Kettle’s Yard: a reflection

I recently visited Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, UK.  Kettle’s Yard was the home of Jim and Helen Ede during 1958 to 1973 . Jim had been a curator at the Tate Gallery in London 1920-30s.  Collecting and curating art and nature in his home, became his cure for undiagnosed PTSD brought on by the Great War.  He became a patron, collector and buyer of works by then unknown (and some famous) artists- paintings by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, David Jones and Joan Miró, as well as sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

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This work, called ‘Bird swallows a fish’ by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, made a profound impression on me. Very pertinent for our ecological crisis.

Jim did not distinguish between high art, naive art, and nature.  There are no labels, so the visitor enjoys the work as it is.  Surprisingly for a curator’s home, there no curatorial statements either.  Alongside carefully positioned valued artworks, we find broken and old furniture, glass, ceramics and natural objects. The aim was to create creating a harmonic whole, not perfection. He was influenced by his visit to India after the war and his work reflects his interests in Eastern religions and folk art.  He invited students for talks at the end of each term and in the end, left the house to Cambridge University.  He meant this humble home to be neither ‘an art gallery or museum, nor … simply a collection of works of art reflecting my taste or the taste of a given period. It is, rather, a continuing way of life from these last fifty years, in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.’

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Humble collections of stones, arranged carefully, give a peaceful ‘zen-like’ calm to the home.

Looking and reflecting on the interiors, as an architect and home maker, I came to realise that to create a home you have to know yourself and your own needs deeply.  And to create such an harmonious home, you don’t need expensive things- just things that reflect who you are.  So Jim and Helen Ede’s home could be viewed by some as eccentric and unsophisticated but the abiding impression is that of a couple who consciously chose to eschew the materially rich for that which is soulfully rich.  A lesson indeed for these chaotic times and materialistic culture.  Such expression where someone’s inner life has been thrown open public gaze requires inner confidence, critical thinking and unwavering certainty.  This is the home of someone who has absolute happiness, not relative one.  In the end, the lesson for me wasn’t from the art but from the collection and the home as one.

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Works of art by famous artists are placed deliberately low on the floor so that the viewer can sit down and contemplate these.
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Light and shadows play a part in how sculptures are placed
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Plants also part of the display- a living natural art
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You are invited to sit on the chairs to contemplate the space and art

Lessons on design and interiors from Kettle’s Yard

  1. Make the design work for you, don’t follow others blindly.
  2. Choose things that enhance the spaces- these might be cheap things like plants, rocks, books and sea shells. They could be things that you love to touch and see.
  3. Follow the design through as you walk from space to space.  It might be simpler and cheaper to have a flow, rather than each space having its own ‘theme’.
  4. Remove and hide things seasonally.  This gives a sense of the home through the seasons.
  5. Eclectic collections have a charm of their own.  Many design magazines feature empty monastic looking spaces but as this home shows, you can have many things if displayed well.

 

Critical

I was thinking about how I used to like the ‘likes’ on my social media pages.  Now, they don’t matter so much.  So I began to reflect on why that might be?  I know that since starting these pages and sharing my thoughts, I have also began to clarify my feelings and experiences. Consequently I am feeling stronger and happier than I ever was before.  Childhood experiences often shape us stealthily and it is much later when we ourselves become parents that we start thinking about these experiences.  Thinking back to my childhood, I had a very critical father.  Some of my work involves being critical- writing and to choosing employees, etc.  But was I transferring my critical habits at work to my home?

Now, being critical has its good points and bad ones.  Critical people are able to distinguish between important issues, make choices and reflect on things intelligently.  In the fields of arts and literature, being critical helps us to edit and curate our choices.  However, taken too far, being critical, can be very dangerous.  Especially where personal relations are concerned. If someone is very critical, then they are less likely to have close friends or family.  Critical people also have a need to be in control and to have a say in everything.  Criticism can become all consuming anger at every one and everything that is not going someone’s way.  Having an overtly critical parent can turn to us to wanting love and attention in other ways.  Wanting ‘likes’ might be way of saying I need love and attention because I am not getting it in other ways.

