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Gaia

13 Jun

Neried

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 and organise an artistic event with contemporary dancer, Simone Thompson and visual artist Robert Twigg (assisted by Will Armson). There was no script and no direction, just a bunch of creative humans having an open dialogue around a strange structure on a roof top.

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 my talented friends to create something that was dynamic, rooted in the environment and celebrating life.

In searching for a title for the work I was reminded of the power of the Earth Goddess, and here she is:

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”

 

Holly

9 Dec

Do our children bear our sins? According to the Old Testament, they do. The sins of the fathers need to be considered;

(Exodus 20:5)–“You shall not worship them or serve them (false idols, graven images, the wrong team); for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me….”

Whilst I might agree with the notion of collective inheritance and responsibility in a broad scientific or sociological sense – for example, in respect of our responsibility for global warming and environmental degradation, I am constantly amazed by the damage done to children. In the main by well meaning parents gifting them a fine hang-up by ‘taking things out of their hands’.

I met an interesting man, called Ben this week and Ezekiel was watching over his shoulder.


Initially he had  come to my studio with his wife to commission me to make a plaque in the form of a wooden leaf to be hung in the tree planted to commemorate his parents. A sixth sense in me detected devilment in his wife. My favourite spice as you know.

I suggested he came to my studio one evening and make the piece himself. Not very good business sense as I charge more for commissions than for a tutorial.

Ben said “I’m really not practical, it was my father who was”. This piqued my mind.

“Bollocks!” I said unprofessionally.

My guest looked a little nervous, his wife, Petra, grinned wickedly and encouraged him to take me up on the offer.

So one evening I gave him a nice thick slice of 200 year old Holly to play with.

After a bit of ‘humming and hahing’ he agreed to draw something free-hand on the slab. A nice, spiky holly leaf.


He cut it out competently and safely on my band saw – never having used such a machine, sanded it on the bobbin sander (ditto) and would have been happy to take it to the laser artist  I recommended to have an inscription burnt onto it.

I said “Want to have a go at pyrography? Try it out on some scrap plywood”. He did and was brave enough to take his holly leaf and burn the family aphorism on the back. At this point he seemed to relax.

We had drunk several cups of tea by this time and been chatting freely, so he was, by now, open to the idea of finishing the memorial himself. He had a good idea for placing the names and dates on the front around the central rib of the leaf, and happily got on with it. But, after a few minutes he exclaimed:

“Oh no!I have spelled my dad’s name ‘Artur ‘ instead of ‘Arthur’!”

“That is interesting,” I said,  “he is looking over your shoulder from the grave even now”.

I was able to correct the error by making a few small cuts using a little palm chisel. The ‘u’ disapeared and the ‘h’ was restored.

“No one, but us, will know” I said.

Well he went on to finish the piece on his own and was happy with his craftsmanship. He also diddled the laser artist out of a commission.

More significantly, he was able to step out from the shadow of a beloved, but larger than life father figure who I suspect was a ‘Let me do that’ kind of guy.

I’m not. One cannot learn without the opportunity to balls it all up. Error and correction maketh the maker in my view. I bet God (if you believe in him) made a few shit universes before he reached perfection. Sacrificing his son in this one was monumentally stupid given that the chap was a decent carpenter. What a waste!

The H that is in Arthur in Holly and in Henry’s gift was restored.

To quote T H White’s ‘The Once and Future King’;

“The bravest people are the ones who don’t mind looking like cowards.”
― T.H. WhiteThe Once and Future King

Holly is the Winter King:

“The holly and the ivy,

When they are both full grown

Of all the trees that are in the wood

The holly bears the crown”

Sing it out! It’s a great carol.

And so, dear reader, the sin of this father, that of pride – stops with me. I atone through recognition and listening to the hurt in others and by trying to be more woodenhenk and less Ezekiel.

Merry Christmas and may Henry’s gift find you too.

X

H

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.

da-vinci-glider

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.

This Spring I made a Leonardo bridge with my friends in the Shire Brook Valley and this lovely little film records our adventure.

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.

