May 2008
Carl Lazzari's Studio

I first met the artist Carl Lazzari when we travelled to Croatia in 1994.

Carl had told me about a series of paintings he planned back in 2002, based on the Stations of the Cross.

I left to work in South Africa soon after, so it was only a few years later that I could see them for myself.

Carl had asked me to sit for one of his portraits. This left me a little puzzled but I agreed, trusting Carl but unsure what this would mean. Each of the twelve canvases would included a scene from the story of Christ, featuring real people from the monastery, and portraits of people chosen by Carl for each station.

For several days I sat with the above view of various works-in-progress, while Carl painted me into the corner of a canvas. Below is the text I later wrote, to accompany the painting I appeared within.

I first met Carl when we travelled to the Balkans in 1994. My memories of that time are unfocussed and dreamlike: my father had died in the previous month and, being with strangers in an unfamiliar setting, full of both natural beauty and human horror, was bewildering. Cathartic as well, in unexpected ways.

Our group journeyed up and down the Croatian coast, crowded into two small minibuses, performing a little play and spending time with refugees in shelled-out hotels or bare, dusty camps. We didn't have much aid to distribute. We were simply saying, in our small way, "You are not forgotten".

For me, Carl became a bubble of calm and concentration amid the hectic clamour. Somewhere, in a doorway or under the shade of a tree, he would sit for an hour or two and draw. Magically, children would be drawn to him, curious to see what he had put on paper. What could this stranger have seen of such value in their dismal surroundings? A grown man, taking the time and care to draw the unloved place they had been forced to inhabit.

The faces of the children would then begin to appear in the sketchbook. With a few lines here, a graceful curve there, something of that time and that place, and their memories, would be gently read from their faces and be carefully recorded, stored, treasured. A powerful ancient enchantment. Carl would soon have his young audience transfixed, intensely watching every stroke of his pen, waiting patiently for their turn to come.

That summer I was inspired to take a sketchbook of my own to Switzerland. I spent many useful hours quietly filling it.

Two years later our paths crossed again, in Bosnia. Same war, different refugees (Internally Displaced Persons, to be clinically precise). The artist was still to be found in a patch of shade somewhere, patiently and methodically transforming the empty pages into the likenesses of children. As he worked, the faces around him became illuminated with looks of thoughtful wonder.

I remember stories that became woven into every sketch. Carl would remember where each sitting took place, minute details about clothes, how the child initially sat - shy, playful, dubious, challenging... It was a pleasure to catch up on his day's work every evening, with a detailed account of each encounter, the living context to each pattern on paper, amidst our frustrations and doubts. "What are we doing here? What can we possibly achieve? What do we have to give these people who have lost everything?" Carl's sketchbooks became, for me, part of the answer.

There were other stories too, told by the surviving men, having built up their trust - fiery shots of šljivovica providing social lubrication. Stories that the rest of the group were perhaps too young to be entrusted with; the background we were vaguely aware of, but spared the horrific details of. Rapes, murders, and vengeance. Pain. The personal stories that, one by terrible one, become the components of a conflict, a war, an atrocity - words we often use but rarely comprehend.

I can vividly picture Carl listening in his patient way as each story unfolds, shaking his head gently with each new horror: the sharing a terrible privilege, a burden to bear. I'm still learning the importance of such sharing, listening. Simply being witness to the things that have occurred.

Later that summer, after our first journey to the Balkans, a friend showed me a historical account of how the conflict unfolded, documenting atrocities in methodical and shocking detail. I could barely look at the graphic cover photograph. It was all too close, too connected to the families we'd been seeing, to real people. Something similar happened years later in South Africa, as I read the first few pages of Catherine's copy of Jonathan Kaplan's book The Dressing Station.

It began with a vivid account of violence in the coloured townships I'd just been working in. A few pages in, I had to put it down, feeling physically faint. What could I achieve, by reading these things, by hearing about the pain I had been fortunate not to have experienced?

The years passed. For me, the Balkans was followed by other work - aid management within the international system, and work with homeless people, with young children. Six years later, just before I left for Johannesburg as a peace worker, Carl and I met again amongst the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey. That was when I first heard of his plans to paint this series. Another two years passed, with me in Africa, engrossed with projects half a world away, unsure why I'd agreed to a sitting in Germany 'when time permitted', not at all clear why he'd asked me, of all people. I'm not Christian by background, so to be placed in a painting about the life of Jesus, for a Bavarian monastery, was something of a surprise! A long time had passed since our trips, and memory grew dim - surely this was a finished chapter and our lives had moved on?

However, I trusted Carl's judgement so, when timings eventually came into alignment in 2005, I met him once again, this time at Munich airport.

Though I'd stayed at St. Ottilien before, while briefly passing though on our earlier journeys to the Balkans, the monastery seemed completely unfamiliar. Carl was just the same as I remembered him though. A week of sittings and conversations passed both quickly and slowly. Having the time to simply talk with someone, and find contrasts and connections between our very different lives and experiences, is such a gift.

