I decided to post this up for all the peeps who wish they could have been with us on Tuesday.
Steve Kirby was born in Somerset, England in 1956, the only son of a young woman living with her parents and sister Jan, with whom he was raised.
He died last week in Bathurst in the house he shared and help create with his partner, in the company of three of the many people who loved him dearly: his partner, his daughter, and myself.
In between those two events is a history not only of Steve’s life, but of all of the lives he touched in so many places across the globe and in so many inspiring, transforming ways.
In preparing this Eulogy I was wondering how I could represent the immensity of lives that are connected to Steve Kirby’s ‘story’. There is of course, his CV, available on the website of Watters Gallery, and there are the oral narratives from his families in England and Australia, or from a range of friends in Australia, who listened avidly to Steve’s anecdotes and insights from his rich life.
In the past few weeks, I’ve shared some of those stories with people who knew Steve, such as his family, friends in Bathurst, and friends from Art School such as Sharon, Anna, Heli, Elyss, Mignon, Kim, Mel, Jason, Ted, Doug, and others.
It has felt like piecework – a slow patching together of small, sacred fragments of memory that each of us have of Steve.
There are so many parts of Steve that many of us here today remember and treasure, and I cannot hope to fully represent who Steve was to so many of you, or how you will remember him into the future.
So what I hope to do, is bring some elements together in order to create a mosaic of fragments – much like the mosaic sculptures that Steve exhibited in 2003 and 2004. These were composed of small exquisite elements selected from larger experimental works of painting, drilling, gouging, staining, pushing, moulding and carving a myriad of coloured and pigmented forms: wood, canvas, board, ink, paint, clay etc. Steve would select small tile like elements from these larger works and then spend hours, weeks and months in his studio laying each fragment next to another, and another, and another…..
And Steve used to say that this mosaic piecework – of making a connection between two random shapes – that for some reason, be it intuitive or compositional or whimsical – just worked – he said that this work of cutting, moving and connecting was about relationships –about creating relationships – somewhere between choice and chance – that two elements would connect, coalesce and create another series of visual and imaginative relationships and possibilities.
So I’m hoping that in the words offered in this Eulogy, in the recollections of Steve’s English family, in the words offered by his daughter, in the words and image fragments assembled in the booklet created by his partner, in the poetry and music we are sharing with you today, that parts of your personal sacred fragment of Steve can create a connection and relationship with someone else’s that will help sustain us all during this time of grieving.
For now, I want to talk briefly of my relationship with Steve, who has been a dear friend, ever since we met at NAS in 1997. At the time, Steve had already lived in Australia for 10 years with his wife and two small children.
Steve said he was interested in sculpture, and had studied with Tom Bass, but wanted to explore the expressivity of hard materials. He described how visiting the Art Brut museum in Switzerland changed his life, and how he’d spent years walking around the UK and Europe collecting small fragments, carving on stones, creating shapes with clay, and how in Bathurst he ran sculpture workshops with kids with disabilities – allowing them to explore how ordinary materials such as newspaper, clay, sand and string could extend their bodies and sensations of being in the world.
After sweating it in foundation year formalism of casting carving and construction, both of us ended up doing majors in painting. I made a deliberate and strategic decision that I would probably learn more from being a student in the same classes as Steve Kirby than picking any particular discipline or teacher. And in fact, Steve was a great teacher and mentor to many of us at art school. Teaching us how to live with ourselves, our frustrations and our materials, and the unending maddening processes of making something new with a level of intelligence and integrity. Steve’s intellect was like oxygen to me – pure, clear and calm – and his capacity to link deep thought to the wordless mess of making to an emotional intelligence and integrity has been one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received.
Steve used to bring in books – he introduced me to Scott McLoud and to James Elkins. I’ll never forget Steve standing in my Studio reading the following description from Elkins’s book “What Painting Is”.
“It is important never to forget how crazy painting is… Painting is born in a smelly studio, where the painter works in isolation for hours and even years on end…. Painters have to work in a morass of stubborn substances.James Elkins, What Painting is: p147.
For those reasons, the act of painting is a kind of insanity… even the most commercially minded artist has to wrestle with raw materials, and get filthy in the process.”
