‘Life, Death, Whatever’ – a celebration of the diversity of life and the universality of death.

771158sutton-house-little-chamber

Last night I attended the opening of an exhibition called ‘Life, Death, Whatever’ at Sutton House, a 16th century National Trust property in Hackney, London.

It was a fascinating assault on the senses – art, music, herbs, cocktails and poetry, and much, much discussion. Activities and installations were set up throughout the house, including a coffin filled with balls (as in a child’s play area) which you could chose to lie in (I chose not). It sounds wrong, irreverent, and yet the exhibition was so right.

sutton-house

Organised by Louise Winter (creative funeral planner sometimes referred to as ‘The Mary Poppins of Death’) and end of life doula, Anna Lyons, ‘Life, Death, Whatever’ looked at death and grief squarely in the face and prompted all manner of discussion. And that is as it should be, given that it comes to us all no matter ones tastes or sensibilities.

I have carved many headstones for individual clients, and over the past 8 years or so have perceived that the zeitgeist is changing. Instead of being asked to carve gravestones with names and dates plus decorative motif, I am regularly asked to make a sculpture…a private artwork that somehow expresses the character of the person they want to remember thereby.
Fewer people adhere nowadays to common traditions, whether through their religious affiliations or sense of social obligations within their neighbourhood. As a result of this (and some logistical/ red tape reasons) fewer people feel the need to mark the death of their loved one with a gravestone in their local church yard or council cemetery. Instead I receive a flow of commissions for  unique and highly personal sculptures, either to be kept within the hub of the home on desk  or windowsill, or in the garden, as a private, personal sanctuary – accessible both day and night.

It was a huge delight when, after years of resistance, I joined Twitter and chanced upon a whole crowd of individuals who are all, together or individually, following the same path -treating death with whole-hearted respect for the individuality of each person and how they chose to approach the end of their life, whichever path they chose.

‘Life, Death, Whatever’ and the movement that gave rise to this ‘in your face’ exhibition, is not morbid or irreverently ghoulish. Far from it, it is a warm celebration of life’s diverse vitality and offers a sense of empowerment to all.

life-death

Further review of this exhibition

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How I achieve ‘flow’ in my carvings

Focus on silhouette

Alan Moore, author of ‘No Straight Lines’ and ‘DO/DESIGN Why beauty is the key to everything’ asked me to tell him about the carving process and to try and describe the elusive ‘flow’.  As a subject it’s big and pretty intangible, but I’ll try to describe both how I achieve flowing forms, and how this leads me to get lost in the flow of the process.

I’ll write another time about the mechanical, physical act of carving – the flow and twists of the chisel and the rhythmic beat of the hammer or mallet, but for now I’ll talk about what my eyes focus on while I’m working and how I lose myself within this narrow field of focus.
I haven’t tried to put it into words before so I hope it doesn’t sound like gibberish!

When I carve my eyes  concentrate on three particular things (often alternating quickly, but not at the same time).

1.The outline.  The outline of a form changes every time you shift your viewpoint. To use the analogy of a pencil sketch on paper – it is as if every time you shift, even just by a fraction, you have a whole new line drawing in front of you.
I scrutinise the whole of the  outline from one end to the other checking where there’s a break in the flow of the line.  I jump forward with a waxy builder’s crayon in my hand and mark the offending bump. Then I shift my body by a fraction, or turn the sculpture on the turntable, and scrutinise the fresh view that I have. When the sculpture is scrawled with crayon I chisel away the offending lumps and bumps, and begin again the checking process. I do this hundreds and hundreds of times until I am happy with the flowing outline. People looking at the completed sculpture might be unaware of the purity of the silhouette but will subconsciously sense the harmony that a flowing line creates.

2. The flow of the surface.  I try and figure out how the form should flow between the external outlines, whether concave or convex, or  moving from one to the other.
To picture this flow, imagine holding a piece of paper in both hands and flexing it in different directions. I try to get this flowing tension in my form.
The truth is, if you use the first way of looking – eradicating the bumps that disturb the flow of the outline, the surface of the form gradually sorts itself out. But generally carving is a mixture of these two processes.

