Since my 'first language' is a visual one, through my drawing and artwork, the written word presents an interesting challenge in attempting to honestly define my thoughts.

It is the relentless pointlessness of many aspects of contemporary materialistic life which exhausts us all. Without a radical spiritual re-appraisal of the fundamental question ''Why am I doing this? '' life's direction really can cease to have meaning for millions of people. I believe that the spiritual dimension gives a true meaning to human life, and especially to my work as an artist.

Art which does not have a spiritual basis can easily become flights of fancy, decoration, expressions of a personal ego, or a purely commercial activity: for me such art is often meaningless in the context of the history of the visual arts.

ROCK CLIMBING on a single grain of sand : Michael O' Donnell

This essay that I wrote in 2005 sets out to begin to define the underlying principles and thinking for my work as an artist, which results from my deeply held Christian faith.

Please follow this link to download a copy of the document 'Rock Climbing' outlining my thoughts on 'faith and the creative process'.



An interview between the artist Michael O’ Donnell and Colin Reid

Colin: Michael O’Donnell your exhibition at the cathedral is called ‘The Cross’ and features a large number of cross shaped paintings. How did they come about?

Michael: Well the cross was the catalyst. I’ve been working all my life trying to find ways of using painting, and my skills as a painter. As a youngster I was making trinities. The idea of three in one has fascinated me all my life. And really the Trinity eventually evolved into the cross paintings. The cross is a symbol of hope; it’s a symbol of our Christian faith and what that means. And for me I think that’s a marvellous thing because it can be read in all sorts of ways. It can be read in all its profundity in the Christian sense. Some people I have to say, who are not particularly spiritual, see them as patterns and colours, but they always relate to them at some level. I’d like to think that they were relating to them at the level that we understand their meaning, but that’s not always the case.

Colin: When I look at your paintings, they seem to be coming towards me and at other times they seem to be receding.

Michael: Yes they almost seem to be chiselled into the wall but actually it’s just the use of colour and the tone of the colour on the flat piece of canvas and that gives it its depth.

Colin: Some of them remind me of the visual conundrums of artists like M.C. Escher?

Michael: Yes, I think they’re mathematically interesting; To make a cross you’ve got to work it out. I sometimes call them ‘three’ crosses or ‘five’ crosses or ‘seven’ crosses, in other words, what are you going to divide the square up into? And if it’s three, you’ll get quite a thick cross. If it’s four, you get that a thinner cross, you can even go to nine, which is a beautiful very slim cross. But there’s something about the proportions in mathematically constructing the cross that give you this marvellous endless variation.

Colin: The cross holds a dynamic tension between the horizontal and the vertical.

Michael: Absolutely, and the vertical is the movement from heaven to earth, coming down from heaven. And the horizontal is actually earth. What fascinates me about the cross is that we’re trying to say something quite timeless and something that crosses cultures and borders. The visual arts are totally international. You can put these paintings in Penzance, you could put them in Paraguay and the people would know exactly what they were.

Colin: Do you think that also applies to non-Christian countries? So I know some of your work is in Japan?

Michael: I think to take the cross to any country, whether it’s a Christian country or not, can only be a good thing because it’s such a beautiful and simple message really. I think this exhibition can be seen as a positive and optimistic and hopeful thing, because a lot of people think about the misery of the cross and crucifixion, the terrible, awful compression of all the sin of all the world for all time compressed into six hours. That’s unbelievable “for all time”. I mean it’s beyond human comprehension the pain involved. But of course the reality is that people tried to kill God, but they couldn’t, and that’s the message. Christ’s death actually symbolises salvation for individual people. Ultimately I see the cross as a message of hope. Particularly in a world that’s become so completely involved with materialism. What we’re trying to do in this exhibition, is not complicated. It’s just simply to remind people what the Cathedral is about, what our faith is about, what the cross is about and if we do that, I think that will be great.

Colin: Do you see art as a transforming medium?

Michael: Absolutely, it can be, like everything else, it can be used for good or it can be used for bad. I’ve worked all my life in the visual arts and the reason I’ve done that is that I truly believe that the arts generally and, in my case, the visual arts are about the highest aspirations of man. And if you look back through the history of art, and you look at the great Renaissance paintings, which I love, then the message is as clear today as it was then, and that is about high aspiration.

Colin: I would like to just ask you a little bit about your background and being brought up in Penzance.

