This is the Story of Mike’s Ceiling.

This is the story of Mike’s ceiling. I moved to Portugal in 1989 with my wife, Jane, after we’d been travelling for a year through Africa. On our first day in a rented house high up in the Serra da Sintra we met Nucha, a Portuguese writer, who was married to an abstract landscape artist, Michael Biberstein. We became friends. A few years later, disturbed by the crowds taking advantage of the new motorway from Lisbon to Sintra, we moved to an isolated farmhouse in the rural Alentejo. Some years after that Mike and Nucha found their own isolated millhouse about twenty minutes away.
The friendship continued. The dinners were legendary. It was not unusual to go to Mike and Nucha’s and sit at a table of fifteen to twenty people of all ages and from all walks of life – artists, curators, gallery owners, musicians, writers and archeologists. And then there were the dogs. Originally there were two but Mike and Nucha’s love of dogs became known in the area. Strays found their way to the house and some unwanted dogs were left at their gate. Finally they ended up with 10 dogs. And they were live-in dogs. You’d go to their house for a meal and all the sofas and chairs would be occupied by dogs who, once you’d moved to the dinner table, would lie underneath and fart horribly so that we’d stagger back burying our faces in yet another glass of red wine.
Mike found an old barn in a nearby town, which he converted into a studio and painted bigger and bigger canvases some of which were inspired by the huge skies and space of the Alentejo. It was not unusual for him to paint a triptych of 2m x 3m paintings.
Then in 2009, through an architect friend, he came across the Santa Isabel church in Campo Ourique in Lisbon. The church was in need of some restoration work and above all it had this dark grey oppressive ceiling about 20m x 40m. The idea, hatched between the priest, the architect and Mike, was to create a painted ceiling to cover all 800 square metres. It was going to be Mike’s biggest ever work.
Over the following years they made a scale model of the church large enough that you could walk into it and look up at the ceiling on which Mike had painted his vision for Santa Isabel. This model was shown in the Appleton Square gallery in Lisbon in 2012. I’d seen the church with its dark oppressive ceiling and to walk into that model on that night in the gallery and look up to see Mike’s vision of this vast, open sky was truly inspiring. But the model was probably only 4 square metres and he had to translate that onto 800 square metres whilst being 20 metres off the ground.
Some money was forthcoming, the scaffolding was offered for free, Mike was looking for an artistic team, the project was looking very promising. It was about this time that my wife, Jane, got sick and early in 2013 she was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome, a kind of precursor to leukemia. We retreated to our flat in Islington and waited for the call to begin her treatment – a bone marrow transplant.
This was going to take a year and Jane, who’d always loved our house in the Alentejo, wanted to go there to close it down and see our friends. At the end of April we had a dinner with Mike and Nucha in the house of some close mutual friends, Manuel and Deb, because Jane, with her fragile immune system, couldn’t risk infection from the dogs. It was a poignant moment. We had no real idea when we would see them all again.
Jane and I returned to London and a few days later went for a picnic with our upstairs neighbor and his girlfriend. We came back in the early evening feeling cheerful until we received a phone call from Manuel. He told us that Mike had died. He’d been found lying on the living room floor that morning as if asleep, but he’d suffered a massive stroke.
The first irrational feeling we had was one of anger. We were furious. How could this have happened? What powers were responsible for such a random act? We’d only just been with him five days before. It was maddening.
Jane was very poorly but insisted on going to the funeral, which, being in Portugal, had to be done immediately. Because Mike was a Swiss national they gave Nucha special dispensation, which meant four days. I planned to get Jane there and back in 24 hours.
The priest of the Santa Isabel church had given over one of the small chapels behind the main body of the church for the vigil. We arrived to find Mike’s shell-shocked daughters, his sister and brother-in-law and, of course, Nucha and her family and their friends. We staggered from embrace to embrace like war veterans. We sat in the church for a short service under the dark grey ceiling, which Mike had been about to begin and wondered what had happened to our lives.
Fate had not finished with us. Jane’s treatment started at the beginning of July. The first chemo, to knock out all the leukemic cells in her blood, failed. The next bout of chemo, more powerful than the last, was successful, but her own bone marrow never recovered and she died on 19th September 2013.
In October I went to Portugal and met up with Nucha. Our lives had been turned upside down, fiercely shaken, and cast aside. Nucha couldn’t live in her Alentejo house without Mike and had returned to Lisbon to share with her sister. I was living alone in a house in Oxford, which I’d rented, for what I had assumed would be the year of Jane’s treatment.
Nucha announced her intention to establish Mike’s legacy by getting the Santa Isabel church’s ceiling painted in accordance with Mike’s vision.
She had a lot of expert help. Mike had plenty of friends in the art world and she was never short of advice on how to complete the project. Very early on she established a relationship with the company Factum Art in Madrid who had done projects for the likes of Anish Kapoor so they were used to making things happen on a large scale. What she didn’t have was any help to raise money and to get the project off the ground. She knew that was going to be her task.
It was a long, hard process and Nucha had to learn a lot and get used to disappointment. The world recession and subsequent austerity had hit Portugal particularly hard. Also people weren’t so interested in dead artists who weren’t going to produce any more work. In desperation we even talked about raising some money ourselves and using that to encourage others to put their money in. There were ideas such as selling 800 individual square metre canvases of Mike’s vision. But Nucha soon realized that what was required was a major donor. It was just a question of getting through to the right people.
I don’t know how she did it. As a writer she wasn’t cut out to deal with the rich and powerful, but she was accustomed to persistence. What I do know is that her passion for the project never diminished. It became the most important thing in her life that Mike’s biggest painting got off the ground.
Finally it was the Misericordia (the equivalent of our Church Commissioners) that came through with the money. Earlier this year the scaffolding went up and in March a team of four painters started work. They finished it at the end of May. At the beginning of June I went up the scaffolding with Nucha and some friends and we stood under the realization of Mike’s vision. It was hugely emotional for all of us. We remembered Mike. I remembered Jane. I’ve never felt so proud of a person as I did of Nucha that day. She had made this happen. All that anger and sadness of three years ago dissipated under Mike’s resonant ceiling. She stood, arms outstretched, embracing his and her brilliant creation.
The official blessing of the ceiling will take place during a Mass tomorrow with the Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon, Dom Manuel Clemente at 19.00.
If any of you are ever passing through Lisbon may I recommend that you visit the Igreja de Santa Isabel, where Rua Saraiva de Carvalho and Rua São Joaquim meet, 1250-096 Lisboa. You will not be disappointed and you will realize that absolutely anything is possible if you believe in it enough.

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One Response to This is the Story of Mike’s Ceiling.

  1. isabel says:

    Beuatiful and touching. I will try to visit Santa Isabel next time I am in Lisboa. Just saw pics on fb, it looks lovely.

    My condolences for the loss of your wife and friend.

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