3. Carving with Light and Shadow. This is the Grand Royale of carving. It almost guarantees that one will achieve flow – both in form, and as in a particular state of concentration. When I have this I work without pause, instinctively knowing what steps to take, fearlessly hacking away great chunks knowing that every thing will meet up harmoniously in the end. Ah, blissful state!
The way shadow falls across the surface describes the quality of the form. If the outline of the shadow is crisp and flowing, then you can be sure that the itself form is fluid and taut.
A good light to carve by makes carving simple – you just refine the shadow (which is strong and easy to see), and the form resolves itself :>)
Bright, clear daylight – preferably raking from the side as in early morning or late afternoon- is best. Alternatively site lamps are good, but best used in dark conditions.

I think daylight is best but I’m not sure if that’s because it is more subtle, or because it is mostly fleeting. A shaft of sunlight falling across my carving, highlighting a flaw that might never be caught again (not until the sculpture is installed in situ and it’s too late to rectify!) prompts avid activity, total absorption while the precious light shows me what I must do.
Though I have used the word ‘flow’ many times, here and in the past, my friend Susan Harper pointed out that this state has been closely analysed by the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. You can read his understanding of Flow and listen to his Ted Talk (the latter half discusses flow).

I hope my description sheds some light on my carving process.

Postscript: If you feel inspired to carve, come on one of my Stone Carving Workshops  :>)

 

 

 

Why take a sketch book when you look at sculpture?

Barbara HepworthIf you haven’t gone yet, and you possibly can – take this last opportunity to see Barbara Hepworth’s exhibition at the Tate. And if you go to see this or any sculpture – take a sketch book and pencil.

Why?

I thought about this as I scribbled furiously, and here are my thoughts;

Looking at sculpture and not sketching is like listening to music and not dancing. Your mind will take in the details, but there it ends. (ok, I want to say ‘but not your soul!’, but that’s not everyone’s cup of tea). What is certain is that trying to record a sculptural form with lines and scribbles and notes makes you look at the object 360 times more intently.

You might want to sketch, but be scared that ‘people will think you look poncey’. Feel the fear and do it anyway! You will be so absorbed with your task that a whole herd of cows could come into the gallery (and judge you) and you wouldn’t notice or care. You will feel great.

The sketches that I am urging you to make are private studies, not intended as artwork in itself, though they might be beautiful in their own right. The point is the process, not the outcome. Even if you never looked again at your scribbles, they will not have been a waste of time: its the act of looking, trying to understand the piece and capture it’s essence that is of value.

There are so many things to look at at once, and addressing each question on paper shows how the different elements relate to each other as a whole. Here are some things to consider when you scrutinise  a piece of art  (and remember much will change each time you shift your viewpoint –

  • What is the outline of the sculpture?
  • What shape the negative spaces? (ie, the gaps between the solid forms).
  • How does the shadow fall across the sculpture, and how does this emphasise the form?
  • Notice the texture. Are the tool marks left from the carving process, or were they added deliberately for effect?
  • Is the piece trying to be a realistic representation? What distortions has the artist made – were these deliberate to emphasis the mood of the piece, or just a failure in translation?

At this point it’s not just about the piece as a physical object but as an artwork made by someone, and how you relate to it on a personal level. If you don’t do this already, here are a few questions you could ask yourself whenever you look at and assess a piece of art-

  • Do I like it?? Whether yes or no – why?
  • What is it trying to represent? Has the artist succeeded?
  • If the sculpture represents a living being , can you tell if they were old or young, thin or curvaceous? In a calm repose, or poised for action?
  • Do you feel pulled to walk around the sculpture to see what is going on on the other sides? Does it work ‘better’ from one side or another? (Hopefully not, in my opinion)
    and most importantly –
  • Does it have a sense of life to it, or does it merely look like a study of something else? This is a really important question. A piece of art could be exquisitely made, but lifeless – or badly put together, but you don’t care – it makes you feel something, it makes you believe in it’s right to exist.

my sketch of BH

I like to take a rotring pencil with me (0.7, H or HB) as they stay nice and sharp. Don’t bother with a rubber as it’s all about the journey and redrawing, redefining your record, adds to the story. Enjoy :>)


Historical recreation – creating new artwork rooted in the past

My latest commission was initially to make an exact copy of a stone lion that had guarded a 15th century doorway in Italy.  However the project soon turned into a more creative challenge – to carve a newly designed lion in a specifically medieval style.

  6a  6d

Not making an exact copy of an existing carving has its benefits – I was able to take into account the client’s individual preferences, and the room in which the sculpture will be placed;  The lion is to sit in a bay window at the front of the client’s house so I placed his tail where it will be seen through the window and turned his head to greet people as they enter the room.

