Painter Michael Cook’s creative challenge

It was a simple act of kindness and generosity from one friend to another. A gift of a small blank leatherbound book to an man about to become artist-in-residence at a monastery.

Nothing unremarkable would have come of it had Michael Cook not chosen to use it as a sketchbook for words instead of drawings.

For the seven weeks he lived at the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield, Michael recorded his thoughts, moods, doubts and longings in the journal, resulting in a unique insight into his creative process and his relationship with faith.

The written work so moved those who read excerpts at Michael’s residency exhibition that a book was suggested. 

Reaching Towards is being published this month to coincide with a second exhibition of the residency work in the artist’s own Manger Gallery at King’s Newton, near Melbourne.

Michael specialises in atmospheric dream-like works of the imagination, personal interpretations of traditional Christian themes, and they are often melancholy and contemplative.

It is no wonder that when he asked to be considered for the residency he was chosen by the Brethren, and no surprise that the drawings and paintings he produced while he was there from August to October last year have a strong narrative.

“I had the idea of doing work around the raising of Lazarus a few weeks before I left. I had produced a couple of paintings on the theme in the past and I wanted to use the exciting, if not a little daunting, opportunity I had to do that,” said Michael.

At the monastery, which is in the heart of the Pennines between Huddersfield and Leeds, Michael was given two rooms, and was able to join the Brothers and visitors on retreat for meals and prayer.

At first he found the very fixed routine dispiriting; he was homesick and lonely but as the first week past he settled in to the rhythm of the day.

“The rigidity of the meals and worship meant a regular pattern to the day, which I was not used to. It would have been unheard of at home – so often my painting used to get squeezed in here and there. I might have gone for a walk done a bit of painting and then some office stuff before getting around to more painting – or maybe not,” Michael confessed.

“At Mirfield I had no choice. I had to fit in. I realise now that I worked better that way, and when I start painting again I am aiming to work in one solid block in the morning. 

“It will allow me to see my progress and spot any wrong directions I am taking,” he explained. 

“I am not yet entirely sure what my time at the monastery has meant, and I think it will probably be a while before I do, but one of the most important things I took away from the experience was the many amazing people I met; most quite ordinary, a few extraordinary – all reminding me of the wonder of people.”

  • Reaching Towards – charcoal drawings, acrylic and oil pastel paintings on the theme of the raising of Lazarus, plus extracts from a journal kept during the residency can be seen at The Manger Gallery from February 7-April 24. There will also be ceramics by Anne Bates. 

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