In Pursuit Of Imperfection 6 : The Lily Chest: Where did it come from?

Creativity is a slippery sucker, many think you have to wait for “The Muse”, hoping that writers block will just go away, or the image flash before you. Maybe it does , but for the professional, we can’t wait, we have to do it on a wet wednesday. Creativity is usually a new combination of old things. A memory of something seen years ago, a skill or technique, an unusual application of line , tone, colour, or joint used in a new application,  a particular board of elm that has sat in your stores for twenty years waiting for the right idea.

This time the pieces started with a project that we ran at Rowden with Chris Schwarz. He came over, and, lucky for us, ran one of his last Travelling Anarchist Tool Chest courses before he went into hermit mode. The project was a relatively simple chest made in Poplar. We all, including me, made one. I was a trifle anxious about making a piece along with my students. Fear of judgement and fear of screwing up in front of others is always there. But I did O K, I was even able to bring over a young guy who is a great maker but terrifically self critical .” Look fella, I can make mistakes worse than yours, and still press on. Nobody will give a monkeys about that, except me, but i don’t let it upset me any more, and I don’t let it stop me going on. ”

The chests are all over the workshops now, hopefully they will replace these hateful engineers metal chests that Daren brought here and everyone copied. Daren is key to the next part of this creative process. I sent him off on a marquetry course with a very knowledgable french expert. A week with him and he returns with a quite expensive Marquetry donkey that we bought . Years ago when I first started I made a marquetry donkey. This is a tool you sit astride and saw the pad of veneers at eye level with horizontal fret saw. I lost my donkey when I went bankrupt in the 1990s. Getting one back to Rowden had always been a background goal. Without quite knowing why I would want it. Marquetry is a rather sad sport, flowers in wood with rather unconvincing drawing, why would i want to do that ?

marquetry donkey

What we do here at Rowden is often done without knowing exactly why we are doing it. Creativity is a journey, if you know where you are going then  its NOT creative. Its just like a trip to the supermarket. If you DONT know but feel compelled, thats a good sign, a sign that you are on the journey.

Next came drawing, thats aways a good one. I advise my students to spend ten to twenty minutes four times a week drawing. Not doodling or inventing new furniture , but observational drawing. All drawing is, is looking very hard at something and putting down a few honest lines. Good advice, I know how to draw, I learnt years ago but following my own advice was something I was less inclined to do . Drawing is however like driving a car you can pick it up again really fast. Infact you find yourself doing drawings you did years ago. Let me repeat that because its odd, if you draw its not unusual to use tricks, techniques, methods, that work so synaptic routes start firing and that drawing you did as a students suddenly pops of your pen 50 years later. Its a damn good sign that you are not looking really hard you are being sloppy.

I took to drawing with  biro or pen and carrying a notebook with me everywhere. Sitting in a hospital waiting room I draw people in the room, and oddly, my left foot encased in a rather fine old brogue shoe . Well it was there and it wasn’t going away and it doesn’t matter WHAT you draw, just that you draw. At least in the beginning.  Now not time need ever be wasted, sitting Waiting for Godot, now you just draw.


Carol took me one evening to a recital in Bideford. A String Quartet from London playing Mozart and all sorts of other stuff . I loved it, when I was awake. But it had been a long day and well, I had a tendency to not quite fall asleep. It did however strike me that I did not want drawings with this quality. They were a Quality Outfit those women, Royal College of Music and all that. The music was great, Mozart is stunning but its not NOW. Its stunning of time gone by. I was thinking of doing drawings that carry a huge burden of history . The Nude, Life Drawings,  a bit like a string quartet but visual . My goal, gathered from this dozy evening was NOT to make drawings with the quality resonance of a Mozart String Quartet .