Michael: As a boy my first encounter with art on a daily basis or weekly basis was the Penzance Library. I was always reading about art from about ten years old, and of course there were all those Stanhope Forbes paintings that used to be in the Library; the windswept promenade and all that stuff. And I loved it, and the penny just dropped with me instantly, this is what I want to do. Then regrettably my father died when I was very young and my mother’s friend, who helped her tremendously, was an art teacher, Gwen Legrand. And her husband taught at the Grammar School. So she talked to my mother saying look this boy is more than interested in art, you know, this is something that needs encouragement. And of course my mother, who was bereft of her husband and bringing up two children on her own, said to me, I think in a very visionary way, look, whatever you want to do, Mike, get on and do it. And it was through Gwen that I met, really got pointed in the right direction, and I started to do Penzance Art School, things on Saturday mornings.

Colin: You knew quite a few of the famous artists at that time?

Michael: I went to Redruth Art School to get my A levels and of course it was Denis Mitchell who was so good to us, and good to me, and I used to go over and see Denis in the studio at St Ives and that’s where I first met everybody else. I was a young lad and Breon O’Casey and Terry Frost and all of the artists were in and out of Denis’s studio.

Colin: After you qualified from Bath Academy of Art, Corsham, Wiltshire, you took a teaching position in Hampshire. But you returned quite quickly to Cornwall with your young family.

Michael: Yes, we bought a house, our first house, in Newlyn. And the staggering thing was that I opened the shutters in Prospect Place, Trewarveneth Street, not realising or knowing that opposite was Stanhope Forbes old studio. And there was Denis Mitchell, and he said, “What are you doing up there Mike?” And I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “Well we’re all coming here, we’ve all abandoned St Ives.” He said, “Breon O’Casey is over here now, he’s up at Paul. I’m here, Terry is up the hill.” Johnny Wells of course owned Trewarveneth Studio and from that minute on I was absolutely in the hub of everything that was going on for twenty years until they died actually. And they had a tremendous affect on me. They were deeply philosophical and thoughtful about their Christian life as artists and they told me about Ben Nicholson’s faith. Dr John Wells, of course, was a deeply spiritual man. He lived like a monk really, that was the secret to Johnny. He was monastic. After the war he gave up being a doctor and bought the school from Stanhope Forbes. Denis then came over to join Johnny and with Terry up the road and Breon up there, it was an absolute powerhouse, I can only describe it as a hub of creativity.

Colin: How did they help you with your art?

Michael: I worked for thirty odd years in art schools and I would look at somebody’s work when I was working with them and say, have you looked at Giacometti? You’d be terrified how many people would say, “Who’s Giacometti”? They were degree or post graduate students and they didn’t know who Giacometti was? You need to know what’s gone before to know where to go, or what not to do again. And that’s what Denis, Johnny and that lot gave me; they showed me it’s not about copying their work, because my work is not anything like they did. But the work ethic is the same and Terry put me right, because I was so exhausted working with students once as a young man and he said, come in here Mike, he said, somebody helped me with this one. He said, “You’re getting too involved with them. You mustn’t get involved, you’ve just got to hold a mirror up to them and say, there are however many questions in the world, how, who, where, why, which, when - six or seven questions in the world. And he said if you ask them those questions, it’s their problem. If you let them ask you it’s your problem. And it changed my whole life working in education from then on, so I was able to really get down to the nitty gritty and say, look, separate technique. I can teach you technique, I can teach you how to do things, but not what to do. And that’s what these people did. Denis never said, make sculpture like me or Johnny didn’t say, this is what I do, copy me. But what they did do is say, why are you working? How does this work in relation to your Christian faith in your case? What are you going to do about it? And it was as simple, I tell you, for thirty odd years every day coming in and out of that house. I lived there for twenty years and of course moved to Marazion and knew Denis for a further ten years before he died. From the age of twenty right up to Denis’s death I knew him, so he was like a sort of father figure to me. And he helped me mainly in one way only that every time I saw him he said, ‘how’s the work? How’s the work?’ Three words and if you hadn’t been working, I said oh I haven’t done much or it’s going well or whatever. And that was such a help to know that somebody cared about what you were doing and would come and sit and talk about it in an intelligent way. To ask probing questions which you hadn’t thought of. So I think in general terms that the people we meet in a particular sense, the older people we meet when we’re young, have a tremendous effect on us.

Colin: Who else influenced your work over the years?

Michael: I was influenced by Cezanne when I was learning how to paint and used to paint like Cezanne as a boy. But as you get older, other people’s work becomes almost irrelevant. In the main, it’s about finding your own way. What I find interesting about the work I’ve been doing the last ten years is there’s nobody else doing anything like it. I don’t mean that in an egotistical sense at all, but when I’m out there looking for work of a spiritual nature, I don’t see anything like these. I can’t see any equivalent, which is marvellous because it’s put me into a position where I’m actually making things which are fresh. They’re not based on somebody else’s work, you know, but they are based on a timeless symbolism. So I think we have to as artists, we’ve got to find our own way, but I think the relevant advice of good artists and thinkers is vitally important, otherwise you discover the wheel, if you’re lucky! And if you’re not lucky, you never do.

