Saint Kevin and the Blackbird
by Imogen Stuart RHA (b. 1927)
The feel of wood, the smell of wood, the sound it makes when cut or gouged with a chisel are things that Imogen Stuart loves. She has an innate respect and feel for the material she uses, whether it is wood, stone, bronze, copper, steel, marble, limestone or cement.
She is German by birth, upbringing and artistic training; she is Irish by affinity and sympathy. She lived in Berlin throughout the upheaval of the Hitler years, but moved with her family to Bavaria at the end of World War 11. From an early age she was interested in the visual arts, mainly through the influence of her father, Bruno Werner, who was a writer and an art critic. In the autumn of 1945 she became a private pupil of Otto Hitzberger, an outstanding Bavarian sculptor, who was her tutor and friend over five happy years. During this period a young Irish sculptor student, Ian Stuart, came to live with the Werner family to complete his studies, also under Hitzberger.
The young couple fell in love, married in 1951 and came to live in Ireland. It is here that Imogen has made her home. While she has had her share of happiness, she has also experienced suffering. The separation from her husband was a time of great grief and the death of her second daughter in a car crash nearly broke her heart. But Imogen is a strong, positive person, deeply spiritual, and this helped her to cope with her grief.
Inheriting a rich German artistic legacy, she has absorbed in a remarkable way the culture of her adopted country. In an interview with Brian Fallon she said: “I greatly admire the early Irish art: the illuminated manuscripts, the carved Celtic heads, the metal work, the beautiful ruins.” This is evident in her own work. By choice she has become a carver rather than a modeller. The sculpture of St Kevin and the Blackbird is carved from pitch pine. Notice how the artist, empathising with her material, carves with the grain of the wood and not against it. She simplifies the head, the hand and the bird. She tells the story, using symbolism rather than realism, inviting us to ponder the meaning of the message behind the legend.
St Kevin founded a great monastery in the lower valley in Glendalough, Co Wicklow, where the two rivers meet. He loved solitude and, whenever he could, he escaped to the cave-like dwelling in the side of the hill overlooking the upper lake, to spend some time with the birds and the beasts, and to commune with God in prayer. The story goes that one day, as he prayed with outstretched arms, a blackbird alighted on his hand, and there laid her eggs.
For fear of disturbing the bird Kevin kept his arm in the same position until the eggs were hatched! It is the story of love, perseverance and self-forgetfulness of a great saint, told in wood by a great artist, represented by a face deep in contemplation, a hand held steady and a contented blackbird. It is simple and beautiful.
“… He prays, A prayer his body makes entirely For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird And on the river bank forgotten the river’s name.” Seamus Heaney