Going Back to the Source

The great shingle causeway of Chesil Beach leading up to the Isle of Portland

For as long as I can remember, I have felt the urge to carve stone. If I had been born in the Middle Ages, I would have been either a monk or a mason, either way contributing to the building of the great cathedrals. When my friend Tom told me that it is possible learn the craft on the Isle of Portland, it was a call to begin. 

The special ecology of Tout Quarry SSSI.

Portland is the birthplace of St Paul's Cathedral, built from the creamy, sparkly oolithic limestone that bears the island’s name. I imagined a St Paul's shaped hole in the ground, upside down, with the famous dome as a great bowl. To think Sir Wren and his team of master masons would have been here, picking out the finest quality stone. 

Many of the quarries have closed down now. Our destination, Tout Quarry was used as a tip until 1983 when it was established as a sculpture park and Nature reserve, educating the craft and the unique ecology of the island.

"Still Falling" carved by the young, as yet unknown Anthony Gormley

And indeed it is unique. We approached along Chesil Beach, an eighteen mile long naturally formed shingle mega structure that connects the Isle to the mainland. Ahead, the cliffs raised up from the sea like fortress walls. I fantasised we'd be carving right up on top. My wish was granted.

For somewhere so close to holiday town Weymouth, Portland is frozen in the 1950’s. There are no generic luxury holiday homes or fancy eateries, just a nice slow pace and few people to be seen. But where we were going was even further back in time, much, much further.

As we descended into the quarry, we left the human world above. Walled by sheer rock faces and giant boulders, we entered a mythological space. Time stood still in the presence of one hundred and fifty million year old rock.

Chamfers always come before fillets which come before hollows, humps and rounds. Is this based on practicality or tradition? Both he said.

My desk was a two ton boulder of capstone, the tough stuff that lies above the bed of silky Portland stone. On it, a steel box of tools and resting on a strip of dusty old carpet, a small, gleaming white cube of stone.

“A punch, a claw, a boaster, a selection of hammers and this is what they do”. Paul instructed us slowly and simply with a Yorkshire accent. With each similarly paced blow, he made decisive cuts. Only when I had a go, did I realise the decades of experience that went into each tap. I let go of the intricate Romanesque column capital that I had set myself to make. Perhaps a simple cushion capital would do?

A group of Dutch artists who have been coming every year for 16 years. They preferred machine tools and the rougher Capstone to work with.

I was still committed to my brief; something geometric that could allow for free flowing detail if I advanced quickly enough. It turned out making a simple cylinder was far trickier than any detailing, but luckily Paul had many years working as an architectural mason for the British Museum and showed me some secrets. 

The sound of tapping was deeply meditative. Occasionally visitors would come by to chat, but throughout the day the atmosphere was of engrossed concentration. As time went on, my enthusiastic tapping slowed to making each blow count, partly due to the growing ache in my arm, but also in coming to know the feel of the stone, where it naturally wants to give way. 

I thought back to the men working in the quarry, long before powered machines and dynamite, using only the simplest of tools to split, lift and transport for hundreds of miles, the gigantic building blocks of cathedrals.

The first piece of my cathedral!

My short experience gave me a visceral taste of what it takes to build a cathedral. A lifetime’s knowledge of geology and intuitive feel of stone. But I also felt first hand, the sparkling, pure beauty of the material that made it so eternally desirable, befitting for a house of God. As Hannah, co-tutor and artist said; “when carving stone, you are actually sculpting with light”.



For more information about the stone carving course, go to www.learningstone.org


Exploring Goethe's Secret

“How do I relate to our world?”

This is the question I am exploring during my master’s programme at Schumacher College. It has been a unique space in my busy life to pause and question my relationship with the world. Together we looked deeply into the nature of perception, and through this, I met Goethe and Phenomenology.

I must admit, I struggled to begin with. I felt bogged down with strange words and theories that were in essence telling me simply how to see. After a frustrating week, I was clearing my head in the vegetable garden and sat looking at a scruffy raspberry plant. Suddenly, I was hit by a sense I had not felt before. It was a feeling of vibrancy, a very strong sense of life, far more than my intellectual understanding or even its visual beauty. Had I just seen what Goethe saw?

