Spirituality has impacted the visual arts in significant ways over the course of human history, manifesting in a variety of materials and forms. The idea of incorporating spiri-tual influences into works of art is at the foundation of the development of non-figurative abstraction, of an art that makes no direct, immediately discernible reference to recognizable objects. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky — the artist credited with creating the first purely abstract work of art in the early years of the twentieth century — speaks of art as emerging from the inner necessity of the soul and defines the function of the artist according to spiritual goals. He states: “In many ways art is similar to religion.” For him, the true work of art is “a mysterious, enigmatic, and mystical creation . . . animated with a spiritual breath.”1
In our secular, cynical contemporary world of media-mediation and heightened materialism, the abstract stone sculpture of Marie Hélène Allain reaffirms the spiritual impulse as integral to the creative process, and indeed, to the very origins of art. In her conflation of the aesthetic and the spiritual, her meditative sculptural forms pose a critical challenge to a strictly formalist reading, as well as to postmodern conceptions of art as commodity, appropriation, parody, pastiche, deconstructive theory, or political tool. Against the vanishing of the sacred and loss of a sense of a deeper dimension, she offers a portal to a primal animistic vitality and multivalent symbolism linked to the transformative forces and phenomena of elemental nature. Her revelatory sculpture extends beyond the purely aesthetic to contribute to a contemporary dialogue between spiritual growth and the processes of material metamorphosis. Its tactile, three-dimensional physical presence serves to awaken the senses in an age where simulation has replaced the real thing, the world is experienced second-hand through digital imagery, and the diminishment or absence of materiality is the focus of much contemporary art.
This large-scale survey exhibition chronicles the evolution of Allain’s unique artistic journey, revealing the subtle yet profound ways the inherent physical properties and resonant poetic associations of stone have affected her creative imagination and spirituality, compelling her to give visual expression to the underlying numinosity of both her chosen sculptural material and the human experience. The installation is divided into four sections, each comprised of works representative of particular formal and expressive concerns from a particular period in the development of her sculptural language. In retrospect, many of these concerns are integrally related, and some of them tend to overlap in a weaving back and forth in time, mirroring the artist’s evolving internal experience and often coalescing in later transitional works that bridge the minimalistic clarity of form of modernist aesthetics with complex conceptual, psychological, symbolic, and metaphysical implications. Also featured in the exhibition is a presentation of the 2008 film Marie Hélène Allain: en dialogue avec la pierre, une quête spirituelle à travers l’art / Speaking with Stone, A Spiritual Quest through Art by Rodolphe Caron, co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada and Productions Appalaches.
Stone is a rich repository of historical and cultural meaning, its durability and permanence signifying divine power and the secret to eternity for many cultures. Steeped in myth, it is prima materia, or the substance of life, identified with the land and representing the dwelling place of the spirit, a source for healing, a sacred idol, a temple, a tomb, a memorial, and a symbol of the Self. Erecting a stone — a menhir — may have been the first assertive material gesture in human history. In the ancient Middle East, stone was considered a sign of God’s presence and was the locus for ritualistic practice, anointed with oil and blood, and served as an altar (Beth-El, “the house of God”). In Christianity, the water Moses obtained from stone is symbolic of the life-giving water of faith, and the apostle Simon Peter (in Greek, Petros means “rock”) represents the foundation upon which the Church is built. According to critic Adrian Stokes, “The great virtue of stone is that unlike other hard materials it seems to have a luminous life, light or soul.”2
It is not surprising then that through the timeless substance of stone — the most traditional of sculptural materials — that Allain experienced the intertwining of her two callings in life. She is both an artist and a nun of the Order of Les Religieuses de Notre-Dame-du-Sacré-Coeur. Living and working in the rural Acadian village of Sainte-Marie-de-Kent in southeastern New Brunswick, the place where she grew up, these seemingly disparate vocations have influenced, supported, and nurtured one another. In essence, both are integrally connected because they each require devout faith. In the beginning she thought she would have to choose between the two vocations, but as artist and professor Jennifer Macklem writes, “contrary to common perceptions about the strict rules of convent life, her choice to develop her talents as a professional sculptor was fully condoned in an environment that respected higher learning and professional fulfillment”; and further, “[h]er development as an artist has not been experienced in opposition, but rather as intrinsic to the spiritual or religious aspects of her life.”3
Allain’s sculptures are not illustrative of theological insights held by the Church, but are records of her personal spiritual growth over many years, providing witness to and concrete testimony of her enduring faith. For her, the act of creating sculpture serves as a meditative prayer, requiring time and physical labour and involving an incremental nurturance of creative imagination inspired by the formative processes of nature. She states, “I rarely get down on my knees to pray, but I pray all the time with my work.”4 Her personal spiritual pilgrimage is grounded in a deep belief in the transformative effects of art for encountering the numinous and providing a unifying centre for one’s existence. Prayer offerings that take the form of several small rocks (cailloux) are an important component of Autel d’offrandes (Offerings’ Altar), 2001, which was inspired by her participation in 1998 in a four-week religious retreat in Miguasha, Quebec. She states: “My sculpture is religious because it expresses elements of life, the greatest gift that God has given me to ‘know him, love him and serve him,’ as my little catechism would tell me; what could be more religious? The St. Josephs, the sacred hearts, the dehumanized virgins, they don’t connect us to God.”5
Although stone sculpture carries a multi-semantic set of associations that extend back to the beginning of human history, Allain’s sculptural practice developed out of the modernist tradition. As such, it encompasses the two paths of early twentieth-century sculptural abstraction: reduction to essential and basic form by the controlled subtractive process of direct carving, extracting the sculpture from a block of stone; and building sculptural form through accumulation or additive assemblage, by joining together individual fragments or components, as exemplified by the cubist constructions of Picasso. Consistent throughout her oeuvre is a concern for the material quality of stone, for accentuating shape, tactility, and the relationship between outer appearance and internal structure, and between mass and space in the service of expressing the mysterious, underlying elemental structures that connect nature and culture.