I think it is important to acknowledge that last Tuesday, Bathurst lost an incredible artist and philosopher.
After studying painting, I studied art history and eventually completed a PhD. As part of this I travelled the world, visiting art schools in the UK, New York and Paris, and meeting many of the famous international writers Steve and I used to read and discuss in art school. And I want to tell you, that even now, after all of the reading and talking and listening I’ve been lucky enough to have, that Steve Kirby continued to be an inspiring source of enlightenment, reflection and consideration. He could make this incredible links between creativity, philosophy and the daily business of making and breathing and feeling life. I have been so lucky to know Steve, to have so many conversations about life, art, love and ideas for years now. Steve was best man at both weddings, and best friend when I was heartbroken, answering the phone to my sobs at 3am on a number of occasions, and reading my theses, introducing me to trashy TV, and guiding me by SMS through his home city of Bristol.
Steve’s generosity extended not only to how he lived, but to how he died. I don’t ever want to romanticise death, which is a horrible, agonising tragedy. However, the way in which Steve faced his illness, the pain, the tragic implications for those who loved him, and the final terrible awfulness of his passing, was special and sacred, and ultimately profoundly generous.
Steve was curious about the world, and curious and critical about his daily life. We often discussed his illness in phenomenological terms, and the implications of reducing parts of ourselves and yet not shrinking away from the experience of life. Steve also discussed the nature of suffering with a number of friends. Tracey and Helen recalled the time he referred to the word Thole, an old Saxon word that was used during his youth in England about suffering. However, whereas we’re used to considering suffering as an affliction that we are passively subjected to, thole describes suffering as a type of conscious bearing, a deliberate, patient endurance.
Steve used to discuss the work of suffering, both in the pain he was experiencing in his illness, and that of his loved ones in witnessing his suffering and fearing his death. Steve spoke of thole as offering a way of considering the agency that we can have in the way we can experience suffering, to make it an experience, and to be able to live suffering well.
Steve criticised the common contemporary attitude to suffering as one of shock, as if we are entitled to never suffer, and a life well lived is without pain.
He said that People do not know how to suffer well.
To plumb the depths of suffering and taste it with all it’s senses.
To be in that space and not try to paint it a different colour.
Tholes implies a level of agency, it doesn’t mean putting aside our daily existence. It is about applying all of our resources, everything about our daily life in order to undertake the work of bearing suffering as part of the richness of our life.
We draw upon our daily lives and our resources in order to do the work of suffering.
Tholes is about a profound presence, and having all of our sense in the moment of suffering.
Steve said how this is a process not unlike the work of painting – in fact very much akin to the creative process itself.
This is not a simple analogy, but touches at the heart of the integrity that Steve brought to his life and his life’s work and creativity.
This means, being attentive and being present to ourselves, to others and to the sensations of the worlds in which we live.
In the past few days I’ve been numb, because I cannot imagine a world without Steve. The silent timbre of his voice, his words, so many words, have been part of the pulse of the way I am in the world.
We have another friend Heli who we knew at art school, and who returned to Finland in 2001. Steve and Heli haven’t seen each other for nearly a decade but they maintained constant SMS contact – especially during the crazy late night studio hours. Heli wrote an email back to me the other day, where she said:
“I started to think whether my silent conversation with Steve continues, as it has continued over these years, and you know Margaret I believe it does. The way he and his work inspires me is something like that cannot disappear. He is in all little things. Everywhere i look.”
I hope that the gift of Steve’s life and generosity continues in all our lives for a very long time.
Finally I’d like to end with a quote from the Nigerian English writer, Ben Okri:
“Don’t let grief kill you. You are not born yet. You haven’t painted enough. … you owe it to what you’re suffering now to make sure you survive. You owe it to us, your people. The Greeks have a saying that the Skylarks buried its father in its head. Bury this grief in your heart, in your art. Live, live with unquenchable fire. Let everything you’re suffering now give you every reason in the world to master your life and your art. Live deeply, fully. Be fearless. Be like the tortoise – grow a hard shell to protect your strong heart. Be like the eagle – soar above your paint and carry the banner and the wonder of our lives to the farthest corners of the world. Build your strength. Destiny is difficult.” Okri, Dangerous Love, p379.