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.

 

Behind closed doors

Last week was half term. It was also the week that my neighbour left her flat, I think, forever.  She is 41, with a loving family and two children- aged 18 months and 6 years and dying of cancer. I first came across her, bubbly bouncy and very French.  I used to talk to her, waiting for the lift or seeing her somewhere in the building.  I remember her being pregnant with her second child, pushing the young baby, and then being a working mother.  Then she sort of disappeared.  I was busy and sometimes I passed by her door, thinking perhaps she’d left but I never knocked on her door to say hello.

Then one day, a courier left a parcel for me with her. When I came back home, I knocked on her door to get the parcel.  The person who opened the door was no longer the bubbly, bouncy woman I had known- a thin, tired woman appeared, barely struggling to get to the door. But again, I didn’t ask.  Bizarrely I am ashamed to say, I even thought, perhaps she is on a diet or something (not that she was fat anyway).  I thanked her and left with my parcel.  But something didn’t feel right. So a couple of days later, I emailed her to ask her if she was okay.  Then she told me that she had cancer.  Then over the next two years, I began to email her, sending her little gifts or books, things for her children and asking her mother about her.  I knew she had an aggressive form of cancer that was spreading fast, so I didn’t knock on her door as I didn’t want her to come to the door.  Over the two years, it was like a yo-yo, sometimes she looked good and positive, sometimes thin and tired.  I continued to pray for her.  I wanted her to win over this terrible disease and I never doubted that she would.

Then two weeks ago, I got this email-

“I went to the oncologist last Friday with my husband and was told that they could no longer offer any treatment. My last chemo did not work and will cause more suffering at this stage to continue with the current or new treatment. I have therefore decided to spend some time in France with my family for now.”

I emailed her to say, I’d like to take a photo with her before she left but she said, “when I come back”. I realised then that she didn’t want her photo taken and also that she was saying good bye.  And that all memories don’t need photos.  So I emailed her a sketch I made many years ago during of my time working and living in France-

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She thanked me and that was it.  Last week, when I saw the furniture and removals van, I stopped to ask her husband who was at the door.  He said she was resting and they were leaving soon.  I wished him well and asked to be in touch.  I don’t think I will see her again.  But her door, soon with new occupants, will remind me, why we must knock on doors and ask how people are.  Ask when things look not quite right, help and encourage people- you never know how short time you have with them.

A cluttered mind

I have recently been revisiting videos and writings on decluttering.  Why?  Because I forget to clear up and then I find more clutter when I am busy with other things but why is clutter collecting anyway?  Here are some things I have found out about reasons for clutter collection with some useful tips.  According to Oxford psychologist Stelios Kiosses, ‘There’s a bit of the hoarder in all of us … it’s when it gets out of hand, there’s a problem.’  My thing is once I have cleared up, it builds up again and then it gets out of hand.  I don’t have a cleaner, manager or organiser.  How can I stop cluttering?  I have tried so many methods.  As someone who is actively working in the environmental and ecological fields, I feel ashamed that I have so much stuff in my own house and office.

I have tried the Marie Kondo approach but you have to be very careful with that as you might end of throwing away useful things and also that approach doesn’t go far into why one creates clutter in the first place.  You have to know yourself in order to find out why you create clutter or collect.  So here is what I have learnt-

  1. Look around to see what it is that is cluttering up your environment.  In my case, it is definitely paper in some form- books, documents, paper, cuttings, etc. I spent more than £5000 on headed paper and have hardly used those and they clutter up my office storage.  Then there is also stationery that I have never used- dried up pens, rubber bands that have crumbled away, tags that don’t fit and so many items that don’t work. Kiosses also believes that hoarding comes from suffering owing to a loss of some kind.  But then we all have had loss of some kind and yet some of us hoard more than others.

