Alfred Wallis and the Driftwood Dream

So through the eyes love attains the heart:
For the eyes are the scouts of the heart,
And the eyes go reconnoitering
For what it would please the heart to possess.
Guiraut de Borneilh (1138 - c 1200AD).

A man lives and then he dies. He is at sea and then on land. He has a wife who dies. And so at the age of seventy he starts to paint. ‘For company’. He paints with oil and draws with pencil onto card. He dies in 1942, aged 87. And all in Cornwall, almost out past land.

He becomes myth, his own muttered legend, as tidal as the waters, paranoid, irascible, envisioned. Making his images for six out of every seven days, sleeping and working in the same downstairs room, as it breathes out into disrepair around him. He becomes for others ‘primitive’, becomes the magus of the wildy uncertain century, catching the ebbs and flows of fate and its wreckage in panels so condensed, so framing of huge forces that they become panoramas of implication, vistas dense with the lives lived inside their suggestive elementation.

And what are the pictures he finds of his world, finds on the shore of his mind as he looks out across his years, his place, his longing? Vessels, houses, harbours, again and again, again. Forms of shelter even if rocked, blown, skewed by storm across the page. Boats that lean into the wind like a man and his coat, headland harried. Seas of dirty snow, piled in corners, of burnt rye bread, of molten slate; seas as blue as loss, as foaming as milk carried too vigorously in a churn.

Bellaventur of Brixham Larbordoor Newfoundland Ice Burges by Alfred Wallis on First Light Gallery website

Even the houses keel and sway and climb their day like craft far out in swell. As if the land had turned to earth- and stone-skinned ocean and it was all they could do to stay standing. Life is motion, flux, not fix. A man might pass his whole times within a few tight miles; that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know the vast unpredictability of things.

He painted his feeling out into the world. So the scale and angle of the land and what it holds. How what matters is closer, of course. Fish and seafood too large for pots and nets. He understood the reason for art was not to build a house but rather a bridge, a pier perhaps, along which one could walk until one joined others or, more likely, the greater other in which, soaked and merged, one would no longer feel alone. Painting as the marine freedom to move beyond oneself. One makes what one loves with brushstrokes, lines and blur. One looks so relentlessly that it has no choice but to appear, to come out of fog or brilliant weather into sight and therefore into beating being.

Wallis, then, as animator of the end of land. Of what land is not, and therefore what it becomes in the tension. Wallis becoming himself in his room by leaving it in his art. Wallis following the moon as the light that best reveals the mercury of living.

Wallis dead. And on his gravestone, a tiny man enters the door of a great, white lighthouse. Enters the means by which the world is made. So particle and wave, the painter enters his joy. Enters God.

Gareth Evans

Penzance Harbour, Newlyn Harbour, Mousall Island, The Mount, Porthleven and Mullion near Lizard. the one Entrin the Harbour is a Revenu cutter from Penzance by Alfred Wallis on First Light Gallery website

Ships of the Soul article on Alfred Wallis by Philip Vann in Raw Vision, the magazine of ‘outsider art’.

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