Colin: How many layers?

Michael: Well as many as it takes; I mean it’s hard to say. Different colours give me different coverage, funnily enough, I mean the hardest colour to put on is gold. You can put coat after coat after coat of gold. And of course one coat of gold is almost like you can barely see it, it’s like a vague smudge of gold and then you’ve got to do it again and again and again. So the answer to the question is, it depends what colour really. It’s not a question of how many layers, I’ll just keeping going until it looks right. And the gold can be anything up to ten coats to get it to read as gold clearly.

Colin: I think you told a little story about the white cross surrounded by gold and how it changed during just the course of the day?

Michael: Absolutely, well that was this one which really puzzled me one day because as I looked, this is painted in gold, silver and white and what I noticed was that the silver can be darker than white, or lighter than white, depending on where you put the picture. So in a sense, the lovely thing when you look at the old paintings of the Renaissance and you look at the old wonderful Triptychs, I’m convinced that they used gold and silver, not just because it implies majesty or the sort of ‘King of Kings’ element, but also because it has a very mysterious quality; it depends where the light is, how it reflects back to you, what you see. But you imagine being a medieval man looking at a painting that was ‘there’ and ‘not there’. What’s going on? And I think there’s something very powerful in the simplicity of these things. So silver and gold for me is a wonderful, I was going to say colour, but I’m not sure it is a colour. It’s more of a quality I think, than a colour. But it does of course have colour properties; it’s got tonality.

Colin: I’ve noticed that you’ve got a large number of bird feeders in your garden. Some of your cross paintings are based on the colours of the birds aren’t they?

Michael: You can have a simple little thing out there, it can be a robin, goldfinch or whatever, and the colours are absolutely incredible. And yet because they’re there all the time, people don’t really take much notice of them. I could paint them until the day I die and not even scratch the surface of this beauty. I took the four colours of the sparrow which are white, brown, grey and black and surrounded them by a gold frame; the gold being used to elevate them to something, that wonderful sort of thing that gold does, which is to present things to you in a way which makes them extra special.

Colin You often incorporate the frame as part of the painting? Why is that?

Michael One of the things I’ve been interested in for many years is the idea of a frame. But the thing that worried me about a frame is that you complete your work and then you put a frame on it. And it always seemed to me, the frame became an almost optional extra to the work. And so now I always try and consider it from the start.

Colin Do you think part of what you’re doing is just drawing attention to the ‘every day’?

Michael Yes, absolutely, something very ordinary can be in front of you and within two seconds of thought you see that it’s not ordinary at all, it’s extra-ordinary. And if you look at the colour of something like a mackerel, I mean it’s just unbelievable. It’s like a rainbow. It’s inspirational to me to look at things which are outside of myself, not to just think, oh well, I’ll use yellow, but to see the use of yellow in its context, it’s so important.

Colin: The colours in your paintings are very vibrant?

Michael: So are colours in nature. I think they can be astonishingly brutal and if you look at the colours in my paintings, a lot of people think, well they’re very bright and very harsh. But the use of yellow, red and blue is very interesting to me. Firstly it’s three, which is a trinity but with red, yellow and blue you can mix any other colour in the world, these are the primary colours of course. So the green is mixed by making a combination of the blue and the yellow, so if you’re going to have a fourth colour, then green is as close as you’ll get to a primary colour because so much of nature is green; the trees and the fields and all the rest of it. I always think that white is of course a very natural colour in nature as well, particularly in clouds and snow and frost. I think the natural world tells us a lot if we can be bothered to see it.

Colin What are you trying to do with this exhibition in the Cathedral?

Michael I love the solemnity of cathedrals. I’ve lived in a lot of cathedral cities - Winchester, Chichester and so on. The main quality, having spent time in them, is that you can’t but help notice that it’s beautifully dark; there’s lots of dark recesses. But also there are shafts of light shooting through. And what I’m hoping my paintings will do, through their gross simplicity and their brightness, is to be almost like little banners so even in the gloomiest corners, they will shine out even if there’s no light at all, I still want them to be vibrant.

Colin: How do you view the way you’ve progressed as an artist?

Michael: Well I think all art is a “language” and an act of faith actually. If you get to a certain level with your art people either progress or they give it up the truth is when you say ‘how do you progress it’, I think I progress it in one way only and that is, for me, it’s a thoughtful and prayerful activity that is about trying to ensure that whatever skills I might have are put to good use, and that’s it.

