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18 Mar

“Are you making it pay son?” My Dad, a Yorkshireman, used to ask me.

I took it to mean – ‘How’s the carpentry business going?’

I would rattle off the projects and commissions I was working on and proudly show him pictures of pieces I had made.

In retrospect I think there might have been a deeper meaning to his question.

One of his favourite aphorisms was:

“Life is a shit sandwich son, the more bread you’ve got, the better it tastes”

Pithy.

A better known Yorkshire saying would be;

‘ear all, see all, say nowt; eyt all, sup all, pay nowt

Yorkshire folk are proud of their short arms and deep pockets.

This means that trading in South Yorkshire demands a certain determination if you are trying to make a living with your hands.

So how do I make it pay?

I know a fair few talented artists and craftspeople who struggle. Many of my friends rely on a part time job to supplement their meagre income in a fiercely competitive environment. Some supplement their practise by tutoring and teaching.

Joseph Beuys famously said “Everyone is an artist”. On the face of it, every person has the capacity to be creative. But Beuys was referring to our humanity, not any innate ability to sculpt or draw.

Picasso said:

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Therein lies the key to the dilemma.

Some people want your skill and what you make for bobbins (on the cheap). Some just want to waste your time. Most who approach you may love your work, but have no real idea of what it takes to produce an original, one off piece, using the best materials, your knowledge and skill.

The people who commission my work all have one thing in common – they are prepared to invest their trust. I have the utmost respect for this powerful motivator.

For me the real Art is in the dialogue. Me – listening and responding to the wishes and desires of my clients. The Clients – showing me what they really want.

First I will make a design drawing in ink (if I can draw it, I can make it).

Then if you are happy – I’ll cost it. Time + Materials.

I give you time to consider the costs, accommodate any changes you may wish to make (adjusting costs accordingly). I will accept a deposit to seal the contract. Then I make.

Both of us are expending that most valuable of commodities on the project – time – so it’s a contract.

Clients bring desire, taste, ideas, wishes and hard earned bread to the table. I bring skill, a track record a reputation for a solid build and an ability to listen, plus four decades of experience as a carpenter.

In the end, hopefully, we have a satisfied customer.

Old School.

Mollie, my step mother, gave me this advice years ago:

“If you did a tenth as much as you have done up until now, Henk, you will still be doing twice as much as everyone else”

Slow down, listen, focus:

hear all,

see all,

But say nothing.

Make it pay.

As with bread – you have to prove yourself.

Dad can have the last word: “Anybody can be a busy fool lad.”

HL

Sacrifice

17 Feb

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In Norse mythology, Odin, the father of the Aesir (the Gods), had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. He wounded, then hung himself upon the World Tree Yggdrasil in order to learn the secret meaning of Runes. He journeyed to the roots of the World tree to seek out Mimir at the pool of Urd in order to drink from his sacred well and gain the gift of insight.

The price of Odin’s wisdom was an eye. I have often wondered whether sacrifice is the key to wisdom.

A wise young friend of mine, told me he had made a sacrifice just recently, in order to, in his own words, “be able to socialise better”. A great conversationalist, he dislikes direct eye contact (classic autism).

Years ago I made the mistake of offering to play a game of chess with him, when I was working as a Ranger for the Parks and Countryside department of  Sheffield City Council and he was a volunteer. I do enjoy a game of chess, but within half a dozen moves I realised I was playing against a truly prodigious talent. My friend displayed an intellectual plasticity, and strategic flexibility, I had never before encountered. I resigned quickly, not wishing to experience a crushing defeat – it would have been physically painful to me.

Imagine my surprise then, when he told me recently that he had decided to quit playing chess!

In my case Bipolar disorder was the gift that just kept on misgiving.

I was diagnosed in 2001and when I came out of the psychiatric ward 18 years ago I discovered I had left a trail of destruction around me. Relationships damaged, trusts broken and fear left in its place.

