Archive | June, 2015

Faith

28 Jun

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When I was four I was obsessed with the idea of Heaven and very interested in God. “How do you get to heaven?” I would ask my mother. “Is it by train, or by boat, or do you get to heaven by aeroplane?”. I took matters into my own hands one day with my mate, Alan when we drank bath water. In West Africa, where I grew up, this was forbidden, because it could be a sure fire way of contracting typhoid or any number of other deadly tropical diseases. I simply wanted to see how one got to Heaven.

My mother, as she recounted the incident, was at pains to put a stop to these early mystical experiments. When I asked her “Yes, but Mam WHERE is God?” she said to me: “Henkje (in Dutch ‘Little Henk) do you see your shadow on the ground?”

“Yes” I replied

“Pick it up” she said

Apparently, I bent down and tried to reach for my shadow…..”I can’t!”

“Well Henkje, God is like your shadow, He is there all the time, but you cannot pick him up or see him, He is just with you”

My mother in her infinite wisdom would happily engage me in these small philosophical discussions throughout my life sharing her rather impressive knowledge of the Bible (she was truly an Old Testament kind of girl), her understanding of other faiths and the origins of Christianity, Judaism and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace and Blessings be upon his name).

In this Holy month of Ramadan my Muslim neighbours are fasting. In denying themselves food and drink during the hours of daylight according to their teachings they give space in their daily lives for spiritual contemplation. I perceive that it is in what we decide to eschew, that we become closer to our God as humans. There is a rich tradition of asceticism in many of the great faiths, where pilgrims, scholars and holy people deny the flesh in order to move closer to God.

I was asked recently by a young Muslim boy whether I believed in God. I answered him thus “Well, my young friend, no man is capable of knowing everything – therefore it is impossible to deny the existence of God based upon our limited knowledge. This position is called ‘Agnostic’, it is not a belief, rather it is a set of principles based upon logic. But, every human has to have faith in order to meet the challenges of the day. I respect your faith because it gives you Peace.” He seemed satisfied with my answer, I had shown him my shadow, without asking him to pick it up.

Speaking of large shadows, I am engaged at present in the making of a big sculpture for the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield. My collaborator Mir Jansen and I are planning to exhibit the commission in January 2016. I showed her the central piece of the sculpture ( a giant steam bent oaken bower) on Friday – it was the first time she had seen it for real. She had up until that time shown great faith in my design and my ability to deliver as a craftsman.

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Here then is a sneak preview of our exercise in faith. Both of us are investing all our creative resources into producing a piece of Art that can be seen, touched, entered, contemplated and enjoyed by all, for it is a celebration of John Ruskin’s mind. Made from a single oak tree from Ruskinland, Uncly’s Farm in the Wyre Valley, donated by the Ruskin Trust – the Guild of St. George, felled and worked by myself and painted by Mir Jansen.

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Mir is illuminating many oak panels from the tree in the manner of the Old Dutch Masters – who often painted directly onto wood – creating several narrative themes from the work, ideas and legacy of John Ruskin and the Victorian era he influenced. Her panels will be hung inside the sphere, supported by steam bent oaken beams – which currently hang in my studio like the ribs of some beached up wooden whale.

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Art and Craft are coming together supported by generous donations by the Arts Council and the Millennium Gallery and the Trustees of the Ruskin Foundation – if this is not an act of great faith, I don’t know what is.

It is also a meditation on a tree and a mind.

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Ruskin’s view of God was intimately bound up with his contemplation of Nature:

“there is no climate, no place, and scarcely an hour, in which nature does not exhibit colour which no mortal effort can imitate or approach.” His thought that no mortal can convey properly the effects of nature indicates that one must contemplate the higher workings of God in Nature.

In the words of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins (Ruskin’s contemporary):

God’ Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)