Notes on the making of Celestial Ground

Sarah Tomasetti, 2022

I travelled to a small village at the foot of the Himalayas with anthropologist Dr Jane Dyson who has been visiting Uttarakh and since 2003. The village occupies three seasonal locations about a mile apart with summer spent at a higher altitude and winter in the lower dwellings. We visited in Autumn so were hosted in the middle village which was only connected by road to the valley below in 2012.

The villagers know every part of the mountainside intimately, not only for the growing of food but also how to adapt the local clays, ochres and lime in the surfacing and decoration of dwellings and temple sites. This series of works emerged from a single day’s trek upwards to a tiny stone temple from which the Himalayas can be seen in the distance in three directions and in the fourth the hills and plains to the South. A puja was performed, sending the deity Parvati on her way over the range to Mt Kailash on the Western end of theTibetan plateau. For locals the gods and goddesses reside in the mountains, and some hold that living at high altitude one is closer to the sacred landscape.

On return to the studio, I searched for a way to work at the intersection of this local mountain imaginary and the rhythm of daily labour, so much of which is working with the living body of the soil. We spent our days with the women, who warmly included me the many communal tasks despite my lack of skill, each form of work circumscribed by the rituals that mark transitions of all kinds.

Initially I set out to chart the topography from the ground to the sky, but then working with my medium of fresco, I began to mix pigments the colour of the local dirt into the plaster, thus embedding both labour and fragility into the substrate of the painting and so emerged the ground/sky series. The lime putty renders the pigment pale as it cures, and something of the sublime nature of the gaze when one looks up from an outdoor cooking fire, or from collecting leaves in the forest seemed more readily expressed by these warm grounds. The topography of each mountain line is made in relation to each fresco surface, which becomes more stone like over the curing process, receptive to time, temperature, the season and humidity in the air. The materiality of the substrate itself, literally returns my work to the ground.

Each painting is also an emotional response to the experience of connection, of being welcomed to take part in daily tasks; to walk the mountain, to grasp hands, to witness the bittersweet moment of a young person leaving home to be married. Thus the mountain imaginary amplifies states of feeling and spirit.

For those interested to know more about life in the region, see the film Spirit, a short documentary made in the village by Jane Dyson in collaboration with filmmaker Ross Harrison.