Cognitive therapy helped me to understand that I could perhaps repair some of the bridges I had burned in those years, when I had lived without knowledge of or insight into my condition.

I took the first step by first learning how to listen. The second step was learning to let go.

I let go of ambition. Between 1979 and 1998 I had been a successful academic, but I felt I could not return to this because it was too solipsistic, too antisocial in a way.

I have been told I was a good teacher – a very social profession, but I could not return to teaching principally because the practise itself is emotionally stressful. I don’t have an off switch for needy pupils.

I took professional advice at the cross roads in 2002:

Advisor “What do you really like doing?”

Me:”I like being outside, fresh air, making things and I also like people”

Advisor “Have you ever considered environmental conservation?”

That led to 10 years as a countryside Ranger. Nice job!

I ignored the jibes – “You are the only person I know who has had a career in reverse Henk! Academia, Education, Parkie and now Chippie”

So, I gave up worrying about fitting in.

What did I gain after insight?

In the words of my wife who has loved me throughout the journey:

“What I found was that there was no more walking on eggshells, and not being frightened to say something. The laughter and fun returned.”

Losing  the ‘I’ is no sacrifice.

 

Magus

24 Dec

Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh – the three treasures brought to Bethlehem by the wise men of old, The Magi, to the crib of the baby Jesus.

Magus actually means ‘magician’ or alchemist, a person who transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary.

I give you my own example of a Magus – seen here chatting up the talent and bringing joy and good tidings – my Dad schmoozing Clare, my bride on our wedding day. The dog!

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My father’s charm was pure gold – especially with women. He was always first on an invitation list, because he was such a fun person to have around. He loved Christmas and particularly liked to entertain his family with his wife Mollie, my step mum on the day. Here they are performing Irving Berlin’s ‘We’re a couple of swells’ as Ginger Rogers & Fred Astaire.

Couple of Swells

Frankincense is an aromatic resin derived from the tree, Boswellia serrata found in North East Africa.

The costly scent of Kings and Queens: Nero’s widow burnt more Frankincense than the entire year’s production of Arabia at his funeral and The Queen of Sheba brought it as a gift to King Solomon.

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Memory is evoked by scent because it is a distillation – like truth. It is essence.

The truth of the matter is that my dad was very easy on the eye and mind – here he is in 1947 on a camping trip to Betws y Coed.

Sawdust evokes the memory of his smile for me – especially the scent of sawn walnut or ash from which this set of library steps is made.

‘Solstice’.

the longest night
is but a shy tilt
of Gaia’s Head – her Solstice Song

HL

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The solstice is that quiet celestial cusp – representing the moment when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is pointing furthest from the sun (winter and the longest night) or nearest (midsummer and the longest day). A moment of breathless anticipation and contemplation of when the good memory of summer returns.

Myrrh

A tree based gum derived from a spiny shrub – Commiphora myrrh and rather like Frankincense, but with an altogether different scent has long been used as a healing substance, having antibiotic properties.

Seen here with his grand daughter Polly and great grandson, Joseph, Dad was indeed the bringer of mirth – that greatest of alchemical healing emollients.

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Magi

Three Magi – Melchior (Persia), Gaspar (India) and Balthazar (Babylon)  travelled all the way from Parthia in the East to bring their treasures to a stable in Bethlehem at the epiphany, but our wise man brought all three within his person, all the way from Huddersfield.

Merry Christmas to the memory of David Stuart Littlewood who passed away 25th December 2017, leaving all his treasures with us.

Merry Christmas

H

 

rōnin (浪人

23 Jul

My father is with me now. I carry him in my heart, my head and my hands and despite the very real sense of personal loss at his passing I would like to distil his essence for you.

I have always looked forward to seeing my dad, sharing his taste in Military History and Westerns, good comedy, dance and song, the absurd, a good bacon butty and the hwyl of the Welsh. Most of all our love of Women.

