Saturday 25 February 2023


We had seen it in the Lerwick antique shop a few times, but had put the idea of ownership aside: this time we gave in.

It is a quirky piece; a letter opener with a horn handle. This description might make this item sound suave and stylish, rather like the marvellous stag horn-handled Lacey knives we purchased on our way to Inverness - but no. The little object had a unique identity of its own. It brings a smile to the face every time one looks at it. The handle is a piece of bull’s horn that has been minimally shaped and carved to give the appearance of a fish. The similitude is brought to life with a pair of glass eyes.

Knives and spoon made by John A Lacey, Horn Carver, Aberfeldy, Lawers, Perthshire.

The instrument is remarkable in its twinness: a bladed cutter one way; a fish with its mouth open on the other. Despite being somewhat diagrammatic, it is readily recognisable. One might call the carving ‘naive.’ The expressive, crude, freehand cuts in the horn frame the mouth and indicate fins on each side of this dramatic opening that gasps as it seeks to gulp or grab.

Surprisingly, the handle is ergonomically efficient. It is exactly the form it needs to be for the thrust and cut action needed to open a letter. While looking rather awkwardly threatening with its long, sharp, slender blade, the instrument is comfortable to use; it fits the hand perfectly.#

The joyous innocence of this piece highlights how the simple opportunity of ‘seeing as’ can add so much more to a form. Modernism’s chosen rigour and singular purity becomes mean and shallow, hollow, when opportunities such as the one that this little letter opener offers as an example, reveals the potential of form beyond function. Tradition knew of this enrichment and used it frequently.

Bronze duck lamp.

Silver fish box.

Glass fish bottle.

One has to ask: are we too quick to categorise things as ‘kitsch,’ perhaps too smugly arrogant; too dismissive of the engaged eye that revels in matching? - “Oh, it looks like a . . . !” What opportunities are we missing? What delights do we push aside while we muddle about with bespoke deformities instead of articulating similarities that can help us know more of our world? Why should we not become engaged in this marvellous experience of multiple seeing? The proposition has to be understood as just being ‘more,’ as there is no detrimental impact on the ideal of form following function. Purposefulness is there in every way, along with the statement that this is also something else – something integrally intertwined in function, just adding to how we might see and experience our world, and delight in it.

Less is never more; less is mean: more is meaningful.



The fish made a good handle; see – It is interesting to observe the transition between what can be seen as a handle at the base of the blade transforming into a fish as the handle grows in girth.

One needs to ponder the thoughts of the maker: did the craftsman/woman ‘see’ the fish handle opportunity and then make it; or did he/she fit the horn and discover the possibility? Where did the eyes come from? When? What instrument was used to cut the mouth? What was used to carve the detail? When were the decisions to carve, and what to carve, made?


On the multiplicity of meanings in form, one has to mention Christopher Trotter’s sculptures. These intricate pieces use industrial and machine refuse, individual parts that are all clearly recognisable, assembled to create the forms of living things like kangaroos, pelicans, and fish. Each part is used expressively, without apology or deformation, with its form and function replicating that of the concept, energizing it with a remarkable inner strength that declares itself to the eye as the unique representation of the living thing. The eye dances across this expression as it reads and recognises the various parts taken from their functional context, now part of a kangaroo, a fish, a pelican, . . . The works are true transformations, nothing like the jokey, schematic images one sees made out of farrier’s nails.

Horseshoe nail art.

Friday 17 February 2023


Four small tapestries are hanging on the wall; each was purchased individually at different times from charity shops in Shetland, various local outlets; all nonchalantly. Unintentionally, they form something of a set, with two representing birds, one poppies, with the other stitches delicately detailing Moscow's St Basil's roof line. Each framed piece was discovered by chance and purchased for its qualities, but not just as some random decorative wall art like that seen in motel rooms. The ruby poppies and the red robins fill the frame with a quiet vitality, just as one might see in a Japanese print where two-dimensional space is filled with the vibrant patterns of the subject. The blue wren has the lovely, light quality suggesting the spirit of the bird; while the St Basil's piece cleverly uses the white gauze as a winter's sky and snow, a little like the way Matisse used the beige, raw canvas in one of his dynamic Dance paintings.

When casually perusing these four works, it occurred to me that everything here has been assembled by hand; that the various associated bits and pieces too, were made, if not by hand, by the thinking and acting of man using instruments made likewise.

One realises exactly what Christopher Alexander# meant when he spoke of the millions of decisions that have to be made by man in the making of even a small portion of a city. Just with these four little pieces of ordinary handicraft, one could envisage the multiplicity of decisions necessary to achieve the outcome now assembled on the wall.

The gauze backing and thread have to be made. This involves not only a process, but decisions on materials, their source and supply; their form, density, and colour, and more; along with determinations on the packaging and promotion of the items for sale.

The selections of the purchaser then include choices of the pattern and kit, followed by the process of stitching where thread length, colour, thickness and needle size, and more, all need thought about before the consideration of technique, location, and the form of the stitch.

After completion, the process of framing involves material, form, colour, size, type of backing and glass, pins, tapes, and the doing.

At every minute step there are minds in action managing ambitions for outcomes both as a whole, and piecemeal: one might call it the intimacy of action. 'Experience' is another naming option, but the word is too broad, too platitudinous, and involves possibilities that breach the point wanting to be made, muddling matters: that real people making real decisions are involved in achieving even simple, perhaps cliché outcomes that are extraordinary.

