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Nemesis

8 Dec

Way back in the 1990’s I taught at Prudhoe High School in the Tyne Valley. Part of my duties were the pastoral care of Year 10. A young man was sent to me by his form tutor who was very concerned for his safety.

He was in distress and had attempted to self harm.

I suggested we have a chat in the school Greenhouse – somewhere one could have a cup of tea or a smoke, get away from the infernal hustle and bustle of a busy High School.

He proceeded to tell me that he found school so unbearable it had driven him to the brink of suicide. I now know what he meant.

I gave him £5 and said “Why don’t you naff off home with this and don’t come back”

“Are you serious?”

Me, ‘Perfectly, I will speak to the Head and tell him it is a matter of Life and Death. I will of course have to inform your parents as this is a Child Protection Matter. But, from the point of view of your health and safety I’d say getting as far away from school as possible is a priority.’

His parents were mightily relieved when I rang, they had been expecting a crisis.

I managed to persuade a few of his teachers to tutor him to his GCES, outside normal school time, which he coped with. He got A’s and an A* in Art – his best subject as you can see from his portrait of me above.

I had given my entire collection of 2000 AD to him (I had read it from the very first issue). When he eventually left to go to college he portrayed me as the alter ego of Nemesis The Warlock. The alien, fire breathing defender of alien life on planet earth against the tyranny of the Establishment.

The irony of the graphic novel is that Nemesis is male in the magazine, battling with the his arch enemy Torquemada. In fact, according to Greek mythology Nemesis is female – the goddess of indignation against and punishment for hubris.

The irony of the portrait above is that in my role as a pastoral teacher, and young dad, I was very in touch with my feminine, protective side. I think the portrait is very perceptive. It illustrates a divine alchemical principle – that of duality.

We all have a bit of yin in us if we are biologically male, and those of us who are biologically female will have some yang. Some of us have more of the opposite polarity at times than the one we were assigned to by genetics. This does not matter as long as the polar opposites balance. This is the key to happy relations regardless of sexuality, age, creed, or skin tone.

I believe that in my first marriage, my Yin was stronger than my Yang. During my childhood I had been well trained by a very strong woman, my mother, to appease, protect and be biddable. I still have to fight this urge when confronted with a harpy.

In my second marriage I have found someone who is my absolute polar opposite, she is the Yin to my Yang. Thanks to the artist, I understand myself a little better and what i need – this is what good artists do.

yinyang duality

 

Alchemy

29 Nov

Alchemy is concerned with the transmutation of base matter into gold. The search for a Universal Elixir.

Just as barbers were the forerunners of surgeons, so Alchemists were the fathers of modern day Chemists.

You are now imaging a bearded bloke in a cloak covered with sygils, stained hands a hacking cough and a stoop yes?

There were mothers of alchemy as we shall see.

In order to refresh your inner eye I’d like you to consider Madame Socrates:

She is the creation of Mosaic Artist Diana Storey

When I saw her properly in Diana’s studio I was entranced. The sum of experiences and emotions, the responsibilities and burdens, the hurt and joy of her creator were emerging from her head and décolletage in a stunning fractal mosaic. Quantum emotions in glass, mirror and ceramic.

Now consider this bust of Socrates:

“I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only make them think.” Socrates

Jacques Louis David 1787 recorded Socrates’ demise.

The Pantheon (State) of Athens asked Socrates politely to take hemlock and commit suicide. His crime? Impiety (lack of reverence) against the senate, and failing to believe in state approved Gods.

Clearly his peers were fed up with being shown how to think.

Impiety the universal elixir and precursor to the gaining of knowledge.

True Alchemical ‘transmutation’ is, I believe, the preserve of The Divine Feminine:

I was particularly struck by a snarling dog emerging from the back of Madame Socrates head. Diana “Yeah, a previous bloke had a pit bull who would get aggressive if I tried to argue with him”.

Clearly he did not like impiety.

It is my thesis that the feminineprinciple can transmute base substances. E.g. blokes who do not know ‘shit from shinola‘ into men.

It tempers the masculine principle.

This surely applies to all (cis and non cis) relationships too and is not gender specific?

Mother made you by transmuting a piddling sperm and a giant egg into a baby in her womb.

If that isn’t alchemy I don’t know what is.

And for the record here are a couple of Mothers of Alchemy.

Hypatia of Greece

a famous mathematician, with a hairdo consilient with Madam Socrates (Health and Safety 350 AD style) and,

3rd century Mary the Prophetess’s who perfected a mercury distillation apparatus:

Mothers of Alchemy, we need to find more!

Epiphany

15 Nov

Every moment is an epiphany for a 7 month old baby boy. Joseph has wears a hilarious frown when he is trying to absorb something new, like his grandfather’s goatee for example.

As an adult it is less common to enjoy such a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment – sensu stricto it means a complete and dramatic reversal, from an enemy to an advocate – as in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus in the New Testament.

I envy babies their credulity.

Many years ago I had my own epiphany in relation to my mental health. My dear wife, Clare, after months of trauma, had been forced to call a Doctor to have me sectioned. She tells me it was the hardest thing she has ever had to do.

