The Shape of the Spirit, Viewpoint, May 2019
All copy as provided to publication.
Has a decline in religion led people to find solace in craft, or is making inherently spiritual? Psychotherapist Andrew Samuels argues that holiness is not something found or discovered, but something we make with our hands, through building churches and performing rituals. Archbishop Rowan Williams describes even prehistoric craft as the ‘deeply religious impulse [of] human beings trying to enter fully into the flow of life around them’. That term, ‘flow,’ was coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi to describe our happiest state – that of ‘being completely involved in an activity for its own sake’ – which is almost exactly the definition philosopher Richard Sennett gives to craft. Today, materials and techniques connect contemporary makers to ancient wisdom and the objects they make take on the status of artefacts laden with moral values such as ‘honesty’ and ‘authenticity’. Katie Treggiden speaks to six makers each with a different take on the notion of spiritual craft.
Describing any creative person’s output as ‘the shape of their spirit’, public artist Joel Parkes works with wood from dead trees, stressing it to breaking point and highlighting its ‘flaws’ with metallic flourishes. ‘The monolithic stillness and stoicism of trees represents a concentrated version of how we could live: quietly, in accordance with one another,’ he says. ‘Wood tells its life story through its flesh – the ravages of time; the abrupt schisms which change its shape forever. Trees thrive because of their breaks; they gain a character and form. We humans are very similar; the scars of stresses make us more beautiful – stronger against the storms that seek to knock us down.’
‘All making is an act of play and a reflection of self,’ says artist and designer Dawn Benedick. Her work uses cast dichroic glass that changes colour in reaction to different light sources to draw our attention to the passage of time. ‘People are more sensitive to the changing colour temperature of natural light throughout the day than they realise,’ she says. ‘My work is about tapping into our peripheral senses and heightening awareness of changes in the seasons, atmospheric light and weather. Working with light lends itself to magical experiences, which become a space for viewers to think about their relationship with time in a different way.’
Central Saint Martins graduate Soojin Kang creates woven sculptures inspired by ancient artisanship and emotional sustainability. ‘Weaving is a generative process associated with life force,’ she says. ‘Craftsmanship offers emotional contact between maker and materials. Weaving is slow and thoughtful, which means I can truly engage – carefully giving attention to my work. I like to find beautiful moments in ugliness and recognise that without unhappiness there is no happiness; without the bad there is no good. Life is about balancing elements, and my work is a mirror to the ugliness, prompting moments of beauty. The most important thing I seek is honesty.’
Korean artist Dongchun Lee’s Flourish Wither is an exploration in wood of the passing of time, birth, death, decay and rebirth. ‘Wood has strong religious and cultural meanings, especially in Asia, as a medium of spiritual communication, and yet at the same time has become an important basis for human life in a very practical way,’ he says. Likening art to religion, Lee suggests the artist’s aim is ‘to express something that cannot be expressed’ and sees pieces of jewellery as tiny works of art that carry meaning, symbolism and identity for both the wearer and the maker.
EWE Studio’s Sacred Ritual Objects collection, handmade by local artisans from marble, volcanic stone and bronze, reflects the religious and cultural influences that shaped pre-Hispanic Mexican craft heritage. Simultaneously an act of remembrance for a culture in danger for being forgotten and an innovative reimagination of an enduring skillset, the decorative and functional objects take their cues from ceremonial artefacts and religious icons. ‘With a desire to reflect tradition as part of the natural flow of design, we celebrate diverse techniques, blend primitive roughness with pristine surfaces, and use natural empathic materials that appeal to the senses,’ says co-founder Age Salajoe. ‘Mexican history is our inspiration for forging new ideas that have substance and meaning.’
Ceramicist Adam Ross uses both throwing and hand-building to create life-like and yet abstract sculptures. ‘My work is about capturing the tiniest detail of somebody’s mannerisms – just enough to make a piece recognisable, without giving it human form.’ There is something alchemistic about his ability to capture movement, and the very essence of a single human being, in such an ancient, elemental material. ‘Clay is very malleable until it is fired and then becomes brittle, so capturing that energy in something that can no longer move is my daily challenge.’ Echoing the beliefs of Csíkszentmihályi and Sennett, Ross sees his work as something very private that he does simply for the joy of making, often losing himself in it completely. ‘When it’s all going well, it’s absolutely meditative,’ he says. ‘It is the one thing in life I couldn’t do without.’