Friday, September 23, 2011

Recycling the East Side school – in a wood-fired clay pizza oven

Strictly speaking this blog is about my work as an artist . . . but occasionally the sculpture has other uses, in this case a wood-fired clay pizza oven. The sand dome (above) is standing on a hearth of fire bricks that came from the demolished East Side school in Decorah. An organization was formed to recycle the re-usable building material, Oneota Historic Future Alliance – East Side Material, and I was fortunate to find enough bricks for the hearth among the piles of salvaged rubble. The plinth is made from some of the old oak beams saved from our barn renovation.

We dug some clay and mixed this with sand and water with our feet – a wonderful pedicure – here we are testing the clay to ensure it is the right consistency. 


We used the clay to make adobe bricks which were laid over the newspaper-covered sand dome.

A couple of days later . . . an entrance has been cut out, an archway built and a chimney added together with a layer of mud and straw insulation. We made the first pizza before the final layer of adobe bricks were added!

Within a week I had made more than twenty pizzas! We are now learning how to use it, and not just for pizzas, but also for baking bread, sauteing and roasting. Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota was able to restore their abandoned school – the East Side school in Decorah was not so lucky. However, thanks to the Oneota Historic Future Alliance at least the school's very fabric, it's bricks, are seeing a new life.  As I stand over the hearth, with the ferocious heat burning my face, enthralled by the fluidity of the flames, savouring the tantalizing aromas, tasting the magic of the wood-fired oven, it is gratifying to think we are a part of that future.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Cursive hebrew (mostly) and not becoming a Sofer

Learning to read and draw Hebrew letters is a challenge. My initial attempts to copy an alphabet were soon thwarted by my unwillingness to be bound or restrained by the strict laws governing the formal writing of letters. I am not destined to be a Sofer (Jewish scribe). Nevertheless, the letter forms and language remain fascinating. The four abstract drawings here are based on my practice pieces. The first (above) presents a conundrum: while creating a satisfying abstract design, I didn't realize until I was 'finished' that the letters were upside down! This begs the question: how is the reader of Hebrew going to interpret this? Do tell me.

Seeking a more lyrical solution I made a number of composite drawings using a broad brush and nib pen. Again it is the word בְּרֵאשִׁית, (Bereshit) meaning Genesis, or 'in the beginning'.

Then I turned to the cursive alphabet that had first confused me. Here I felt there was more freedom for creating adventurous designs. Which, if any of these pieces will be included in my interpretation of Carlyle's Sartor Resartus & Heroes, remains to be seen . . .

Parian marble, Arundel-marble, Aeschylus, and Greece

Thomas Carlyle in Heroes . . . makes reference to 'Arundel-marble', obliquely referring to the Parian Marble or Chronicle, an early Greek chronological inscription. It is just possible to decipher the words in the continuous string of incised capitals, and colour helps in this calligraphic rendering of one typical entry.

Treating the letters with less reverence [perhaps] and injecting some lyricism it is harder to read, but only if we read Greek, so does it matter if it is almost illegible? Perhaps not, as its purpose is chiefly to be a decorative foil and accompaniment to the text. What is lost is any suggestion that the source of the text were letters are carved in marble.
The inscription translates as: 'From when Aeschylus the poet first won with a tragedy, and Euripides the poet was born, and Stesichorus the poet [arrived] in Greece, 222 years, when Philocrates was archon in Athens'. It dates to around 850 BC.
I will confess, I do not read Greek, nevertheless it is fascinating to discover in this sentence the roots of English words such as tragedy (Greek: τραγῳδία, tragōidia), written here as ΤΡΑΓΩΙΔΙΑΙ and poets, such as Aeschylus (Greek:  Αἰσχύλος, Aiskhulos) ΑΕΣΧΥΛΟΣ, and the Greek for Greece (Elláda) which is instantly recognizable in the inscription as ΕΛΛΑΔΑ.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


'In the beginning', and, 'Genesis'.

In On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history Thomas Carlyle makes several references to the 'divine . . .' and 'sacred Hebrew Book'. In Sartor Resartus he refers to 'young Ishmael' in the 'destitution of the wild desert'. Throughout both books he includes many biblical references and allusions. For my illustrations, I looked for a quotation, and then searched for an original source – and I found Hebrew texts.

The history, meaning and beauty of the letterforms are fascinating and I began to draw and learn a little of the Alephbet. The first problem I encountered was the inability of Microsoft Word and Adobe InDesign to render the text as right to left (RTL) reading. Curiously my Firefox browser, Apple Mail and TextEdit did work, which helped when using the Hebrew keyboard layout.

Secondly, my insatiable thirst for language was hampered by a new alphabet and the myriad forms it takes. Besides the formal pen or brush-drawn block lettering based on a square of three kulmusim that follows strict laws concerning how it must be written, there are the usual variety of modern seriffed and sans-seriffed fonts, a manual print form and a cursive script used for handwriting.

Learning to recognize the various letter forms and their sound is a challenge and the following Web site has proved very useful: Here you can listen to the sounds of individual letters and how they sound together as words and in sentences such as this blessing upon smelling fragrant fruit:

Barukh attah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam, ha-noten re-ach tov bapperot.

The calligraphy is just that, a beginning – let me know what you think, am I breaking rules?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Carlyle, Sartor Resartus and Heroes: Tasso, Shakespeare, Dante, Odin, Rousseau, Burke, Johnson etc

A few images from a new project: bibliographic references in Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus and On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history.

Having discovered that Borges was inspired by Sartor I too began reading and found among his allusions and quotations much that was amusing and inspiring. In particular, his references to books and printing, that I now propose to present in book form (both digital and conventional), illustrated with a selection of quotations by Carlyle's 'cast of players'.

(above and below)
Torquato Tasso describes the enchantress Armida in his sixteenth-century poem, Jerusalem delivered.

Carlyle despised "Fashionable Novels" and contrives to reference Pelham, or the adventures of a gentleman by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. (below) 

One of Carlyle's great heroes was Dante, and there are many allusions and quotes from his Divine Comedy. "Se tu segui tua stella . . .", If thy follow thy star . . . (below)

Dante again 'Quivi sospiri, pianti, ed alti guai.' (There sighs, and sorrows and heart-rending cries). (below)

'Odin's Runes', says Carlyle, 'were the first form of the work of a Hero'. Here in runic script is a stanza from Hávamál, The words of Odin the high one from the Poetic Edda, in which Odin receives the runes. (below)

Odin's runes, this time in Icelandic script. (below) You can listen to a dramatic reading on Youtube here.

Unlucky Abelard is mentioned in the context of how books have changed the world and the development of universities. Here a quote from the Prologue to Sic et non. (below)

Burke, Johnson, Shakespeare, Byron and Coleridge to follow . . .

Podcast: David Esslemont on the history of the Gregynog and Solmentes Presses

Gregynog Hall Nigel Beale aka The Literary Tourist , came to visit and recorded our conversation in which he asked me about the history...