Art, bare feet, love:
An interview with Stephen Sinn

About Stephen Sinn SJ

Let me first describe how I met you. One of the homeless at St. Canice’s had taken up daily station outside my window where I sat to write my PhD, smoking while watching from just a couple of metres as though I were a TV. Unable to work, I one day asked if he might sit further back. Through punctuating puffs of his cigarette he dramatically said, ‘Darling, everyone tells me to move on’: with which he stayed put. I first met you when I knocked on your door to complain.

Unexpectedly, you invited me in. After some talk you proceeded to show me the art you had inside. The last was by you. Hanging on the staircase landing, vertical, its thick rustic wooden structure was clad with slate tiles originally transported from Wales 130 years ago for St Canice’s roof, but replaced during renovations. Guttering ran from one side to the other along the lower edge of the piece, as though it still functioned.

Stunned by the art, by our discussion, by the visit – generally — for not following the expected pattern of making a complaint, after giving me your direct line and telling me to phone whenever the problem reoccurred, I trundled out the door in dazed awkwardness. Subsequently, I admit, I took complaints to the office next door whereupon I met Elizabeth and where the procedure was a little more typical.

Once you mentioned whenever you read a typo in a poem reproduced in the church’s bulletin, you feel it physically, as though hit. Can you tell us how art came to be in your life?

Stephen Sinn: My sister Maryrose is a sculptor. My mother didn’t buy art so much as wear it. She would always wear beautiful French clothing, she had a lot of style and we had beautiful homes. All of us have, I think, inherited from my parents a sense of order, a sense of beauty, a sense of space, a sense of hospitality.

Art is often about hospitality – inviting people into a space that is beautiful, creating that space.

In particular, though, I owe my sister Maryrose a great deal. She used to say to me she felt things and she taught me actually to look, to see and to feel things. I remember once sitting at a restaurant with her and someone was pulling a branch off a tree and she was feeling it as though her arm was being pulled off. She taught me that sense of connectedness with our world and the beauty of it that surrounds us.

GH: Was the engagement always easy in that you might have at first found your sister’s reaction strange?

SS: No, it was an insight into how she felt. Yet, engagement with art is never easy, it is always challenging – someone wants you to see differently. That’s what I love about it, it is like coming across something new for the first time. It opens up a whole new world that I hadn’t been in before.

It also challenges me. I can look at something and feel what on earth is happening here – I am not engaged, I don’t know where to start. At which time I like to think two things. Someone has put this out – my sister used to use the language ‘putting a work out’, which is to put yourself out. Someone has put themselves out here, so I want to pay attention just as I would to you, any person that I am talking with, which is the same relationship you have with a piece of work. You give that person space, you become open to that person, you want to attend.

Secondly, when I get a bit stumped I like to think of clothes and what would that piece of work look like as someone’s clothing – you know, as a jumper. So that helps me to see that it is not so serious. People put all sorts of things – patterns and designs – on their clothing and you don’t think twice, just ooh, I like that. It doesn’t have to be important. That’s what helps me when I am stumped.

You notice how artists wear black because they don’t want to make a statement. You are making a statement when you wear something.

In the end, it is about care, it’s about attentiveness, it’s about beautiful materials, it’s about proportions, it’s about a statement, it’s about passion – someone wanting to say something and really say it. It’s about so much.

When I once worked in a factory a poor unfortunate carpenter who probably couldn’t make his living as a carpenter, was working with a gun machining sections of particle board into cheap furniture. Now he could make furniture, he had the skills, but he had to do this. He couldn’t put his heart into his work. Artists put their heart into their work.

It diminishes us to surround ourselves with work that is just opportunistic, that is without any thought for the person using it.

It is a great delight, for instance, to have a carpenter working at the moment to restore the old school chairs that were built in the 1940s. They are wooden, fantastic wood veneer moulded onto strong frames that you could never buy now since they are all steel. The kids had torn bits off the corners while bored in class.