The friends who gave up their weekend for this whimsy were:

Robert Twigg – photographer and film maker; Maxwell Ayamba – Environmental Journalist;  Emma Condor and Michael Durband (Durbs) – Creative Explorer Activities inventors and valued furniture clients (owners of Boudicca); Will Ferraby – Knife Maker.

Other generous people contributed by listening to my thoughts, and by sharing theirs, most notably – inventor and artist Giles Grover.

The ‘Bridge over The River Why’ and the people that helped me are now an integral part of my long term memory. 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 which I live with. I suspect the researchers might be better employed investigating the relationship between the Hippocampus and the corpus callosum – for the right and left bits of my brain are constantly chucking each other ‘off the wall’.

The Hippocampus is named after the wild half-horse, half fish beasts  – Hippocamps – which the Ancient Greeks believed drew Poseidon’s Chariot through the galloping surf in and were inspired by the galloping rollers of wild surf.

hippocampus

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Dear friends, I shall continue to build bridges in 2017 using ideas gleaned from dialogue, myth  and the inventions of polymaths and, in these troubled times, engage people to connect.

Its just my kind of jazz you see?

 

 

 

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

fertility

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.

spermatozoa

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 called it ‘Dr. Caligiari‘s Other 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.

Blind

3 Jul

Dear readers, my dear friend Alec emailed me today and asked me if I was ok, seeing as I had not posted a blog for quite a while. I told him I was suffering from ‘Brexit’ – a condition whereby the brain temporarily exits stage left due to incredulity.

Many years ago my brother Tim came home from primary school to report to our mother that he had been punished for misbehaviour. His teacher, Mrs Kay, had hit him across his hand with a ruler for persistently using the ‘wrong’ colours when colouring in a scene. Orange grass for example, green sky – that sort of perfidy.

The next day our mother steamed in to school and tore several strips off the teacher and the Head. Yet, ever aware of our needs, she asked our neighbour Mike Green (optician) to check Tim’s vision out.


Mike showed my brother a little booklet of Ishihara colour tests and discovered that Tim could read even the most obscure ones (left). Tim is colour blind.

Over the years Tim has turned this minor handicap into a boon, with the leverage of his very flexible scientific mind.

In the 1980’s he was studying for his Ph.D. on oyster biology in Jamaica. He relied on old fashioned histological (microscopy) colour dye test to assess the parasite loads in cultivated oysters (parasites reduce commercial yield). He also needed to ask colleagues to look down his microscope to check the colour reaction, because he could not see it (red).

Eventually he was able to short circuit this problem by developing a new antibody test, that did not rely on colour change, using state of the art molecular technology. His line of research led directly to a very successful career in molecular evolution.

Why might it be useful for all of us to be a little ‘colour blind’?

By now the world has absorbed the shocking reality that the citizens of the ‘Dis-United’ Kingdom have voted to leave the European Common Market in a referendum.

How do we understand this? Have we doughty Brits suddenly found a more lucrative way to peddle our wares and do business?

Well, no. It turns out that a majority of the population are deeply concerned with immigration – to the extent that a significant proportion  may be deeply racist. They would rather pull up the metaphorical rating draw bridge and ‘go back to the way things were’ (three day week, national strikes, bloody awful food, no avocado pears, vile beer….). Clearly some of us are NOT colour blind.

Unlike my brother these people have not recognised the myriad opportunities that colour blindness brings:

Hybrid vigour, cultural exchange, philosophical enrichment, import of skills and the joy of diversity, great food, opportunities to work abroad and so on.

Since the referendum on the EEC at the end of June racist abuse and spontaneous aggression towards Polish, Black, Muslim – indeed anyone not deemed ‘British’ in the eyes of the abuser – have increased significantly.

What are our leaders and betters doing about this? In fact they have no solutions and are busy squabbling over power, convulsed in internecine back biting both Tory and Labour are playing leadership contests. NO ONE seems to be addressing the future of the UK outside the EEC or making a plan.

