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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.

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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.

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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.

Treasure

14 Oct

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Anguis fragilis, or the Slow Worm, is no worm at all, but a semi-fossorial (burrowing), limbless lizard. I found this pair of lovely reptiles many moons ago on the Isle of Cumbrae, Scotland whilst teaching the undergraduate Field Course for the Zoology Department of Newcastle University.

They are breathtakingly beautiful creatures;  bronze, muscular and elegant. But one must take great care in handling them – like all lizards they can drop their tails.

Slow worms used to be common on the UK mainland of my youth, but the depredations of the domestic cat have significantly reduced their number.

Various dictionary definitions of worm would have us believe the word as a noun describes a creature which creeps or wriggles, a person who is weak or despicable, or as a verb -describing ‘moving with difficulty’. In Old English or High German, Wyrm means ‘serpent’ or dragon. Poor terms term for treasure.

I learned the concept of ‘finding treasure’ from my mother. who had an uncanny ability to enthuse me in the natural world and matters philosophical. As a single mother bringing up two boys in the 60’s and 70’s she had to watch the pennies. Her way of engaging my brother Tim and I was to say “Let’s go and find a treasure”. We would set off on a ramble up Stanton Hill towards an old lead mine. Whatever the season, weather or mood, we would always find something to wonder at; flowers, seeds, lichens, fossils, bits of galena and felspar, insects – all manner of living and natural things.

When she was asked, years later “How do you explain raising two Zoologists?” Mam said “I made them look at every ant on the way”.

Essentially, she taught us ‘how to get our eye in’. Although this idiom generally refers to someone who is good at hand eye coordination – in sport – I think it is the essence of doing and looking with a prepared mind. An eye for detail, for natural structure and form are essential in my work. So it is with the same delight I experience in finding slow worms, that I solve design and structural problems with wood….and every time I go to the wood yard I am looking for treasure.

This is some of the Yew I am using to make a four poster bed at the moment – it reminds me of a distant nebula viewed through the Hubble Space Telescope.

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An Image from Hubble:

Westerlund 2 — Hubble’s 25th anniversary image

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image of the cluster Westerlund 2 and its surroundings has been released to celebrate Hubble’s 25th year in orbit and a quarter of a century of new discoveries, stunning images and outstanding science. The image’s central region, containing the star cluster, blends visible-light data taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys and near-infrared exposures taken by the Wide Field Camera 3. The surrounding region is composed of visible-light observations taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys.

Our greatest treasure, our children – and I include great ideas and projects in this – find us, if we are fortunate.

My daughter, Polly, was a most able zoologist’s assistant when she was little, braving inclement weather to indulge her father’s obsession with Natural History. I realise now that I was only doing what my mother did, as a parent, and getting her to squat down and look closely.

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The cleft chestnut fence in the background seems to run through my head in this photo taken in 1986 – I do sometimes wish I had listened to my heart many years ago and really looked at this picture. I would have realised that the way to happiness for me was in playing with wood and looking for treasure, it took me a while to get my eye in.

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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.

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.

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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.

Eel

12 Dec

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I was asked to make a writing slope for a fisherman. I came across an end section on a 16 foot slab of sycamore in my timber store, cut from near the root ball of an old tree. Nicely spalted by invading fungi and with a hint of stress figuring – it spoke of stream. At 2 inches thick I was able to chamfer the top and bottom of the piece and turn a little foot on the lathe to make the piece stand up at comfortable angle for the writer.

As I was carving out the groove for the pen with my router I had a thought, “…what if?”. Digging out my pyrography kit I sketched the outline of an eel around the groove of the pen holder.

I was well pleased with the effect.

When asked to describe what I do for a living (a perennial British Obsession used to classify new acquaintances into categories of usefulness, inferiority or ‘be nice and forget’) I use various descriptions depending upon the audience: woodworker, carpenter, cabinet maker, furniture designer, but never do I use the word ‘Artist’.

