Beauty for Ashes

Beauty for ashes – a strange title.

I see beauty but where are the ashes? The ashes are not on the wall – or in the work, but all around us. In our lives, on our TVs and in our memories. As humans we carry images at an emotional level. We interact with everything emotionally. This is true of your response emotionally to this work. Wow, it is beautiful.

Oil painting of a rainforest with sunlight streaming in lighting the pond in the creek golden.
Beauty for Ashes: Figures in Landscape No.5

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But this also is a human paradigm. While many birds and animals visit me at my painting sites, none of them come , stop , wonder and in their unique heads say wow, that is beautiful. For them the thought is: where is the danger and where is the food? It is only humans that climb mountains for the view, and take time out at the river to soak in the view.

So what of death and the ugly?

In the natural world, if you will allow a division between human and natural, there is a constancy of the cycle of life. Even this painting captures decay, death in the trees. Mosses and fungi live on the decay. Zoom in and I’m sure you will also see this at the macro and micro levels. As I write this we are again thrust into the horrors of war – specifically Ukraine this time. As humans we react to our own created horrors. Then wash out hands of it – passing the blame to others.

Progress painting of Beauty for Ashes

What is Beautiful?

The idea or understanding of the beautiful is an imbedded human characteristic. It is linked intimately with the other unique human characteristic creativity. It can be more precisely understood by the term aesthetic. Recent studies have shown that the aesthetic is imbedded in our genetics and incidentally has no survival value that can be attributed to in an evolutionary sense.

Aesthetics also allows us to appreciate the ugly, the chaotic and amazing moments in life.

Beauty is culturally shaped, but cultural shaping itself is an expression of this core aesthetic.

Beauty doesn’t need or have to be realistic. Abstraction also feeds this need for the aesthetic. Simplifying and reducing the complex with reductionism.

We collect beautiful things as a counterpoint to the ugly. Its why we have design. Why we appreciate a beautifully designed car, or a simple vase.


The contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton, looked at beauty as portrayed in Western art history. He attributes the purpose and function of the beautiful in art is to bring hope.

We don’t want the ugly on our walls, nor the death. While I personally love Goya’s Third of May I would not have it on lounge room wall. It remains poignant as an art work to this day. But this paintings place is rightly in the museum as a national monument to a troubled past. A memorial and a reminder.

Francisco de Goya – The Third of May 1808 – The Prado Madrid (public domain)

Beauty is the counter point to the terror as it brings hope for tomorrow. A better tomorrow. A tomorrow of peace. Again it is only humans that hope. We think ahead and plan for a better tomorrow. Without hope and a future we can only despair.


There is an ancient Text called Lamentations. It was written, approx. 600 BC, in the midst of a city that had been reduced to ashes, not unlike the city of Mariupol is right now in Ukraine. The author sitting in the ashes and ruins of his home and pours out his heart, anger and grief.

Let me quote from the beginning and end of the text.

Oh, how lonely she sits,

the city once thronged with people,

as if suddenly widowed.

Though once great among the nations,

she, the princess among provinces,

is now reduced to vassalage.

She passes her nights weeping:

the tears run down her cheeks.

Not one of all her lovers

remains to comfort her.

Her friends have all betrayed her

and become her enemies.

Lamentations 1:1-2 Jerusalem Bible Translation

Joy has vanished from out hearts;

our dancing has been turned to mourning.

The garland has vanished from our heads.

because Mount Zion is desolate:

jackals roam to and fro on it.

But you Yahweh, you remain for ever;

your throne endures from age to age.

You cannot mean to forget us for ever?

You cannot mean to abandon us for good?

Lamentations 5:15-20 Jerusalem Bible Translation

In the poem, in 154 stanzas of devastation and despair ends on a few verses of tentative hope – a grieving plea – do I dare to hope.

Why Beauty for Ashes

Like the hungry thinking of a succulent roast – dreaming of the meal I would have once I get to safety. Hope is the essence of survival. So visually we also need images of hope. It’s why we love the sunset splashed with colours, night has come but there will be dawn.

The answer to these lamentations comes in the words of the prophet in next book of the Bible, written in exile after the total defeat of this nation. Yahweh will not forget nor abandon them. He will send his Spirit – his very self –

…to comfort all who mourn,

and provide for those who grieve in Zion –

to bestow on them a crown of beauty

instead of ashes,

the oil of joy

instead of mourning,

and a garment of praise

instead of despair.

