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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. 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.

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)

a_borromean_rings_color

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.

1407958803000-ballantine-label-ipa

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 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.

dr-caligiaris-other-cabinet

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 completely 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.

Time

23 Jan

Years ago, as a student zoologist I was friendly with a young physicist – a fundamentalist Christian. I was pretty stuck on Darwin and Wallace’s evolutionary theory and a confirmed agnostic so we had lots of pithy arguments over a pint or three of Boddingtons best bitter in the Barnes Wallace Building – UMIST student union. Our watering hole in the late 70’s.

God, the Nature of the Universe, beer and girls – a great combination.

The evening would always end with us both a bit the worse for wear and with him a little upset.  I was, in his view, going straight to hell and he was going to heaven.

My friend believed in celibacy before marriage, I believed I urgently needed to get laid.

On one subject we did find common ground. We were both fascinated by the Nature of Time and whether it could be perceived.

I argued that because living creatures lack an organ for sensing time, we could, therefore not perceive it directly. Thus a vertebrate or cephalopod eye, in conjunction with the central nervous system converts the electromagnetic energy patterns of light, via chemical reactions and tiny electromagnetic impulses fueled by membrane biochemistry into what we understand to be visual cognition in the cortex. We sense light changes directly.

My friend argued that we could measure time and that it was a fundamental property of the physical Universe. No argument there then.

He agreed that it was changes in the physical world: heat loss, radioactive decay, senescence, rot – governed by the laws of Thermodynamics, that we measure time by. We cannot perceive Time directly, only the changes affected by it.

Of course we are able to deduce that time passes because living things are born, grow old and die, rock formations are generated through chemistry and igneous processes and then are eroded, or transformed under pressure or, again, chemistry. Everything is changing in the universe.

Although we lack a time sensitive organ, we possess a very powerful tool of perception – our imagination.


The thought experiment I used to play with when drinking with my pal was a model I called Flatland.

Consider: we organisms live in a four dimensional universe: 3 cardinal perpendicular axes X, Y and Z of movement and all under the influence of time (the fourth dimension). We can see and feel up, down, left, right, fore and back and around, but we do not ‘see’ or ‘feel’ time – we just know it is there because of constant change to the physical, chemical and biological domains.

In Flatland creatures move and grow in two dimensions – as if restricted to a sheet of paper. Flatpeople would only ever perceive the perimeter of another Flatperson as they bump into each other, and move around them. They would be able to deduce each other’s general shape by moving all around each other. They might even have primitive light sensitive organs that recognise Flatpeople edges.

Consider a three dimensional sphere moving perpendicularly through Flatland. A Flatperson would perceive a point expanding to a circular perimeter and contracting back to a dot before disappearing. They would not be able to perceive that a third dimension exists from this, they know about Time because Flatpeople die eventually. A smart Flatperson might observe that an unusual Flatnomenon had occurred – a body had spontaneously appeared, expanded, shrunk and then disappeared – what could have caused this?

You see the problem? We in our three dimensional physical world are very aware of changes, but we cannot grasp the Nature of Time itself. But although the Flatperson cannot deduce the existence of spheres – they might be able to imagine their theoretical existence and build a 2-D model.

So might we be able to model time as it actually is in 3 dimensions?

As I spend time with my Dad in his 86th year I am aware of great changes. And yet I am also deeply aware that, because I share many of his characteristics, Time itself connects us. I can see the changes I will endure in him.

This awareness is tempered by deep love and affection between us. This I can feel, this I know.

I would be prepared to consider the possibility that Time itself is the best evidence of a God. It is universal, unknowable and connects all living and non-living things.

In the end, Time, like Love heals all.

Curve

1 Jan

A catenary describes the curve adopted by a chain suspended from two points –  gravity acting uniformly along its length. I have been trying to suss out the right curvature for the top rail of a new four poster bed and playing with chains has helped.

Catenary

As you can see, the chain is slightly more curved in the middle than at the ends, like the steam bent lath of oak on top of it.

Catenary curves are important in architecture – particularly in bridge building – because of the way that they resist bending moments. Gaudi loved them so much, all the spires of his great cathedral, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, are based upon the catenary curve – here is his fantastic inverted string model complete with tiny sand bags… a spider’s web of catenary curves.

Gaudi

View of Nativity Façade of Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family (Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família) ( UNESCO World Heritage Site). Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

If you are curious there are many mathematical treatments of catenary curves and their analogies in nature (skeletons). You will find them everywhere if you care to look. The lovely ‘Winking Bridge’ across the Tyne in Gateshead, dogs on leads, electricity cables hanging from pylons…

Gateshead      Catenary curves

I would be the first to admit that I am no mathematician, but I do love symmetry in natural forms. The completed Ruskin Sculpture – Mir Jansen and I will be exhibiting at the Millennium Gallery, consists of a framework of steam bent, thin oak laths on a sturdy base attached to a circular annulus to make a light, airy framework. Within the framework hang a series of paintings by Mir in gouache on panels of oak all cut from the same tree. The paintings appear to float within the interior of the sculpture, each suspended on 3 or 4 powerful magnets.