So this is what I would like to propose:

 

 

1. Let us forge a new, written British constitution of rights and responsibilities that enshrine the kinship of all humans on these Islands of ours. Everyone should contribute, but please let’s pay attention to the writings of our neighbours – the Scottish Philosophers (David Hume, Francis Smith, James Hutton and so on – The Scottish Enlightenment and the Importance of Reason– they have plenty to say on the human condition and represent the very best of British Exports – Our Rational Ideas.

It will be an even bigger disaster if, following ‘Brexit’, the United Kingdom loses Scotland to a devolution vote.

2. Educated people are politely asked to please stop looking down their patrician noses at the people who voted ‘out’ and pay attention to what they are really saying. “Pay attention to us”. They are part of British Society too, they need to be given the chance to articulate their fears, address their legitimate concerns and contribute. In this regard let us re-examine Freedom of the Press. Newspapers are never ‘free’ and are certainly not ‘independent’ – we are still easily duped by propaganda it seems.

3. Declare a state of Emergency Colour Blindness. It is time to see through the skin colour of our brothers and sisters to the human being beneath, to open our ears and our hearts and minds. To put the ‘Great’ back into Britain.

How about a national ‘Ishihara’ test? A little booklet of real British people in which we try to guess their heritage and their contribution – to  remind us that colour blindness is a most desirable trait. It is what we do that defines us, not the colour of our skin.IMG_5287.

Passion

16 Mar

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they cuddle up. Like a big hand shake – my cuddles tend to be bear-like and slightly asphyxiating. A cuddle is an essential part of the day as far as I’m concerned. My wife likes to add a hard squeeze – which, technically, makes her version of a cuddle a ‘cwtch‘ (fair play, the Welsh do much better cuddles than the insipid English).

Carpenters tend to develop a good grip and strong arms over many years of repetitive cutting, lifting, sanding, sawing and carving – actions which make for a  wiry strength. Because these activities are cyclical and repetitive (like breathing), they are meditative too. One can lose oneself and find a kind of tranquility.

henk carving

Thousands of years ago in China (long before before the birth of Christianity) a thinker distilled his thoughts in the spare and beautiful text we now call the Tao the Ching.  Lao Tzu, the author  老子  means ‘Old Master’ no-one knows his real name. The oldest excavated texts of date back to 4th century BC and are written on ancient bamboo silk. These writings are the font of tranquility.

The act of writing, to me is like carving – repeatedly searching for the right shape of a word or sentence; the right syntax, a pithy word association, a metaphor and a mood – and is, in my view, a craft like woodwork.

Craft requires discipline within tightly constrained boundaries, thus the Japanese Haiku poetry form of 5,7,5 syllables really appeals to me when I try to distil my meaning:

 

Like a breath, the Tao –

prayer beads on silk

joined by air, all of us string

HL 9/3/16

 

Constraint is the ‘grain’ of poetry, and in Haiku the grain is very tight – a bit like the timber from holly. The turned footboard pillars of this four poster bed I made are turned from a very old holly timber, as tough as old boots. The pillars represent the Celtic heroes Cuchullian and Emer – meant as inspiration for the bed’s new owners – who, like all our heroes are young and vital.

The frame of ‘Boudicca’ is made from Yew and spalted Ash and it is, I hope, a chariot fit for royalty.

When I make things in wood, I create from a ‘beast within’, a vital energy closely linked to the state of my mind.

Manic depression can be very exhausting – not least for the sufferer’s friends and family – it is not a tame condition. Like riding a flying chariot on axles of holly (as Boudicca did when she smashed the 9th Legion at Camulodunum in AD 60) rage and despair are separated by a heart beat. This is what fuels the ‘beast within’.

There is, however, an emollient more effective than Lithium – it is the Welsh cwtch. For it is from this cwtch that the boiling inner turmoil abates, the beast can purr and the poetry can flow.

Lao Tzu:

Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.

Lao Tzu, Dao te Ching

The Romans never subdued the Welsh, and if 4.5 thousand hardened Zulu Impi led by the redoubtable Prince Dabulamanzi kaMapande couldn’t manage it at Rorke’s Drift then no-one is going to, ever.

The Welsh anthem – Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau – will release the beast within, for the name of the Beast is Passion.