Isaiah 61:3 The New International translation.

Hope, promise and fulfilment.

I was finishing this painting as the invasion of Ukraine started.

This painting, and for that matter every painting , photo, or memory of something beautiful, has the function of providing hope. Beauty for ashes.

Beauty for Ashes -Oil painting of a rainforest with sunlight streaming in lighting the pond in the creek golden.
Beauty for Ashes: Figures in Landscape No.5

I have been fortunate to sit in this beauty day in and day out. Tasked with laying it down in paint. It is not a photograph but a distillation of all that passed in those hours, days and months of bringing this place to you. In a real way the obverse situation of the poet who sat in the ashes of his city and life. It is distilled hope. It is real beauty – I can tell you it is not faked, but seen and felt. But then it is only a mere shadow of the beauty I saw unfold before me. It is still a painting.

The name for the painting came as people responded to seeing the painting on social media. The overwhelming response was – It is beautiful. So I give you beauty for ashes – hope for despair.

Remember Ukraine

Before I leave in the morning and when I return at night my screens are also filled with the ashes of the cities of Ukraine. This rainforest has been my hope and sanity. Yes, I do have flesh and blood in the situation. My precious daughter and family live in a city in southern Poland doing the frontline work of receiving and providing for refugees.

There is only one painting – and it is still available for sale, but I want to give you the opportunity of being able to download the image in high quality to go on your computer screens as a desktop image.

When you do please remember the Ukraine, in prayers, donations and help as you are able. And remember to immerse yourself in beauty as it brings hope.

Please follow this link to this painting’s page in my gallery. Scroll to the bottom of the page for the download link and directions for installing.

Art as Therapy

I have just watched a stimulating YouTube video by Alain de Botton called ‘Art is Therapy in the Rijksmuseum’. (links at the bottom) Wow! He really made me think about my own work- how it is therapy. For me and for others. As I was watching, I glanced up at my recent work ‘Sentinels’ and was struck by the power of this lens of viewing. So this blog is an attempt to frame my recent work through the paradigm shift he describes. I will start off with the work Sentinels.

Art as Therapy for me the artist.

Silver wattles Guarding the path into the rainforest beyond
Art as Therapy – Sentinels

Sentinels – Crowds in Landscape No.2

First – stop and look. I have made the work full width -so you can immerse yourself in the painting.

Immersion - into the dark beyond - Art as Therapy.
Immerse yourself.

It is mid 2022. It has been a hard three years for everyone. COVID: isolation, withdrawal, vulnerability, not knowing the future, it looks dark and bleak. What lies beyond? It is winter. This is a winter painting. Yet one of the overriding comments people have made about this work is that one could walk into it to go down the path into this unknown. Somehow it is inviting.

There are pillars – almost pillars of light, guarding this darkness and unknown. These are the sentinels of wisdom. Yes old and moss covered, but guarding and protecting. Separating light from darkness. I could go on about the place of the Silver Wattle and its relationship with the Myrtle forest – but I have done that on the more didactic page about this painting in the gallery menu.

My struggle

As art as therapy this work functions as a primal architype of the unknown future. It is the Hansel and Gretel story. Goldilocks entering the wood off the beaten path – into the unknown. For my life, that was what last year was. Having moved from the security of employment into developing an arts practise. Not yet knowing what the pillars which will support us will be. Questions of paying for diesel, as a real metaphor of fuel for life .

The struggle with the weather – painting outside for the first time in a Tasmanian winter. Being only able to paint once or twice a week – the light restricting me to one canvas a day. The fears of the unknown – being medically vulnerable to COVID, and been physically vulnerable with a knee injury.

What were the COVID years for you? – Can you put yourself in this picture as I have done? I now realise, thanks to Alain de Botton, I did just this as I was painting it. I was painting more than what was simply before me – the work was also my therapy.

Into the Woods.

There is a whole Sondheim Musical on that title! What lurks inside? Red Riding Hood, wolves and woodcutters. We don’t like to live in deep forests much. Perhaps our cultural heritage is very happy with the woodcutters clearing paradise to put up a parking lot. With easel and assorted comforts and technical equipment I ventured between these sentinels into the woods. This first painting I did in this forest was very much to do with woodcutters.

