Each month one of the art.earth Board of Directors selects an artist from the membership because they are particularly taken with their work. This month our Featured Artist is Tom Baskeyfield selected by Mat Osmond.
Darkness holds its special power and its special attraction. God likes a no-place, a no-where, and the soul wants to commune with God there.
The Tao is through and through mysterious and dark.
There is one thing: above, it supports Heaven; below, it upholds Earth. It is black like lacquer, always actively functioning.
Alan Watts (and unknown Zen practitioner)
In the quietness of night, I look out into the vast darkness of the universe with awe. In the spaces between drystones in a wall I am drawn with similar wonder. And in the rock faces of quarried galleries I am often brought to a standstill with reverence. It is in these brief statements that I have found the core of my practice over recent years.
We live in dark times, but without darkness we would not know light. My work is a meditation on this, I have come to realise. In both a literal and figurative sense, evoked through the use of graphite, gold leaf, black earth pigment and black printmakers paper, I have sought to create images that contrast light and dark, luminosity and absorption, body and void. These images are clear in their form, it appears to me, they are physical, effected by light, they hold a ground, but the esoteric nature of their meanings is what compels me to pursue them.
These works are contemplation on our relationship to Earth, through its crust: stone. They are also a quiet, gentle nod, eyes slowing closing, to the absolute. Initially place and industry centred, my practice has expanded into philosophical enquiries, aspects of quantum physics, and spirituality. Through the works I am thinking about the wonders of the universe expressed in such forms as a gritstone scalping, a shard of slate, or a breath of gold leaf, and sit with these in the openness of questions around the ‘always actively functioning’ mysterious dark.
Tell us a little about yourself
I hold a BA in painting from Manchester Metropolitan University and an MA in art and environment from Falmouth University (formally University College Falmouth, as it was when I was there). For over a decade my practice has been focussed on relationship to place through the lens of stone. Presently, and in recent years, questions around spirituality and interconnectivity, particularly in relation to matter, specifically stone, have been my main concern.
I am a father and husband, a brother, son, step-son, and uncle, and until a summer past, a grandson. I was born in Manchester on the first of October 1979. I grew up on the eastern edge of Cheshire, in the foothills of the Peak District, amongst the tired legacy of the silk industry. Before moving to Somerset four years ago, the north west of England had been my home for much of my life.
I am mainly of Scottish and Dutch decent, but my father was adopted and my Dutch grandfather settled in Manchester after the Second World War, so these threads bare more strongly as ideas of origin, as whispers in my body and mind, than anything tangible that I can clearly label as my identity. Why is this relevant? This sense of origin beyond the immediate kept me from feeling bound to my hometown, conjuring, over my life-time, a discomfort around that place, yet in turn forcing a need to work directly with it, which I did through my project with Mario Popham: Shaped by Stone – Strata to Streets.
In recent years, brought to the foreground by my move to Somerset, I have come to understand this feeling of discomfort as a strange sense of displacement, which has lead me to ponder what we inherit of – what I’ll call here, “place-sensitivity” – from our ancestors. I dare say that this has driven my interests in place and Earth connection over the years.
Contrary to what you might think from the quotes cited above, I am not a Christian nor a Taoist either, but here in my 43rd year of life I live, I have come to acknowledge, as a “spiritual drifter”, unable to settle on a truth that speaks of “all” but quite ravenously hungry to find a “way” in our spiritually malnourished contemporary culture. Perhaps being raised without direct-religion, my family weren’t church-goers, I don’t have the resources to fall in and be immersed. I am held back by a secular prejudice, perhaps. I feel Thomas Berry, the wonderfully wise geologian, was right however in his analysis of the west, that all though one may not have been raised directly as a Christian, we have been raised in a Christian culture. I have found this an interesting truth to ponder. I ponder it still, and find some comfort in it, but I’m not entirely sure why.I have heard Paul Kingsnorth speak of the ecological crisis as a spiritual crisis, he is not the only one of course, but he springs to mind in this moment. This is a truth as I see it and that a love for Earth, and of all life, and a recognition of oneself as being part of Earth and cosmos, not separate from it, is a recognition of the magical creativity of the universe which we might recognise as manifest in us as spirit or soul. An ineffable energy that we all share.
