“Our obligation toward [the land] then becomes simple: to approach it with an uncalculating mind, with an attitude of regard. To try to sense the range and variety of its expression – its weather and colors and animals. To intend from the beginning to preserve some of the mystery within as a kind of wisdom to be experienced, not questioned. And to be alert for its openings, for that moment when something sacred reveals itself within the mundane, and you know the land knows you are there”. Barry Lopez Arctic Dreams, p. 228

The paintings in this exhibition did not come about easily. After the year we’ve all had, I imagined creating a comforting and uplifting group of paintings, but those intermediaries who inspire me – raptors, horses, foxes, wild lands and creatures – had other ideas. I thought they were about one thing, and they wanted something else. Struggling to discern the theme, I began to question whether I’d have anything to say. Why did I choose this title, Mysterium, or Barry Lopez’s quote?

I am not a Latin scholar, nor a philosopher, but I had a pervasively Catholic upbringing. Not all of it was good. My introduction to the concept of mystery came at a young age in Catholic school. The priests and nuns always seemed to be talking about mysteries – those church teachings beyond our ability to comprehend. They often answered questions with a definitive, ‘It’s a mystery’. It made a deep impression, to imagine that there were things that could be felt and even named, yet not understood. There seemed to be an abundance of mysteries, but in my child’s mind what mattered was the security of knowing I didn’t have to try to figure it out, because some things just weren’t knowable. But as I grew older, being told by the priests and nuns that something was a mystery seemed a convenient way to avoid talking about reality.

This exhibition’s title comes from remnants of these childhood memories, and is connected to who I am now, someone who believes in sacred mysteries. These mysteries aren’t taught. They are, as Lopez suggests, “a kind of wisdom to be experienced”. It helps me to try to understand through other ways of knowing – through observation, listening, and being attentive in the process.

I believe that making or viewing a work of art can change us for the better by touching what we feel but don’t fully understand, which leads to connection, empathy and hope. I don’t have to know, for example, why I was moved to paint a fox in the middle of a stormy sea. What you see in this group of paintings is how we – those intermediaries and I – managed to work it out, which may be one way to help the land know we are there. It has helped me. There is more darkness and uncertainty. It might be an opening for the sacred.

In gratitude for Barry Lopez.

Bethany Rowland
July 2021