I have found sanctuary in nature at a quarry in the Hopkinton State Park. The emotion of that place. The shifting light on stone under the cathedral canopy of pine. I bring that to the studio – the studio becomes the sanctuary. The sanctuary is a place within myself. I’m interested in the basic things we share. The sun, moon, trees, stone, fire, the horizon. Places of contemplation and thought – visual experience. We share these things and now I share my work with you here in this sanctuary – First Church Boston.
John was honored to have Miles Unger write an essay about the exhibition and his experience as artist in residence at First Church Boston. Read the essay in full below.
In November 2017 John Tracey was asked to be artist-in-residence at First Church Boston. The invitation came as a surprise and presented something of a challenge. Raised Catholic, Tracey had long ago turned his back on organized religion. And yet the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with a sacred space also felt like a gift, a way to affirm his sense of art as a search for things beyond the merely material and to come to terms with his own deep, if deeply questioning, spirituality. In the end, the experience strengthened Tracey’s conviction that making art is itself a form of devotion, not simply a matter of creating monuments to accepted dogma but embarking on a pilgrim’s journey to destinations unknowable.
The partnership proved illuminating not only for the artist but for the church—a chance to expand meanings and test accepted narratives. One of the most storied congregations in the nation, the First Church of Boston was founded in 1630 by the Puritan leader John Winthrop. The tradition of intellectual rigor he represented continued into the nineteenth century when church members included Transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Even after discarding the dour Calvinism of its founders in favor of a more expansive, tolerant Unitarian Universalism, the First Church was always an institution more attuned to cerebral pursuits than to the sensuous, tactile pleasures offered by painting and sculpture. It is a testament to the congregation’s inclusive approach in the twenty-first century that they would embrace an artist whose work carries none of the usual signifiers of piety—work that is more comfortable with doubt than with certainty—recognizing it is animated by the same search for transcendence that lies at the heart of all religious practice.
For Tracey, showing his art in a space dedicated to worship and contemplation represented a kind of homecoming, a return to origins that clarifies much in his own life and art that was always present but often tantalizingly out of reach. Like Rothko in Corpus Christi or Matisse in Vence, Tracey’s presence at the First Church reveals a profound synergy between art and faith, even when the artist adheres to no specific creed and the work offers up no specific iconography.
Tracey’s work is aspirational, suggestive, poetic—qualities deeply aligned with function of the sanctuary in which they took up residence. If this sincerity marries well with the functions of a religious institution, it’s not necessarily a fashionable stance in the contemporary art world. He ruefully admits to being out of step with the times, an earnest seeker in an era more comfortable with irony. Coming of age in the 1970s just as the modernist project was fracturing, he continues to insist that matter, shaped by a curious mind and sensitive hand, can offer its own testament to a world suffused with spirit.
For Tracey the act of painting, drawing, or modeling involves a leap of faith. He works not according to a preconceived plan but by opening himself up to possibility, embracing the accidental, the unforeseen, confident that he will discover some hidden pattern that reveals a deeper synergy. While the encaustic medium he favors requires deliberation, the images themselves are born in more spontaneous processes that involve chance and leverage unpredictability. Most of the forms begin as drawings in which he allows random tears in the paper, drips, blobs, and puddles of ink to open up pathways that could never emerge from a more deliberate mapping.
There are no accidents,” he says. The unpredictable forms provide “a space where my subconscious can emerge.” It’s a process that recalls the pioneering abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky and experiments by Surrealists like Joan Miro or Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, artists who believed that creativity, even meaning itself, could emerge only in the absence of conscious control. As in Buddhist meditation or monastic prayer, a surrender of ego is the first step on the road to enlightenment.
This intuitive approach allows Tracey to dwell in the borderlands between nature and abstraction, to practice open-ended analogy rather than rigid classification. In his paintings, landscapes are evoked while rarely coalescing into actual scenery. His sculptures also embody the in-between, hybrid creatures that never quite resolve into one thing or another. They are monsters of a sort (one quirky trio is titled The Misfits), but monsters of such tender, humorous, and deeply human attributes that they evoke empathy rather than horror.
Tracey describes his own spiritual and artistic journey as non-linear, a process of setting forth and doubling back, of pursuing discovery and valuing uncertainty. Doubt crept in early, and grew as he grew, until the faith in which he was raised all but vanished. But for all his skepticism towards organized religion, Tracey has never lost his sense of reverence, his conviction that coincidence, chance encounters, and rare moments of beauty are a form of revelation that, if not precisely God-centered, is haunted by the immanence of the divine.