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Though one specific lion prompted the commission, the new design was influenced by several other 15th century examples. My client had seen the Italian antique in an auction catalogue but the carving was weather-damaged with many features worn away. (See the original below, and others further down).

15th century Italian door supportIt wasn’t hard to find similar carvings whose features remain clearly visible.  Lions symbolised courage and nobility so can often be seen on medieval tombs supporting the feet of armoured knights.  Sheltered inside churches their details are often well preserved and a great resource for study.

1bAbove: The tomb of Sir Richard de Vere, St Stephen’s Chapel, Bures, Essex
Below, left to right: St Stephen’s Chapel, Bures, Essex, All Saint’s Church, Leeds, Gloucester Cathedral, V&A Medieval Sculpture

1AAll Saint's Church, LeedsTomb lion Gloucester11Lion in V&A collection

These lions are fantastical.  Few Medieval travellers would have seen a real lion so the sculpted features are based on hearsay, the work of other artists, the stonecarver’s personal taste and the extent of his skill.

When it came to creating a new sculpture based on these medieval carvings my client specified which particular elements he liked or disliked, stipulating that his lion should look thoughtful and definitely NOT CUTE’.  As many of these medieval carvings looked a bit like cats or dogs wearing wigs this was a narrow path to tread.

Creating a completely new artwork that was rooted in a specific historic style raised some subtle issues.  The tomb lions (whose body shape I took for inspiration) stoop under the weight of their knight’s feet.  However raising the head and straightening the body posture had interesting stylistic repercussions; I had to guard against making my upright lion look Victorian, like the proud beasts in Trafalgar Square (below).  It also hindered me to look images of real lions – too many anatomically correct details gave the sculpture an excessively modern appearance.
Trafalgar Sq lion

I came across a similar issue several years ago when reconstructing a damaged low-relief image of Anne Boleyn (see below).  Known as ‘The Moost Happi’ medal it was made in 1534, and is now held in The British Museum. This portrait is the subject worldwide fascination because it bears the only surviving, uncontested contemporary depiction of Anne Boleyn’s appearance.  Knowing the intense scrutiny that my reconstruction would come under I made several attempts to capture her image, each more carefully defined than the last. However, refining her features took away the 16th century style of the medallion and gave Anne’s face a Classical appearance. This version would have pleased legions of fans who wish to believe that Anne Boleyn fitted within modern standards of beauty. However, it would have diminished the authenticity of the reconstruction.

1 High resolution Anne Boleyn The Moost Happi medal from British Museum1
(Left, the original medal in the British Museum. Right, my reconstruction)

As a stonecarver I often look at old buildings and like to think that I can spot and date restored carvings.  Victorian restoration work gives itself away by being too neat, and animals carved in the 20th and 21st century often look unintentionally cartoon-like.  We view animals more often on YouTube than in person, whereas medieval carvers showed a close familiarity with nature.  Their mythical beasts might have been fantastical creations but their features look real. There is an attention to detail, such as the bones and sinews indicated below the surface of the skin, that comes from a daily contact with nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. Contemporary culture is no longer imbued with the life-and-death struggle that pre-occupied our predecessors, and we have swopped a knowledge of natural forms for clean lines and a more sophisticated awareness of style.

Trying to authentically recreate the past is a subtle and subjective art. Artists, writers and film directors face the same challenge when creating new work based on historic events. That is, to try and identify the essential elements, and truthfully convey them to a modern audience. How much leeway is given to engage the viewer or reader is up to the artist or writer. But even with the best intention to represent the past accurately, one cannot help but look at the surviving evidence and focus on that which appeals to our current taste.  Cultural philosopher Susan Bordo has written an interesting examination of how history is reinterpreted and represented according to our own preferences and the age we live in.  In her book, ‘The Creation of Anne Boleyn’ she interviews Hilary Mantel, author of the novel Wolf Hall.  Like all historical fiction the book, and its recent dramatisation, has been the subject of much debate regarding its interpretation and delivery of the past.
Mantel observes; ‘All historical fiction is really contemporary fiction.  We always write from our own time’.
I wonder whether people will look back at my historically based sculpture and date it to the early 21st century?

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You can see a short video showing this lion here
Read about my reconstruction of Anne Boleyn’s Moost Happi medal here