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  1. Hence you need to think about why you hoard that particular thing– again in my case, it was always ‘just in case’. I write a lot so there are books and cuttings.  But there is also my fear of appearing ignorant, so I keep the backing for ‘ my proposition or thoughts to prop me up intellectually.  In other words, I need these bits of paper to help me because I can’t be bothered to think for myself or challenge an argument.  It is also a habit that is built up through our education system, with constant referencing that is required for any essay or paper you write.  But there is no need to store references- most are available on the Internet.  My headed paper also reflects an insecurity and an allusion to scarcity- I kept those sheets for the future.  Then the future arrived and everyone is using the internet and so paper sent by post is getting scarcer in every discipline.
  2. Be kind to yourself as you decide to change- I realised I had to treat myself gently in order to draw me away from drowning in my clutter.  The more harsh you are, the less workable decluttering is; which is why many give up on the Kondo method.  Rome wasn’t built in one day and the clutter wasn’t created in one day.  Clearing up one small area that is bothering you works best as the clearing ripple spreads. I am also now less harsh towards others- I recognise the hoarder that Kiosses talks about exists in me and others too.  There is no need to look down on others.  Also, I recognise that it is precisely because of this reason that you can’t clear someone else’s clutter.  That is why you can’t have decluttering theories that apply to everyone and follow ‘how to declutter’ books by someone else.  It is all in your mind.  Just as you are unique, your style and method of decluttering will be unique.

As one website says, “When you get rid of the vast majority of your possessions, you’re forced to confront your darker side:

  • When did I give so much meaning to possessions?
  • What is truly important in life?
  • Why am I discontent?
  • Who is the person I want to become?
  • How will I define my own success?”

The aim of decluttering, should not in fact be to purge your belongings but to enjoy the objects and environment you’ve chosen to live with.  That knowledge comes with knowing yourself deeply and well.

How to deal with bullies

I am dealing with my 12 year old son’s bullies right now.  For many weeks, I have not seen him smile and he looked tired all the time.  He was being bullied with physical, racist and homophobic (yes, even that age, bullies use all sorts of excuses) abuse in school.  Initially I told him to ignore it and deal with it with humour.  After he was set upon by the gang of boys last week, I was livid and complained to the school.  I also found out that my son hadn’t told me about the attack because he was ashamed.  Here is what I have learnt in the last ten days-

  1. Bullies, like other people, change when they want to.  They won’t change because you want them to.  Don’t stay with a bully thinking that they will change.
  2. Bullies cannot be appeased by good humour and manners.  This brings out more of their ugliness. Do not associate with bullies- get away from them and leave them to deal with the emptiness of their lives.
  3. Bullies only listen to fear, so put fear into them by reporting it.  Transmit it widely because the only thing the bullies care about is their image and their power.  Bullies do not like reciprocal or equal relationships.
  4. Let children and all vulnerable people know that bullying is never okay and never to sit in silence.  Bullies love it when people take it without complaining. Never be ashamed of reporting bullying.
  5. Build up the broken self esteem of the bullied person with love and support.  Find other people who can support the bullied person. Build a fortress of love and teach that person to always respect themselves.

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.

Finding authenticity

I am starting this year by finding what values I respect the most and what I don’t.  I discovered that I don’t have to agree with anyone nor that they should agree with me. Instead what I love about a person is that they hide themselves by concealing something about themselves or conversely by highlighting something else.  I have been disappointed by someone who not only hid the fact that they are Jewish (why would anyone do that?!) but also that they show how perfect they are- posting photos of their first class flight tickets, giving details of their home improvements and that their daughter is doing so well at school or ballet lessons in their New Year round robin letters, etc. all the time hiding that the couple’s marriage is non existent and that their son does not like his parents.  I wouldn’t dislike this man if he told me about his problems or disrespect him.  But such is the world of today that we present our perfect selves to one and all- nothing less than perfection will do.

However, trying to be perfect is so hard.  One has to tell lies, hide facts and keep up the pretence.  It is much more simpler to be authentic- no lies, no concealing, and no stress.  Being authentic is not hard, being unauthentic is.  However, being authentic takes courage because you have to show your weakness and vulnerabilities.  But I’d rather be with a courageous person than with someone who does not trust me to appreciate their weakness and failures.  This is a complex paradox but worth thinking about- who do you want to be with and who do you want to be?

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.