Now, you could just throw them away, but the carpenter has taken the veneer seats off, rounded off the torn edges and turned the seats around and you’ll get a hundred years from those chairs. Who wants to buy plastic chairs  – yet, I almost did.

GH: What struck me about the piece you’d made, where a small portion of the outside, the church’s roof, had been brought inside, was that that which had given shelter for over 100 years was now, itself, being sheltered: the outside protected inside, the excluded included, the trashed treasured.

The piece, however, has since changed, the guttering removed. Now more geometrically abstract, hues of steely tinted dark greys aren’t painted but are real slate, without illusion. Each tile is generally regular while particularly irregular. Yet, this irregularity becomes regular in comparison to the randomly sprouted dried moss florets still clinging to the tiles. The spiralling centrifugal force of the moss opposes the geometry of the tiles. Nevertheless, overriding similarities make fragile a cacophony of striking differences. What brought about this change and has there been a broader change for you, more generally?

SS: I have to admit here, in terms of change, what happened is the guttering got knocked off when we were moving beds up and down those stairs and I haven’t been able to put it back on yet. I’ve still got it because, you know, that guttering was original, it is copper from the 1880s, and I’ve kept the old handmade nails used to make the piece.

But you are right, it does still look interesting. I love that piece. Mind you, I got Ray Ashfield the roofer to build it because he knows how to do it. I didn’t build it. I had the idea, but he understood the slate.

Not only did the slate come from Wales, but it came from the ground in Wales — just as we return to the ground. That’s how elemental that product is. It came across as ballast, for boats. So I thought it was interesting to see its history as material, beautiful material, as a piece; how it has aged over a hundred years. You can see the moss, as you have mentioned. You can see the watermarks on the copper guttering. The slate itself is a lovely surface — I kind of fell in love with it, and Ray made it.

GH: Likewise, has your understanding of you being at St Canice’s perhaps changed by accident — just as the guttering was knocked off unintentionally?

SS: Certainly, over the years, I have changed. My understanding of myself at St Canice’s has changed, yeh, that’s true. I suppose it’s like anything. When you come into a community, you wonder where’s my place here. You might have a role – I’m the priest – but it’s hard to find a place immediately.

What is much more to the forefront now isn’t that question, but these people in the community: what a sacred, core group of people they are and how their presence makes me grow. Their presence has grown bigger and stronger and it has taken me into their graced field, you could say. That takes time. So it doesn’t matter about making my place anymore because they have given me a place.

GH: During mass, when you walk towards the pulpit to read the gospel and give your homily, you are often barefoot. While this may be to evoke the simplicity of attire associated with Jesus Christ, I wonder also whether it allows you to have physical contact with the place from which you speak – a grounding of your spirituality. Is this so? Is it something you have always done? Has it ever raised eyebrows at St Canice’s, have you received comments?

SS: Look, I often receive comments, I must say. I didn’t make a deliberate choice. I can’t remember the first time I did it.

The thing I do remember is my friend Chris Laming came back from India. I was teaching at St Aloysius’ College boys school. There was a big school mass and he was the celebrant. He came in with bare feet and I wept. It was just so beautiful. For him, though, it was the way they always did it.

So that was the first thing. I think the second thing is — when I was at Corpus Christi Greenvale, a home for homeless alcoholic men so they were off the streets, I would walk into the chapel dressed in vestments as a priest, and I remember once one fellow calling out that I looked like a tranny.

For people from the streets, you do look a bit strange as a priest, dressed in all that gear. I just felt, no matter all the gear I am wearing, I am a human being. So I take my shoes off which, when you think about it, are big clodhoppers with mud and dirt that have no place when you come into the presence of the great mystery – it’s just a thing to do in reverence.

The scripture talks about Moses coming before the burning bush and, in a sense, the Eucharist is that bush in whose presence you take your shoes off. It’s exposure to his Presence. Behind this dressed up to the nines person is a human being of the earth. It connects me to the earth. Instead of roaming around in all this garb, it connects me, it grounds me to the earth. They say when you pray, sit on the earth — because that’s truthfulness.

