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 called it ‘Dr. Caligiari‘s Other Cabinet’.

The organiser, Sharon Moss, a fine artist, arranged an adventurous trip to the Alfred Denny Zoology museum at Sheffield University to inspire the participants.

I make my living as a carpenter and sculptor by ‘making to commission’, this process and the nature of the material I work with are integral to my artistic practise.  It was obvious to me that I needed a client to make for in order to be truly inspired. I was not interested in trying to find a cabinet and fill it with things in order to make a piece of art, or tell an interesting story. To me the cabinet is the concept.

My friend Chiara Bet, an illustrator and jeweller and I had a useful discussion and agreed to be my conceptual ‘client’ – I like working for people with a vivid imagination and I had already made a piece for her in the past. As both of us have an interest in anatomy, the Divine Comedy by the incomparable Dante Alighieri and the bizarre, I decided that I would design a cabinet fit for her work and entertain the curious notion that a cabinet might, in time, be transformed by its contents. I committed several hundred pounds worth of my best timber stock to the venture and a significant chunk of time – about 200 man hours in all. I also enlisted the help of a glass artist Debra Burrell who slumped (curved in a kiln) two pieces of glass for me so that I could make an elegant a bow fronted door.

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Here it is in my studio, and here it is as it appears right now in the Exhibition at Exchange Place, filled with Chiara’s jewellery and some of her drawings hidden away in a secret drawer.

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There are no shelves in the interior, but I have carved deep grooves and folds in the flesh-like lacewood to display the jewellery and give a sense of fertilised and developing embryos.

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A spinal column is visible and at the rear a tail. The legs are ‘Queen Anne’ – so it looks like it might scuttle away when you are not looking. The floor is carved as the interior of a womb, and the whole represents the placental mammalian cabinet of life. Access to the secret drawer ….. well, you will have to come and see for yourself to find out how and why.

This wholly piece of furniture was designed by me from the fertilisation of ideas arising from a dialogue – a concept I firmly believe sits at the root of all intelligence.

The Judges at Art in the Gardens seemed to like it enough to give it a Gold Award at the Sheffield Botanic Gardens this summer.

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Speaking of the Howden/Littlewood concept, I shall enjoy being a making sort of grandfather.

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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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.

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

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

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

 

Like a breath, the Tao –

prayer beads on silk

joined by air, all of us string

HL 9/3/16

 

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

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

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

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

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

Lao Tzu:

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

Lao Tzu, Dao te Ching

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

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

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…

Source: Passion

Real

1 Mar

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Spring is just around the corner, the daffodils are in the shops (just in time for Saint David’s day) and the rabbits are getting frisky. The rugged rabbit above, sat in the lap of the Bear is called Bunny. He is 58 years old, as old as me, and has been with me since birth. He is  my familiar, a Puca or ‘nature spirit’ (Pookah), a doughty companion of the imagination.

When he was about 7 his head fell off. Distraught, I went to my mother, unable to look at the gory devastation of his stuffing falling out of his torso. My mum was training to be a textiles teacher at the time, so she was well equipped to perform immediate surgery, the butter coloured scarf was her neat way of hiding the stitches in his neck.

At the age of 9 he lost both his eyes in some escapade or other with his pall Henk, and the Surgeon in Chief, darned on a couple of new peepers – the ones you see. When he was twelve he went into enforced exile because ‘The Surgeon’ felt that little Henk now need to become Big Henk as he was going to Grammar School in Autumn of 1969.

Bunny was by then dressed in full Knight Errant regalia of hand knitted chain mail, cardboard armour (including bassinet covered in silver foil) and lance made from Balsa Wood. He was taken astride his steed (a Steiff Donkey) to a local photographer in Matlock and enobled in Kodachrome. Don Quixote had become  Donkey-Hare’s-tale.

I have lost these photographs, but not the memory of my mother’s brilliant and brave parenting in letting me grow up, by getting me to put away a ‘childish thing’.

I absolutely hated Ernest Bailey Grammar School in Matlock. The Masters banned football – only rugby was to be played (although we secretly played soccer with a tennis ball at break) and misdemeanours were punished with the cane or detention, withering sarcasm and disdain were the main fare in lessons. The staff, with the notable exception of the Art Teacher Mr Geoff Smith, The Physics Master Mr. Gregson, the Biology Teacher Mary Downes and the incomparable Mr. Poulson (my woodwork and technical drawing teacher), were as dull as ditch water and mean spirited with it.

Bunny was recently rediscovered. I realised that he is actually a Hare, or Hair-less in his case and that he still is a good pal of mine despite my neglecting his memory. He is the ‘strong silent type’, a ‘good listener’ – sort of how I would like to be, but am decidedly not, my manic depression rendering me unbearably hyper at times and morose and uncommunicative at others.

In rare moments of stillness he speaks to me of a simple notion, beautifully put by Margery Williams in the Velveteen Rabbit

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

 

P.S. Thanks to Giles Grover for pointing me in the direction of this real and wonderful book. The Bear is called Orson, and he belongs to my wife, he keeps the old coot in check.

 

Why?

14 Feb

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The perennial question asked by little children of their parents is ‘Why?’

(Back row, second from left, me aged 4, Takoradi Primary school, reception class, Ghana.

Ankle-biter me: “Mam, why can’t I see God?”

This, after being bollocked for drinking bath water and persuading my pal, Alan to do the same. Innocent? Not in Ghana, where Typhoid Fever and Dysentry were rife. I desperately wanted to travel to Heaven to see God, by train preferably.

Mam, “Henkje (little Henk in Dutch) – you see your shadow? Pick it up.”

I bent down in the blistering African sun to grasp my shadow … “I can’t….”

Mam, “Well God is like your shadow, he is there all the time but you can’t pick him up”

Blinding logic – thus totally satisfied for the time being I stopped trying kill myself and Alan.

Today is the anniversary of my mother’s birthday in Leiden, Holland, 1931 (deceased 7th January 2015). She would have been 85.

I was moved to find a bridge to her departed spirit, so I drove in my truck to Darley Dale in the Peak District. The place where my brother Tim and I grew up.


One of her favourite walks from her home – appropriately named Avalon Cottage – was a meander up to an old lead mine. This place she referred to as the ‘Grand Deadery’. As she put it “An ideal spot for disposing of annoying old people – like parents, boys!”

For at the top of the mine workings is a shaft so deep that it takes 7 seconds from the release of  a lump of foraged Galena to the ‘bang’ on the first landing floor.

Why did I go there today? Well grief is a funny thing, it hits you sideways when you least expect it.


The bond between the parent and this child is always fresh, like the spring daffodils my wife gave me today for my little wander. The Welsh do understand loss so well.

The Bridge over the River ‘Why’ is kindness and love, to ourselves, to our dear friends and to fellow humans in need. Build.

Happy Valentine’s Day dear reader.
Note: All that is known of Saint Valentine is that he was martyred and buried at a cemetery on the Via Flaminia close to the Milvian bridge to the north of Rome on this very day.