The laths are identical to the one in the top picture.  They were bent over a hemispherical frame – the slight recoil on removing the dried piece 24 hours later yields a catenary curve  (rather like the opening curvature of the helix generated by the golden mean below). This gives the sculpture great stability and natural spring, and like the Earth, it is, as a result, an oblate spheroid.

Mir and Henk  IMG_4750

The globular gallery is designed with 37 steam bent ribs – a convenient opening at the front for people to step in to structure. I have always thought of it as John Ruskin’s Mind – ideas within leaking out, ideas without leaking in.

The design also allows disabled access as I have taken a bite out of the floor so that you can feel that you are right inside – even in a wheel chair, and sit comfortably too.

But why 37 ribs?

37 is a prime number in the Padovan sequence.

Padovan sequence

The equation for the Padovan Sequence is
 defined by the equation:
P(n) = P(n-2) + P(n-3)            also known as a recurrence relation where every subsequent number depends upon the numbers before it.
with the initial conditions P=(0) = P (1) = P (2) = 1
The first few Padovan numbers are :  1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 12, 16, 21, 28, 37, 49, 65, 86, 114, 151, 200, 265  (the Prime numbers are in Bold)
Another recurrence relation with which you will be familiar is the Fibonacci Sequence:
Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2
with the initial conditions – F0=0, F1=1
giving the series of numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, … (The next number is found by adding up the two numbers before it). Without going into it in detail the formula which allows you to calculate the nth Fibonacci number relies on a special number called phi (1.618), or better know as the Golden Mean. Rectangles with sides 1:1.618 can be used to derive spirals, snail shells and so on.
fibonacci-plant  divine ratio (a sequence of golden rectangles – Yin and Yang)
The Golden Ratio…1.618 (approximately) lies at the heart of proportions of beauty in Greek Architecture.
Greek Architecture
John Ruskin certainly appreciated structure at a deep level, in fact he insisted upon the importance of underlying Natural Laws and Principles in architecture (The Seven Lamps of Architecture)  and it is no accident that the sculpture resonates with the maths. Mir’s paintings reflect other aspects of Ruskin’s thinking … come and see them at the Millennium Gallery from January 23rd 2016 when our piece will be on display as part of an exhibition on contemporary Art and Craft.
This is a chain of thought, I hope you enjoy the links. Happy New Year!
Acknowledgements:
The entire structure was made from a single oak tree – a very kind donation by the Guild of St. George from Ruskinland, through John Isles who supported our work and encouraged us. We were commissioned by Museums Sheffield and generously supported by Arts Council England.

Sun

27 Dec

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Hemingway spent his last birthday in Andalusia, the southern reaches of sunny Spain. A region steeped in Arab influence, Flamenco music and machismo. My wife and I found this lovely bronze plaque in memory of the great novelist just outside the bullring in Ronda a fortnight ago.

Late December and the sun blazing down we explored the building. Clare would not set foot on the sand, it felt macabre to her and not a place for holiday snaps.

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I witnessed a bullfight in 1998 in Madrid – it is not for the faint of heart. The ritualised slaughter of a massively powerful, beautiful animal by a matador and his team of picadors on foot and horse back is supposed to be a demonstration of supreme machismo – literally ‘the sense of being manly’.

The bull does not stand a chance of course – he will die, that is his fate. Sitting in the arena I asked an old Spanish guy next to me to explain the meaning of the bullfight as we watched. He said “Signor, the bull is the man, the matador is the woman”

This surprised me, as you can imagine.

Hemingway was somewhat obsessed with hunting, drinking and death – he was a man’s man. The culture of hunting is still strong in this region of Spain. This is the Hunting Museum in Ronda.

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None of these specimens was hunted for food, they were all killed for trophies. What lunacy, a byproduct of the same machismo which gives us the bull fight, the trophy hunt, the religious fanatic and the terrorist.

The certain testosterone fuelled knowledge that “Might is Right” yields a cult of Death. By killing the trophy hunter satisfies his hunger for power not meat. Taking life to feel alive.

As a professional Zoologist in the past I have collected many species of animals (all invertebrates) in order to understand their physiology, relationships and ecology. I was never comfortable making collections of reference material for the sake of future study. So I did not indulge in this form of esoteric stamp collecting.

To be fair there is not a huge difference between a trophy hunter and a butterfly collector. The only way I could feel happy collecting is with a camera.

What then is the counterbalance to machismo?

Life bursts forth in its fabulous complexity, fuelled by the sun through photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide plus water joined in green plants and algae to make sugars. The start of most food chains. Synthesis and symmetry – mathematical, chemical and physical processes – hinted at by the Arabs who built their palaces in southern Spain.

It was just near here, in the park in Seville that this woman danced for me a ballet of such blinding absurdity that it made me laugh in the midst of suicidal depression.

The counter to machismo is humour. Sharper than the sword wielded by a matador, and pen of a Nobel laureate novelist.

The Alcazar, Seville, Spain.

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