It seems somehow disreputable. Implying an ability to move sinuously, to evade responsibility in order to avoid actual work, to ‘eel’ in fact.

eel life cycle

Yet eels are the most spectacular fish – able to adapt to both fresh and salt water. In fact the common European eel lays its eggs in the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean, hatching to release larvae which will grow into glass eels. These little creatures swim thousands of miles to the rivers and canals from which their parents journeyed to grow, and fatten and mature. They then spawn in estuaries in the transition zone from fresh to salt water. The life history of the eel is enigmatic – it is only relatively recently that it has been uncovered. Eels taste delicious too – it must be all that maritime migration – a sort of ‘marination’ lacing their flesh with taste from the experience of travel and experiencing such different worlds.

So it is as an ‘Artist’ I will greet 2016 migrating this new piece to the Millennium Gallery. Commissioned by the gallery for an exhibition on Craft and Art it will have forty small paintings inspired by the life, work and thoughts of John Ruskin hanging in it – the contribution of my collaborator, the artist Mir Jansen.

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Some very friendly people came to view this at Exchange Place whilst it was marinating in my studio,  at Yorkshire Artspace’s annual public ‘Open Studios’ event. One visitor liked it so much she has asked me to make a piece  for her new sculpture garden in the new year.

It appears one must adapt, like the eel, to ever changing environmental conditions in order to migrate onwards.

Merry Christmas dear reader, may Santa’s Sleigh bring you joy and inspiration …just like my blue truck does for me. Blue as the Sargasso Sea.

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Odysseus

19 Jul

Iliad and Odysey

‘Aphorism’ – a word first coined by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates (he of the medical oath) is by definition a ‘delimitation’ – an astute, often funny and therefore memorable distillation of a general truth.

“A professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep” W.H. Auden

“Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic” W.H.Auden

“Some of the biggest cases of mistaken identity are among intellectuals who have trouble remembering that they are not God.”  Thomas Sowell

Or on a more practical note:

“Measure twice and cut once”

The mantra of woodworkers and builders everywhere, avoiding waste of costly materials.

 

Our actions and emotions can rarely be elegantly circumscribed in such an aphorism. They are not delimited at all but subject to the temptations of the seven deadly or cardinal sins: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride.

“Annabeth: My fatal flaw. That’s what the Sirens showed me. My fatal flaw is hubris.
Percy: the brown stuff they spread on veggie sandwiches?
Annabeth:No, Seaweed Brain. That’s HUMMUS. hubris is worse.
Percy: what could be worse than hummus?
Annabeth: Hubris means deadly pride, Percy. Thinking you can do things better than anyone else… Even the gods.”
Rick Riordan, The Sea of Monsters

As a school boy I was given a fantastic school prize for English – Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, the epic poem about the Greek Heroes of myth, the capricious whims of the Gods and the epic Trojan Wars. I have to admit, in reading these stories I developed a particular soft spot for Odysseus, the cunning sailor, leader and architect of the ‘Horse’ a device built as a gift for the Trojans. As we all know it hid their doom – Odysseus and a strike force of warriors. The wooden horse was taken behind the Fortress walls by the unsuspecting enemy, thinking it a peace offering, whilst the rest of the Greek navy sailed off. Odysseus and his heroes emerged from the horse and slaughtered the Trojans in the night.

It took the Greeks ten years to achieve this victory, after which they all sailed home.

But Odysseus was not so lucky.

On the long return home Odysseus was waylaid by Polyphemus, the Cyclops and son of Poseidon. Odysseus had to use all his cunning to trick the Cyclops in order to escape and then rescue his men. Without wishing to spoil the story for you, I can say that Odysseus’ cleverness succeeded, but, as he sailed away he made the fatal mistake of boasting about his intellectual prowess. He displayed hubris.

