A tall monolith, patches of lichen clinging to its sides, stands on a grassy hillside. The blue of the stone echoes the blue of distant mountains tumbling down to the sea. The purposeful shaping and lofty placement of this huge ancient stone imply its importance, not in function of supporting a roof or fencing flocks, but as a spiritual place.
“Blue Stone Standing,” a pastel by Gaal Shepherd of Pomfret, is among the 40 or so works in “Hallowed Ground: In Search of Ireland’s Unworldly Sites” at the Gallery at Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro. The solo exhibition features pastels, paintings, photographs, artifacts and installations and is accompanied by excerpts of poetry inspired by Ireland by multiple poets.
Shepherd’s work considers ancient and not-so ancient sites in Ireland — ancient stone circles, monoliths, holy wells, Celtic engravings, churchyard gravesites among them. She also touches on ongoing practices at many of them, including offerings and appeals.
“Hallowed Ground,” said Shepherd, “is a show about spirit, about inner life.” The exhibition pays, “tribute to the devotion of the faithful and its continuity from the Neolithic Erin to contemporary Ireland,” Shepherd notes in her artist’s statement.
Over 30 years ago, Shepherd first traveled to and fell in love with Ireland. Since then, beyond frequent trips, she and her husband have settled into a part-time home there in the western part of the island. From the beginning, she was captivated by the landscape. She was also drawn to the country’s Neolithic sites. An avid hiker, she has long ventured off the beaten path, armed with an Ordinance map of local accounts of sites.
“The rainbows, the holy wells, the ancient woods, the high cliffs and rolling surf all combine to make the landscape a mysterious place. Spending long days alone there leads inevitably to thoughts of wonder,” she noted.
Shepherd’s pastels and oil paintings offer glimpses and panoramas of the Irish landscape. “The Fairy Path” takes viewers to a perhaps enchanted way in a deep forest. Among the moss-covered rocks, a trail of light illuminates a way through the evergreens.
In “Out to the Skelligs,” “Magic at Healy Pass” and “Upland in Beara,” Shepherd’s treatment of the combination of the human hand on the landscape and natural form is especially compelling in her patchworks of pastures hugging the land’s rugged topography. Her medium is well suited to her subject.
“For grasses and mosses, there is nothing better than pastels,” Shepherd observed.
Shepherd’s theme of “Hallowed Ground” emerged from her experiences of Irish sites of spiritual practice. In seeking out ancient sites, she repeatedly encountered holy wells, many with obvious ongoing observances.
“After seeing so many and comparing offerings at both types of sites, a connection between them dawned on me,” she said.
“Today the lines between Neolithic totems and Christian holy sites have become blurred. Neolithic totems display offerings that contemporaries leave to honor spirits, much as offerings are made and candles lit at churches. Holy wells have handmade crosses and personal articles of people who need healing, along with a cup to drink holy water from,” Shepherd explained.
A series of 24 of Shepherd’s photographs, each one accompanied by lines of poetry, delve into the “Hallowed Ground” theme. On the ancient side, are stone circles, spiral glyphs, an enigmatic flat stone known as “Butter and Eggs” carved with a set of smooth curved depressions.
She also brings viewers to holy wells. Identified with Christian saints, these wells usually have similar offerings and accouterments — a small statue, seashells, pieces of quartz, a Hawthorne tree adorned with strips of fabric. The scraps, taken from clothing or bedding from the subject of the appeal, symbolically stand for the patient’s illness or infirmity. As the fabric disintegrates, so, perhaps, will the malady.
Excerpts from works inspired by Ireland accompany the photographs. Poets include Moya Cannon, Evan Boland, Mary Kay Rummel and Greg Delanty, a Vermonter who writes in the Irish tradition and is poet-in-residence at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester. Delanty will be speaking and reading poetry at the Highland Center July 11.
An altar installation by Shepherd brings together many elements of these spiritual sites. Two sided, its imagery and offerings relate to pre-Christian and Christian sacred sites in Ireland.
“I recommend that people stand in front of it and try to get some human feeling that perhaps came before words came,” she said.