What are you working on at the moment?
A couple of years ago I made rubbings of stone fragments in black Somerset Paper, seeking to capture the stone as a debossed impression. A year or so ago I gave these works the title Dark(ening) Matter Brightly. (A nod to dark matter, and also, a nod to Zen Koans. How can something be dark and bright at the same time? I liked how the titled rolled around in my mind. I still do.) This year I have been working into the initial grouping of pieces with gold leaf, and made more as themes emerged and relationships developed. The pieces in their initial form were interesting to me, but it wasn’t until I watched Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev that they took on a deeper meaning. It was through this film that I came to consider these works as something akin to a religious icon – a secular icon, perhaps, if such a thing can exist. The film sparked off in me a period of research into religious icons and more generally the spiritual in art.
In addition to the above, recently I revisited the work entitled Death of Stories (Mortuary Slab), which was made originally as part of the project Of Flesh and Stone, an extension of the Shaped by Stone project, and finished after the first lockdown in the summer of 2020. To coincide with the publication of Borrowed Time: on death dying and change I arranged to deliver my talk Death of Stories / Examples of life – originally written and presented at the conference of the same title in November 2021 – at Shatwell Farm in Somerset. I hadn’t actually exhibited Death of Stories (Mortuary Slab) before. The event happened in the afternoon of the 5th of November. Wet and blustery outside, we congregated in an old grain silo where I talked about my personal relationship to death, creativity and spirituality through the form of the rubbing of a mortuary slab of Welsh slate. I found it a very moving experience reacquainting myself with the slab and my words a full year on, a full turn of the spiral, and to share the work with the people who came out that afternoon. The event provided to be a catalyst for conversations around death, dying and change, ripples of which still spread through my consciousness.
Are there any particular people or ideas that influence your work?
To follow on in the path of Death of Stories, I became very interested in the words of Stephen Jenkinson whilst preparing for the event. I am moved by his frankness in relation to what he identifies as our “death-phobia” in the West. I can’t say how this feeds into my work at present, but reflecting now as I am doing, I have recognised the presence of death in my life for much of my adult years, and with this I think it has played a silent role in previous projects. To be drawn to the ground of being as I am, one can’t avoid death.
Further influences at present come from a few books that move around with me throughout the course of the day and a couple of others that sit on a shelf labelled in my mind as important.
In Meister Eckhart: A Mystic Warrior for our Time, Matthew Fox imagines Eckhart in dialogue with a number of spiritual practitioners. I have not finished the book, I have been reading it slowly and rereading passages. Currently I am with Thich Nhat Hanh and Eckhart and have been moved by the contemplation of the Apophatic Divinity, the sense that God is to be approached through negation, approached through not-knowing, approached in the dark. The quote cited at the beginning of this piece comes from this chapter. Alongside this I am slowly reading Original Thinking by Glenn Aparicio Parry. Parry’s main thesis is an exploration of the relationships between contemporary scientific thought and Indigenous American wisdom. I am drawn to the notions of non-linear time and the spirit of matter. Complimentary to this I have off and on over the past three years or so been reading Freya Matthews’ For Love of Matter. Here Matthews’ is making the case for Panpsychism, a philosophical position that assumes that consciousness goes all the way down, that all (Pan) is soul (Psyche). I cannot proclaim to have a deep grasp of the complex philosophical arguments around panpsychism, but the basic gist rings true to me. Alongside this reading I enjoy listening to podcasts by Rupert Sheldrake, especially his commentary on panpsychism and spirituality, and just this past week I have been listening to Where the Heart Beats by Kay Larson, a book I read some years ago, which is a biography of John Cage, which features many wonderful insights into is forays into Zen Buddhism. The openness of these experiences for Cage are very inspiring to become aware of.