I breathed a sigh of relief when my younger son announced the other day that he was not going to go for a school prize that is given to ‘popular’ children- that is popular with teachers.  He said that he would be pleased to get it on his own terms (he is a polite and popular boy anyway).  He didn’t want to do things like writing poems or ‘thank you’ letters to teachers for no reason, staying on for extra lessons (not because they want to learn but to earn points), smiling all the time, etc.  He said he just wanted to be himself and if anyone thought he was good, then it was fine.  Here was a boy who used to be anxious to see how many ‘likes’ he was getting in the social media posts.  I realised that I had become happier, let go of the past and become less critical, so my son was a result of the change in my parenting.

Moving away

Our early and later relationships in life can be shaped by our childhood.  People we are attracted to could be either opposite or similar to our parents or any significant person in our early lives.  It is only when we begin to move away from these ‘types’ and start to look for what makes us happy, then only we find people and things that do.  Marie Kondo, a Japanese organising expert, has started a trend to keep things that only ‘spark joy’ rather than concentrate on throwing things that we don’t like.  It is always better to go to things we love rather than run away from what we don’t like.  When we run away due to fear, we do not notice anything else- even things that might be good for us.  Its like we are running in a dark forest without the ability to pick or choose our paths.  This is a fight or flight reaction. Note that it is a reaction rather than a pro-action.  It is a situation where we are not in control.

But finding that calmness where we can decipher what is good for us or not, can take many years and decades to find.  It is only now, I find that I am much happier and able to find things and people who ‘spark joy’ in me.  It is not that I am not my parent’s child any more but it is more that I refuse to live by the past.  Of course, I wish that this had happened much earlier but then that is life. This is when it was meant to have happened and I am grateful that at least it has happened.  Now days, I am quicker to find joy and move on quickly from people that don’t bring me joy.  And strangely enough, I find that even people who I did not get along with in the past, are people I can now tolerate or even like.  By finding joy within, I am finding joy outside.

A hero

I have not been to any David Bowie concert but his music has existed alongside my growth as a person. His talents, not just as a ground breaking musician but as someone who is as a holistic as an artist can be (poet, actor, director, producer, writer, dancer, etc), has been so inspiring. Bowie was a well-read and informed artist who drew upon a wealth of influences such as Tibetan Buddhism, German Expressionism, Mime, Japanese culture, history and Jungian psychology. He has often described himself as a ‘magpie’ and he was able to synthesise diverse ideas and use them in his art. Coming from a poor working class family, it must have taken immense courage to proclaim his ideas and intent. As the philosopher Michael Foley says, ‘Appreciating art is not passive but active, not reverential but familiar, not a worthy act of self improvement but an audacious and cunning ruse. To seek out what stimulates and makes use of it- this is the work of art.’ And Bowie was a master at this and so his entire life became a work of art.

From becoming totally immersed in his various personas- Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke, etc- to his campaigning for others- from Tibet to physically disabled children and to his perceptive thoughts on the internet, death, illness, etc. he comes across as a total person. He acknowledged his mistakes without arrogance or defensiveness (watch his interviews on Youtube) and his fears and died a hero. There was no drama about his death unlike his pop personality life. He even made his death into a work of art and then took his bow, humbly and quietly. I never realised how much influence he had on me until last Sunday when it was announced that he had gone. He wasn’t perfect but he was a hero. And most importantly, his life has taught us that we can be heroes too.  Here is a video of him tapping out his song ‘Heroes’ using a bottle cap on his shoe, raising money for physically challenged children at the Bridge School concert, 1996.

We are all Quasimodos

There is a Buddhist story about a simple man called ‘Never disparaging’ who seeks the good in all but people chase him away, throwing rocks and sticks at him.  However, he continues and in the end, becomes the Buddha, an enlightened soul.  In the novel ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ by Victor Hugo is Quasimodo, a deformed ugly man with a heart of gold, who is reviled by all yet comes out as the best of all.  Quasimodo is also a simple soul but his generosity and bravery make him worthy of praise.  Both Never disparaging and Quasimodo are not clever but good.  What they teach us is goodness is better than cleverness.  Also, they are not good looking on the outside but from the inside, they are good.  So they teach us that it is better to be good inside than outside.  Nature makes sure that no one is perfect, even the most beautiful person has some physical defect, one side of our body is slightly different from the other.  Quasimodo’s hunch signifies the baggage we all carry- whether inside or outside.  So we are all Quasimodos in that respect but just like him, we also have that goodness.  To recognise that quality in ourselves and others all the time is the most difficult part.  And that is the struggle of everyday- to be kind, compassionate and good, not matter what.