They’re the sorts of things behind it. It’s a statement.

GH: And the comments you’ve received?

SS: Oh, people always ask why, but I just say why not – that’s the way it is. So it’s not a head thing, it is an emotional thing: originally, I wept when I saw my friend Chris. He is such a beautiful, vulnerable and truthful man.

I wish we could all leave our shoes at the door of the church but, you know what, the people from the streets would pinch them. I have often thought of putting up little niches for people’s shoes, it would be good, but they would get pinched for sure.

GH: You have mentioned the care within which you grew up; care, in part, expressed through the environment, the houses, you lived in, the objects that surrounded you, the care your mother took with her clothes. During your time at St Canice’s you have put a lot of creative effort into not only restoring the church but enhancing its beauty. Can you describe for us some of the changes made and their importance?

SS: The first thing I wanted to fix up was the kitchen. It was a cockroach infested health risk. It was not pleasant to be in and it was not well organised; it wasn’t laid out in a manner that was friendly to people and efficient. A floor with cracks in it is difficult to clean and to keep clean. I could go on.

But, you know, I’ve had such great support from people. Headed by Greg Woodburne, five or six parishioners and their friends, some old school friends of Greg and some of the boys I used to teach at school who put on a fundraiser, did the job on that old kitchen. Now, we basically have a new kitchen that is very satisfying to go into, it is quite beautiful. Along the way, I learned a lot about kitchens. Now, we can have parish functions there as well as provide hospitality for street people.

So my focus was first on that and the retreat centre for refugees – to get both places up and going.

The church is the last thing I got to, actually. Not the least important, but if you have one or two hundred homeless people coming for lunch a day, you want to do it properly. You don’t want them to eat in a place that is not fit for them and for the people who volunteer. People are happier there because it is such a beautiful area to be in.

The church, itself, has grown into being something I have really enjoyed because it has such good bones. Someone there in the 1880s, an architect John Bede Barlow, put his heart and soul into that building. Yet, the building had become obscure because of all the damp and water running down the walls, the leaking, the lighting – fluorescent lighting and aluminium additions. Tallow floorboards as thick as my fist were covered in lino that was all marked.

As with most things, I am sure every renovator started by saying I’ll just do the guttering. Well, the guttering became the roof that became the cleaning of the walls that became moving this and changing that and grew into being something I had never really quite imagined.

I think renovations need to be done by someone who loves the building. Fortunately, I had a wonderful architect advising me out of the goodness of his heart, John Moran. And he loved the building. If it is a business for someone where, basically, it is their pay and they don’t like that building, you can get lost. They are only interested in trying to produce money and that puts pressure on me. In the end, I left that.

Basically, I learnt to do it bit by bit myself with advice from friends. We did some very fundamental things like the roof, the guttering, the flashings, the lighting, the sound, the floor. Cleaning made a huge difference, especially with the internal brickwork and stonework. You could see the architect highlighted light and darkness with a dark roof against whitish bricks that had become dark. Once they were cleaned, the whole place became luminous. You could see what the architect was trying to do.

It is wonderful for me to see how beautiful it is now, for people to really experience that. No one walks into that church without feeling it is something quite special.

Yet, you know, it’s not the building, fundamentally, it’s actually the community that prays there. There is a real sense of community, prayer and a presence of the divine.

The space encourages that feeling of love.

GH: In terms of a much more broader community, thankfully, the face of mental illness has drastically changed of late so that those who suffer it do so without stigma. Yet, an extreme mental illness such as schizophrenia is, however, still highly problematic — socially — for a host of reasons, let alone its lack of cure. While denial is often a corner stone of schizophrenia, it is easy for us to criticise those in denial given the tragic circumstances schizophrenia can lead to, while at the same time ignoring our own practise of denial in our so-called healthy lives where it causes indifference, hardship, injustice and isolation.