I realised for this work to be meaningful, I had to go out and practice it. This was when my project began; painting a sequence of a flower’s metamorphosis from bud to seed.

The process was surprisingly tricky, fighting with the environment and the flower itself to capture its essence. However, through this struggle, a shift in perspective occurred. Again, I felt a profoundly moving, fleeting sense of life, though this time through its transformation.

What did I sense and why does it matter?  I think Goethe’s insight allowed me to see past my conceptual idea of the plant to the true ineffable miracle of the plant itself. This left me with the question what else am I missing? And how differently would I treat something if had I truly felt its miracle?

To read the full story of the paintings, click here.

This blog was written for an article in Transition Consciousness. To see the original article, click here.



A Cathedral of My Dreams

I am still searching for an output for my cathedral obsession. As a creator, I am itching to apply the delicious forms and ideas that I have been feasting on during my tour of the great English cathedrals.

The most obvious project was to design a cathedral of my own. I am often asked which is my favourite cathedral and struggled to answer since they all have unique characteristics that I adore. However, I wondered if I could take inspiration from my top ten and somehow combine them into one coherent cathedral of my dreams.

Bishops and master-masons would commonly travel between cities taking inspiration from their neighbours, however very few would have the opportunity to design one complete vision. Most cathedrals have grown and adapted over many hundreds of years and it is this layering that gives them their fascinating charm.  The medieval master-mason would almost always build in the most up-to-date style and it is thrilling to be able to read abrupt changes in style that could signify long periods of funds run out or repairs to a collapsed tower. Like a living being, it has turbulent stories and the scars to prove it. Thus to design a cathedral is to tell a story.

My cathedral was built over an earlier Saxon structure shortly after the Norman Conquest. It was a time when the new king began a phase of monumental building projects to stamp his authority on his rebellious nation. The building was massive, crude and fortress-like with thick walls, rounded arches and narrow windows. The miraculous acquisition of the Holy Healing Hands of St Hilary relic attracted pilgrims from across Europe and the cathedral grew rich from their offerings. This enabled the refashioning of the whole cathedral in the latest Gothic style with pointed arches that allowed a far more delicate structure, filled in with large stained glass windows. The effect of the coloured light was dazzling, attracting further more pilgrims. The two west towers were substantially elevated in height.

England entered a time of frequent at war with France. Out of fear from taxation for the king to pay for the war, wealthy cathedrals chose to invest their money in immovable assets like their buildings. This prompted a building boom and the blossoming of the highly ornate “Decorated Style”.  A great spire was built to compete with Salisbury, but overzealous in their ambition, a hundred years later, it collapsed onto the quire.

By the time rebuilding began, there was a reaction against the over-flamboyance of the Decorated Style, that was seen as all too French. It gave way to the more regimented “Perpendicular Style” that made use of simpler, repeating patterns. This had practical benefits too, the Black Death had taken its toll and there were few skilled masons around. Still, a soaring tower and new quire with a cutting edge fan vaulted ceiling marked the pinnacle of the Gothic age.

Only a few years after completion, the Reformation and Civil War would cause collateral damage. The reliquary shrine was smashed, as was much of the statuary and stained glass, and the vividly painted walls were whitewashed. Then followed centuries of neglect. The cathedral was almost a ruin by the time it caught the interest of the Victorian Romantics and prompted a lifesaving restoration project. However, compromises had to be made, Lord Grimsby, the main donor of the restoration was also a hobbyist architect and replaced the fine medieval transept window with his own retrogressive version of the Five Sisters at Yorkminster. There began the backward looking conservatism, mimicking styles of ages gone by.

Disaster struck again in the Second World War when an incendiary bomb was dropped on the South Transept causing it to collapse, nearing taking the tower with it. A decision was quickly taken to rebuild, this time using modern techniques and materials. A better understanding of structure meant that the pioneering Gothic Arch could be refined again, following the exact flow of force; the Catenary Arch. This allowed for an exceptionally strong and lightweight vault to be cast from reinforced concrete and the stained glass skin to be literally hung from the structure. The Gothic masters would have been proud.

