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A Leap of Faith

Shortly after I returned to Germany in 1990, I received an invitation to participate in an outdoor art project along with 30 other painters and sculptors. The theme of this second annual project in Treuchtlingen was “From Bridge to Bridge.” Connecting to the point where my work in my Los Angeles loft had ended, I created a painting that existed of eight parts connected together with ropes which ultimately hung over the bridge across the river. Titled “Stranded between Two Shores,” the painting described the state of being suspended in air during an emotional state of perpetual limbo.

Just as in my earlier work I was not expressing my feelings about Point A or Point B, about this landscape or that person, but about the energy, tension and the movement back and forth, voluntarily and involuntarily, between two poles. Whereas the pulsation between the two standpoints still remained in this new work, it now described the existence between two shores where you can move neither forwards nor backwards, while the water under your feet is as trustworthy as a rug that keeps getting pulled out from under you. A form develops which comes to represent a weight—your burden—and it you want to survive, you have to throw everything you have overboard to lessen the weight, even that, which you thought you could never live without, so that you can dare to leap so far that you do not know if you can make it and to a shore so strange you do not know if you would want to.

Margaret Kelley: Stranded Between Two Shores, 1991, Acrylic on Handmade Paper, 52 x 93 cm

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Stranded Between Two Shores, 1991, Acrylic on Handmade Paper,
52x93 cm

I continued to explore this theme during the following eight months as an artist-in-residence in Worpswede, an artist colony near Bremen. The painting which hung over that bridge in that little town of Treuchtlingen became the catalyst for the next two decades of work. Called “A Leap of Faith,” the entire body of work consisted of ten cycles of paintings, objects, drawings and prints. The words that inspired me—a leap of faith--can be defined as the act of believing or accepting something that is intangible and without any empirical evidence. The entire body of work sought not only to give a face to the ineffable but to find a visual form for an essentially abstract movement and for the barriers that might block it.

The long canvas paintings of the first cycle, “A Leap of Faith I,” hang freely like tapestries without any conventional restrictions. Unlike earlier paintings on heavy military canvas which I had found and had sewn in downtown Los Angeles, these paintings were created on light brown canvas ordered from a sail-maker in the port town of Bremerhaven. These light brown canvases, without any preparation with gesso, dimmed all pigments allowing them to mirror the palette of the northern landscape. The muted colors of the north and the flat landscape with its visible horizon clearly influenced the appearance of these paintings. The latter is mirrored by a long driving diagonal line—which represents the leap—while the dim palette contrasts with the harsh sharply defined colors which the southern Californian sun of my youth projects.
Margaret Kelley: A Movement in Time, 1993, Acrylic on Canvas, 200x700cm

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A Movement in Time, 1993,
Acrylic on Canvas, 200x700cm
Back in California, the paintings of the following cycle of “A Leap of Faith II: the Mountains, the Void and the Abyss” would be the last I would create in my Los Angeles loft. Painted with acrylics on green military canvas which were prepared with gesso, these paintings mirror the strong light and contrasts of southern California. The words that accompany this period are burden--the weight of the past; chasm--that immeasurable deep gulf over which one must dare to leap; and void--the incomprehensible vast space  through which one must leap, which may not be more than just a dark, empty—however intimidating—inconsequential space in time. One particular  painting on paper, “A Movement in Time,” would serve as a “quotation” in later periods of work. Reduced in size and called “A Quotation from ´93,” it appears in several later paintings and epitomizes all that I had learned during “A Leap of Faith II.” I found that I could use this method to carry visual solutions from each following cycle of "A Leap of Faith" into the next, using them as quotations.  

Transitional paintings on long stretches of canvas precede “A Leap of Faith III: The Farewell Letters.” Painted on old, mended light-colored sails given to me by the sail-maker from the nearby port town of Bremerhaven, these paintings titled “A Movement in Time” explore sheer movement and are more transparent than any others before them. The surface of these paintings was built up with collage, washes of tea and ink, and marks from various sorts of pencils and crayons before the final form would reach its final form with the use of acrylic pigments. The long canvases that were typical for my work since 1984 had their origin in a chance encounter in California. While casually exploring the shelves of the university library, a book on the group painting by the Gruppe Spur in the Palazzo Grassi in Venice literally fell into my hands. It was less their political manifestos or even how their work looked that captured my interest but the possibility of ignoring all conventional or marketable ideas regarding size and material as well as the opportunity that unconventional exhibition spaces could offer.
Margaret Kelley: The Burden and Two Leaps (3 Abschiedsbriefe), 1994, Acrylic+Collage+Canvas on Wooden Box, each 114x80 cm

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The Burden and Two Leaps (3 Abschiedsbriefe), 1994,
Acrylic+Collage+Canvas on Wooden Box, each 114x80 cm

However, forced by several reasons to work smaller in my new studio in Bremen, Germany, I had to relinquish my accustomed 12 to 20 foot stretches of loose canvas, the large10 inch brushes and the fast-drying acrylic paints. Using pastel crayons to explore what I once would have painted, the “Farewell Letters” were drawn over collage on wooden boxes, moving beyond the edges of their surface.  Not only was movement stilled for the first time with vertical formats, the restriction of size was expressed, in addition, through a constraining border of collage.

