Tag Archives: Sculpture

Oh, but we do!

We were sent a message a few weeks ago.

On a mountaintop in Northern Ireland, a six-foot tall statue of the Irish sea god Manannán Mac Lir was stolen by vandals, ripped away from its foundation overlooking the place where Lough Foyle meets the North Atlantic.

Manannan Panorama

For many of the people reading this blog, this is already old news.  It may even seem strange that I have waited so long to write about it, when the story has begin to grow cold and our interests have moved on to other things.

But I believe that this sort of message demands a response from each of us, and I wanted mine to come from a place other than sorrow and anger.

As an artist, I mourn the wanton destruction of any work of art.  I cannot fathom the impulse which drives people to destroy what others have labored so hard to create.

As a devotee of the ancient gods, as someone who has stared into the crashing waves and whispered prayers of my own into the gusting winds, this attack feels very personal.

And I know a great many others who feel the same way.  Indeed, the global outpouring of grief and rage over this crime has been very encouraging.  It is nice to know that we are not alone, even if it sometimes takes a senseless crime to remind us so.

So yes, there is the sorrow and the anger.

But we have been sent a message, and that message deserves an answer born not from grief or rage, but from conviction!

We’ve seen things like this before.

And we will, without a doubt, see them again.

A work of art designed to raise up the ancient spirit that still burns within a people and a place is desecrated.  The symbol is utterly destroyed and in its place a large wooden cross, with these words writ upon its surface…,

“You shall have no other gods before me.”

A line from the Bible, from Exodus, Chapter 20.  It is part of the first Commandment which the Hebrew god gave, through Moses, to his people.

Here is the un-abridged version for you…,

“I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  Thou shall have no other gods before me.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”

Now, there is a tendency, within certain circles, to only count the part that I highlighted above as the actual commandment.  But the first sentence and the second paragraph, both serve to modify that statement, thus forming a whole.  What it comes down to is, “You dance with the one who brought you, and just leave off with the golden calf stuff already.”

Which is all well and good if you happen to be descended from that subset of Hebrews who are said to have been enslaved by the Egyptians in the 1st millennium B.C.E., but that’s a mighty thin line in an awfully big world.

Of course, we are also told that Jesus is supposed to have opened that Covenant up to everyone, or supplanted it, or possibly both, depending upon which interpretation of scripture you want to go by this week.

But even then, it only counts if you accept Jesus as your savior, and believe that his father is the one and only god in the heavens.  Which is where those of us with polytheistic tendencies, just nod politely and step outside for a breath of fresh air.

Because it’s not our business what the monotheists get up to, as long as they leave us to our business.

Which is where our statue stealing, cross leaving friends, come into play.  Turns out they think that we should, all of us, take that first Commandment, with its various prohibitions against other deities represented by graven images, a bit more seriously.  While most monotheists are content to simply ignore us, some few think it only fair that everyone follow the same rules.

And while I can understand their position, it’s really hard for me to take their dedication to the 1st Commandment all that seriously, when they so blatantly demonstrate their willingness to break the 7th along the way.

“Thou shalt not steal.”

Yeah, sorry guys, but I’m just not impressed.

Manannan Side View

“You shall have no other gods before me.”

And to them, our answer is and must always be…,

“Oh, but we do!  We have before and shall again in the days to come.”

They can pull down the images of our gods.  And we will just raise them up again.  And really, what are they going to do, burn every museum and gallery, the statehouses, the courts and libraries?  Because that is what they would need to do, and it’s not like it hasn’t been done before.  Those vandals, skulking around a mountaintop in Northern Ireland are no different than the Taliban who used dynamite to demolish the great Buddhas of Bamiyan, or the mobs who wandered the streets of 4th century Rome, destroying everything in their path.  They are and have been, all of them, driven by fear.

That is why we must have the strength of our convictions.  Because they do not, or their fear would not drive them so.

Let them come, and we will stand against them.  And when the smoke has cleared, the memory of the gods will persist, as it always has.  Because their blood runs in our veins, and their bones are the framework upon which our society is built.

Yeah, tear down our statues.  Go ahead.

We’ll just build bigger ones.

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Filed under Art, Culture, Ireland, Modern Life, Religion

Sacred Space: By Design

I suppose one would have to say that the most important thing about progress reports is that there BE some progress to report.

In the case of my backyard shrine project, there has been precious little progress of any kind in these last couple months.  I had intended, by now, to have cleared away the space around the central tree trunk, to have mapped out the area, drawn up detailed layout designs, and to have at least begin the process of removing the excess limbs from the upper reaches of the tree.