Renew: Stump in rainforest

Renew – Figures in landscape No.4

The old woodcutter got this one. Again, stop and look.

Renew: Stump in rainforest
Immerse yourself


Open your eyes and look. Its not hard to imaging sitting there, light dappling through the trees. Leaves dancing, and ferns floating in the sunlight. Light changing, highlighting this and that. Then immersed in shadow again. Your eyes like butterflies flitting from one part of the canvas to another. Discovering newness. Unless you go into the forest, the dark foreboding forest in the previous painting, you would miss the beauty that awaits the risk takers.

Light needs darkness to see. Without the dark, without the shadows that light brings, the light will have no glory. Neither would the rainforest. It is a place of light and dark. Now imagine also the cold dampness and warming promise of heat from the sun. Imagine sitting here, fingerless gloves keeping the blood flowing to the brush. Imagine the mosquitoes who call this home. Risk bought this beauty. For me, the artist, it was forty hours of immersion, risk and benefit. Forty hours of wonder, beauty and amazement. Hours and hours of feeding my soul.

Stump of renewal

Now see the stump. Cut off at the roots – literally. A life changed, challenged. Yet this old life, the heritage of the forest feeds the new. From this root, this Root of Jesse – to use another metaphor comes new life. Comes restoration, not just renewal of the forest its canopy threatened by the axe, but renewal of life itself. Immerse yourself again.

Renew: Stump in rainforest
See life – be renewed.

More than an image of life. Imaging as I experienced the chatter of birds, the special visits I received from the Blue Fairy Wren and the wonderful Pink Robin who tried to land in my painting. Hear the sounds of the distant creek, the sounds of life, the sound of the falling tiny myrtle leaf.

Marvel as I have done that, through change comes new life. It is through hardship and struggle that perseverance is born, and perseverance develops character and character brings hope. And hope does not disappoint, for it it the seed of all life.

Take time to ponder these things.

Art is for pondering.

Also in this remnant Myrtle rainforest is found my next painting.

Immersion art as therapy Image of small sassy sassafras tree
Sassy Sassafras

Sassafras – Figure in Landscape No 39.

By now you will perceive a pattern. Yes, expect an immersion. But first let me tell you / remind you of an comment Mr Bean made in Mr Bean the Movie. He turns up at the Chicago Art Gallery – mistaken by the Gallery as an art expert. Bean is asked, what exactly he does? (he is actually one of the faceless security guards. ) His answer was profound. “I sit and look at paintings” The art elite are profoundly stuck by this. Who knew – art is for contemplation. I expect that Alain de Botton – the author of ‘Art as Therapy’ would also loved Beans reading of ‘Whistlers Mother’ at the end of the movie as well.

Immersion art as therapy Image of small sassy sassafras tree close up
Intimate closeness

This was my view, the artists view. Seated on the ground. A small, knarly, aged but stunted sassafras of very little consequence. Perhaps his teacher said he had so many flaws he wouldn’t amount to anything. In the shadow of a giant Myrtle just over my left shoulder this tree lives. Honest, eking out a living. Planted where it is. Living with the hand it has been dealt. Visually the tree forms a hand so literally and metaphorically.

What does the fact I have invested in this painting, say about me?

My aesthetic, my Therapy

I have come to realise that I have dedicated a lot of my life – particularly my professional teaching life to the disadvantaged and struggling student. I have championed the misfits and those who found school was torture. For those who don’t know I founded and pioneered two secondary schools for disadvantaged young people. It is very clear from my body of work that I paint the small and disadvantaged tree as often as I do the iconic giants. My life and artistic work is a whole, and wholesome in its consistency.

At the end of 2020 I stepped out of my educational role in one of these schools straight into this forest. And this was the first painting I chose to paint!

Now I need to stop and think on this.

Close, personal, intimate.

To be understood as to understand. Not so much to be loved but to love another. – The words of Saint Francis

– also the words used by John Michael Talbot in a song I regularly listen to on my way to paint this forest. Immersion is more than being there, it is being there. Bringing the baggage, the thoughts , even the songs, the life lived to the canvas. This is the artist.

Thanks Alain de Botton for your gift of insight and giving to me a new way into my own work. Here is the link – it an hour long talk but wow, worth the investment.