It is this subtle richness of responsibility that Christopher Alexander seeks to expose. Good outcomes require constant, continuous, good thinking; care at every step that can create a wholeness, a holiness that one can experience in the everyday; something special and wonderfully engaging of the spirit - 'uplifting' is the other hackneyed phrase, but it is so.

These four ordinary discards on the wall - again, someone, somewhere decided to give the pieces away, just as we decided to purchase them - that probably cost on average about five pounds each, embody a world of commitment in action by fellow human beings that leaves one amazed. These lovely pieces, fresh and delightful, will never make the multi-millions of the fashionably heroic art auctions, but they are as important as any of these 'masterpieces.'

One can delight in their being here, first as fresh expressions of nature in the way Ananda Coomaraswamy spoke of the traditional artist - how this person sought to express the workings of nature, it's manner of operation,+ rather than its visually expressive, pictorial qualities or slick distortions of these. Secondly, one can be happy that some folk have made the effort to make these items.

It is not fair to label these works 'naive,' but they are. It is their lack of pretence that allows one to see them in this way; that desire just to act, to reveal the stitched pattern on the gauze just because someone wanted to. There is that marvellous, honest desire to do something that is not fashionable ‘self-expression,’ but an expression of our sensed world, it's revelation: the wonder of the flower; the beauty of the bird; the amazing grandeur of architectural form in snow – all matters touching nature. Might the crafts person who completed the 'handiwork' be something like the Lascaux painter, wanting to capture and reveal the wonder of life, to share this enchantment with others, perhaps to manage power, as if words were not enough?

We need to get back to understanding just what this experience is and how it is accommodated/accumulated/a-mused.* Christopher Alexander was concerned with just these issues that come down to matters personal and moral - the intimacy of action and it's innate responsibilities.

Too often today we have distractions that allow us to ignore this basis of all acts. AI and technology drag our attention and misplace responsibility elsewhere, anywhere. A controlling authority, a love, must always lie at the heart of the individual, our else it is a lie.

Alexander once explained the concept enigmatically, as "Searching for God in the middle of a football field." While this statement might sound like the deranged words of a bigoted fanatic, one has to realise just how, like all of Alexander's words, they are precise and to the point. It is all about engagement, an involvement with both reality and mystery; a constant seeking embodying a desire to articulate the inexplicable.^

Tradition has told us about these things, noting that if these matters could have been explained more clearly they would have been by now. Perhaps the Biblical 'Seek and ye shall find' is as close as one can get to succinctly define the concept that does engage honesty, modesty, simplicity, and a purity of intent: E.F. Schumacher called it 'good work.' It has nothing to do with heroic, bespoke, self-expression. The four little tapestries are exemplars of this idea that needs to become our ideal.

Christopher Alexander's point, like that of E.F. Schumacher's, has something to do with the Buddhist view of action: when you are walking, know that you are walking: when you are designing, know that you are designing - know that you are thinking, assessing, deciding, acting responsibly - responding to wholeness, its unfolding, with good work.


One could see the aboriginal relationship with land in this same complex manner.








One has to note how these little pieces are examples of art as understood by tradition. The work exists just for itself, it's celebration of life and being, of effort and commitment; it is completely anonymous, unpretentious, allowing all thoughts to be only about the work and its qualities. There is nothing of 'self-expression' or personal heroics here; there is no brand to promote; there is no hype of matters unique, or any envy of desire to own and invest here; to boast: there is nothing stylish or fashionable here. The work is not bespoke; it is from a pattern developed by 'anonymous' to be completed with care, skill, and love by 'anonymous.' Names and personalities are irrelevant; provenance is irrelevant; these associated origin stories mislead and distract by structuring a conceptual diversion that deceives; we are offered just the work itself, alone, and its relationship to the world; it's delineation of one aspect of the world's 'manner of operation.' It is through such works that we can again look at the world and know it better: 'be quietly enriched' is another expression of the experience of this intimacy of action. There is a fullness here, Alexander's 'wholeness,' that engages the spirit with a fertile modesty. Art is about this - the thing itself and the world; it has nothing to do with personal preferences, heroes, heroics, or promotional hype. One can see such efforts as being similar to the works of the charlatan; the snake oil salesmen - c.f. the efforts of Frank Gehry and Damien Hirst: see -

As this is being typed, a quilt stand stands in front of me. It, too, was an ad hoc find, at the Lerwick refuse centre nicely named a recycling centre. The little stand was brought home, stripped back, repaired, and polished with orange oil to 'bring it back to life.' The phrase is as clichéd as any cliché can be, but it says something true about art - it's special relationship to life.

The piece is made of oak; it has arched leg supports that carry the rails. These end frames have a base shaped with twin feet that look like little mirrored boots; the lower portion of dowel frame is engraved with a spiral groove; the upper portion has been carved as barley twists, 3D spirals that all have the same orientation; and the top is shaped as a wooden arch that sits on turned base knobs. This 'trash' was made by 'anonymous,' with a thoughtful caring that celebrated the portions and parts of this hanging frame and their intersections. It's value is not in cash; it lies in that intimacy of action that is centred in the heart of man and the desire to celebrate experience: its sheer, silent delight that is our being here in this universe, seeing that it is good: When I consider the sun, the moon, . . . what is man? The Psalmist poet is everyman; art celebrates this wonder of life; it's mysteries; it is never self-expression or deliberately bespoke: lest we forget.


The set of tapestries is hung adjacent to two watercolours.
These paintings can be viewed in the same way as the needlework.