Advent in Art 12 : Mark Prins
The art on which this presentation is based is a large hand made clock. The above is a video loop of the working clock that played as background to the presentation.
Well, here we are. This project has been a long road for me, and part of me at least will be glad when this is done and I can get a bit of my life back. All the same it's been a valuable process, and enjoyable at times and, I want to thank you, Brenda for inviting me to take part, and to present today. And a big thank you to Kirsten, for creating spaces of time over the past two months and for all your support.
I must admit I was apprehensive when considering whether to do this; for a couple of reasons. One of which was that I didn't think that I had artistic ability enough to create anything worth presenting. To mitigate that lack of artistic talent, I thought to subvert the original brief and not present an art piece at all, but rather, to give you a work of 'craft'. It seemed a safer option and I also liked the thought of exploring beauty in the functional. What was needed is something that could be a point of reflection and a tool to explore an aspect of the nativity story and I think I've achieved that.
With this piece, I'm considering aspects of waiting and gestation within the Christmas story. In terms of the advent presentations, I'm a little out of sequence, but perhaps appropriate that you've had to wait for this talk. I have built a clock out of wood. It's based, I'm told, on a 17th century design and is driven solely by the force of the drive weight.
Why a clock? Well, there's some underlying themes relating to time which I had in mind - mainly however, because I've wanted to for years now and this seemed like a great excuse to do it.
I first saw a clock like this, with exposed gears made out of wood, in Taupo about twelve years ago. It was beautiful - crafted from native wood, and for some reason I found it entrancing. I thought then that I'd like to make one. I then saw another similar clock not long after that Taupo trip, in the Skyliner tearooms, atop the Brynderwyns. That was the seed of the idea, can't say that I've seen any like them since, so it's been a long gestation.
When I was thinking about the idea of waiting, I liked the idea of creating a clock like this, which in itself, embodied time. It's something which marks and symbolises time and the passing of time. But also, I liked the idea that time is instilled, seeped and steeped in the piece, because it takes so long to make when doing so by hand. Time is intrinsic to the creation and yet not necessarily evident, and I liked that subtlety.
Patience is central to waiting and central too to the creation of a clock like this. Gears need to be carefully cut and smoothed and balanced and tested. Parts need to be checked, tuned and sometimes remade.
At this point I'm not too sure which thought came first; whether to look at aspects of waiting or wanting to build a clock. I suspect the latter, but either way the two ideas were fairly closely linked.
I was interested that there's several parts to the nativity story which have waiting as an integral aspect. The wise men journeying, waiting for the star to lead them to their destination; Herod's waiting for their return; Mary's pregnancy and that waiting of gestation. Mary's story I think is interesting – in the nativity we have, be it mythologised or no, has the conception as immaculate, supernatural, and yet a normal gestation and pregnancy. It makes me think that the waiting, the slow growth, the gentle maturation, is too crucial for it to be left out.
One of the features of a clock like this, is that many of the parts must be made of hardwood – wood that has taken years to mature - and as a result has the strength, the solidity needed.
For me personally, I struggle with waiting – this advent season has been especially hectic for me too and I've found myself many times in impatience and haste. I've wanted, but sure struggled to accept each moment with grace. As well, some of my earlier experiences of waiting have been at the extremes of emotion. So it's an idea that I wanted to explore and spend some time thinking through.
From the age of about thirteen, my mother presented with a condition called lymphedema. It was uncomfortable, painful at times, but not overly debilitating and since she'd had it all of my life, it was just one of those things.
At around age 45, when I was 19, her health deteriorated to the point that she was heading in to hospital several times a week to have lungs drained of fluid. We as a family, waited for, and expected, healing. There was strong belief within that side of the family in the expectant miracle.
At about the same time my beloved great-grandmother suffered from a stroke which paralysed her almost entirely and left her bedridden in a rest home. We waited for relief, for her, and for the end which felt inevitable and yet took almost two years of patience.
We as a family waited in that period, holding expectations; holding both hope and sadness. With mum, after nearly two years, there came a shift, we reached that point of acceptance, of awareness, of resignation, after which we waited for death.
I'm only now beginning to see the part that acceptance and grace has to play in the task or trial of waiting. I can see the waiting as a partial version of la noche oscura, the dark night of the soul – a loss of control, a small unseating of the ego and a chance for growth.
More recently there have been years dwelling in the waiting of pregnancy, from which has come for us that duality of joy and heartbreak. It makes this story of Mary much more earthy to me, it's a gritty realism which I feel that I can relate to on some level – even though in many regards as a bystander.
That then is the backdrop with which I headed into creating this piece.
The creation of it I found very interesting, so as a pause for thought, a chance for reflection and a break from my voice – I'd like to show a short video of the 'making of'. [This video will be uploaded for viewing soon]
The music track with it is from an album I've been listening to a lot while working in my shed and it's one that has really resonated with me. I think I've projected my own thinking on the interpretation even more that usual, so a brief note is required.
The song talks of finding peace in the darkness
Darkness be my blanket,
Cover me with the endless night,
Take away this pain of knowing,
Fill this emptiness with light now.