In the late summer of 2001 I had been acting very oddly for months. I had not been sleeping, I was delusional – living through a protracted manic episode which ended, finally, in full blown psychosis.

To put it into context, when the Doctors and Social Workers arrived at our home I was wandering about the garden, butt naked trying to deduce the square root of pi from the proportions of the hat band of my Borsalino Fedora.

I was, not to put too fine a point on it, bonkers.

Two years prior to this Clare had gone through another awful period caring for me after I had made a suicide attempt, and, when I finally admitted it, she could not risk leaving me alone for a single second.

Imagine the pressure on her, the immense responsibility of worrying all the time that if she let me out of her sight for a second, I would be lost for ever. The knowledge that if I succeeded in extinguishing myself, she would feel completely responsible.

Mental illness is that cruel – the anguish suffered by the patient is multiplied exponentially in the carer of the loved one.

My own moment of great and profound revelation did not occur until I was in the psychiatric wing of Chesterfield Hospital in 2001.

I had decided to appeal my section under The Mental Health Act 1983 – thus, a social worker came to see me to discuss my case. In context, and to quote a conversation between Dr Ravi Lingam, my first psychiatrist and Clare at the time of my admission:

Dr. Lingam “What is Henk’s worst trait?”

Clare “He doesn’t listen.”

Dr Lingam “Why should he listen when he thinks he knows it all?”

Back in the Hospital the Social Worker said to me:

“Henk, if you are successful in your appeal you can walk out of here and continue to behave like a complete pain in the neck and suffer the consequences. If you are not successful then we can keep you here indefinitely. What you have to consider is, what right have you to continue subjecting Clare, who loves you, to your mental illness and to make her suffer?”

It was this last question that gave me my epiphany.

What right have I to make the one who loves me suffer?

I withdrew my appeal and was immediately taken off the section. I stayed in hospital voluntarily  for 5 weeks and received a clear diagnosis of Manic Depression – or BiPolar Disorder – from a straight talking Psychiatrist, Dr Zaman.

I became in that instant my own advocate and no longer my own (or my loved one’s) enemy.

 

 

 

 

Simple

12 Jul

IMG_0611 (1).jpg

The Xhosa people of Southern Africa gave birth to one of our greatest human beings in Nelson Mandela. They speak the language called Nguni, which is also the common language of the Zulu and Ndbeli. Xhosa have no word for ‘Bridge’, except for…. ‘bridge’. This is surprising to me because the Mandela represents in himself a bridge sine qua non in South African and World Politics – his words and actions led to the reconciliation of white and black people following the dismantling of Apartheid and the building of a new nation state.

The word for river crossing in Nguni is Izibuko. Or a ford, where a body of water can be crossed safely on foot (far away from dangerous Hippos and Crocodiles). A Xhosa artist called Gogo, told me this and she also said that the word has a dual meaning – when spelled ‘Isibuko’ it means – ‘mirrors’.

At the crossing of a body of water do we not meet our reflection?

“Henkje,” my mother used to say ,”language is the key”. An air hostess had to learn quite a few in her day, so I always believed her.

It seems to me, however, that if words like bridge are not ubiquitous in human culture (because we don’t all build the same things, or solve logistical problems in the same way), then how is it possible to get all humans to understand each other before we accidentally recreate the Old Testament myth of the Tower of Babel?


After months of hard work creating commissioned pieces for my clients in my studio at www.woodenhenk.com, I recently awarded myself a few days of play time to pursue my practice.

 

Da Vinci Bridge

I was invited to build a much bigger Leonardo bridge at a public event organised by Ruth Nutter on Saturday 15th July, at Manor Fields Park, Sheffield – The Big Draw, Ruskin in Sheffield. This time I used Bamboo, grass stems instead of sticks from a hazel tree; oriental materials instead of occidental stuff. Lots of youngsters helped to build it and people climbed over it safely, including Ruth pictured here.

During the event a boy asked me, “Who designed it?”

‘Leonardo Da Vinci’, I said, ‘the famous 15th century Italian genius, do you know who I mean?’

“Yes,” he said, looking at me as if I had two heads, “but the bridge is so simple, surely somebody must have thought of this design before?”

“Simple things are hard to invent” I replied.

I suspected the lad had a point. It may be called a Leonardo Bridge, but one suspects that skilful builders like the Chinese and several other cultures may have been building free standing bridges from large interlocking poles for thousands of years.

PuqingBridge

It matters not, for the idea is so elegant and so practical, anyone can reproduce it, and simple ideas become the property of us all in short order.

It is this very simplicity that makes the Leonardo bridge so beautiful, the fact that anyone can make one and actually cross from one side of an obstacle to the other is enticing. Humans are all engineers and the act of making together makes powerful bonds between us.

To quote Willow Ferraby in the film above “As soon as there is a bridge between ‘us’ and ‘them’ there is ‘us’ and ‘the other us”. There is no longer a ‘them’.

As the architect Mies Van der Rohe puts it:

“Build, don’t talk”.

…it will help you to look in the mirror.

bridge in germany

 

 

Gaiao

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. 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”

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.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.

hippocampus

2hippocamp1

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.