This constraining border consisted often of burlap or canvas but usually of newspaper. Newspaper not only provided a confining border, it epitomized my continuing preoccupation with the problem of time, truth and various points of view which has been the subject matter of my paintings since 1980. I consider newspaper to be the best example of something considered current, although its information becomes the past the very moment it is printed. For that very reason, I use it to pictorially represent the constant flux of time and truth. Thoughts of time, duration and élan as expressed by the French philosopher Henri Bergson, whose thoughts had supported my concerns since 1984. Since time dictates that nothing be stable, these paintings are about farewells, suspension and the fear, hope and anticipation surrounding a movement in time.


According to Dr. Bernd Küster, Director of the Museumslandschaft in Kassel, Hessen in Germany, “the line which now moves horizontally through the  ´Farewell Letters´ could be understood as the tear between the past and the present or between American and German mentalities and their realities or as a suture, a futile attempt to sew two lines into one. Sometimes this scar tears open and is similar to a wound. A triangular form, which is similar to that hung over the river in `Stranded between Two Shores,´symbolizes the weight of memories and longing which one must part in order to survive.”

Once the work from “A Leap of Faith III: the Farewell Letters” was completed, I created a series of paintings titled “Letters of My Alphabet.” My intent was to “freeze” certain marks and shapes that together could be understood as “words” and sometimes even as "sentences." My wish was to help the viewer become familiar with the new marks and shapes which initially are--understandably so--just as meaningless as the words of a foreign language. I would continue this process after several subsequent phases of “A Leap of Faith” creating a prologue which consisted each of an alphabet of  twenty-five small paintings—so-called “letters.”


Margaret Kelley: Like a Bullet, 1996, 
Oil, Crayon, Collage on Woodbox, 148x185x4cm

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Like a Bullet, 1996,
Oil, Crayon, Collage on Woodbox, 148x185x4cm

The next cycle , “A Leap of Faith IV: Margot´s Song and the Song of Solomon,” focuses, in part, on two to three forms and explores the question of integrity or complicity between them when they touch or cross over in space-- a problematic addressed once before ten years earlier in the works of “Shattered Faith.”  Whereas acrylic pigment and large 6 x 6 foot handmade paper from Spain were used in 1990, oil sticks provided a new means to explore the subject of boundaries--of unity in diversity--a decade later. Transparent glazing interact with opaque layers of oil, ink and wax crayons in addition to the various materials used as collage such as canvas, burlap, Japanese paper, newspaper and brown wrapping paper.

At the end of this period of “A Leap of Faith IV,” the “Letters of My Alphabet II” was created as a prologue. While ink and wax crayons established the mood of drawings in the first prologue of 1995, these "letters" were evolving into small paintings. Where once a format of eight feet in width would have forced me to turn to the tools of drawing because I would not have been able to paint within such a restriction, I now had learned to paint in spite of a confinement in size.


The subject of crossing boundaries and the inevitability of separation, farewell and grief is addressed again in “A Leap of Faith V: The Water Was Wide” where the boundaries--formerly constricting in the earlier cycles--are visually crossed or disappear entirely under layers of opaque pigment. Like an archeological site, where one removes layers of stone and earth to reveal cultures from earlier times, the color theoretically could be scraped off to reveal a former version of truth in time. Instead of travelling through the different points of view in a long horizontal stretch of canvas, matters of time, conflicting points of view and perspective are organized over each other. The “Letters of My Alphabet III”—the third prologue of this type—offer an insight into the new shapes that accompany this period.

By working deliberately with materials that resisted each other, I found a way which each individual mark could maintain its integrity and its representation of an idea or single situation. These individual marks along with all the others could mirror the diversity of conflicting points of view. At the same time a new unified whole could be evoked through the synthesis that took place. While I could continue to express each particular thought or experience through my marks and forms, I could reconcile them, as well—however conflicting the points of view and perspective might have been—simultaneously  into a new unified whole.  In this way, each initial mark was not destroyed but retained at its proper value—my personal visual response to Hegel`s dialectic on the question of unity in diversity.


Margaret Kelley: Scroll, A Leap of Faith I, 1994, Ink on Japanese Paper, 41x121x6cm

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Scroll, A Leap of Faith I, 1994,
Ink on Japanese Paper, 41x121x6cm

Fragile scrolls on Japanese paper explore the meaning and the act of separation in “A Leap of Faith VI: To Part.” A tribute to the poem “Part” by Phillis Levin, the scrolls, unlike any of my former paintings, do not search for a solution while exploring  a problem from different points of view but simply describe a situation—a state of  being. In some of the scrolls excerpts from lines from the poem—hardly decipherable--are intertwined with marks and shapes that search for a way to represent visually the meaning of separation. Like the “Farewell Letters” from the third cycle of “A  Leap of Faith,” the vertical format, alone, stilled the usual horizontal movement of my paintings forcing the act of contemplation to be of more importance than the search.