However, it seems as if every time I set some time aside to work on this project, something else comes up to distract me, or the weather turns against me.  Just recently we had a nasty winds storm down here.  A straight-line wind, preceding a storm cell, blew through my neighborhood at speeds in excess of 80mph, felling entire trees in its wake.  The streets here are still lined with shattered limb and bough.  Several modest sized trees on my own property came down in the storm, and now I’ll have to find the time to clear them out of the way before I can even think about starting new projects.

It is disheartening, but I knew this project might prove itself beyond me.  I knew also that my own motivation would likely prove my greatest obstacle.

I have not given up yet.  Far from it!

Below you will see some preliminary sketch-work I’ve done, showing the dead tree as it currently stands and then some of my thoughts about how it ‘might’ look in the future.

Tree Concept Sketch

My current thinking has a raised, circular platform, around the trunk of the carved tree.  Immediately to the east of that circle and intersecting with it, a second circle, containing a reflecting pool and a raised fire bowl.  In this incarnation the whole thing lines up with sunrise on Samhain.

I am not even close to a final design for this yet.  Another idea incorporates the Celtic Triple-Spiral with three platforms of varied height providing which tie into the three realms (land, sea, sky).  A third (mostly rejected) idea involves a long arbor-like processional that spirals around the central carved tree trunk, which itself rises up from a circular pool of water.

None of these designs do a very good job of interacting with the other features of the yard and house, and it is important to me that the entire space seems to flow, rather than feeling forced.

And so more time at the drawing board is called for.  As is more time in the space itself, wandering around, feeling for the natural ebb and flow that has not quite vanished under the surface.

Time and attention are what this project needs, and both have been in short supply, with many other projects clamoring for attention.

And speaking of…,

You may remember, several weeks back now, that I mentioned a particularly powerful meditation experience, involving a certain sacred well, and Nuada of the Silver Hand.

Since awakening from the vision, I have been looking for a token to place on my home altar, to stand for the ‘fallen king’ who seems to have unexpectedly entered into my personal pantheon.  Thus far, I have found nothing that seems appropriate to the task, but a friend suggested to me that I should perhaps make my own, perhaps casting it out of pewter or some similar metal.

I have very limited experience in metal casting, but I am actually very excited by this idea and have been putting time into researching the methods, tools and materials involved.  I have also been working, in clay, on a preliminary sculpture that may form the basis of a mold in the future.

Nuada Hand Sculpt

It’s a tad crude as of yet.  I’m still trying to decide if I want to stick with just the symbolic silver hand, or work in a more anthropomorphic rendering of the deity himself, but it feels good to be sculpting something again.  When I work on things like this it feels as if something is waking up in me, some part of my inner landscape comes alive, which I have not wandered in what seems like ages.

Maybe these feelings are nothing more than happy accidents, or perhaps that comes to me by design.  In either case, the more I push back against the work-a-day existence that threatens to drown me in needless tedium, the more I try to shape the world around me into something better, the more human and alive I begin to feel.

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This is the fifth post in a series following my progress in the planning and construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along with my progress you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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Sacred Space: Spirit in the Tree

My neighbors must think I’m crazy.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in my backyard recently, staring up at the dead tree which stands at its center.  Every few days, I find myself walking in circles through the high grass (ugh, I really need to mow) and stopping at various points to look up into the barren branches.

After two or three orbits around the trunk of that old oak, I’ll head back inside and go about the business of the day.  The sun may set and rise again a few times before I return, to gaze again into those twisting limbs.

I am looking for the shapes that I know must be hiding under the bark.

I am looking for the spirit in the tree.

One face among the many that adorn the ‘Trinity Tree’ in the churchyard of St. Mary’s in Dingle, Co. Kerry.  Carved by Juan Carlos Lizana Carreño.

One face among the many that adorn the ‘Trinity Tree’ in the churchyard of St. Mary’s in Dingle, County Kerry. Carved by Juan Carlos Lizana Carreño.

In thinking about how we create a sacred space, it seems to me that part of the job of a temple or a shrine is to remove us from the everyday world of our mortal lives.  While the gods may walk among us as we go about our daily routine, we might never notice their presence because we are conditioned, over a lifetime, to expect only the ordinary.

Our ancestors believed that to experience the divine, we must enter into an altered state of awareness.  There are many means to do this, but the temple is the physical manifestation of that altered state.  The temple sets the mood, it removes us from the ordinary and offers us a glimpse of the otherworld where the gods reside.

Dingle Tree Friar

In my travels, I have encountered a few places that felt as if they were set apart from the world around them.  Most I have sought out, but a few I stumbled upon by accident.

Such was the case a few years ago while traveling along the western coast of Ireland.