how to live to be a 100

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This is my friend, whom I have known for 25 years. He is sitting there with his card from the Queen to congratulate him on his 100th birthday and the two cups of tea he made, one for me (he will never allow me to make the tea!).  (In case you wondered, when people turn 100 in the UK, the Queen sends them a birthday card)  When I met him last week, I asked him what he thought was the secret to being 100.  Of course, one must allow that unfortunate accidents and illnesses cut short one’s life, so if those are to be discounted, then he said the secret is to living a long life is being ‘open’ to life.  We then talked about what being open to life means.

One meaning of being open is about being grateful for what life brings.  David’s wife died more than 40 years ago and he still clearly grieves for her but he is grateful to have seen his great grandchildren and his own children and grandchildren leading happy lives.  He was a tiny boy when the Great War broke out and he was a young man who served in the RAF in the WWII. After that he settled into a life of domesticity and peace, working for British Council until his retirement. He is grateful for the chances that life gave him.  David has been a Buddhist for more than 30 years.

The other meaning of receptive, he said, was about being kind to people. He often tells me the same story (and I pretend I have not heard it before).  This is about his friend who hated ‘doctors, Jews and blacks’.  Once this friend collapsed outside a pub with a heart attack and he was helped by two young men who probably saved his life.  David visited his friend in hospital and found him to be a much changed man.  His friend who now had a different opinion of doctors, said, ‘You know what, one of the men who saved me was black!’ To which David responded, ‘Then the other one must have been a Jew!’  Being receptive and open means being kind to all people and free from prejudice.

Over and over again, most old people who have lived a long life, say similar things to me.  I can’t remember even one bitter and angry person who has lived a long life, even with the benefit of modern medical care.  David’s friend unfortunately was not able to mend his ways, despite being very rich and died early, always complaining and bitter.  So there you are, live a long life by being open and receptive!

what is success?

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A Facebook acquaintance inserted this photo with the title, ‘The 380 upper deck is, well…um, a kind of different, I’d say’ and then he inserted another one which offered views of the scenery he could see from his hotel window, saying, ‘Not so bad view from a window you have to spend four days in.’ And so came more gloating- we had photos of him drinking wine, trying different kinds of foods, etc. He got 28 ‘likes’ for that first post and 37 for the second one. The thing for me was that this was the same guy who worked for an organisation that helps the poor.  Not many of his ‘customers’ would have experienced this luxury and again, the organisation that sponsored his visit, would perhaps be uncomfortable with his boasting.  I thought that his aspirations and his work were so opposite that perhaps he does not find comfort and happiness in what he does.

For many of us, one’s career can different from one’s calling, leading to a dissatisfaction with our everyday lives. A calling is something we do from our hearts, it is part of our whole lives so that is it not an incongruous part of it but something that is natural. Thomas Carlyle said, ’Blessed be he who has found his work, let him ask no other blessedness’.  But success is a bit more difficult to understand. Alain de Botton recently posted a blog about learning from the 80’s pop group, Wham!. One of the lead singers, Andrew Ridgeley, is living a comparatively unknown life with his wife, who is also a former pop star from ‘Bananarama’. de Botton contends that Ridgeley is the ‘winner’ and more successful than his former partner, George Michael, who is in the news all the time (sometimes for the wrong reasons) and wealthier. Success is about more than accumulation of money, travel, homes and carsl- ‘The life of Andrew Ridgeley belongs in the public realm. It’s one of the great moral fables of our time. It’s the story of one man’s redemption – from manic, narcissistic pleasure seeking to maturity.’

I have been thinking of success and what it means to me. For me success is a quiet confidence that we have lived the life we wanted, regardless of what society thinks of it and to have contributed to the world a similar amount of time and resources that it has given us. Success does not shout its status from the roof, it is solid and deep, grounding us with our calling- inside out.