Healing through nature and art | Xaxa Calleja and Sara Pace

We speak to artists Xaxa Calleja and Sara Pace as their exhibition, The Invisible, Visible, gets underway at The Fortress Builders Interpretation Centre in Valletta. Taking their cue from the natural world, the works were conceived during an artistic residency abroad 

Wreath by Xaxa Calleja
Wreath by Xaxa Calleja

How were the works conceived? Were they done with a particular focus in mind, or were they brought together after the fact?

Xaxa Calleja: Before going on the residency, I was thinking about studying mandalas and the circular aspect to life. Unfortunately before going on the residency I suffered from a major family tragedy. 

Although I did manage to keep the same framework of the mandala, the squared circle, the works that I produced were very much part of an initial healing process. At the beginning I was a finding it hard to concentrate and used nature and its forms to guide me in my work.

I literally used bits of leaves and other organic materials that I picked up on walks as props to get me to start creating. I knew that I wanted to explore certain emotions that I was feeling at the time. Towards the end of the residency I was able to tap into these emotions and my works became more abstracted and the main focus became the emotion that I was exploring. 

Sara Pace: The works were conceived after a series of talks with my mentor, Dr Timothy Emelyn Jones, at the Burren College of Art, where we discussed the twelve ways of seeing such as the Gaze, the Scrutiny, the Scan and the Glimpse. This idea of the various ways of noting our surroundings effected my thoughts towards the way we, as artists, look at our surroundings, absorb them and re-present them in a new format through our unique perspective.

I started the works by walking in various opposing ambiences such as the wide open space of the Burren in Co. Clare by the Atlantic Ocean and then exploring the enclosed space of the limestone cave at Doolin, countered by the semi-open space of the hawthorn forest by the College and noting the Pleiades in the dark, crystal clear night sky permitted by the lack of light pollution on the Burren. 

The exploration of these very different elements away from the general humdrum of life back home allowed me to reflect, and pick up objects which are generally thought of as being of little or no consequence.

The thought that we allow that which is too small to pass us by without reflecting on its significance in the scheme of life weighed heavily on my mind. It also ran parallel with how we tend to treat our surrounding nature in Malta, where unless its put to human use, some think of it as being useless, dirty or unsightly. 

What would you say is the connecting thread between your works, and how do your respective artistic styles align in this exhibition?

Xaxa Calleja: I started to see Sara’s works while I was in London at the residency. I could see that Sara was also looking to nature as her main source of inspiration. Sara was also going through a transition at that time in her life and I could feel it coming out through her works.  I felt that we were both searching for something intangible and trying to capture it in the work that we produced.

I think the fact that both of us felt that it was the right time to work outside of Malta is also a connection between us. We were both exploring parts of ourselves that we could not do in Malta - being away from here meant time to focus completely on the work. I think that our work complements each other, that Sara’s works are a personalised exploration of the natural world. I also used nature and my surroundings to help me through some of my grief. 

Sara Pace: The works conducted during a residency are part of a soul-searching experience where the artist immerses themselves into their work without any other preoccupations or responsibilities. Thus, once one has had this experience and put such effort into the creation of these works it is only understandable that we would wish to exhibit the works, particularly in our own local artistic environment.

The connection stemmed primarily from the fact that we were both away from Malta on a residency program at the same time and for the same amount of time. While abroad we both noted each other’s work at a similar moment through our posting of the ongoing work on social media and realised that we had a commonality in thought and execution, although this may not be immediately visible.

It was interesting for us to consider that we were working on a similar level even though we had not been recently in contact. We could both see that there were artistic parallels taking place in the work we were separately producing, both in the media being used, particularly in the sketching phase, the freedom of line in the design and the use of the circle within a square shape, which is also reflective of mandala meditation.

Like many artists, you draw inspiration from the natural world. How would you describe your particular approach to it?

Xaxa Calleja: I let myself be drawn to any source of inspiration from the natural world, be it a leaf, a flower, or even an image that I came across. I don’t question the source of inspiration once I have it in my hands – I study it and sometimes you can see a direct link between the source and my works. In other cases, when the source of inspiration may not be so obvious, I may the use the source as my guide and the work my take on a different shape or form. 

Sara Pace: I am a traveller who collects natural objects on my journeys. I do a lot of walking and tend to look at the ground more than in front of me, searching with my eyes, reading what others have left behind and what the nature of the space has to tell. I must admit that walking out into quasi-virgin nature excites my eyes far more than the city landscape.

I aim to take up natural objects that do not detract from the natural ambience of the place, but which give me a sense of connection with the place I have been to. For example on the Burren itself it is illegal to move any of the stones from their natural resting place.

When I was doing my performative act on the Burren, I was also looking for an area that had plenty of small stones available for me to slip the drawing paper under to keep the paper down from the blowing wind. I ensured that none of the stones where moved from their original position or where marked in any way with my presence. ‘Leave no trace’ is a motto I abide by. 

What do you make of the local visual arts scene? What would you change about it? 

Xaxa Calleja: I would change the separation that I sometimes feel between the different arts and specifically within the visual arts scene. While I was on the residency, I was with a number of artists who had a completely different arts background.

I ended up having a lot of intriguing conversations and comments from the artists who were completely different to me and I realised that I underestimated the importance of spending time with other artists. I think that the visual arts scene is still very much divided into cliques and you tend to see the same artists working together. I think that this is a pity as you sometimes need to take a risk on a different artist or curator to discover something new about yourself. 

Abrostola Aderis Adscita by Sara Pace
Abrostola Aderis Adscita by Sara Pace

Sara Pace: I believe that the scene is growing and there are several new artists on the scene who are striving to bring in a breath of fresh air into Maltese art. Yes, there are still many areas where one needs to improve, such as a need for a space to exhibit contemporary art in, to recognise contemporary artists and to encourage free discussion, which may bring about further change. We do need the support of our elders and working in tandem would mean that the local scene could grow further. 

It is of no use to any of us to work separately or to have various groups all believing to be better than the other. We need to accept our differences and see where we can meet each other, namely in the passion of creating and garnering knowledge. After all, we have the responsibility to reflect our times and are the ones who will in turn pass on our knowledge to the younger generation.

An educator by profession, I believe that we need to give more prominence to exhibitions, bringing in noted artworks from the past and from the present, both from abroad and locally, as only this will encourage visits to galleries and museum spaces. 

Yes, the general populace needs to be educated, and it can only be educated by giving it what it already knows compared to what it doesn’t know for it to reach its own conclusions. The Maltese have started to travel a lot in the past few years, but very few of them visit exhibitions, galleries and other cultural events.

This is an impression I draw from my own travels, discussions with my peers and from watching the way society reacts to art and culture in general. Thus the way to draw people in is to make these spaces more available, more popular and advertised and less like artists’ ‘bastions’ –one would not want to fall into the pit of kitsch but that is the thin line that artists and curators have to traverse together to be able to talk to the community.

The Invisible, Visible will remain on display at The Fortress Builders Interpretation Centre, Valletta until March 30. More information: https://www.facebook.com/events/1703746323174117/