And there are a few more and the link here will take you to see them if you want. The next step was link given to me by Chris Schwarz when he was here. When you inhabit a situation it is very difficult to see the obvious. Business consultants make a fortune by “seeing the obvious” of a given business situation that the participants cannot see, because it is just too damn obvious. Chris said this Rowden has a direct link though you David to Alan Peters to Edward Barnsley to Sidney and Earnest Barnsley to William Morris and John Ruskin. Rowden is operating within that tradition . So what, well it got me appreciating where we are from and why we are here in a muddy field in Devon and not in Spiffy Hoxton with all the young fashionistas. We are operating within a tradition and within an ideology going back to the wonderful John Ruskin.

I studied at The Ruskin School at the University of Oxford in the late 1960s. John Ruskin is deep inside me. I walked and lived in the same streets that William Morris inhabited whilst he was a student at Exeter College Oxford. My first hose had a wall of William Morris wallpaper, just one wall that was all I could afford of this hand made wallpaper.  I now began revisiting this, I began researching, reading buying every book i could about these ideas and this aesthetic, invented around a group of artist involved with The Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood a movement that became The Arts and Craft Movement.

With this came an admiration and greater understanding of all of the main characters. These are characters very largely forgotten that loomed large in my youth.  I knew that William Morris was one of the early socialists but did not realise just how early and how important his contribution was. He was not a theoretician like Marx or Engels, he was an organiser and speaker. His speeches define in many ways how we should regard workers and workmanship. ” You must either make a tool of the creature or a man of him, you cannot make both”. Curious language in a feminist 21st century but it is the essence of how Rowden has sought to work with makers since we started here. Socialism may well have failed but the need to find a way of living creatively, making things worth making, and turning a penny is still a goal worth seeking.

I read into John Ruskin”On Life and Art” and found to my horror and delight texts on “Imperfection and the creative value… ” ( see the title of this blog series) More important I found in William Morris the development of a series of patterns . He worked on the loom and designing wallpapers and fabric patterns almost as a release. He did not delegate everything, he was a maker he used it as a therapeutic creative pastime that far from being amateurish evolved a series of patterns that expressed english natural woods and gardens with great eloquence.


Which lead me tho Japan:

“Thus in all good patterns there is a reinforcing of beauty. A pattern is not mearly an exaggeration, but an enhancement of what is true.Without this enhancement, a pattern is not true it lacks conviction. This is why a good pattern is frequently rather terrifying. Any pattern, if it is a good one, naturally has an element of the grotesque, since it is a reinforcing of beauty- an exaggeration , one might say, without deceit. A pattern rather than presenting the thing as it is, is a vivid representation of what the thing could never be. Thus through not a literal depiction, it achieves a verity that transcends realism. Pattern is the power of beauty.”

Soetsu Yanagi    The Unknown Craftsman .

Which lead me to the lily chest. Have table in the room i keep here at Rowden that ned a bowl of flowers. I enjoy a particular lily flower that has dark stamens and a vivid perfume so i bought a bunch from my local supermarket . they sat there until I had a need to draw them. Well not so much them as anything interesting and they were worth an evening.  I did the drawing big on some A1 paper just an outline of the leaves petals and stamens . The pattern of these leaves petals and stamens not the reality.  What came out was the front of a chest I have two chests in the studio with me one I made and one Chris made that will go to a competition winner. These are the drawings the bottom one is the front of the chest drawn full size and the top drawing is the lid. I had to check with Daren that our marquetry donkey would stretch the size of my project . It wouldn’t, but with a new arm and some fiddling about it will. i would have made slightly larger chests but there are limitations on the marquetry donkey.



So we have a solid wood poplar chest with a sheet of veneer applied inside and out on the front panel and the lid. The outside sheet with a poplar background and a Ripple Sycamore  image saw cut into it. All I need now is scale drawing of the chest for Daren to order the timber . We are going to make two or three chests .  I am already working on a second image of a large flowered Posetia on a Poplar background. And there is the sea. I took the dogs walking at Westward Ho and saw this sea crashing on rocks and remembered Hokusi and his wood cuts of great waves. BUT thats all in the future……









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