Secret transactions with God in prayer have life-changing consequences. Within worship and prayer, sorrow can be turned to joy, worry to peace. Alison Thistlethwaite’s paintings aim to capture some of this process in paint. Her paintings are not just depictions, or recollections, of encounters with God through the Spirit. They are themselves painted in encounter with God, much like the prayers of any one of us, but in physical form.
Alison comes from both an art and music background. Her art training specialised in colour, and her music training (for voice and music therapy) had a strong emphasis on improvisation. Sung worship is also very important to her. With abstract paintings these different streams combine. She hopes that these paintings for Lent, Easter and Pentecost will encourage personal encounters with Christ.
Ali Thistlethwaite lives in Gloucestershire and this is her second exhibition at the cathedral. We spoke with Ali to find out more about her as an artist, what the exhibition means to her, and what she hopes people will discover as they explore it.
How did you get into your art?
I have always been surrounded by artistic people. I began painting when I was very young, watching my grandfather illustrating children’s storybooks. Later on, I really enjoyed art at school and decided I’d like to go to art school, and I went to St. Albans to do a foundation course.
We had a teacher there who taught absolutely brilliantly about colour and that really inspired me with the relationships of one colour to another. I did that course just for a year before going to work in London, doing all sorts of different jobs. Whilst there I was given singing lessons by someone who was one of the top people, and I enjoyed it so much that I ended up doing a music degree at what was called Cambridge Tech in those days. When I got there, the course was brilliant, and we had a teacher doing art history there as part of our course, which was a surprise. As time went by I realised I was missing art, although I still loved music. It’s all been a combination of art and music.
After a while I decided I’d do music therapy, and went to the Guildhall School of Music to get trained. Part of the training was in improvisation, which I really took to. Imagination and spontaneity became a big part of me. I had various jobs in music therapy, but then after three years I was exhausted and longing to do art again.
Art began to re-establish itself at a rather special event. Whilst in London I went to the doctor for some reason and I asked him whether you can get miserable if you’re in the wrong job, and he handed me a verse of scripture from Philippians, which said:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.
It’s such a lovely verse. I went back to my digs and I picked a flower from my landlady’s garden and painted it. As I did, I had a powerful experience of God’s presence and peace with me. Fairly soon I resigned from my job and went to back to Cambridge, and painted, and painted, and painted. With a part time music therapy job I was able to do lots of watercolour, painting flowers, and landscapes in the hills around where I was living.
I soon met David, now my husband, and it was so great to meet another artistic person in church, and that’s how it all began.
Has being immersed in art and music helped you as a person?
It has helped. Initially because of music. When I became a Christian in 1976 it changed my life massively. Of course, suddenly there were all these Christian worship songs that I hadn’t sung, as I’d come from a fairly anti-Christian background. These helped enormously in the way I am as a person. Probably the three things that really helped were the Bible, praise songs and then making paintings –which are worship paintings in a way, as I often sing while I’m painting. I certainly start off with a song when in the art studio anyway! All three things strongly connect with me and are special. Also I find the physical work of painting, the need to make pictorial choices, and the opportunity to rectify things that I’m not happy with, are all very good for me and restoring.
You did an exhibition previously with us in late 2012 – what was that about?
That exhibition was A New Name. The title was taken from the Bible – from Isaiah – where we’re given a new name. I’ve learnt a lot of my identity from reading Isaiah; I’ve always loved that book so much.
The nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow. You will be a crown of splendour in the LORD’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate.
‘Name-calling is a bit of a feature of growing up. It’s bad enough having names attached to you, or calling other people names, but probably worse still when you attack yourself with bad names. So to be able to paint about getting a new name from God was very releasing. Incidentally, the very hospitable welcome I received from Bradford Cathedral felt like being given a new name.
What’s the story behind ‘Encounters with Jesus’?
Every painting I’ve done is something to do with my walk with God. Encounters with Jesus is how I’ve encountered him, either through the Bible or in other ways, and the ways other people encounter him; alongside the stories in the Bible and how the people there have encountered him. It’s kind of personal, but it’s also about how God’s word speaks to us.
The aspect of moving forward has always been something important and so I guess walking with Jesus, and encounters with Jesus, spark my imagination of events and places as I read. I picture myself in some of the Bible stories with Jesus speaking to me.
That can all go into a painting, and I start off the process, which then develops in unexpected ways.
What is the exhibition made up of?
Most of the paintings are acrylic on canvas (some are oils), and as I have a large studio, some can be quite big. I paint in an ‘abstract expressionist’ style. This is not because I particularly like Jackson Pollock etc. It’s more because this language is really good for conveying the kind of heaven-to- earth spiritual interactions that we cannot easily put into words or images. All the same, I am happy to use words, specifically in the picture labels, which my husband writes from my notes as a ‘way in’ to the paintings.
Did you find creating them a spiritual experience?
It was. It always has been. It takes me a while to do the paintings. Some of them have actually taken years to paint. It can be a struggle to find ‘what the painting is really trying to say’. I often go back to them, then at some point I will suddenly feel a sense of peace and will sense that it’s finished.
What do you hope people will get out of seeing your exhibition?
I hope people will be really cheered up if they need to be cheered up! Looking at paintings is such a personal thing but I hope one or two or more of the paintings will speak to them in a way that they can respond to. I’d love to hear that people have felt really encouraged and are inspired to move forward in different ways.
What is your process in creating these pieces?
Every morning I read the Bible, so sometimes what is coming from the Bible really impacts me, and there’s something there that resonates inside me. This makes me think ‘that’s what I want to paint about’. The subject of the painting then develops as it grows.
At other times I go for an early walk in the countryside. We live on a hill. The sun might be shining and certain colours will be looking stunning, and that can make me want to do a painting with those sort of colours. I will try them out and see if they are what I need. Or there may be dramatic clouds in a sunrise, giving me the desire for a big picture.
The paintings usually start with rather thin layers of colour, gradually building up to thicker gestures, until each colour is seen against the one behind.
Finally do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
I’ve been working towards this exhibition for quite a long time, all the way through 2019-20. I have kind of persisted with it day to day. The paintings I’m bringing up are mostly new but I am bringing a few earlier ones. I’m also in the middle of organising an exhibition at Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, which will probably be in August.
Ali Thistlethwaite’s exhibition Encounters with Jesus runs from Wednesday 26th February through to the 12th June at Bradford Cathedral. There will be the chance to hear from Ali and meet her at the Ash Wednesday service on Wednesday 26th February at 7pm.