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…or recapture the past?

Spent yesterday in the quirky, pastel-shaded oddity which is Portmeirion. Visionary and architect Clough Williams Ellis bought the unloved site with its tumbledown waterfront hotel in   1925 . After restoring the hotel, he spent the next   fifty years lovingly creating a mock Italianate town, cascading  down the steep promontory to the water’s edge. It is undeniably pretty, with its gaily painted buildings, salvaged porticos from much older buildings and clever trompe l’oeil paintings wherever you look.  Through it all, right on into his 90s, Ellis was driven by the desire to:

Cherish the past

Adorn the present

Build for the future

There is no doubting his vision, energy or creativity.However, I was left wondering whether you really can cherish the past by adorning the present in yesterday’s guise.  Underneath all the prettiness the visitor to Portmerion is left with a taint of the faux. The buildings, solid though they are, feel a bit like a two-dimensional movie set which might wobble if you leant on them too hard.

For me, the two windows below summarise the dilemma.  In the first the perfect blue sky and the delicate tracery of the trees is framed in the window.  In the second, an artificial reflection of the Welsh Hills and the sparkling water is painted onto the concrete wall to look like a window. Which would you rather have?

Click for close-up of the painted window

Banksy at the MOCA, L.A

Several years ago a local police officer came to ask me for some advice. A local pub was displaying a print of Banksy’s image “Christmas?”, depicting a crucified figure weighed down by shopping bags. Some local Christians had expressed their outrage and she wondered what I thought? I’m not sure how much help I was really, since I actually found the picture provocative and thoughtful, rather than offensive. Yesterday somebody drew my attention to this collaborative work created by Banksy and a group of students at the Museum of Contemporary art in L.A. I wonder what you think?  My own initial reactions are below.


  • Set ‘out of context’ like this, the stained glass window looks like more of a magisterial work of art than ever.
  • We are often given the impression that people would rather avoid the church because it does not reflect the harsh realities of the street – yet here is an ecclesiastical image as urban art.
  • Stained glass windows only ever come alive because of the light behind them – has the artist posited a church behind the wall?
  • The figure in its hoodie (or is it a cowl?) is apparently kneeling in prayer – asking for forgiveness for desecration, or offering an act of consecration , I wonder?

After discussions on art and its role earlier this week, it would be great to get your reactions on this particular piece of ‘plumbing’.

Reflections on CNMAC11 – number three

I used to say that it wasn’t worth going to a Christian conference unless you got a cooked breakfast. Not only was it a shallow thing to say – but also it clearly doesn’t apply to a day conference such as CNMAC. These days I would say it isn’t worth going to a conference unless my intellect is shocked, my creativity is sparked, or my network is expanded. CNMAC won on all three.

However, there can be no doubt that the intellectual shock element was delivered by this simple phrase:

We should remind ourselves that Christ did not come to make us Christians or to save our souls only, but that he came to redeem us that we might be human in the full sense of the word. (Hans Rookmaaker Art needs no justification, emphasis mine).

Pete Phillips then went on to expand on this, talking about the call from the Trinity as a ‘social creation’ to express our humanity through creativity. In his all too brief analysis of this ‘speculative theology’ he talked about the ongoing presence of God in human creative endeavour.

It was at this point that I left the room, metaphorically speaking. I left Pete at the front talking about the exquisite beauty of a cello recital, and wandered into a kitchen where a young single mother was making appetising food with few resources and brightening up the drab walls with her daughter’s crayoned pictures. From there I went up the garden path onto an allotment where a pensioner was rubbing the soil between finger and thumb to see if it was just right for planting. Both of them, the young mum and the pensioner, looked up at me as I passed and guffawed at the idea that every human was creative. When I muttered under my breath that we could not be fully human without expressing our creativity they looked ready to clout me.  Beating a hasty retreat back to the safer environment of the seminar, I resolved to look into this further.

