions of St Teresa of Avila – a cornerstone of Christian mystical writing

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
11 May 2016, 9:26am
Damian Ebejer
Damian Ebejer
She treads though the Veils of Night
She treads though the Veils of Night
Alphabet of Desire
Alphabet of Desire
Stillness of the Cliffs
Stillness of the Cliffs
St Teresa of Avila’s The Seven Mansions

Part of my Edge of Distance exhibition is dedicated to St Teresa of Avila’s masterpiece in spiritual literature, the Interior Castle, also known as The Seven Mansions and The Mansions. I had been thinking about producing this set of paintings for quite a few years but it was not easy to find the right location. I think what set it all off was after I had seen Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa in Rome. I began reading about her and her literary works, I obtained Spanish and mainstream films regarding the life she led. I found that in contemporary culture St Teresa is usually associated with the ecstasy phenomenon and all this falls sadly short of her reality. I was always amazed when I thought about this saint, who lived over 500 years ago, during the Spanish inquisition, where women were not very much looked up to. She became a leading reformer, travelling around a very barren and troubled Spain, opening one convent after another. She was a visionary and through her faith she regularly challenged the hierarchy of the church, including the Pope. So it was in this climate that she wrote the Interior Castle (1577).

From ‘visions’ to canvas

I had initially wanted to paint my interpretation of The Seven Mansions on huge 6 metre (18 feet) canvases, but logistically this was proving difficult to actualize, so against my wishes I had to shelvethis project. Then last summer as I was visiting Gozo, I happened to take a look inside il-Hagar – Heart of Gozo Museum in Pjazza San Gorg, Victoria. I had a reasonable body of finalised work which I had been working on for the past year or so and I was considering exhibiting. I immediately liked the venue. I then discovered they had a separate room further inside and that’s when the penny dropped. I decided to rekindle The Seven Mansions project with the difference that the works would be smaller. The end result was that I settled to paint on 2.10 metre (7 feet) free hanging canvases, similar to a tapestry. So the idea was that I would hang my paintings in the main area of the venue and utilize the other room solely for St Teresa’s Mansions. I immediately made enquires and very soon I had the date confirmed for the Edge of Distance exhibition. I purposely wanted to have both my abstract and surrealist works exhibited with The Seven Mansions, although I will confess that I am not exactly sure why. But that’s what I decided.

Mulling it over

I started work on The Seven Mansions in the middle of last November. The research I had already gone through and the ideas for most of The Mansions were quite set in my mind so that saved a lot of time; although I must confess that in two or three of The Mansions I had to do some hard re-thinking and certain primary ideas got changed. I wanted to create a set of contemporary paintings with imagery reflecting the connection of what was written 500 years ago with meaning for life in today’s world. The context is timeless. To help the viewer I will be placing short explanations beside each of The Mansions, just a hint basically; so that everyone can then make their own interpretation.

Scaling back the flamboyance

In the main area I have hung 12 of my paintings which, together with my curator Joe Philippe Abela, I chose from works I produced between 2014 and 2016. The paintings in this Edge of Distance exhibition vary from abstract, abstract impressionist, organic art, surrealist and colour field art. The last painting I made for this expo was ‘She passes through the Veils of Night’ and I have a feeling that it could be indicative of what might be coming out in the near future, but I never really know. I think if I had to compare this collection with works from my previous 11 solo exhibitions I would say that my use of flamboyant colour has lessened, and experimenting with the colour field approach has been worthwhile. I have used flat monochromic colour in some of the work to express in a manner I have never done before. Naturally there is always the strong sense of drama and movement, but the approach is different. The strength in the work is still there – I have kept it alive. Do I prefer my paintings this way? All I can say is that at every step of the way, since 1994 when I held my first expo at the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta, I was content with what I had done. Each event was always meaningful to me. They are like springboards, one leads to another…

Many helping hands

The Edge of Distance exhibition is also different because this time I have reached out for guidance and assistance; namely Joe Philippe Abela as curator who has given me good advice when it was truly needed. I also, for a change, took note of the intuitive guidance of my close mentor Tania Muscat during the period I worked on the exhibits. I must mention Pamela Baldacchino who took care of the editing of a 16-page catalogue I have printed for the event. And last but not least, Laner Cassar, who very kindly visited my studio several times and wrote an essay regarding the works in the Edge of Distance. This essay will be available at the exhibition. Being a bit of a solitary person in my art I have always done everything myself so I was curious when I involved other people and I must say it really does help…as long as they are not around when I’m working.

 

Night and day

In a way I have a strange approach to what I do. I am in the studio almost daily. Things have changed a bit; a few years ago I was more of a night owl, working through the night and resting during the day. Now it’s the opposite. I prefer starting early in the morning especially since I now have a very well-lit studio. At night I might tackle detail or prepare canvases or colours for the morning, but the initial start of a painting usually happens in daylight. I never really know what I will be painting when I start, it’s a kind of emotion, I get the feel for a certain colour and approach and build from that. Instinctively I know when the painting starts taking shape and it sort of takes over for a while, then I bring it into what I feel it needs to be. I have tried reasoning how and why I have done the work that I’ve done but I cannot find a logical explanation. It’s a strange feeling when a painting starts coming together; time does not exist and nothing is really important at that moment, except the work. Naturally there are as many times when the painting just doesn’t ‘happen’. When this is the case I just have to stop at it and let it go because it has shown me that it will never be. Do I get upset when this happens? Not really, I usually learn from it; the paintings always teach me something, usually about myself…

 

The future is different and strange

At the moment I am already thinking of things to do and paint in the near future. One mini-project I have in mind is a collection of pen and ink drawings which I intend to present next November. I might also add two or three small canvases with an approach I haven’t tried before. This will act as, what I call, a disciplinary exercise, where I detach myself from my larger abstract work and attempt something different. I had done a similar exercise in the summer of 2014 with a collection of 15 small landscape type works. I find it ‘healthy’ for my overall artistic output. But my main project for the future is something really different and… strange. But first the exercise! 

 

The Seven Mansions will remain on display until May 28. Opening hours at Il-Hagar: Heart of Gozo are 09:00 – 17:00

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...