In her formative years, between 1968 and 1971, she was inspired by the intangible forces expressed by the sculpture of Michelangelo, Henry Moore, and the Inuit of Canada’s north, by sculpture that gave the impression that it was alive or created from an energy or life force from within the confines of the stone. Work produced in the 1970s centred on biomorphic abstraction, an art of organic inspiration characterized by monolithic curved volumetric forms reminiscent of those found in nature, and recalling the simple, direct shapes of modern masters like Brancusi, Arp, Moore, Hepworth, and Noguchi. Rooted in belief in the body as a vessel imbued with divinity, she employed smoothly polished surfaces and evocative shapes in an expression of the interrelationship between sensuality and spirituality. While resolutely abstract, the fluidity of contour, corporeal suggestiveness, and undulating eroticism of works from this period, such as Untitled, 1970, Untitled, 1977, and Untitled, 1978, invoke not simply a figurative reading but an ancient, elemental correlation between the rhythms and organic forms of the body (both human and animal) and geomorphologic nature. These works strike a chord of recognition in us because we share an evolutionary history with the Earth and its other life forms. The artist’s acute consciousness or sense of the numinous is aligned with Moore’s observation that “there are universal shapes to which everyone is subconsciously conditioned and to which they can respond if their conscious control does not shut them off.”6
As Allain’s practice developed, she became less controlling and more open to the diverse and expressive qualities found in nature. She began to employ differentiated treatment to the stone, creating a textual contrast or tension between polished surface and the raw, rough-hewn imperfections and fractures inherent in stone that had been exposed to natural forces of erosion, and oxidization over time. Irregular in texture and shape, works such as Untitled, 1979, suggest organic objects like bone or driftwood. In La mer m’a dit . . . (The Sea Told Me . . . ), 1981, the water-weathered surface of rock is intrinsic to the work, the artist’s carving subtly integrated with the natural qualities of the stone. As archetypal projections of creation in nature, these works are deeply resonant of time’s passage, of the evolutionary and transformational effects of the elements’ forces on the landscape, of ancient memory contained in matter — a spiritualized essence or continuity of consciousness in the natural world.
Rather than serving as a representation or imitation of nature, Allain’s sculptures may be read as a collaboration with, or recreation of, the act of creation in nature, as unique new forms embodying the enigma of origins, the mysteries of the source of being, attuning us to the phenomena of purposefulness found in the heart of every stone and in every molecule of creation. The same elemental forces that have left traces or imprints in stone have also shaped human life and destiny, as vividly suggested by the human and animal tracks embedded in Co-op limitée (Limited Co-op), 2000. Allied to primeval processes in both conception and structure, the artist’s work appears to be in a state of embryonic growth and renewal, defying a sense of permanence typically associated with stone. Allain states: “Stone can create new life as it reverts back to sand, soil and humus, and it can create new life through the many symbols it evokes as it is transformed and, I hope, through the force of its symbolism in a work of art.”7
Through employment of the fragment, as represented by Untitled, 1979, a concept in art that extends back to Rodin and was used by many modern sculptors (Bourdelle, Maillol, Matisse, Brancusi, Arp), Allain provides space for open-ended interpretation and for viewers to discern the idea of a larger whole, or of her work being part of something greater. Since the beginning of her sculptural practice, she often combined two components in a single work, such as in Untitled, 1972, and L’Entre-deux (The Interspace), 1981, as well as in Éveil (Awakening), 1985, the large, iconic nine-tonne limestone sculpture commissioned by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, establishing a formal visual relationship between forms and between negative and positive space, which symbolically expresses the dialogical nature of life. Behind the creation of her two-part works is the attempt to provide an experience for the viewer that transcends visual appreciation to serve as a source of reflection on qualities of symbiosis, exchange, interaction, communication, and connectedness.
