This series is my most recent work, executed over the past six months. In a sense it is the culmination of a lifetime of over 65 years devoted to art, and I feel grateful to my Creator that he has saved the best for last.
My life in art has covered a wide span of styles, mediums, images – ranging from oils, watercolours, pastels, woodblock prints, iconography, fabric collage and tapestry, as well as digital prints. Unlike most artists, who spend a good many years arriving at a style and who then continue to refine and perfect it for the rest of their lives, something within had always pushed me to move on – as soon as I felt I had mastered a particular genre or style, it seemed necessary to keep going to the 'next hurdle'. Up until last year, when I finally arrived at this series, I often wondered about this tendency in me, of always moving on.
The series that preceded this one was called 'The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise' and in a sense it paved the way for the Magdalene series. I was already in my eighties and after a series of operations, culminating in a shoulder replacement, and then a stroke, which took away half the vision in one eye, my prospects as a painter were pretty bleak. My painting arm was relatively useless and my once skillful hand wobbled all over the place when I tried to hold a brush.
Looking over some of my unfinished paintings from past years I thought the least I could do was to try and complete them in some way so that I wouldn't leave a lot of unfinished work behind. Some of the floral watercolours were the likeliest candidates, so I began to look at them in a new way – as representing the Garden of Eden: then I could even envisage the way forward. In some cases it involved using gold leaf (which I learned as an iconographer) and collage (which I had learned in my years as a fabric appliqué artist).
The idea evolved, and when I looked for possible images for Adam and Eve, I found the perfect choice in Masaccio's Expulsion From Paradise – the two figures expressed in a powerful way the anguish of our first ancestors at being expelled into a harsh world. The series took off and I evolved a way of working using printed images of the two figures, either enlarged, or reduced, printed to paper, or tracing paper for transparency, etc. By the time I finished I had evolved a whole new way of working that didn't require a steady hand for holding a paint brush. From there it was just one step on to my last and most important body of work: 'The Search for Mary Magdalene'.
I had just finished reading a book by my friend Cynthia Bourgeault called The Meaning of Mary Magdalene – The Woman at the Heart of Christianity. Suddenly this Saint, to whom I had hardly paid any attention, except in the usual perception of her as a repentant harlot, became alive and important. Something in me sensed that her disappearance after she witnessed the resurrected Christ had left a huge gap in the Christianity which was passed down to us through the ages, a gap which is still affecting humankind.
My artistic vision was rekindled: I felt that here was a subject I could happily devote what remaining time I had left, in order to express in beautiful visual terms a message which wasn't threatening in a doctrinal way, nor provoke argument or dissent. My unique background of having mastered a variety of techniques and methods for making pictures came to the fore, and I felt well equipped for handling this theme of visualising an enigmatic figure for whom there are very few real images except a variety of post-Renaissance paintings of hyper-emotional whores in varying stages of undress. It was this image I wanted to dispel, which resulted in a series of work called 'X-Rated', showing the Magdalene surrounded by printed versions of her in that particular mode. By using modern technology I was able to find and print a variety of 'Marys' from over the ages and use them through the medium of collage.
I began to explore other themes – those of her first sighting of Christ after the Resurrection (in a group of pictures called Rabbuoni), as well as the anointing of Christ's feet.
As it evolved I began to feel that these works were the target to which all my years as a painter were pointing – that all the techniques and methods I had explored formed the means by which I could best express this subject, whose importance in my life grew with each picture I made of her. More and more I felt the importance of bringing her to the forefront, where people will become aware of what they've been missing in their faith and in their lives: the presence of the feminine. And not in a strident or arrogant way, but in the realm of beauty. I once heard this expressed in the phrase 'man's beauty is his strength; woman's strength is her beauty'.
Bristol, October 2017
'The Beloved Mary Magdalene'
This final series has turned out to be the crowning achievement of Lillian's life work as an artist. It came upon her unexpectedly – from a contemplation of the role of Mary Magdalene in Christianity as well as the way she has eluded us down through the ages. She is shrouded in myth and mystery, and as a result, has been the victim of sensationalism and popularisation. But essentially, certain things about her still shine through, such as the fact that she was the first of to see the risen Christ after the crucifixion, and in that remarkable moment when she recognises him with the single word ‘Rabbouni!’ the Christian religion was born. From this event alone she has been worthy to be called ‘the Apostle to the Apostles’. Yet after the crucifixion she virtually disappears from sight, only to emerge here and there in myth and legend, where she has remained to this day.
If she does emerge, it is usually through sensational depictions of her as a repentant prostitute (a misnomer given her by Pope Gregory the Great in the seventh century, only to be revoked in 1969 by the Vatican – as an ‘error’). But the harm to her reputation had already been done.
By this time, Lillian had to rely on the medium of collage completely, since her painting hand had stopped functioning altogether. But rather than hampering her, this opened the door for the vast variety of images and range of emotions conveyed in this series. So each set of images within the series draws on a different depiction of Mary Magdalene, ranging from early iconography to Italian Renaissance through to modern times. At one point Lillian used the face from a painting by Shirley Pulido, her closest friend since art school days, whose profile of the model provided the perfect vehicle to express spirituality – a modern face rather than an image from art history. She used this over and over again.
Sometimes hands and feet came from images on the web – the hands in ‘Kenosis’ came from a painting which she found on Pinterest, which turned out to be perfect for the picture. Later, after having created the images of the washing of the feet, she began to wonder if she had pinched the work of a fellow artist, and conscience-stricken, began to search out the origins of this work. The artist turned out to be a woman living in Utah, Laurie Lisonbee. When Lillian contacted her to tell her what she had done, and asked for her permission to use the hands, Laurie immediately wrote back, ‘You are welcome to use my image! It is Jesus washing the feet of an apostle. How could I not be generous with an image of Jesus giving service!’
The series continued unabated from March to October and the images kept pouring through her. The feeling she had throughout these months was that these particular images constituted the task for which all her years as an artist were preparing her. Up to that point, she had the sense of refining her craft – gaining a broad scope and repertoire from which to draw – and finally, at the age of 85, she was ready to put together a series which she felt was needed in the world of today. A world in which the absence of the beloved Mary Magdalene has left its mark in a world ravaged by crises in gender identity, the vulgarisation of sexuality, an all-time low in morality – all of which have turned our modern world into a sterile and loveless jungle. Lillian’s intention was to reveal through the images of beauty the kind of love to which humanity can aspire in order to achieve transformation.