As a boy I was drawn to the history of feudal Japan, to the code of the Samurai warrior class and used to wonder ‘What must it take to face down another warrior armed only with a sword and one’s wits?’

At school I had gained a bit of a reputation as a bloody minded git. I was quite sightly built and rather gobby (I over articulated my opinions) – so I got picked on by much bigger lads. I discovered early on that, like The Borg, (verbal) resistence was futile, but a swift old bunch of fives, or kick in goolies – did the trick. Fight nasty, get in quick and don’t stop, then run like hell.

As a young man I tried to channel this aggression, by taking up Karate. At least then I could legitimately clobber an opponent. Here I am looking very pleased with myself having delivered mae geri (a kind of kick) to score the winning strike against a black belt from another club to help win our team the competition. He had bust my left cheek bone, with Uraken just before, but I kept going anyway. Hey ho!

(HL Second from right, back row)

Mae Geri

Now that I am older, I care less about the fight and more about the discipline required to avoid one. Nevertheless the existence of Ronin, so called masterless samurai still intrigues me. These were skilled samurai who had become drifters, wanderers. Loyal to no-one except to their own code of conduct – abandoned by the administration so to speak.

Kurasawa’s film, Yojimbo is the story of just such a Ronin, a story based upon a real historical figure –  Matsuo Mishimoto – who remained unbeaten as a duellist.

My father’s favourite Western was ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales” with Clint Eastwood as a 19th century American Ronin. A high plains drifter, epitomising the sensibility of an outcast soldier.

 

Musashi

But consider:

Ueshiba quote

Until my father’s passing I had not truly understood these words. Musashi does not mean – go looking for death (savage recklessness). Neither does Uesheba mean ‘be passive and always look for peace’.

No, they both imply that only discipline of the mind and body will place one in the space between Heaven and Hell (Meifumado), the here and now, where one’s knowledge of self can be applied precisely. This is an aspiration of Bushido, the Samurai code.

My wife Clare says of Miyamoto “He must have been a right bundle of laughs”.

My father, who loved Clare as his own daughter, and was, like her a cynic, would have agreed.

So what was Dad’s code?

I believe it was a version of the Six P’s.

Perfect Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance

…like acrobat Blondin here, because he was a pure Showman.

blondel

“Blondin’s first crossing of the Niagara Falls, in 1859, was the most famous feat in a life packed with them and like all the others was painstakingly prepared”

Richard Cavendish | Published in History Today Volume 59 Issue 6 June 2009

Until now I have tended to busk it, the tightrope analogy being ‘slack lining’. Not bothering with a balance pole and fooling around too much. The excuse being that, as a manic depressive, “it’s not my fault I’m like this.” The reality, being that I fall off.

Slack Line

“Collect a swift Mae Geri in the goolies lad.”

We all need to take responsibility for ourselves.

So I think I will start using the big 6P pole more from now on.

The pole representing the love and balancing support of my friends and family, I really need them to negotiate the highwire of BiPolar disorder. More Blondel, less Blondie.

That way I will be able to carry more of them safely across to the other side – like a true Ronin. Like a Dad.

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Plum

16 Jul

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Seen through the eyes of a child kites are wishes on a string. This picture made me think about how insignificant I have seemed. I will be 60 soon and it is time to take stock.

“We are nothing but a fart in eternity” my mother used to say.

Just this weekend my neice, Wren (above) and nephew, Cole played host, supported by their parents Anna and Nathan Littlewood and Nanna, Mollie Littlewood. They had arranged a family get together in their new home near Bristol.

As a result, I enjoyed one of my best extra birthday parties ever.

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We enjoyed a tasty barbecue made by The Dad (Nathan), lovely food and drink provided by The Mum (Anna), followed by pass the parcel and dancing statues, kite flying, colouring in and driving Cole and Wren around in Bertha (the Hilux) plus lots of easy chats, swapping news, sharing views.