Over the years, Allain has continually expanded her personal vision through a dedicated regenerative exploration of sculptural possibilities. After considering the plinth as an intrinsic part of a work, as in Comme un poisson hors de l’eau (Like a Fish out of Water), 1986-1992, and No. 99, 1989, she consciously moved away from carving monolithic forms from blocks of stone and turned to assemblage sculpture, combining various worked-on and pre-existing stones with other materials, such as rusted iron, copper wire, bronze, and wood. By broadening her concept of sculpture and sculptural materials, by the late 1980s she had moved well beyond the idea of singular form as the distinguishing characteristic of a work to the concept of sculpture as comprised of a diversity of detached components, or an amalgam of materials and objects that interact together to produce a reverberation of associational and poetic meaning. Merging material and concept in works that transcend their disparate parts, she expresses personal ideas about the generative processes of nature in relation to the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the human condition. Concerned with introspective philosophical inquiry into self-identity and personal history, her sculptural assemblages involve a conscious dealing with memory that embodies an intertwining of her relationship to place, to her family and community, to her Acadian heritage, and to her spiritual calling. As a form of autobiographical self-testimony inspired by particular incidents and observations, they constitute complex symbolic analogues for lived experience, communicating universal themes and ideas distilled from an evolving conversation with life.
One of the prominent threads running throughout Allain’s thought-provoking work is an exploration of polarities, contrasts, and dialectical relationships perceived as qualities residing within her being, as well as in the patterns of nature, the meeting and co-existence of differences and the idea of the unity of opposites. Autoportrait (Self-Portrait), 1989, employs contrasting stones — dark, coarse-grained gabbro and translucent, fine-grained Italian alabaster — in an expression of the opposition within her personality that she believes she inherited from the contrasting personalities of her parents. Fort comme la vie (Life Force), 1996, is also a sculpture of contrasts, characterized by roots or branches of a tree that appear not to have been deterred by the solidity of stone, but have relentlessly survived and thrived by piercing and growing through the harder material, a natural phenomenon that the artist observed first-hand in the Jura Mountains in Europe. Offering a meditation on the tensions and fractures that reside at the intersection of self and nature, and on personal, psycho-spiritual development as a reflection of the natural world around us, Allain’s art provides a powerful lens for seeing the deep truth about ourselves as inseparable from the Earth.
The fusion of culture and nature is given compelling surreal form in works such as Pour offrir (As a Gift), 1991, and the whimsical Le cirque du Mal-Rocher (The Circus of Mal-Rocher), 1992, which combine fabricated industrial components with stone, as Allain redefines for herself the fluid field of assemblage sculpture for expressing a complex range of ideas. In her grain series, the linkage of rounded rocks with steel chain, in a manner reminiscent of prayer beads, incites contemplation of the wellspring of artistic creativity, the pure and unstoppable life force. Grain is a symbol of rebirth, a source of hope awakening from the darkness of the grave in the spring to bear fruit. In Deux grains (Two grains), 2008, a casting of the artist’s hand, a potent symbol of identity, creativity, and primordial heritage emerges from a split stone.
Invariably, as Allain felt the need to further expand her sculptural repertoire — particularly in relation to social function, communal meaning, ritual content, and memorialization — she turned to installation, viewing an exhibition of her work as an entire sculpture and fully exploring the idea of a space-within-a-space in major ensembles such as Paradoxe (Paradox), 1998, and Secrets de varnes (Secrets of Alder), 2003, which consider the physical presence of the viewer moving around and through the individual components. In these installations, Allain sensitively translates challenging and complex social, historical, cultural, and political content into experiences that are at once poetic and highly charged. Paradoxe (Paradox), 1998, juxtaposes a rusted axe blade lodged in a large split stone with a sweeping group of fourteen stone fragments fixed to a wall in a configuration suggestive of a flock of flying geese or migrating fish, a poignant memorial to the fourteen female engineering students who were murdered in the 1989 Montreal Massacre. Similarly rooted in nature-inspired imagery, Secrets de varnes (Secrets of Alder), 2003, is also a memorial, one that recalls the 1755 Expulsion of the Acadians. Described by Allain as an “evocation of the struggle and journey of life growth,”8 it comprises a forest of thirty-five alder tree-forms that appear to be growing out of solid rock and are topped with abstract shapes, bronze castings of some of her small plaster maquettes from the past. Integral to the meaning of this work is the participation of thirteen members of the artist’s community who contributed handwritten words inscribed in bronze that reference the persistent strength and resilience of the Acadian people.