Unlike the vertical scrolls which hang freely unencumbered by frames of any kind, the horizontal scrolls are contained within wooden boxes. In addition to the scrolls on Japanese paper—which can be rolled shut--collage and paper were adhered to canvas on others creating double-sided scrolls using ink, gouache, tempera and acrylic.


Layers of glazed oil replace acrylic pigments entirely in “A Leap of Faith VII: Roasted Chestnuts and Persimmons.” Although the surface of the paintings are built up with ink and  crayons over collage just as in the preceding five cycle, the over-all level of transparency increases in this period of work. The border on the right side of the painting becomes increasingly lighter as well until it eventually disappears completely in the composition. The one remaining border on the bottom of the composition recalls the solution found in the “Early Works (Munich)” with which another version of the truth was shown. Shapes and forms from past cycles of “A Leap of Faith” as well as from earlier work periods like “Shattered Faith” are used as “quotations” in order to establish a “discussion” during which I could ask questions and search for new solutions. At what point does a form lose its integrity when it interacts with another?  Is it possible, at all, for a form to keep its integrity  when it interacts with another? Can the contrasts and all of the contradictions of a particular experience with all of its complications be maintained as they are synthesized into an higher unity?

Again, as a prologue to this period of work, “The Letters of My Alphabet IV” was created. Just as with any alphabet, the order of the individual paintings can be changed at will to express new “thoughts” in a visual form.


Margaret Kelley: Wie es ist und wie sein könnte 2004, Collage and Ink on Canvas Box, each 40x80x4cm

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Wie es ist und wie sein könnte 2004,
Collage and Ink on Canvas Box, each

Searching for a new technique that would force me to cast off all the acquired habits of decades of painting, I began in 2004 to work with stretched canvas—a surface I had deliberately avoided since my student days—and ink, gouache and tempera.  Experimenting with heated binder combined with ink, I developed a method to work on large canvases in“A Leap of Faith VIII: It Was Like This” continuing to travel around the edges of the canvas boxes as I had done with the wooden boxes of the preceding four cycles of “A Leap of Faith.” The borders which had been a part of the composition of all my work since “A Leap of Faith III: the Farewell Letters” have disappeared entirely with the exception of the lower band of visual information which became a solution, once before, in the early work from Munich.

The idea of three, which developed slowly, was explored within the composition or in the use of multiple canvases. While each canvas alone builds its own horizontal composition, together they ultimately unify to become a painting with a vertical composition. In addition to the content of the paintings themselves, I used the idea of three to represent the idea of diversity while the composition of the completed painting, which united the three canvases, for example, represents the idea of unity. This idea of three would ultimately find its expression through triptychs.

The opportunity to work as an artist-in-residence in a small studio on the grounds of the Casa Zia Lina on the Italian island of Elba became an interlude where I studied the “real” world after years of looking only inward. Surrounded by mountains and the ocean, I continued my experiments with ink and rabbit glue applying the heated mixture quickly on palm-sized pieces of cardboard over collage adding black volcanic sand from the island as well as ochre pigment from the indigenous stone. Not only was an additional vocabulary of marks and shapes created-- “The Elba Alphabet”—but simultaneously, a method developed for further works on canvas boxes that dealt with the idea of the division of three—if only, at this point, within the composition itself.



Margaret Kelley: The Way It Is and the Way It Could be VI, 2006, Ink, Collage on Canvas Box, 50x50x4cm closed, 50x100x4cm opened

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The Way It Is and the Way It Could be VI, 2006,
Ink, Collage on Canvas Box, 50x50x4cm closed, 50x100x4cm opened

The idea of three eventually evolved into triptychs in “A Leap of Faith IX: How It Is and How It Could Be” where the side panels now interact. Unlike the side panels of Gothic altar paintings which remained closed during the week only to open on Sunday, these side panels can be opened and closed at will. When closed, the side panels represent a life constrained, for example, by social norms, restrictions, illness or acts of fate to open to reveal a life free and in constant movement. The medium grew to include the black volcanic sand or pigment from the ochre-colored stone of Elba along with collages with layers of transparent oil as well as ink.  Side panels can be opened or partially closed in countless variations representing the gulf which confronts jedermann between illusion and reality.



The side panels of the paintings of the final cycle “A Leap of Faith X: the Embrace,” no longer shut tightly but open into space. Formally they complete the circle which began in 1984 with the 20 foot long painting, “The Journey” which hung, too, within space, defining space.

Margaret Kelley
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