My intention had been to build a large scale model of my cathedral, possibly to 3D print it. But a meeting in Cologne with master architectural cork model maker, Dieter Collen made me realise something was missing. Indeed my project had been an essential study into development of styles, however somehow lacked a particular angle or creative expression. It had been an exercise in becoming fluent in the language of cathedral design, but something much greater was to come.

The Dream Job

As a child, I was obsessed by two things; making stuff out of junk and video games. Twenty years later both came in handy. I joined Media Molecule, at the time a small start-up set up by a group of friends working in the games industry. The ambition was to make an industry-changing title with a small, but highly dedicated team. A few years on and we released LittleBigPlanet to huge critical and commercial success and with it, one of Sony Playstation’s best-loved franchises was born.

It was a fairy tale in the making. I remember first walking into the sweaty, cramped studio above a bathroom shop, with concept art covering the walls. I had a hunch they were onto something big and jumped straight in. Within a few months of starting, Sony boss Phil Harrison chose to show our demo at the Games Developers Conference Keynote and from then on, it was a meteoric rise into the spotlight.

I look back at those whirlwind times and wonder how it even came to be. In retrospect, I think it was like catching an enormous wave at exactly the right moment. Sony were in dire need of something fresh to launch their new console and in the wider world, there was a growing social movement towards personalisation, creative self-expression and social connectivity. These were at the heart of the project; it was not just a game, but a creative tool kit that enabled users to make their own games, or anything else for that matter.

This deeply excited me. As a child I had tried to make games, but became very quickly bogged down in the complicated code. LittleBigPlanet on the other hand, offered a tactile toolbox of cardboard, wood, stickers, bolts and electric switches to bang together a homemade adventure of our own. This, I had already mastered as a child and I gleefully built implausible contraptions and mystical worlds. I couldn’t believe this was my job.

When designing the tools, the main challenge was to keep things simple, whilst at the same time making sure they had enough depth. There were plenty of very powerful creative packages out there, but were often offputtingly technical. And there were many fun, simple tools but were too limited in scope. We were constantly walking that balance and found the only way to hit that perfect spot would be to use them ourselves to make a full game.

This was tasked to the Level Design Department. It was the place where all parts of the game came together and I could not resist getting involved. It was a hotbed of creativity, building worlds, requesting new tools and features to build yet more. We were rapid prototyping; quickly trying things out and iterating the design. I was keen for as much cross fertilisation as possible, collating the prototypes and making them visible to inspire the team to find unexpected uses and combinations. It was a primordial soup of ideas.

The game we made was collaborative to make and collaborative to play. Whilst it was fun to push the competitive edge, we built sections where players would have to work together to complete a task, sometimes four players at a time. But at its core, the real purpose of the game was to inspire. To give a taste of what is possible to a global community of creators linked online through Craftworld. I remember the day the game launched and was put into the hands of the public. We had a Playstation set up in the studio and watched as people’s creations were published. They were popping up in Spain, Japan, even Antarctica. It was astonishing what people made, using the tools in ways we could never have imagined. This was by far the best part of the project so far, a community of millions across the globe playing, creating and sharing together.

Yoga Noga Reyoga

In my mind, I had an image of two monks fighting it out to be the most enlightened. I chuckled at the irony and reminded me of my childhood competitiveness with my brother. It became the idea behind my first film.

I had the dream of entering either the film or games industry but knew I lacked the skills and portfolio to stand a chance. I decided to learn the software in my free time, but rather than go through one tutorial after another, use the opportunity to make a project to contextualise my learning. I was also conscious not to end up with a solely technical showreel, partly to stand out and partly since there would be a lot of fun to be had in creating atmosphere and telling a story. 

The competing monks idea was chosen largely for practical reasons. I imagined the monks would be seated meditating for the most part and thus would not move very much. I had hoped that this would make it easier for a novice animator, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The lack of grand movements shifted the focus to the subtleties, which proved exceptionally difficult as a first project.

The film took about three months to make in the end which included learning compositing and sound design too. It was painful, but hugely satisfying to have done all aspects of animated film production. Now I had both the technical skills and the overview of how it all fitted together.

Amazingly, it went on to win “Best Animation” at The Byron Bay and The European Spiritual Film Festival, and I got the perfect job in the games industry in the end.