An important consideration in the interpretation of contemporary art is an artist’s personal story or history. In this regard, Menhir d’une genèse (Menhir of a Genesis), 2001, which incorporates the first image Allain carved in stone — a horse’s head, is of key significance, offering special insight into the unfolding of her unique artistic sensibility and vision over time. It was natural for her to choose a horse for her first subject, since she identified with and was inspired by the animals on her father’s farm. Incidentally, but also most fittingly, the horse, as an archetypal symbol, signifies the bridge between earthly existence and the spiritual world, an inner guide or carrier of the soul connected to the natural flowing energy of the universe and the realm of higher consciousness. She provides a background account of the making and personal meaning of this work:
It came to me to express “my presence” through stones, which had been kind of witnesses of my growth or evolution, and I decided to use New Brunswick stones: the sandstone we find in our fields around my home and basalt from Dalhousie. I decided to carve a bas-relief of a horse head during the first summer of entering the Fine Art program at the École des Beaux-Arts (Université de Québec) in Montréal in 1968. Our professor suggested that we observe nature and draw during the holidays.
As I enjoyed carving in plaster, I asked my father for ordinary farm hammers and chisels and a piece of stone. Of course, I didn’t know what I was getting into, but installed myself in front of the young horse in my father’s barn, observed it for quite a long time, and began carving. Afterwards, I told my father to take the stone back to the woods because my image of the horse seemed a little stiff looking and I felt it wasn’t really a success. He honoured my request, but placed it near his sugar camp instead of back on the pile of rocks where it came from. With the passing years, this particular stone accumulated an interesting patina. In 2001, it was in my studio talking to me in a new way, evoking my predisposition for drawing and carving which lead me to the arts. It is a kind of landmark piece in my career. In 1968, without knowing it at the time, without being aware of the existence of a stone carving studio at the Fine Art school, and far from thinking that my first concentration in my university course would be “stone,” I carved my first piece as a stone sculptor. In 2001, I used the horse head in a new work, and included a horse shoe in the piece to represent the luck I had by discovering stone carving. I also included the dates 1968-2001, which appear on the other side of the stone, acknowledging my evolution as a sculptor over time.9
Over the years, Allain’s art has evolved in its own manner and at its own pace rather than following a prescribed path, bridging the false dichotomies of tradition and innovation, past and present, nature and culture, art and religion, material and spirit. Applicable to the development of her oeuvre is the Italian film director Federico Fellini’s observation that “the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.”10 As containers of memory embodying references to lived experience, cultural heritage, and geographic place, Allain’s sculptures serve as testimony to humanity’s ancestral will or strength of spirit. They function like menhirs, the large upright stones or megaliths of prehistory that stand alone or in circular groups, serving as guideposts or markers, as points of reference for navigation in a complex, changing world. Hers is a timeless expression that resonates with ancient, unconscious universal truths, functioning as a catalyst for triggering self-awareness and wonder, for bringing us back to the communicative function of art, to the resacralization of human existence, and to a reconnection with that divinity that undergirds and permeates all of reality — the numinosity of life.
by Terry Graff
Published in 2011
reproduced with the kind permission of the author
- Wassily Kandinsky quoted in Jean-Louis Ferrier, Art of Our Century: The Chronicle of Western Art, 1900 to the Present (New York: Prentice-Hall Editions, 1988), 421.
- Adrian Stokes, Stones of Rimini (New York: Schocken, 1969), 111.
- Jennifer Macklem quoted in Secrets de varnes/Secrets of Alder, Marie Hélène Allain (Sackville, NB: Owens Art Gallery, 2006), 10–11.
- Deanne Fitzpatrick (blog.hookingrugs.com), Diary Archives, October 23, 2009.
- Marie Hélène Allain quoted in Carolle Gagnon, Marie Hélène Allain: La symbolique de la pierre / The Symbolism of Stone (Moncton, NB: Éditions d’Acadie, 1994), 69.
- Herbert Read, Modern Sculpture — A Concise History (London: Thames & Hudson, 1964, 1992), 178.
- Marie Hélène Allain quoted from her Artist’s Statement in Peter J. Larocque, A Stone for You: Sculptures by Marie Hélène Allain (Saint John, NB: The New Brunswick Museum, 2000), 2.
- Marie Hélène Allain quoted in her Artist’s Statement in Secrets de varnes/Secrets of Alder, Marie Hélène Allain (Sackville, NB: Owens Art Gallery, 2006), 6.
- Statement by Marie Hélène Allain combining notes from a letter she wrote and an interview between the artist and Terry Graff.
- Federico Fellini, Atlantic (December 1965) as cited at http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Federico_Fellini.