Having felt deeply for so many people who suffer the repercussions of denial — in your work at Corpus Christi before coming to St Canices and then, again, at St Canices – have you a hint at how we might recognise denial in ourselves; and how we might benefit if we were fearless in facing it?

SS: My critics would say that is the one thing I practise, denial. When I see the street people sleeping on the steps with their mattresses and clothing and dogs I don’t see something squalid, messy, disgraceful. I see something beautiful. In doing so, I am said to be in denial and people get very angry with me.

With people with mental illness, we say they are in denial because we can see something they refuse to admit e.g. that they are schizophrenic. Their refusal is a part of their pathology; they blame someone else for their grievances.

We can be in denial about the deepest needs we have — to be loved, to receive and give love, to be affirmed. When you see two people who are happy and in love with each other you can see that their deepest needs are being met. They can say whatever they need without fear of rejection – there’s no fear.

GH: This denial is not only active privately but also publically in corporate Australia where liability appears to rest on any admission of fault to cause a loss of face, a loss of status, a loss of possible promotion, a loss of profit. Denial, one might say, keeps the cogs of society turning.

Yet, if society was more fearless in facing denial both publicly and privately, might this create a better role model for schizophrenics to face their illness, mend and save themselves and loved ones from so much tragedy?

SS: Schizophrenics are often people who have set up – because their deepest needs haven’t been met – a persona and way of life that is so far away from their feelings and needs. They may not remember them anymore. They just live out of this kind of created persona they have made, that they have built up so they can remain in control. People in denial are always controlling and in control. When you see two people loving one another, there’s no control, they give one another space to be free.

There is that theory that schizophrenics are schizophrenic because there is no place for them to settle. In our society, you have to be so sophisticated, so skilled in the survival skills and you become less than human to survive. With people who are so-called successful you sometimes think hells bells, I wish they were happy, I wish they were human being. They have learnt a lot of skills to do the survival thing but have I met someone? For schizophrenics, where can they land within all this – they have to protect the persona they have created to remain in control. In doing so, of course, they lose touch with any sense of self and groundedness.

GH: Central to works entered into Archibald Prizes is the subject of the work, the person portrayed. That is to say the sitter of a portrait is, literally, central in the picture plane. In the entry, however, I submitted the work’s centre is not located within this symbolic space of privilege, but outside the picture plane in real space, the space in which we stand but where, generally, few look for meaning. This parallels the movement of compassion I have observed of you where, rather than be found in the priestly position of meaningful privilege you are found on the other side, on the side of the other you face – in their space with them, recognising them. In this way, meaning happens in the space within which we stand.

I raise this as many may think recognition happens daily when instead, it is rare. One can spend much time with another but fail to recognise them. Knowing their name and perhaps much more, the gossip, doesn’t mean one recognises them. In a recent YouTube clip entitled ‘You know him’ you describe a woman who frequents St Canice’s, who was at the centre of a raucous upon your return from a retreat. It seemed to me you recognised her, you went beyond yourself to her side to call for her but found she wasn’t there. In speaking with her it seemed she recognised this too, recognised she was at odds with herself. What does the encounter mean for you?

SS: It’s everything. Whether it is called being alongside the other person or being inside their shoes, it is another way of saying love, which means sharing your life. The thing about people living around here on the streets is that I don’t really stand in their shoes – I don’t sleep with them on the steps. Generally, I am not in their position.

Yet I think they know that I am on their side and that I’ll defend them, I’ll give them space so that, if need be, they know they can come to me and I’ll give them a hearing. It’s my life with them.

Just recently a woman on the streets died and her family don’t want anything to do with her, they are not prepared to pay anything for her funeral. So her friends have come to me because they know I’ll be in their corner. I think people need faith in that solidarity. They fundamentally are there for one another, but they do need the outsiders to be on their side, too.

The real reason why they matter so much is that they, first of all, challenge my prejudices and, secondly, they call forth my generosity. They actually ask me or place me in the position of asking myself whether I live for my self, my family, friends — or for others. They challenge me. Not unlike a work of art. I know I can’t and certainly don’t want to change them.