Like many of a spiritual bent who attach themselves to no specific religious doctrine— like the Transcendentalists themselves, who wrote such a crucial chapter in the history of the First Church—Tracey seeks inspiration not in scripture but in the world around him. His search for resonant form propels him through the landscape, on long car trips across the continent or in walks through the quarry near his home; he draws sustenance equally from the rare phenomenon of a solar eclipse and the everyday marvel of sunlight filtering through a canopy of leaves.
Tracey tells the story of a memorable moment of cosmic convergence that occurred when he was about thirteen or fourteen years old. Enthralled by natural beauty (at one time he hoped to become a naturalist) he was an avid butterfly collector. The one specimen missing from his collection was the red-spotted purple. One day, after yet another fruitless hunt, he struck a bargain with God: that if he found what he was seeking he would renew his faith. Shortly after making this silent promise his prayer was answered, as he tracked down his elusive quarry on the leaves of a mulberry plant.
For some, this coincidence might have caused a return to unquestioning faith. But unlike Martin Luther caught in a terrifying thunderstorm or Saul on the road to Damascus, Tracey’s bargain with God could not lead him back into certainty. He finds doubt too nourishing, too life-affirming, to discard. Skepticism was not replaced by dogma; instead doubt was applied to doubt itself, an acceptance of uncertainty as a part of life, not something to be resolved but valued for the pathways it opens up.
The embrace of uncertainty forms the basis of one of Tracey’s favorite poems, W. S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death”, which ends with the lines:
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
The reverence is present in Tracey’s art, the bow that acknowledges something greater than the self, but so is the doubt, the “not knowing” that is a precious gift that opens up realms unavailable to those who only know what they know.
In form and in substance John Tracey’s paintings embody this open-endedness. Like the butterfly hunter wandering among meadows in search of beautiful specimens, they evoke a journey, reveling in the search rather than the arrival. Inspired by Homer’s Odyssey, the trio of paintings titled Horizon (The Sirens) captures the unfulfilled—unfulfillable—yearning that lies at the heart of all travel, the seam where sea meets sky that urges the restless soul forever onward towards a goal that recedes further with each step or gust of wind.
Winter evokes a different kind of journey, one that is no less stirring for being more familiar. Here the inspiration is not the epic voyage of the sailor bound for distant shores but rambles closer to home, in a local quarry with peek-a-boo glimpses of a winter sun in a tangle of bare branches. A stark, unforgiving landscape is suggested—cracked rock and gnarled branch, or perhaps beams of light refracted in the blade of an icicle—but the references are universal, abstract, rather than particular. Indeed, the distance Winter measures is cosmic as well spatial, suggesting that as we wander in even the most familiar terrain we are carried along on invisible currents and bathed in the light of a distant star. Winter is not an entry in a diary recording one particular occasion but an evocation of a thousand walks taken, of cold dazzle and ragged breath—a journey in multiple, measureless dimensions.
The sense of a journey is inherent in the encaustic medium Tracey favors, a waxy substance that embodies distance, that involves endless withholding by encasing form in veils of translucent color, by holding light both refracted and reflected. Encaustic speaks not in bold declaratives but in tentative propositions; it does not offer itself up to scientific inspection but traffics in forms that seem to lie just beyond our grasp. It is both propositional and prepositional, always interposing a veil between us and the image, so that form is always seen through the medium. It’s elusive, allusive—the perfect material for a restless wanderer, someone whose natural habitat is the in-between, the suggestive, the associative, that which cannot be named.
Even more than breadth, encaustic offers depth, a dimension that’s as much a matter of metaphysics or memory as of measure. In Mother and Father (2018) the rocklike forms appear submerged, like a coral reef viewed through a snorkeler’s goggles. These mineral accretions find both an echo and a contrast in a bold patch of silver that clings on the painting’s bottom edge like a barnacle on a ship’s hull or a rock emerging from the waves. This form, however, is all surface, increasing our sense of the vast distance (both literally and metaphorically, in terms of time as well as space) that separates us from what lies below. It intrudes forcefully into our space, while at the same time its reflective surface—taking on the ambient light, shifting with the shadows of the day— makes it no appear no more solid than the glint of sunlight on the surface of a pond.
John Tracey’s tenure as artist-in-residence at the First Church in Boston marks neither a beginning nor an end, but rather a waypoint in a longer journey, a chance for both the artist and the institution to take stock, to look back at routes taken and to contemplate what comes next. For the artist, the impulse to forge ahead is all the more urgent for lacking a precise goal. He is not following the well-trodden path of a pilgrim to a famous shrine, but venturing off the beaten path into terra incognita. Like the miracle of the butterfly that seemed to materialize from a silent prayer, the unexpected opportunity to show his work in a sacred space reaffirmed Tracey’s conviction that the search for beauty, for the hidden connections that undergird all Creation, is ultimately a spiritual journey—a “bowing not knowing to what …”