Spurred on by Pete, I have just read Rookmaaker’s paper in full.  It has troubled me, stimulated me and reassured me in equal measure. Interestingly, Rookmaaker states that the best metaphor for art is neither preaching nor teaching but plumbing – for it serves its purpose without shouting about its importance. He goes on to say that ‘Plumbers who give great evangelistic talks but let the water leak are not doing their job. They are bad plumbers. It becomes clear that they do not love their neighbour’ . I wonder what my companions in the allotment and the kitchen would have thought of that?

Like Peter Phillips, and like Hans Rookmaaker before him, I believe that the creative gene is our inheritance from God. The desire to create – to make something from nothing and something better from something drab, is a priceless gift. It stirs the pool of humankind – ruffling its waters and sending off a myriad unexpected reflections. It is that same gene which fuels the pursuit of speculative theology – and long may it do so!

Image: wikimedia commons

Down the toilet

An old friend of mine used to do a party trick. He would ask for a £5 note and then say that there were three songs on it. He would list the songs off as “God save the Queen” and “Rule Britannia”. In answer to the puzzled expressions on the audience’s faces he would then rip the note in half, hand it back to the poor volunteer and say “who’s sorry now!”. There must be more useful things to do with paper money than that, surely?

Origami artist Won Park would say that there certainly is. He can transform American Dollar bills into anything from a Koi Carp:

Image: maxcdn

to a camera:

Image: maxcdn

There is no doubting the skill involved – but couldn’t the money be turned into something a bit more lasting?

Maybe one of his other sculptures gives a clue:

Image: maxcdn

Without the need for any clever folding or origami magic – paper money could be turned into a real toilet. Far from flushing that money down the drain, it could be turned into a life-changing piece of sanitation. This is what you do:

  • Take 12 £5 notes
  • Flatten them out, rather than folding them
  • Send them to toilet-twinning and twin your loo
  • Visit your loo’s location on Google maps
  • Avoid all party tricks which involve tearing up (yours or other people’s) folding money.
This post also appears on the Toilet-Twinning blog today.

Disturbing art

When I read a recent report about Krish Kandiah’s Biblefresh visit to Burkina Faso, there was one thing which struck me more than anything else. In this desperately poor country, the President of the African Evangelical Alliance nonetheless said that the people in his churches would ‘rather have a Bible than shoes’. In a land of Biblical plenty, that really got me thinking, and so the small art project below was born.

An old Bible, donated for charity, has now been cut up and has transformed the old shoe above. The finished product, pictured below, stands as an uncomfortable reminder of our Biblical plenty and the Biblical famine elsewhere around the world. Never having done this before, a number of things strike me.

  • To dismantle a Bible like this, even one discarded, which once belonged to an old saint, felt so wrong. However, the fact that others have no Bible when we have them to throw out is worse still.
  • The Bible’s title now sits like a fashion label on the outside of the shoe.
  • Inside, where the maker’s label should be, is a map of of Burkina Faso
  • Despite washing them, my fingers still feel sticky as I type on the keyboard now – as if sullied by this act.
  • The shoe – once so battered, now seems to have a new lease of life
  • The Bible, falling apart – now has a new lease of life too.
  • There is only one shoe, or half a pair – the work of addressing global Biblical inequity is not yet done.
  • What are your reflections?

The hand of God

Yesterday Lorenzo Quinn’s 4-metre long aluminium sculpture ‘the hand of God’ went on display in the elegant surroundings of Park Lane in Mayfair. The thing is, it is also on display at the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Can the hand of God be in more than one place at once?


Of course the answer to the question above is an unequivocal ‘yes’. The hand of God can be with a chaplain in a prison, me telling stories at a children’s holiday club (as I was this morning) and a frightened Christian praying behind locked doors in Tripoli all at the same time.

The hand of God is in many places at once. Its just not always as obvious as Quinn’s 400kg of aluminium make it. Sometimes not only beauty, but revelation, is in the eye of the beholder.