Colin: Does the production of art, has that fed back into your faith? If it’s a well-spring, if it’s come from faith, what’s the relationship?

Michael: Yes, it’s a very interesting one that, because Picasso said something which has stuck in my mind, which is, you know, that you have made a good piece of art when it speaks back to you. And that is a really strange experience which a true artist will know.

Colin You’ve got lots of these pictures up in your living room and a few of them have been here for some time. So I suppose at times you must be reading a book or listening to something on the radio and you’ll catch a glimpse of one through the corner of your eye. Do you think that prolonged contact has changed your view of what you’ve been doing?

Michael: It has. I like to have things around me for a little while, in fact the whole house, apart from my bedroom, is actually full of paintings, and by living with them you can spot if there’s anything wrong with them. A good example is the Circle Cross painting where I’m trying to resolve the circular cross to the square. I found that where the circles touched the square on the outside was all wrong. It sort of diffused the circle and it took me some time to realise that I had to just move it in slightly to permit the circle to continue.

Colin: A lot of modern art sets out to be ‘deliberately shocking’ . Do you have a view on that?

Michael: I think that it’s so important for us not to alienate people, to believe in, this is another strange thing that I’ve encountered in the art world, whatever the art world is. I mean I’ve been working in it all my life and I’ve never found out what it is. But there’s a couple of things that spring to mind. One is that people mustn’t feel that art is beyond their grasp, you know, there’s a lot of rubbish being produced and people are saying, well I can’t understand it. Truth is, there’s nothing to understand, there really isn’t anything there. In many ways people are put into a position of being subservient to something that actually has no meaning. If you’re going to do certain things that puzzle people for the sake of puzzling them, and call it art, I can’t see much point in that. So I think it’s important that what we’re doing should be accessible to people and that’s one of the marvellous things about putting it in the Cathedral as opposed to a gallery which is perhaps precious, everything’s preciously priced and lit so specifically when in fact the craft of what we’re doing is just put in there as a statement which any member of the public wandering through can see.

Colin: Will you ever stop painting or making art?

Michael: If you imagine a river flowing through a field; a deep slow moving river; it’s sort of relentless, it goes on and on. That is what making art work is like, it doesn’t matter what painting I make, I’m always thinking of the next one coming down or the one I’ve just done. It’s like you’ve got three paintings moving slowly in front of you. Art is not something you can give up, because once you start this river, you can’t, or wouldn’t want to stop it to be honest, because it’s almost like your life’s blood; it’s like your life force.


             PIECE FOR THE WESTERN MORNING NEWS : January 2012



    My name is Michael O'Donnell, I am an Artist who has lived my entire  life in the West Penwith , Cornwall.

   Although I love the West Penwith , ~ the place that I always return to time after time is around Bodmin Moor.

   A favourite of mine is to go to Jamaica Inn and to take the small lane opposite the Inn car park which leads across the Browngelly downs and beside the Colliford Lake. This place is a treasure with the long horn cattle , the animals in the fields and the shifting beauty of the seasons. 

 In the wintertime, sometimes the snow stacks up against the stone walls in drifts, the wind cuts through  clothes, and bends trees, black crows are thrown across the sky.

 in springtime the fresh green  fields create a great landscape with the water behind changing in colour as the weather changes the sky. The place where plants can be bought from the farm gate, the spaces along the lake where easy parking provides amazing views down the lake with the various birds and animals living in open spaces which are a joy in these crowded times. 

 In summertime the skylarks fly high but can be heard, and on  the road to St . Neot there are  long distance views over the deep St. Neot Valley, with it's hidden Church which escaped destruction of the reformation. ( There is a farm  gate too which  used to have a sign which read "Beware of the Bull"  but when the gate was replaced the sign also disappeared.)Summer on the Moors is a joy, wild flowers pack the hedgerows and hardly a soul in sight even in August!

 In Autumn, the colour changes, the animals prepare for winter and another kind of natural beauty covers the landscape.

This whole area from Cardinham, ( with it's ancient signposts and horses ) Mount, St.Neot, Draynes, Common Moor Minion, Upton Cross   ~ all inhabit a beautiful part of Cornwall. There is a peace there, space and silence which makes it one of the great treasures of our County.

As an Artist , I do not paint and draw the literal Landscapes in my work, but I collect colours, amazing combinations that the natural world can show us if we are sensitive to see what is around us. Sadly the west penwith has now too often  become a giant car park with all the multiple highways and roads leading to the "dead end" peninsula where gridlock and horrific parking fees are all too commonplace. The Bodmin Moor reminds me of the beautiful Cornwall of my childhood.

Michael O'Donnell