Here Aunty Clare is baking cakes with Wren and Cole.

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It got me thinking about my father, David Stuart Littlewood, the founding father of our little clan, his singular achievements and his legacy.

A couple of years ago I asked him what he wanted for his birthday and he said,

“To wake up son”. Sadly he will not be waking up any more.

Both my parents have passed away now and it reminds me of what my wife said when both her parents passed in the same year:

“I’m an orphan now!”. I laughed, insensitively, and said “Don’t be ridiculous!”

I’m not laughing now. Sorry, Clare.

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In 2000 after suffering years of crippling, cyclical depression I almost succeeded in throwing in the towel, predeceasing my parents.

Six months later, after regular visits to a psychiatrist and copious intake of Lophepramine (a powerful tricyclic antidepressant) I was alive, though I could barely function.

My father said “I’d like you to paint me a picture, for Christmas son”.

The picture above is the result. Nathan returned it to me yesterday. I called it ‘Bonsai replanted’ and copied a Haiku by Basho on the reverse:

Even a Black Bull

Will sing a song of Spring

Under this flowering Plum Tree

In my picture the moon is waning, and one can’t be sure whether the tree is alive or not. One of the hills looks like a tidal wave is rolling in. The only redeeming feature is that Orion is prominently represented in white chalk dots (I always think of Dad when I see Orion, The Hunter). Dad kept it alongside a portrait of The Golden Gate Bridge by Simon, our youngest brother. I understand it had a spell in Australia with Nathan and his family.

I never realised until I grew up how much I was loved.

 

We, under Orion

Sing and dance and Love

So many flowering Plums

 

For my Family

x HL 16.07.2018

 

 

Pearl

10 Jul

Dear Reader, I may have allowed a small fragment of grit into my shoe.

I have been searching for an apprentice of sorts for some time, someone to pass on to ‘la source’ – the fountainhead, that which inspires my making. So far, lads and older blokes have approached me to learn the secrets of fettling in wood, but I have so far failed to discover anyone who can “thrill me with their acumen, Clarice”, to mis-quote Hannibal Lecter, in The Silence of the Lambs.

The Micky Mouse character in Fantasia, can do the sweeping up and the making of the tea, the blunting of the tools and the wasting of precious materials, but as soon as he opens his mouth he destroys the magic. The subjects of football, girlfriends, male boasts and fast cars result in me behaving like an utter bastard and scaring them off.

But what if the sorcerer’s apprentice was female?

Speaking of sorceresses, after my mother’s funeral one of her ex teaching colleagues from the Art Department of Mortimer Wilson School – in which my mam was Head of Textiles wrote to me:

“As a teacher your mother was the grit around which pearls formed in the classroom”.

She was indeed the Mistress of Needlework. As her first apprentice, I found this most comforting.

“She had the grit to pray for Judus if she took the notion — there warn’t no backdown to her, I judge. You may say what you want to, but in my opinion she had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand”. Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn.

Sand, or grit is necessary for the formation of pearls.

Pearls C

A pearl forms when a foreign body becomes lodged in the soft tissues of an oyster – a type of tasty bivalve mollusc. In order to prevent irritation and damage to the delicate tissues, the oyster will deposit a barrier around the piece of grit – secreted from cells lining the mantle – the resulting pearly stuff is called nacre. It is the same substance from which the shell is made (mother of pearl).

Over time a beautiful opalescent pearl may form. They can be white, or, less commonly, black

black Tahitian pearls

My mother could not abide sloppy thinking, she demanded the utmost intellectual effort from all her pupils. Her grit, her inability to back down, encouraged original and clear thinking. Pearls of wisdom, if you will.

As her first born, I guess I was her first student, and she was largely responsible for the introduction of one of the the pieces of grit that led to the formation of my character. My father (“I’m Gandalf the White!) introduced the other bit.

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Back to the grit in my shoe, this is Esme McCall (aka Micky Mouse) learning how to build a dry stone wall using local grit stone.