We often talked about the Balkans and this project. The huge canvasses, in various states of completion, already dominated his two small rooms, and also invaded the narrow corridor outside. I learned who had come from where for their sittings, the significance of each face or look, the problems that remained to be solved... Meanwhile the stairs or floorboards above occasionally creaked with the tread of the cobbler/barber monk who shared the house. Outside Carl's little studio the spring sunshine was dazzling, while inside the cool guesthouse the lunchtime soups were delicious.

Something formed a clearer shape for me during these sittings. Our journeys to the Balkans, a decade earlier, had felt like a closed chapter before I returned to St Ottilien for this portrait. I hadn't stayed in contact with people in the region, nor read much about what had happened. When a memorial service took place earlier this year for the 8,000 men and boys massacred at Srebrenica in 1995, I caught painful glimpses of it on television, feeling a pang of guilt, together with sadness, at seeing the grief still evident on the faces of people there. We had met families who had lost fathers, brothers and husbands in those killings. I wondered how their lives are now, and felt guilty that I didn't know, felt guilty that my own life had moved on.

Yet I also started seeing more connections linking those experiences, what we saw and learned and shared, and the work I have done since. Those encounters, in dusty refugee camps, made a lasting impact on many of us. When Carl and I met another group member, Mark, a few weeks later, this was confirmed for me. Carl certainly didn't, and perhaps couldn't, forget; he has written and painted from those experiences for a decade now. I have forgotten many details, names and faces, but have been processing and remembering in my own way, and through my own work.

I don't know much about art, so talking about painting, while watching Carl work, was a revelation. I could only glimpse how many layers of interpretation and meaning might combine within each choice an artist makes, different stories becoming interwoven into each piece of work. I started to understand how Carl's sketches, stories and experiences had been deeply thought over, gestated, over the past decade, and were now visibly maturing into new forms on the canvasses around us. Everything fed into this remarkably rich series of paintings. Here was one way of processing and dealing with some of the intense things we had seen and experienced: doing them justice by capturing them within simple brushstrokes of pigment, colours on cloth, with the gentle but firm request that this not happen ever again.

We also talked about the subject matter, the chosen scenes of the Bible. Carl would, every few hours, exclaim incredulously that he didn't understand how he, an atheist, could possibly have been chosen to paint this work. Yet there we both were, in a German monastery, looking at his scenes from the life of Jesus Christ!

I hadn't given much thought to the nature of these paintings before I arrived at St Ottilien but felt vaguely relieved when Carl told me I would feature in the painting of the Sermon on the Mount. For no obvious reason he was aware of - that's just the way it had worked out.

As somebody outside Christian traditions, I would have felt uncomfortable in a scene that I felt was historically questionable, clashed with my own beliefs, or rested on miraculous events. In the Indian spiritual traditions I have grown up within, 'miracles' have become distractions for me from the central insights, the deeply rooted and practical teachings, which I have come to value.

One can question miracles, but a person speaking on a hill is something basic and universal.

Yet as I read those passages again, prompted by the painting I had begun to materialise within, they proved more difficult for me than I'd anticipated. I knew the Beatitudes, of course - 'Blessed are the meek' and so on, each turning 'common-sense' perceptions of actions and rewards upside-down - revolutionary, indeed. I had always taken this to mean reward in heaven for earthly good deeds. Eastern faith traditions also offer rewards in the next life for our actions in this one, a minor difference being that they take 'the next life' more literally: reincarnation. Either way, a standard philosophical move to square what seems best for an individual with what is best for their wider social matrix - an age-old problem in different forms, for which most societies have developed similar spiritual/religious/cultural 'solutions'.

However, as I read on, what I see is far more challenging, urgent and amazingly contemporary. After two years' learning at the cutting edge of non-violence methods in Johannesburg, here I find a two-thousand year-old manual for non-violent action, and a strident and demanding one at that. This voice is setting challenges for me personally, which I perhaps understand better than I would have a few years earlier, but I'm afraid I cannot live up to. This voice also seems to identify with and understand my doubts unnervingly well.

I look at this text in a completely different light now. I am in this painting, so now it's personal.

I've heard how other people have also seen the life of Jesus completely afresh because of these canvasses. Even some of the monks, who have devoted their life and work to his teachings, have been challenged afresh simply because they saw him in a different context, in their own context - within these paintings. They are renewing something important, and making that source of wisdom unflinchingly immediate and tangible, speaking directly to us, right now, across hundreds of years. The simple challenge to live in peace. With love.

Perhaps that is Carl's final enchantment, as he adds the final touches while I type this. Maybe this is why the paintings are so important: why they have drawn him, and so many other people, into this project, even though many of us were unsure quite why we were chosen at all. That includes Carl himself, of course. As he works in this small studio, bewildered but unable to stop, to pull himself away from his work, I can clearly imagine him still muttering "But I'm an atheist!"

Yes, Carl. Of course you are.

Anand Madhvani - London, December 2005

one of Carl's extraordinary plants flowered before I left

a handbook of the completed paintings is available here

[Carl passed away suddenly in Newcastle, September 2009]