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Simple

12 Jul

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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

 

 

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”

 

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 gave up their weekend for whimsy:

Robert Twigg – photographer and film maker;

Maxwell Ayamba – Environmental Journalist;

Emma Condor and Michael Durband (Durbs) – Creative Explorer Activities inventors and valued 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 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 – 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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I shall continue to build bridges using ideas gleaned from dialogue, myth  and the inventions of polymaths and, in these troubled times, engage people to connect.

Its my kind of jazz.

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.