And to me that sounds like the process of meditations & centering prayer; clearing my head of thoughts, letting the ego rest and opening my heart to the vastness and expanse of God. I see an acceptance in this which reminds me somewhat of Mary, often seen as the archetype of receptivity due to the acceptance of God and acceptance of her situation, coupled with pregnancy, nurturing and growth.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said 'prayer begins at the edge of emptiness'
The 'making of' video
I thought my interest in the process was a nice metaphor of the whole thing. It reiterated the idea that there is value in the journey and that every moment matters. As Eckhart Tolle has it, the power of now.
I didn't entirely follow the plans when making the clock. I had trouble sourcing materials listed, made trouble by using found materials and added a number of time consuming complications in the name artistic license.
For the pendulum bob, I used a star, as a symbol of hope and an aspect of waiting in the Christmas story. One which has the theme of seeking, an active waiting; for the wise men there's still that vague sense of something being outside of their direct control, and being unsure when the journey will end, but with a requirement of an action on their part to press onward, to continue.
Rather than a regulation five-pointed Christmas star, I've used a star of David. For aesthetic reasons though, I've turned it on it's side, so technically it's not a star of David at all and instead now looks more like a medieval weapon of some kind. It is supposed to be a star of David though, and is there to symbolise active waiting, hope and to give a geographical context.
The numbers are in Roman numerals, as a presage to later aspects of Jesus' life and also to tie in the historical context.
The weights are representative of Mary and Joseph. In my mind the weight, the driving force, and if you want to be blunt about it, the heavier of the pair, is Mary. The figures are fairly androgynous though and I leave interpretation up to you.
One of my errors was to misread the plans and instead of converting 7 pounds of lead to grams, I converted 7 oz. So my original design had only two modest wooden weights, one of which (the driving weight) was carefully hollowed out and filled with lead, with the counterweight as solid wood.
Once assembled, and testing, I realised that the weight I had wasn't quite heavy enough, and after much puzzling, trial and error, I finally reread the plans more carefully and found that I was short by about 3kg of lead. I wondered who could possibly have a spare 3kg of lead lying around their shed.. and it turns out that I do.. Long before the internet my great grandfather used to communicate internationally - using morse code over shortwave, and he'd build his own morse key.. backed by a big slab of lead which he'd melted himself. So that's the somewhat inelegant arrangement you see here.
Mary and Joseph were turned on my lathe, which was given to me recently by my grandfather when forced into a 'home'. I don't really have space for it, and until this project it's lain disassembled with the bulk of it in the garden shed. Really, it's been waiting to be used; and I felt it was important to use it in the creation of the clock, so spent a fair bit of time setting it up and learning how to use it.
The three lines at the base of the weights are representative of the Triune God, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost who are each encircling and by virtue of being at the base, supporting Mary and Joseph. They are central to the story, yet subtle in their manifestation.
After doing the lines I also thought they could represent the cosmic processes of creation, maintenance and destruction – the cycle of life in the Hindu Trimurti. This cycle of rebirth and renewal also came through in the concept of the clock, as on each wheel time is reborn through each cycle – there is a wait, but there is also renewal.
The hands are my golden tears, my lagrimas de oro. The intention with the hands was that they contained the shape of tears but subtly, and in a warm colour. These could be tears of joy, tears of sorrow. I've raised the hands heavenward to again reflect that duality of purpose, they can be hands raised in supplication or raised in joy.
A feature of this design of clock is that the hands are static and time moves around them. This to me is another reflection on acceptance of what is and on working with an inner observer rather than being carried away in the emotion of the moment.
Those are some of the extrinsic symbols in the work; but there's also some intrinsic symbolism.
The materials used, as much as possible, have been rescued, recycled and generally scrounged. The plywood used is partly leftovers from some stairs I put in under our deck; partly scrap from my grandfather and partly a discarded picture frame backing from my dad. The weights were turned from wood destined as firewood.
The lead in the weight and pendulum is rescued wheel balancing weights which I've been picking up on my commute to and from work; I run and cycle to work, so have plenty of time to scan the roadside.
I mounted the clock on the driftwood as a symbol of this intrinsic waiting; the idea that the wood was washed up ashore after drifting and left waiting on the shoreline. It's a piece imbued with time and is the more poignant for me, because I picked it up from Marine Parade in Napier this October last, while on holiday to celebrate my birthday. I grew up in the bay and have many happy memories of that particular beach, so it means a lot to me that this forms the base of the clock.
If you look closely, you'll see that there are also a couple of stones embedded in the wood, where the tree had grown around the stones. It reminds me of that beach, which is all stones, and again of acceptance – it's an embodiment of the Taoist principle of wu wei - “effortless action” or “non-doing”; this image of the tree accepting the stone's placement and growing around it, letting it be.
So, some final reflections:
Each gear, despite my best intentions, is unique and individual. While each might look similar they are all different and each is valuable. All play a part.
The symbolism of the star ties in with the underlying thought of darkness. Jo Woodward referred to that idea in her piece: that that there must be darkness to see the star. We require depths to appreciate hope. This for me is Richard Rohr's, 'path of descent'.
I found that for some tasks in particular, intense focus was required and this tied back to the idea that each moment is precious. A piece like this can't be rushed - when working on a gear for example, each tooth is crucial. To hurry, and make a mistake, is to throw away the entire job. In the phrase used on some of the woodworking sites, all you make is expensive sawdust.
Time, even waiting, is not for the wasting. Each moment we have is precious.