Three-dimensional text

Stephen Doyle, of Doyle Partners in New York, has developed a skill for paper sculptures, alongside his many other talents. As well as their astonishing visual complexity, there is a certain irony to the sculptures, as they turn two-dimensional words into three dimensional sculptures – often with the one commenting on the other. In the sculpture below, the words from Machiavelli’s Discourses about how easy it is to deceive those who are willing to be deceived, are fashioned into an M1-A1 tank, as used in the invasion of Iraq. Is the picture a commentary on the words or the other way around, I wonder?

Image: feltandwire

As a preacher, I often like to refer to myself as a wordsmith – hammering out the word on the anvil of experience to fashion some kind of prophetic reality. Doyle’s three-dimensional word sculptures serve as a reminder about the importance of that task. In the act of preaching God’s word takes three dimensional form and walks out amongst the congregation.  as Bonhoeffer puts it ‘The word arises out of the Bible,takes shape as the sermon and enters into the congregation in order to bear it up’.

Of course, in order to do that, the preacher must take the task of interpretation seriously – which is where another of  Doyle’s artworks really gives food for thought:

Image: feltandwire

In an interview for Felt & Wire, Doyle said :’I used to think I was interested in typography, but I’m not. I’m actually interested in language, in the power of words.’

Aren’t you?

Colouring book

Earlier this week I embarked on one of my favourite tasks as a minister – a discipleship/ enquiry class with someone who is new to Christianity. Questions abounded and the enthusiasm for all things God was palpable. At these classes I try to ‘unpack’ some of the great truths of the Gospel and hold them up to the light for scrutiny. Very often as we do so, their true beauty is not only revealed to the person enquiring, but to the rest of us as well. It can be an experience not unlike that for a small child when they get their first ‘magic’ colouring book. Each swish of water across the page reveals a rainbow of colour on the page underneath. To call it a ‘lightbulb’ moment is too angular and manafactured. It is a moment of revelation, nothing less.

Until this week I had never come across Jeff Koons’ sculpture ‘Colouring Book’. The shape is taken from a Winnie the Pooh colouring book, which is then reproduced in brightly coloured acyrlic over 5 metres high. As you can see below, it then transforms the view of anything observed through it. Wonder if I could fit a smaller version ion in my office?


A celebration of individuality

I was all set to write a piece today on Stephen Hawking’s address to Google Zeitgeist later on about his quest for the ‘M formula’ which will explain the universe without any need for reference to God. He will talk about the additional 7 dimensions of which most of us have not heard, and the fact that many of the unviverse’s particles have invisible and hitherto unproven twins. Is your head hurting yet?

In the meantime, my attention was drawn to the work of Stephen Wragg, as he records the different depictions of pedestrian signs on the pavements of the UK. Not only are these signs ‘unofficial’, but they depict the individuality of every painter who has painted them. In fact, in some instances the paint has been applied so thickly that the word ‘sculpted’ might be more appropriate.

Don’t you think their quirky and unnecessary individuality suggest something about our human identity? Surely a universe produced by pure mathematics would have a little more uniformity about it? Just sayin…


What goes on inside?

Years ago I remember sitting in the congregation at a student mission hearing the speaker explaining the necessity of faith to salvation. He talked about how you just had to take certain things on trust, and how other things would only make sense after ‘making the leap’ to faith.  He was right, of course, but somehow he just wasn’t capturing it for me.

A couple of years later, when I  found myself ‘on the other side of the pulpit’, so to speak, I was casting round for a means to explain exactly that same truth. The previous occupants of our house had left behind them a roll of stained-glass cellophane – presumably an old Christmas decoration. Many times since then I have used it as an illustration of faith – noting how a stained glass window looks like nothing from the outside of an unlit church, but it is only when you go inside and see the light streaming through that it is transformed. The step of faith, in through the church door, makes all the difference.

Just a few moments ago Kore.UK drew my attention to American artist Tom Fruin’s installation, Kolonihavehus,  outside the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen. Isn’t it wonderful?


Apart from its startling beauty, two things strike me about the picture. The first is that the light is being generated inside the house. I wonder whether the same could be said of the church? The second is that in the photo above the church in the background is completely eclipsed by Fruin’s little house. It looks dull, angular, and somewhat intimidating by comparison.


Richard Littledale

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