Nesting

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Shoji Hamada

How easy it is to slip into busy. Busy, and disconnected from the core of things. This morning I found a needed course correction courtesy of Sarah Robinson‘s Nesting: Body, Dwelling, Mind:

Cognitive scientists tell us that it takes time for the conscious mind to extract latent patterns within a diversity of superficially different experiences. In our idle moments, in the gaps between our activities our minds are busy connecting the threads of our experiences. Idelness can allow epistemic openings, where apparently separate notions mingle and recombine in surprising ways. If these gaps are plugged up by more data, creative synthesis is blocked.

Robinson goes on to reference the master potter Shoji Hamada whose work and life is the subject of Bernard Leach‘s Hamada, Potter. In speaking about his work, Hamada said it did not come from “my mind, it came but from my whole body; it emerged out of my middle, my lower abdomen. I have such a good feeling about having done this pot…This work does not come out of my thought; rather I simply permit the movement that my hands have learned over many years. In fact, in the work forged by my body during sixty years, there is an unconscious revelation. I sense that my work has become more comfortable…I now hope that, rather than made things, born things will increase in my work.”

Robinson continues this line of thought:

The Japanese believe that your hara, their term for the core of your being, lives about two inches above and one inch in from your navel. The attentive mind is not circumscribed in the compass of our skulls, it is close to our belly button.

Creativity is in the body. Those were the first words spoken to me by my dancer friend Joe Gifford, now 92, the first time he came to my studio many years ago. No better mantra for every day, in the studio or out.

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Close up of Nagala that, from a certain angle, feels more planetary than painting

I’ve been in a particular kind of intimacy with my latest body of work (such a wonderful phrase to describe a variety of artifacts that feel connected…) Yes, you bring them into existence. You labor over every inch of their surface. You lovingly coax them along. Then something happens. They begin to talk back. They take on a life of their own. And then, if you are lucky, they find a place to live somewhere else.

I’ve been packing up an upcoming show for weeks now, lots of large paintings heading west. My intimacy with each piece has expanded into a full familiarity with their backsides, their potential unwieldiness, the scope of their girth, the width and length and weight of each one.

It has been a period with a different kind of focus, but a kind of focusing nonetheless. Being present even in this effort has its own rewards albeit harder won.

From Sarah Robinson’s highly companionable small book, Nesting*:

If we can be still long enough, details of the world reveal themselves of their own accord. Steven Holl counsels, “To open ourselves to perception, we must transcend the mundane urgency of ‘things to do.’ We must try to access the inner life which reveals the luminous intensity of the world. Only through solitude can we begin to penetrate the secret world around us. An awareness of one’s unique existence in space is essential in developing a consciousness of perception.” Rather than forcing our experience into a prefixed Platonic ideal or the totality of a planner’s prescription, contextual information is simply allowed to emerge. This is deep listening, the source of both poetic making and responsible action…

Through listening and observing, appropriate form emerges from the unique variables of the situation. Local insight yields diverse outcomes. This is perhaps why much of what indigenous cultures produce bears the signature of their landscape. Being situated is to be at the site, the unique unrepeatable place that is context.

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*More about Nesting here.

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William Stout Books, San Francisco

San Francisco’s William Stout Architectural Books is located on the periphery of North Beach, just a few blocks from the better known City Lights. Both bookshops are labyrinthine and lushly overstuffed. But Stout and me, we have a mystical connection. I never leave that narrow two storied jewel box without some treasure under my arm. And the latest find is my all time best: Nesting: Body, Dwelling, Mind, by Sarah Robinson.

This small book is an exquisite set of essays that goes well beyond the domain of architecture. Her world view blends philosophy, poetry, biology and wisdom to offer a concise and clearly written meditation on how to think about who we are as humans in this grand adventure. My library has a shelf full of books that explore these complex themes of art making and human consciousness (Gaston Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, Edward Hall, E. V. Walter among many others), and Robinson references many of them in her notes. But none of those writers offer up what she has achieved: A human sized, perfectly tuned invitation into the world of these ideas. Malcolm Gladwell refers to “amplitude” as the gastronome’s measure of how flavors come together in such exquisite compliance that the recipe cannot be improved. Robinson’s book is high amplitude in written form.

And as an object itself, the book is also a feast. Small in format, the book includes images that sit well positioned amid the beautifully laid out printed words. (Like other William Stout Publishers books, Nesting has been designed with great attention to detail.)

The introduction was written by Juhani Pallasmaa, an architect and theorist I have written about many times on Slow Muse (and the author of one of my favorite books, Eyes of the Skin.) Robinson’s chapter headings say something about the range of her purveiw: Of Havens, The Mind of the Skin, Practically Unconscious, Dark Matters, Love is Paying Attention, Belonging, To Dwell in Possibility. Each of these chapters could fill several posts, full of provocative insights and the fresh comingling of ideas.

And how timely. To read this book about the nature of place and how we are with our world is particularly apropos at a time when all of us are freshly aware of the devastation of homes and communities caught in Sandy’s force field.

That’s a worthy place to start. Here are a few passages that speak to those complex circumstances:

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Our environment mirrors what we have come to believe about our relations and ourselves: that all are re-place-able, the palpable echo of Cartesian solopcism. The natural environment, local culture, and social patterns, once dominant factors shaping the character of a place, are now only marginal determinants…Dislocated from the tissue of community, people are routinely forced to start tabula rasa, a norm all the more insidious because it is equated with freedom.

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Places [in the past] were not commodities, they were dense contexts of communally-lived history as well as a source of one’s personal identity.

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Our feelings about a particular place may be personal, but the feelings grow out of collective experiences that do not occur elsewhere. They are specific to and belong to the place. People and place participate in one another’s sustenance, and places perish along with the disappearance of people who cherish them. We dwell in places in a paradgim of mutual influences.

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Perhaps we can understand place as a basin of attraction, a matrix that evokes and sustains our imagination. E. V. Walter writes:

“Towns may die for all sorts of reasons, but expressive vitality depends on how a place engages the imagination. A place is dead if the physique dos not support the work of the imagination, if the mind cannot engage with the experience located there, or if the local energy fails to evoke ideas, images or feelings…’Where do I belong?’ is a question addressed to the imagination. To inhabit a place physically but to remain unaware of what it means, or how it feels, is a deprivation more profund that deafness at a concert or blindess at an art gallery. Humans in this condition belong nowhere.”

More, much more, to come.


Sarah Robinson

More information about Sarah Robinson’s architectural practice here.

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