I was taken with the sculpture of Ann Clifford’s entitled “Open Spaces” in the first moment that I saw it, this portrayal in stone of the raw energy and determination manifested in equine movement. A reification of the equine spirit. The strain and focus, the form and energy all directed towards transcendence and a perfection of equine achievement.
We speak of and measure and delight in the equestrian conquest of gravity and height. We are, more often than not, so entirely preoccupied with the image of the horse in mid-air that the rest of the scene is lost to us. Here Ann Clifford reminds us that rock, earth, greenery and water are the constituents of not only what must be transcended, but also of the very creature itself. They are worthy of artistic attention and interpretation. It is for her in this instance a question of artistically portraying the entire reality.
This work of Ann Clifford’s thus reminds us that such transcendence is physically and, perhaps more importantly, metaphorically dependent on the things of the earth, common things like rock and earth and water. This notion is suggested in good measure by the proportions themselves. The horse resides supported at the pinnacle of a stone pedestal. The horse represents only a relatively small component of the overall sculpture, perhaps a fifth. It is, moreover, the detailed study of the pedestal that is just as intriguing as is that of the horse in mid-air. We might even ask whether it is truly a “pedestal” at all? For it would seem that at least one of the main messages of the piece is that there exists a continuum of elements here, rising from the foundation of water and rock to finally embrace the meeting of equine musculature with air. What is striking is this detailed attention to what makes up the basis, the context, the underpinnings, of the jump. The rock and earth and stone are recognized as the foundation of the jump. We jump because we have an earthly foundation from which to leap.
Inherent in the portrayal of the jump of the fence is yet another transcendence, this time one of boundaries. There is in the nature of the countryside no boundary capable of ultimately limiting the horse’s movement. There is to be found in these fields, instead, only a freedom. The fence offers here not confinement but only an opportunity, a signpost, really, directing the way to a still further degree of freedom. It is all in good sport.
Moreover, there is still another layer of freedom portrayed here in that the equestrian is present by implication only. Another boundary broken. We might even suggest that the sculpture suggests the horse’s transcendence of the rider too. The jump is itself seen as centrally located within the nature of the horse, within nature itself, in the decided absence of halter and bit.
Such attention and acknowledgement of the earthly context serves as evidence of Ann’s understanding of the beauty of the landscapes in the rural Ontario countryside, perhaps in particular in the Creemore area, where she grew up. Ann speaks fondly of bareback escapades in the countryside surrounding her family’s farm.
Still, such a depiction of Ann Clifford’s work suggests only one aspect of it. There is yet another aspect to Ann’s artistry that brings the above into sharp relief. Because how do we reconcile the Ontario rurality of “Open Spaces” with the more classical presentation of another work of Ann’s entitled “Spanish Walk”? The movement from the former to the latter is as though we have been transported in time and space from modern south-central Ontario to Tuscany in the Old World. A paradox of sorts. Yet one which reveals an artistic curiosity that looks to both understand and reconcile these two competing influences and sources of Ann’s artistic education and development: the landscape of her childhood on the one hand, her studies in a Life Studies Program in Florence as an Art student, on the other. The two truths belonging to these two influences are as if two angels hovering over either of her shoulders, each arguing for their own claims on her artistic temperament and attention.
The Old-World artistry evidenced in “Spanish Walk” reminds one of the ethos of Roman ruins, while its title reminds the viewer of the embedment of the Iberian Peninsula in the ancient Roman world. The very presentation of the sculpture as a salvaged ruin speaks to the inevitable work of time. It reminds us of what we have lost in our understanding of the past, even while underlining the foundational importance of what we have salvaged. It reminds us of the value of the past, of history and archaeology, even if our understandings of both endeavours will always and necessarily remain incomplete. It is also, in the end, in particular, a tribute to the horse of the Roman world, to the dignity and power of an animal that made such a contribution to that civilization.
Ann embraces and celebrates, then, both New and Old Worlds. In the hills of Creemore you can imagine her as a teen on horseback riding down country lanes searching for the freedom that lies at the hearts of both the equestrian experience and the desires of a young lady. Whereas in Italy you can imagine her as a young lady of youthful artistic exuberance walking the streets of the Tuscany town of Pietrasanta where, Ann will remind you, Michelangelo at the age of 15 learned to sculpt. New wine into new wineskins. And once more, this time in Florence, you can imagine her standing under the sculpture of “David” by Michelangelo, intently studying the detail of David’s hand.
Part of what Ann has found in both the Old and New worlds is their respective achievements of freedom. The freedom in the Old was, perhaps, that which Michelangelo himself helped to establish in Renaissance Italy, a freedom by which artists could enjoy an ability to create their art as reflections of their own created worlds. (Reference: Kirkpatrick, Robin. The European Renaissance: 1400-1600 (Toronto: Longman, 2002)) It is a freedom which Ann welcomes and explores in terms of artistic subject and form. And in the New World, we find Ann once more on horseback in the open spaces of the Ontario countryside, itself a call to freedom.
Still, in Art’s gift there is also the reminder of the possibility of transcendence of human trials and predicaments. It is a reminder that is important in all the moments of a human life. It is, however, especially important in historical moments such as that in which we find ourselves presently, when the human spirit is tried and at risk of succumbing to fatigue. It is when the inspiration of an artist such as Ann is perhaps most welcome. The art of Ann Clifford reminds us of both the yearning for human transcendence over circumstance and the concomitant search for beauty, truth and freedom, in worlds both Old and New.
WHO IS DOUGLAS ALLEN?
Douglas Allen is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. His historical studies are of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. He is interested in using the lens of identity to explore and understand history, human motivation and action. Douglas is also a writer who is currently writing a novel set in the City of Winnipeg in the 1980’s, which explores the nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations.