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Cowboy

7 Jun
The lone cowboy sitting astride his steed travelling the vast planes in search of Gold. Well, astride a Stokke kneeling stool anyway.
In the Spring of ’83 my mother exchanged her beloved portable typewriter (a very collectable Olympia) for this huge electric contraption so that I could finally complete my Ph.D. thesis.
We were living in Moss Side, Manchester and I was struggling to comprehend how I could finish my studies with no job prospects having just become a dad and come to the end of my research grant.
In hindsight, I realise I might have been suffering from my first serious bout of depression.
Over the years that followed and following my eventual diagnosis with Manic Depression (or Bipolar Disorder) in 2001, I developed a robust method of sensing when depression was about to strike.
Only last week our first ever, and most loyal customer to our cafe, Tea with Percie took his own life.
He was a gifted artist and beloved by many for his depth and sensitivity. In the end he lost his fight with depression, or the  The Black Dog as some would call it.
Last week I felt the Black Dog leave the artist’s house with the undertakers and the police as they moved his remains from his home.
Clare, my wife, was very upset, she really liked him, and his good friends too were distraught.
I knew I had to do something, because the manner of his passing was too close to home for me. The Black Dog loomed.
I went in to my studio and carefully took apart a distressed but beautiful old Parker Knoll reclining chair, cleaned up all the joints and rebuilt it with a bit of Love. I find this the best glue.
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 I find that if I am quick enough to take action – particularly through making, or repairing – I can usually short circuit the negative thoughts and the looming cloud of depression. Perhaps because focus is needed to make, or repair something with manual skill requires, which requires concentration. This focus allows the black thoughts to slink away.  Depression feeds when the mind is unfocussed – it is why work is so important to us, and unemployment so destructive.
I like to think of it as using the ‘mental floss’ method of escaping the accumulating plaque of depression – just like Cowboy Henk might do:
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Cowboy Henk is the maverick creation of artist Herr Seele and writer Kamagurka. He is a big Belgian Cowboy who finds solutions to life’s problem which invariably involve action, are often absurd rude and somewhat offensive – and always funny.
In the old Southwest of the USA ‘maverick‘ was a word coined to describe  an unbranded steer which had become separated from its mother. Because the calf could not be muzzled (feed from its mother) it made a lot of irritating noise.
James Garner played Bret Maverick in the eponymous hit 60’s TV show.
in which the main character always has an answer to every problem.
Not surprisingly I admired this character greatly as a young man.
Nowadays the word ‘maverick’ has come to mean a lone dissenter, an intellectual or an artist, a dissident – a free thinker.
Other synonyms include – nonconformist, individualist, loner, lone wolf.
I suspect Mavericks are particularly prone to the Black Dog, because they invariably tend to be self reliant, rarely seeking help because they are usually effective at finding their own solutions.
I have been called ‘maverick’ in the pejorative sense many times, not least by close relatives. I am, in some people’s eyes a cowboy, a rebel and a loose canon.
For example;
A few years after I finishing my Ph.D. on that monster typewriter, I was working as a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in a laboratory studying insect vision. It fulfilled the important criteria of giving my daughter and her mum a safe place to live and grow in a lovely city and provide a reasonable standard of living.
Two years in to a three year research contract there I was invited to give a talk to the annual Science and Engineering Council’s annual conference in Edinburgh.
The chair of the session in which I presented my paper was a Professor to whom I had just applied for a new job. At the end of my lecture, which was well received, he drew me to one side and said
“You are nothing like I imagined Dr. Littlewood. Perhaps you need to be more careful whom you chose as a referee.”
I was a bit bemused.
He kindly gave me a copy of the reference written about me by my boss at Newcastle University for the fellowship in the Professor’s lab.
The letter began:
“Dear Sir,
Dr. Littlewood, is completely un-housetrained, he is a maverick…………” and carried on in the same vein.
Needless to say, I was not interviewed for the position, and I began to wonder how many other applications had gone awry because of similar derogatory references.
What I had done to draw this ire?
I had developed a novel brain research technique which allowed neurophysiologists to visualise the connections between nerve cells – the synapses under the electron microscope. At the time my boss’s wife (also a neuroscientist) was applying for a Royal Society fellowship & wanted to put her name to my paper.
I refused as she had not contributed. This is not how to play the game, Henk.
Cowboy Henk.
In addition to the poor references, my contract came to an abrupt end that very Christmas. My boss and Newcastle University ‘let me go’.
I was out on my uppers with a six year old daughter and no roof over our heads – because our accommodation was tied to the job.
As it turned out, this sequence of events was a blessing, because that was when I first started making furniture seriously using the woodwork skills drawn from me by my teacher, Mr Paulson all those years ago and encouraged throughout my life by my father.
I was offered a small corner in an artist’s studio at The Cluny Warehouse, Newcastle upon Tyne and I made a number of pieces of furniture for kind and encouraging paying clients.
Action will always put a smile on your face even if you are screaming inside folks. Turn a bad situation to your advantage by letting your hands pull you free,
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Esme McCall on spoons                                  Cowboy Henk on wagon wheel.

Dues

28 Jan

Henk working

If you want to do something interesting in Life, you’ve got to pay your dues.

This is called experiential learning. I have huge respect for autodidacts (my Father), bodgers, make-do-and-menders, the makers of happy mistakes – in other words those humans with a pioneering spirit.

Too much formal education leads to closed minds in my experience.

Way back in January 2002 I went to see a specialist careers advisor-come-psychometric consultant in London seeking help for a new career direction.

I was asked to send in my curriculum vitae. At the appointment the first thing the consultant said to me was: “Looking at your resume I would say that there is a cyclical pattern occurring over about a three year period throughout your career. You seem to start a new job, be very productive for a while and then, sooner or later you torpedo everything and move on. I’d say you were probably manic depressive.”

I was a bit shocked to be honest.

“Funny you should say that” I said, ” but I have just been diagnosed with Manic Depression.”

I had recently been discharged from a Psychiatric Hospital with a prescription for Lithium carbonate, regular cognitive therapy and ….no bloody job. I was facing some hard decisions about how I was going to make a living. The psychiatrist had advised me that teaching (my erstwhile job) was the worst possible thing I could do – because of the particular pressures experienced by all the people in a school. A person with MD (Bipolar Disorder) is under constant emotional stress (because of the lack of an internal ‘governor’) and therefore finds it difficult to maintain psychological stability.

I had to accept teaching was off the menu.

“But I can’t do anything else!” I wailed to Clare, my wife, to which she responded:

“Don’t be so stupid, Henk! You can do anything you want with your brain you wally.”

 

Impressed by my wife’s pithy rebuke and the  insightfulness of the consultant I asked what job I might be suited to other than academia or teaching.

The careers consultant said “What do you really like?”

I rambled on about challenges, problem solving, team working, communicating and so on and so forth…

She said “This is not a job interview, what do you really like to do?” A tough question because I did not like anything about myself.

So I thought about it long and hard and said:

“I like being outside and I like making things with my hands”

“Well why don’t you think about environmental conservation? You’ll never make much money, but you will get a lot of job satisfaction. With your background knowledge of Natural History, your experience as a teacher and your woodworking skills you should fit right in”

So I did some research and found out that the only way to get into conservation work is by volunteering.

The way you pay your dues in Conservation is by giving your own time for no pay to learn the trade – it sorts out the committed from the merely curious. Since the majority of conservation jobs involve working with and managing enthusiastic volunteers you have to have been one to earn any credibility in this trade.

This made perfect sense to me, and after a little bit of searching I discovered a voluntary position with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (now TCV – The Conservation Volunteers) in Wirksworth, Derbyshire as a Biodiversity Officer.

I flogged my motorbike – a beautiful Honda VFR –

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to learn about billhooks, biodiversity action plans, tool talks, brewing tea with a storm kettle, endless hacking away at rhododendron bushes, how to drive a mini bus, tow a trailer… and in return was able to contribute my carpentry skills to making and hanging gates, wooden bridges, styles, steps and all manner of access barriers – all in the glorious Derbyshire Peak District with a lovely team of young volunteers – project officers and TCV staff. Outdoors, working with my hands.

Fresh air and friendship. The best head juice I know.

Very slowly it began to dawn on me that I could be happy perhaps for the first time in decades.

The door that was opened in my mind by this Zen-like slap to my forehead has led ultimately to me returning to my boyhood passion, via a joyful 10 years as a countryside Ranger. Believe what everyone says, it is the best paid job in the world.

It is remarkable to me that, through great good fortune I now find myself hosting an enthusiastic young carpenter/artist who is paying her dues to the traditions and practises of a road less travelled.

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Esme McCall, December 2017

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”   Robert Frost

 

 

 

Memoriam

4 Jan

IMG_6709.JPGDavid Stuart Littlewood, 21.03.1930 – 25.12.2017 surrounded by his apprentices.

From the left, yours truly, Dad, Nathan, Simon and Tim. Abi, our sister, sadly passed away in 2008 so the picture above is incomplete.

A couple of weeks before Dad’s passing we were all able to get together in Devon to celebrate each other’s connection through David Stuart Littlewood. He made a big effort, coming down from his bed to sit amongst the grandchildren and share our good humour, providing the strong glue that binds us. He was a bit somber at the start.

The remarkable turnaround in my Dad’s mood was largely down to our youngest brother’s insatiable appetite for life. His enthusiasm for pickles, meat pies, a full English Breakfast, long striding walks over the Devon Moors and an encyclopaedic knowledge of beer, old architecture and woodwork was just the ticket. Simon always brings his ‘A’ game to a family gathering.

As you know I believe in Alchemy.

A week before Christmas I was feeling low, and, yet out of the Blue, a young artist/maker contacted me for help. She wrote a mature and erudite email introducing herself and expressing a need to develope her woodwork hand skills. We agreed to meet in my studio in Sheffield.

After some initial hedging around by me, I agreed to let her spend a little time in my workshop, so that I could gauge her quality.

I found the timing of her arrival both fortuitous and perplexing, so I asked my father (as I always do) for advice.

I quietly approached him and asked him if he needed ‘owt.

“Aye, lad, cup of tea”

I brought him a cup of tea – strong one sugar, and as he was sipping it I said:

“Dad, I’m thinking of taking someone on, do you have any advice?”

“Is it a lad?”

“No, its a lass”

“Oh, well, get her to make something and if she’s shite, bin her off”

These were the last words he spoke to me before he died.

I was his first apprentice. He never binned me off. Ever.

There is now a young carpenter honing her craft in my studio, bringing her art and skill to enhance our ‘A’ Game.

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The fish carving was the first piece of ‘wood art’ I made for my gaffer, Mr Poulson, at 11 years of age.

‘A’ is for Alchemy.

Paulo Coelho The Alchemist.

Gaia

13 Jun

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photo credit: Alan Howden

Gaia was the name the ancient Greeks gave to the elemental Goddess of the Earth. She was the mother of Kronos – the God of Time. In 1979 the name was appropriated by the polymath James Lovelock to describe his novel idea that Earth herself behaved like a ‘living’ organism – capable of regulating her own climate through gross perturbation: Gaia, a new look at life on Earth.

In 1979 I was a final year student of Zoology – I thought James Lovelock’s book was sensational. The idea that the Earth’s biota (all living organisms on the planet), the chemistry of inorganic cycles and the physics of the atmosphere all powered by the sun, could form part of a gigantic coherent negative feedback system simply blew my mind.

Negative feedback, the basis of biology and life-chemistry expanded to encompass Earth.

We humans live within a constantly changing environment. Night and day,  cold and heat, moisture and dryness, from pole to pole through temperate climes to the tropics all these geographical locations exert significant physical changes on the organisms that live there. Vertebrate animals – particularly mammals, have developed efficient ways of regulating their internal environment to maintain the best working conditions for the proteins within their cells. Proteins – enzymes and structural molecules – require very narrow parameters of temperature, salt concentration, pH and so on to work at all, otherwise they become ‘denatured‘ (permanently damaged).

We call this cellular ‘fighting back against change’ Homeostasis:

“the maintenance of metabolic equilibrium within an animal by tendency to compensate for disrupting changes”

In March this year, with the help of Yorkshire Artspace I was given permission to set up my oak Ruskin Sculpture on the roof of Persistence Works in Sheffield. To organise an artistic event with contemporary dancer, Simone Thompson. There was no script and no direction, just a few creative humans having an open dialogue around a strange structure on a roof top. Simone brought her own music to dance to:

I’d seen Simone perform at a street fayre in Sheffield in 2015 with her students and was struck by the energy and vitality she drew from her young students and her own wild, eclectic performance when she treated us too her own extemporised dance.

I guess I wanted to create a living substrate – in equilibrium – that would allow us to create something that was dynamic, rooted in the environment and a celebrating of life.

To live in harmony with the Earth and with each other is the single greatest challenge of our age. If we don’t we will perish.

“Nature favours those organisms which leave the environment in better shape for their progeny to survive. James Lovelock”

Bridge

25 Nov

Leonardo Da Vinci is my hero: Artist and Scientist – a genuine Polymath.

Of course I tried to emulate him when I was eight by convincing myself that I could hold a sheet of hard board over my head and glide from the top of a wall over the park near where we lived in Matlock. I had been inspired by his glider (below), and by the works of our model aeroplane enthusiast and neighbour, Mike Green.

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I chucked myself off the six foot wall leading to the swings holding the sheet of hardboard aloft …..and promptly plummeted to earth, losing my grip on the hardboard sheet and falling in a bruised heap. To add insult to injury the board came crashing down on my head.

Leonardo would have laughed. More recently I came across his design for a simple bridge made of poles that interlock in my search for a new engaging sculpture project, following the success of the Ruskin Sculpture.I made a Leonardo bridge with my friends in the Shire Brook Valley. This man in particular helped me by bringing ‘feeling’ to the exercise.

He is both original and aboriginal: sensustricto – he exists in a land from the dawn of time: when instinct was the human imperative. A man unafraid to express his feelings, and respond with loving kindness, creativity in pure form. Will Ferraby is a human Bridge.

This little film of him making a special knife for Michelin Star Chef Michel Roux shows you what I mean.

I thought a modular bridge would be a fine thing to make. Rivers are so important to Sheffield’s heritage and life, connecting people across the many rivers of South Yorkshire has become a deep underlying theme in our landscape. I looked to Leonardo and used natural sustainable materials gleaned from the landscape of South Yorkshire (coppiced hazel), using skills learned as a professional Ranger between 2004 -2013.

Since the making of ‘ The Bridge over The River, Why’ I have experimented with different materials.

The original ‘Bridge over The River Why’ and the people that helped me are now a part of my long term memory.

The project name flowed from my Opa’s experience on The Burma Railway line – just as he had to leave friends to die in the jungle, in order to survive – so we too must move on betimes. Cross bridges/burn bridges.

Memory is a temporal bridge.

Deep within our own brains we have a vital bridge called the Corpus Callosum, which connects the right and left hemispheres. Above, and around it, lies a structure shaped like a cresting wave called the Hippocampus – it is the seat of long term memory and emotion, and an important part of the Limbic System. Recent studies suggest a link between Hippocampus volume and BiPolar disorder the condition I was diagnosed with in 2001.

I sometimes entertain the notion that researchers might one day investigate the relationship between the Hippocampus and the corpus callosum in BiPolar brains like mine – for the right and left bits of my brain are constantly chucking each other ‘off the wall’.

The Hippocampus is named after the half-horse/half fish monsters which tow Poseidon’s chariot through the galloping surf.

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I shall continue to build bridges using ideas gleaned from dialogue, myth  and inventions of and, in these troubled times, engage people to connect with The Old Land.

I also reserve the right to burn a few bridges when I find ‘un-aboriginal’ thought or poisoned ground.

Trinity

12 Nov

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Yggdrasil – the World Tree of Norse Mythology – traditionally a gigantic ash, is the tree upon which Odin hung in his never ending quest for wisdom. He drank from the stream which courses beneath the roots of the great tree and he lost an eye in payment. Mimir is  literally ‘The Rememberer’.

I made this bed as a commission for the generous and thoughtful mother of a beloved daughter and her partner as the seal upon their hard won quest to design and build their own home. The bed frame is made from a very old and spalted Fraxinus excelsior or European Ash, and the posts and book matched laths of the head board are derived from a huge yew tree which had languished in a stack of 4 inch boards in a builder’s garage in Beighton for many years.

When I consulted the family of three, the daughter requested that I carve a celtic knot – also known as a Triquetra – in the foot board.

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The triquetra has a well known modern Christian resonance: Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and in ancient Celtic and neo-pagan traditions representing the Sacred Feminine – the three ages of woman: Maiden, Mother and Crone.

My Mam a single mother in the 1960’s and 70’s used to say that together, she, my brother and I were invincible because we were a ‘three’. She believed that the number 3 had immense power.

Pythagoras taught that 3 is the first true number because it forms the first geometrical figure, a triangle. Odin’s valknut, a symbol of three interlocking triangles is a symbol of great power and significance in Viking Folklore. This one is carved on the Stora Hammars Stone on the Swedish Island of Gotland and it is intimately associated with the All Father.

valknut-stora-hammars-iIn the words of historian H.R. Ellis Davidson, “Odin had the power to lay bonds upon the mind, so that men became helpless in battle, and he could also loosen the tensions of fear and strain by his gifts of battle-madness, intoxication, and inspiration.” She and others interpret the Valknut, with its knot-like appearance, as a symbolic expression of this idea (Ellis Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 147.).