Upon arriving in the town of Dingle, in Co. Kerry, and checking into our Bed & Breakfast, the kindly Hostess of the establishment sat us down and offered us a number of suggestions as to what my girlfriend and I should see and do while touring the area.

Now I am very much the planner, when it comes to mapping out my explorations, but I do like to leave some room for chance encounters, and something that our Hostess said grabbed my attention.

“Oh, and you really must visit the Angel Trees!”

“Angel Trees?”

“Oh yes, they are like nothing you have ever seen.”

At the top of the Pilgrim Tree we see the pagan Ulster king, Suibhne, transformed into a birdlike creature by the holy magic of St. Ronan.

At the top of the Pilgrim Tree we see the pagan Ulster king, Suibhne, transformed into a birdlike creature by the holy magic of St. Ronan.

In the town of Dingle, in the west of Ireland, off a narrow street that seems more like an alleyway than something you would actually want to drive through, in the garden of a rectory that sits beside a rather pedestrian little church, there is a doorway to another world.

In this otherwise simple garden, stand a handful of tree-trunks, ash and oak, that are carved in such a way that standing among them I felt as if I had been transported somewhere else entirely.

The imagery, while Christian in theme, had a primitive, tribal nature to it, which seems quite out of place with the rather mundane surroundings.  And yet, while you might expect a certain dissonance between the trees and their surroundings, in my experience, the sculptures draw you in to their world, leaving the mortal realm far behind.

Here we see Saint Michael the Archangel, doing battle with the Christian Devil.

Here we see Saint Michael the Archangel, doing battle with the Christian Devil.

And now, several years later, as I gaze up into the branches of the dead oak behind my house, I am looking for the shapes that will have that same effect on those who see them.

When I first began planning this project I assumed that after limbing the tree and shortening the trunk, I would enclose in within some structure.  Yet, thinking back to those unexpected trees in Dingle, I realize how much more powerful it would be, to have an open air temple with that great carved trunk as its focal point.

And so I wander into my backyard at odd hours of the day.

I gaze upward, looking for the shapes that must be hiding under the bark.

I am looking for the spirit in the tree.

In this detail we see the Devil riding upon the shoulders of Death itself.

In this detail we see the Devil riding upon the shoulders of Death itself.

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This is the third post in a series following my progress in the planning and construction of a small temple space on my property.  If you wish to follow along with my progress you may see other posts in this series by clicking here.

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Filed under Art, Ireland, Photography, Religion, Sacred Space, Spiritual Journey, Travel

The God in the Kiln

I miss the fire.

There is something ritualistic about working feverishly on a project, pushing and pulling the resistant clay into the shape you envisioned, fighting against time and relative humidity to dry it gently enough to do no harm, yet quickly enough to load it into the kiln and surrender it into the fires of creation where almost anything can (and will) happen.

I used to think of myself as an artist.  Maybe I still am, I don’t know.

Can you be an artist if you don’t produce art?

If we live our lives by the lessons we learned at the easel, the press and the kiln, do we hold on to our membership in that special community?  Is it enough to see, in the world around us, those shapes and colors and spirits we wish to capture and shape and share with our fellows?

Or does the true power of the artist rest entirely within the act of creation?

Over the years, I have worked to make art with a wide array of materials and techniques.  I have experimented with Pen & Ink, Watercolor, Oils, Enameling, Printmaking, Photography and Digital Media, but by far my favorite experiences were back in my college days, working in the University Ceramics Lab.

Living in the Kiln

Unlike the other departments (say Painting or Printmaking), there was an almost religious feel within our Ceramics Department.  The studio itself was cool and quiet, with that resonant echo one expects to find in a church and a deep, earthy smell evoking nothing less than a field after a light rain.  The folks working there (the long-time clay students), were like the closest of families.  They laughed, teased, wept and consoled one another as if they had known each other, not for a few semesters, but for the whole of their lives.

I came into the studio with the simple intent to work off the required hours in a 3D-Medium called for by my degree plan.  That first semester of my sophomore year was all it took to change everything for me.  I shifted from a concentration in Graphic Design to a purely Fine Arts curriculum with a focus on Ceramic Arts.

I was hooked!

I was drawn to those people and welcomed eagerly into their family.  We shared an addiction to the feel of wet clay beneath our fingers, to the power of moulding and shaping it, of transforming course material into the stuff of imagination.

As I came to spend more and more of my free time in that studio, to learn its ways and secrets, I was bewitched by the ritual of it all.

Ceramics will always feel, to me, like the perfect blending of science and religion.

There is a lot of chemistry involved in the mixing and application of glazes and knowing to exactly what temperature you must reach in the kiln and for how long, to achieve the desired results.  There are charts and graphs to consult and constant experimentation through successive test firings to refine processes and perfect recipes and application methods.