Poseidon heard his boasts and cursed him to roam the seas for an agonising length of time never to return home to his beloved wife Penelope. He encountered monsters, sorceresses, strange beings and lost all his beloved friends and companions in this odyssey. A hefty price for over-confidence.

The other day, a lovely Italian couple, Roberta and Lorenzo came to see me to ask me if I could design and make them a bed. As they are both working away from home they wanted a special piece of furniture which they could retreat to at the end of the day and which in the future they could ship back to Italy.

To help me with the design brief I asked them this:

“Can you give me a clue about yourselves so that I can design something special and original for you?”

Roberta said “Do you know the Myth of Odysseus?”

I said “Odysseus was the King of Ithaca, he made his wife Penelope a bed made from a living Olive Tree.” My heart sang with excitement.

Well, to cut a long story short – I got the commission! I was able to come up with a design that they both liked I think, but rather than be over confident I invited them to put their own stamp on their commission. Here is Roberta Pyrographing Etna and Florence (their birth places) on a piece of lace wood (Penelope weaving her tapestry), and Lorenzo (Odysseus) is carving the whorl on his side of the bed.

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The best cure for hubris is humility, because there is no fun in being alone with one’s pride.

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Tadpoles

17 May

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I have just finished and delivered an unusual little cabinet to a client today. I made it from a truly spectacular piece of locally sourced sycamore.

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Polite people have said “Wow, tadpoles!” when they have seen the unique figuring in the top and second shelf. What created this beautiful pattern is a mystery, but I purchased the board (and several others from the same tree) some time ago hoping that one day I would find a special client with an adventurous and humorous imagination. The reaction of pure delight when I delivered the piece to her today, was brilliant.

This amazing timber makes me think about fertility and metamorphosis.

Remember the first time you found a great dollop of frogspawn in a pond in early Spring? Taking some magical jelly home in a jam jar and watching tadpoles hatch in a fish tank? Eventually the  many tiny froglets undergo a spectacular transformation from egg to tadpole to adult frog. Metamorphosing from a swimming, fish-like body plan suitable for chasing plankton and algae, into an amphibious, four legged, air breathing adult with a sticky projectile tongue suitable for catching dragon flies. Two careers in one life so to speak.

Not many tadpoles survive to adulthood. Most die of disease, starvation, predation, some even cannibalised by their pond mates. Fertility is Life’s answer to Nature’s harsh selection pressures.

“The Sea of Fertility” was Yukio Mishima’s final epic four part novel, finished in 1970. He is recognised as one of the foremost novelists of the 20th Century, and this beautiful novel charts the life of one Shigekuni Honda, who follows successive reincarnations following the untimely death of an old school friend. In four successive books Honda recognises the soul of his friend, and in each story he tries to save the central character. Each time Honda fails in his quest, and each time the soul has metamorphosed in a new and very different character. It is a lovely metaphor for the struggle for life we are all bound by.

Yukio Mishima was nominated for the Nobel Prize on numerous occasions, but never achieved the accolade. He had his critics: “The outstanding weakness of this, the final novelistic effort of Mishima Yukio—and indeed the major failing of the bulk of his work—is its striking inability to rise above the emotional and intellectual limitations of its author.” Marleigh Ryan, “The Mishima Tetralogy,” Journal of Japanese Studies 1.1 (Autumn 1974): 165–173.

To my mind this is like criticising a frog for not remaining true to it’s tadpole origins. Mishima would have quite literally have had to have changed into an entirely different person to have answered the critic’s barb. After submitting the final manuscript Mishima infamously committed ritual suicide or ‘seppuku’ – the final metamorphosis of a tortured soul who, in the end was prepared to put his life on the line.

Our own true nature springs from a fertile inner sea of emotions and dreams – those powerful engines of creativity, and when we find a tadpole in a sycamore tree we glimpse an eternal truth in the heartwood of reality. As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favours only the prepared mind”, or to quote my mother; “Let’s look for treasure”.