To carve a Triquetra, one has to first draw three interlocking circles to form the outline these are also known as ‘Borromean’ rings (after the Italian family Borromeo’s coat of arms)

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And then you can get down to the business of carving…

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…which involves repeatedly stabbing vertically along the outline of the motif and then gouging into the wood toward the stab line. This takes a lot of concentration, especially when one has already made the foot board as a single modular piece.

Carving directly onto a completed piece of furniture requires concentration and what we might call ‘bottle’ or courage. I learned from my client that her daughter and co-owner of the bed is a hand surgeon – I can think of no greater need for bottle than when working to repair that quintessentially primate character, the hand. The hand is my instrument, my means of expression and so I decided to go for broke and carve straight into the finished head board out of respect for my clients.

Speaking of bottle my younger brother Simon who lives in San Francisco and is both a master carpenter, music maker and brewer of fine Pale Ales might approve of this Trinity – it is perhaps quite apposite for us Littlewood brothers.

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It appears on an American IPA, Ballantine and is of 7.2% alcohol by volume – potent!

 

 

 

 

Conception

22 Oct

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Conception can mean the precise instant a sperm fertilises an ovum to make an embryo, or, how something is perceived – as in a ‘concept‘.

My son-in-law and daughter Alan and Polly Howden told us that they were expecting a baby in Spring – this had the effect of making me feel very happy for them and for my wife and I. Unfortunately my head was instantly filled with woodwork projects ranging from spoons, to bowls, rattles and roundabouts, cots and cradles, basinets and boats, rocking horses and tree houses. My head was literally filled with wooden concepts!

Sometimes, as in the figured sycamore of the little sideboard below, Nature can be quite literal.

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This little sideboard, made for a wonderful and witty client is called, for obvious reasons – ‘Fertility’. When it was finished, she said to me, “The nice thing about this cabinet is that no-one in the whole world will ever have one like it!”

This is how I try to respond to my customers desires. It is the true essence of ‘bespoke’. We spoke and it was, in my hands and thanks to a splendid tree…. to be. Like children and treasure, all my designs are unique.

Recently, I completed a corner cabinet for a new Exhibition at Yorkshire Artspace called ‘Curious Cabinets‘. I thought of it as ‘Mrs Caligiari‘s  Cabinet’.

The organiser, Sharon Moss, a fine artist, arranged an adventurous trip to the Alfred Denny Zoology museum at Sheffield University to inspire the participants.

I make my living as a carpenter and sculptor by ‘making to commission’, this process and the nature of the material I work with are integral to my artistic practise.  It was obvious to me that I needed a client to make for in order to be truly inspired. I was not interested in trying to find a cabinet and fill it with things in order to make a piece of art, or tell an interesting story. To me the cabinet is the concept.

My friend Chiara Bet, an illustrator and jeweller and I had a useful discussion and agreed to be my conceptual ‘client’ – I like working for people with a vivid imagination and I had already made a piece for her in the past. As both of us have an interest in anatomy, the Divine Comedy by the incomparable Dante Alighieri and the bizarre, I decided that I would design a cabinet fit for her work and entertain the curious notion that a cabinet might, in time, be transformed by its contents. I committed several hundred pounds worth of my best timber stock to the venture and a significant chunk of time – about 200 man hours in all. I also enlisted the help of a glass artist Debra Burrell who slumped (curved in a kiln) two pieces of glass for me so that I could make an elegant a bow fronted door.

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Here it is in my studio, and here it is as it appears right now in the Exhibition at Exchange Place, filled with Chiara’s jewellery and some of her drawings hidden away in a secret drawer.

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There are no shelves in the interior, but I have carved deep grooves and folds in the flesh-like lacewood to display the jewellery and give a sense of fertilised and developing embryos.

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A spinal column is visible and at the rear a tail. The legs are ‘Queen Anne’ – so it looks like it might scuttle away when you are not looking. The floor is carved as the interior of a womb, and the whole represents the placental mammalian cabinet of life. Access to the secret drawer ….. well, you will have to come and see for yourself to find out how and why.

This wholly piece of furniture was designed by me from the fertilisation of ideas arising from a dialogue – a concept I firmly believe sits at the root of all intelligence.

The Judges at Art in the Gardens seemed to like it enough to give it a Gold Award at the Sheffield Botanic Gardens this summer.

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Speaking of the Howden/Littlewood concept, I shall enjoy being a making sort of grandfather.