But hiding underneath all the numerical data, there is intuition, passion, magic and the ritual of flame and sacrifice.

And there are the Kiln Gods.

If our ceramics studio was like a temple, then the three old gas kilns we kept there must have been the vessels of our sacred and sacrificial fire.

Bébinn (melodious lady)

Bébinn (melodious lady) – the first in my series of three terra-cotta figures depicting Celtic musicians.

However much you work and slave, building your sculpture (or over the wheel, if you are a potter) there comes that moment when you must load your creation into the heart of the kiln and surrender it at last, to the flame.

In our studio we tended that flame ourselves, volunteering in shifts to see the firing through into the wee hours of the morning.  I remember spending so many late nights listening to the metal outer layers of those old kilns creak as we brought them slowly up to temperature, gazing carefully through the peepholes to see if we had achieved ‘atmosphere’ – that rarified state where the amount of oxygen within the kiln is ‘reduced’ by the consuming flame to the extent that the ‘air’ takes on a seeming liquid quality and the chemical composition within the clay and glazes, begin to change.

I quickly learned that the flame has moods.  No two firings ever went exactly the same and while one might pass with no trouble whatsoever, the next might find you fighting tooth and nail against a kiln that does not want to cooperate.

Adjust the opening at the top of the kiln.  What color is the flame that comes out?  How far above the top of the kiln does it reach?  Adjust the air intake at the base.  Add a little more gas.  Check again.  What does it look like inside?  What do the temperature gauges say?  Damn.  Adjust again.  Back the gas off a little.  Leave the air intake where it is and check again.  Damn!

Sometimes, after a long sweaty night spent climbing up and down a step ladder, making infinitesimal adjustments on a giant metal box that will happily sear inattentive flesh, all you can do is step out into the cool night air for a moment, gaze up at the stars and hope that the Kiln God is doing it’s job.

Ah yes, the Kiln Gods, I have been coming to them, by and by.

This was one of the mysteries which I learned early on, during my time in the Ceramics Studio.  I thought, at first, that this was something particular to our studio, but later learned that the tradition of the Kiln Gods goes all the way back to ancient China, and possibly to the very beginnings of the ceramic arts.

The Kiln Gods are small little figures that you make from the scraps of spare clay, left over from whatever you are working on.  In our studio, they were usually fairly humanoid  but with exaggerated features, maybe a vaguely aztec looking block-head on a tiny body, or just a cone with a sphere on top and the barest indication of a face.  Mine always looked somewhat goblin-like with long hook noses and wide, leering grins.

The exact form wasn’t really important.  In fact, there was an unspoken rule that they shouldn’t be too polished or detailed.  Better they have a rough, unfinished look about them, to distinguish them from the real work.  We really didn’t talk about them much – unless, of course, someone forgot to put one in the kiln before the door was closed and the firing begun.

That’s when things would really go wrong.

Sometimes things explode in the kiln.  Sometimes poorly applied glaze will run and pool or even spit, damaging the pieces surrounding them and resting on the shelves underneath.  There is a lot that can happen in a working kiln, and I’ve seen most of it occur during those firings with an absent Kiln God.

Usually, it was just an honest mistake.  The tradition in our studio was for the God to be the last thing loaded before the heavy metal and brick door was bolted tight.  Yet, on a busy day with five or six people trying to carefully load the maximum amount of work into three kilns as quickly as possible, it could be an easy detail to overlook.

And then there were those who did not like the Gods.  These were usually folks who were new to the department and for whom the Gods reeked of either ignorant superstition or pagan idolatry.  These folks usually learned a hard lesson, often at the expense of their fellow students.

Like it or not, a little idolatry can go a long way.

I’m not sure who makes the rules about these things.  In later years, I have visited studios that do not fire their Gods at all, but place them atop the kilns during firings.  Still others fire and even glaze their gods and then keep them around to decorate their studios.  Our tradition was to smash them when the firing was done.  They had done their job and whatever magic had been in them was now spent.  By dashing them to bits we completed the cycle of their existence and released them from stoney bondage with our gratitude.

I have not been part of a firing, have not participated in that holy ritual of creation through earth and water and fire, for many long years now.

Or have I?

When I think back on those times, when I look at the directions my life has taken me, and the things I have learned and continue to learn, I feel a deep pressure building in my chest.  Sometimes it feels as if an incredible fire is burning there, drawing all the oxygen away from my lungs, and creating something new in the process.

I know what I would like to see in there when the time comes to open that door, but experience has taught me that one can never be sure what one will find inside a kiln once it has cooled down.

I can only watch the stars and hope that the God in the Kiln is doing his job.

Maybe someday I will find the fire again.

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