Delighting in the aisles of Given’s Books in Lynchburg Virginia I think in part I was already dazed a bit. I had found myself smitten and reassured that there are independent booksellers that are thriving. Lo-and-behold, Amazon hasn’t destroyed all outposts for those of us who like to stare at covers, thumb through pages, and smell paper. Enamored that chatting folks in the aisles seemed to have the same malady, I sauntered from used to new and perused the art books. There rich orange capitals stared back at me from a deep sea foam green cover of a paperback with carving implements and a lovely wooden acanthus leaf upon it. I opened the pages and after reading three paragraphs I found my breathing slower, more measured. I had just sipped a cup of something rich. The Lost Carving A Journey to the Heart of Making by David Easterly, was purchased at the front counter from a humorous middle aged woman with glasses and a print dress shortly thereafter.
The book chronicles Easterly’s journey recreating a wood carving of the 1600’s artist Gringling Gibbons when a tragic fire destroyed and damaged some of his work at Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace in England in 1986. Lady Gale living in a grace-and-favor apartment on the top floor apparently liked to live by candlelight and a bedside flame set the room, and subsequently the Christopher Wren 1689 designed interiors a light. Why that’s something we just experienced here in the Gorge in Oregon this summer with a teen playing with fireworks. Ah, the carelessness of one can certainly cost much to many.
The fire and Gibbons work is interesting enough but what really drew me in was Easterly’s writing and I soon found out why. The man received a BA from Harvard, and a PhD from Cambridge, with his dissertation being on Yeats and Plotinus. He also was a Fulbright Scholar. Well thought and well-read he began carving in London on a lark. His writing has a rich depth and subtlety of someone who has a breadth of knowledge who knows how to use words as a malleable nuanced material.
Here is one of his passages at length:
In one of his poems, George Chapman, Shakespeare’s contemporary, compares time to a pollinating honeybee and the world to a flower garden, declaring strangely that “time’s golden thigh upholds the flowery body of the earth.” He explains that when we use time correctly it brings harmony and legitimacy to life. The verse ends with an aphorism: “The use of time is fate.” The phrase is inscribed on my workroom door. It’s in front of me now, in the flickering sunlight glancing off the river. The Use of Time is Fate.
(…He then goes on to talk about a Yeats quote that you have to accomplish fate.) The mind tells us that Yeats’s words are an oxymoron. Another part of us feels otherwise, feels that if you use time correctly then somehow you’re harnessing the forces of destiny. What fate proposes, you can bring to pass.
As if you were fate’s deputy. The idea gleams with danger. In politics and religion it can be viciously delusional. An instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, says Yeats, in his passage about Byzantium. But today as I sit in the wintry sunlight and let my mind stray, it occurs to me that the sense of being fate’s agent might be part of the making of every piece of art. The making of anything, maybe. Idea in mind, brush or pen or chisel in hand, you begin to fancy that you’re creating something that was meant to exist, that exists before you make it. Perhaps in the end you feel that way about the life you make for yourself too. (page 53 &54)
While reading this passage I can’t help but see parallels in other books I have read such as Melissa Gilbert’s Big Magic, and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. “The use of time correctly brings harmony and legitimacy to life.” Gilbert would tell us that we ARE called to make something that already exists or that wants to come into presence in this world and that’s the “Big Magic” we are being invited to participate in. Tolle would emphasize to us that the use of time is exactly acknowledging and leaning into the very moment the wintery sunlight reflects off that chisel in your hand as you watch the slow curling of the shaving of wood peel from the wood.
Ekart Tolle writes, “Salvation is not in place and time, it is here and now. The illusion is that salvation is in the future. Salvation is feeling the good within you, to know God.” Salvation comes when we make the best and the most of this moment we are given. Art making can be and is a relishing, a celebration of what is good. As Madeline LeEngle taught me years ago it is a moving out of kronos (linear time), into kairos (God’s time that is beyond measure). In the losing of the sense of time we actually get in touch with the richness and beauty of what this moment is, and there is where I believe Tolle would say is where we meet God.
David Esterly is a master carver. He is in addition a master at describing the time consuming experience of making deliberate and practiced work of chisels against limewood to create sumptuous works of art. There is a purposefulness to his making and his writing that I found refreshing in a world where I recall something Nicholas Carr in the book, The Shallows commented upon: one could not invent a more distracting medium than the internet. We are invited to read an article only to have ads for disparate items whirl at the perimeter, other articles vie for our attention as short video clips loop, a small rectangular note flies onto on our screen asking us if we want to install the latest update of software, another one asks us if we want to subscribe to a newsletter, all the while we are offered red words providing numerous links to drop us down a rabbit hole and warren of epic proportions. Focus, attention, and being in the moment are not elements at play in this vacuum. For me reading Esterly’s descriptions, the discipline of carving a piece of wood with a chisel for hours on end seems absolutely antithetical to our daily electronic endeavors. Reading his process I found was like taking a series of meditative breaths as I saw what he saw in the moment of fashioning a series of fine stems, a clump of flowers, or the arc of a turning leaf.
As I was working this morning in a lovely moss covered A-frame room at a nearby refuge, I had given myself the assignment to simply draw and so what I found myself trying to render in colored pencil on a 5”x7” piece of hot-press paper with a watercolor of cobalt and magenta upon it, was a small rooster headed creamer that was a gift from my friend Dan this past Christmas. Honestly I thought “This is silly why am I drawing this? What difference does this make in the world with all of its hurts and ills?” And yet, as I thought that what immediately came to mind was that I’m so glad Matisse never asked such questions as he busily made images of flowers, women and interiors during both WWI and WWII. There is such life and joie de vivre in his work. Their simple candor give me optimism and hope.
If I am to fall into simply the moment, and be responsible with this piece of work that’s enough. Do this well. Yes, attention and care matter deeply. My intention in making is a celebration of life, my own and others. As I simply layered waxy colors on top of one another I found myself thinking of my friend Dan, thinking about the designers who created this slip cast rooster with its curious whimsy, those in Japan who made it (for there is a stamp on the underside), contemplating who owned it before it arrived on the shelf of antique store in Orange California, and the symbolic history of roosters. Such a small thing unfolded outwards in my head, simply by paying attention to the matter at hand to draw the rooster well.
I drove away from that little A-frame Monday morning retreat feeling refreshed, alive and present; rare gifts in our lives where our pockets are constantly ringing, and we have become servants to the technologies that promised to free us. I so appreciate David Esterly’s reminder to me to relish the momentary wonder of making. Being fate’s agent life is abundant and flourishing because of such moments for, “when we use time correctly it brings harmony and legitimacy to life.” Here’s to working for a little more of that into our day-to-day.