I showed Esme how to build a wall as part of an emergency repair job for a valued client for whom we have done a little woodwork.It usually takes me a week or so to teach people the principles of ‘walling’. It took Esme about half a day to master the basic principles. True Grit, some of the toppers weighed about 50 Kg.

It occurred to me that the job of an artist is to expose the grit in the pearl, by challenging our certainties and comforts. I ran this past Kate Dore, an art historian and friend, who went further and suggested that a good artist needed to be able to expose a lot of the grit to be successful and that it took huge endeavour.

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Esme McCall’s Pear wood ‘begging bowl’

You can fill your mind with pearls, by accepting that the stones/grit within are a vital necessity – the stimulus that leads to a pearlescent end product.

“The mind is like a parachute, it does not work if it is not open”. Frank Zappa

 

Which reminds me, I need to get Clarice’s earrings fixed.

H

Rustic

7 Jul

Les and Ken retired carpenters both, volunteer their skills to Ruskin Land, a fabulous Oak forest belonging to the Guild of Saint George in the Wyre Valley.

Les was a saw doctor for Spear & Jackson in Sheffield. Time-served skills. I was really pleased when the dropped by to help me erect my sculpture ‘Mind’ in a quiet glade underneath the forest canopy. The young lads joining in are architects attending an exciting weekend of creative thought and action at Studio in the Woods.

Back in 2016 artist Mir Jansen said “Would it be possible to make a sculpture from a single tree?” And John Isles, of The Guild said “Why don’t you chose a tree from where we are thinning out the stand Henk?”

This is the piece as I originally envisioned it, in its own landscape not far from the tree from whence the materials came. Les and his team put it all together whilst I stepped back and enjoyed the chat.

It was quite an emotional experience for me, the realisation of a dream. In which I tried to reflect the spirit of John Ruskin and respond to Mir’s question:

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.” John Ruskin

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After the installation I went in to Bewdley for an excellent curry at The Rajah, and camped overnight to greet the dawn in a ridiculously small tent (foreground).

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At five am, one of the architects was up measuring shadows as part of his project and asked me if he could record an interview for a book he was thinking of writing.

As we strolled down to the glade, he asked me to talk about myself and describe the sculpture and it’s design.

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After ten minutes he switched the recorder off, looked inside the structure and said;

“I hope you don’t mind me saying, but it’s a bit …..”

“Rustic?” I interjected

“Yes, its a bit rough and ready”.

I explained that many of my best ideas for furniture came from a good dialogue with a client.  My imagination and skill flourishes best within tight boundaries, because my manic depression is no respecter of too much laissez faire.

My very best clients have demonstrated great humour, foresight, desire, trust and best of all, faith in me, like Mir Jansenn.

I added that because I felled the original tree and cut, steamed and shaped all the pieces by hand leaving tool, saw and jig marks – it was easy for anyone to understand. It was human. Although the thinking behind the design was a little more esoteric.

The architect then said “What you said in the last 90 seconds was really interesting, but I didn’t record it”

I thought about Ken and Les, and my father (a master carpenter) – all men of few words.

‘Aye lad’ I said.

 

We all like a bit of rustic. My wife does a great ploughman lunch. Bluegrass banjo makes my heart sing. I love Westerns, and I yearn for the simple life.

Rough and ready is the only way to survive in the Wild.

Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a sophisticated wine, or a finely made hat and I love the City of Sheffield, it is just that I am not a great fan of over complication.

Here’s to the ‘R’ in Ruskin and Rustic, for we are what we R, and we are at our most creative through dialogue.

To underline the point, here is a dialogue between a couple of trees in Eccleshall woods, Sheffield.

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With thanks to John Isles, Tim Selman, Jenny Robbins, Kate Quinton of Ruskin Land and Mir Jansen, of Holland. Also to John Amos who showed me the ‘R’ for ranger.