Art and Life

Petrus Spronk
I live in the forest
A response to things true.  A response to things poetic.  I realise that this occurs, specifically, when I look at old work from ancient cultures.  Very old work. At times only a shard, or a shard set in a more recent restoration of the ancient form. What is the connection? What is being transported from that time to me, and how. A piece of earth, moulded into a simple form a long time ago?  Did this act involve mathematics?  Did it involve Geometry?  Sacred Geometry?
The first time this happened I stood in front of a very large ceramic plate with a simple line of Islamic Calligraphy from the edge of the plate into the centre. A prayer maybe. I could not move. I was overwhelmed by this most ancient work of clay. I experienced a feeling both of ‘much energy’ and ‘extreme stillness’. In order to test this response I revisited this exhibition many more times. Each time I was moved in the same way.
The thought then occurred that this calligraphy, which I did not understand on an intellectual level, which I could not read the meaning of, was maybe a ‘visual manifestation’ of the actual sound which the written word, or sentence, had made at the time of notation. I thought, maybe, that on a level we are not familiar with anymore, this ancient sound, expressed in the writing, was being translated into my being and, somehow or other, it touched me deeply. Something strong was communicated. Rather than understanding it, I felt it.
I live in the forest
Whether it is writing or other artistic, cultural or creative expressions such as paintings or music, the response to this specific ancient work is always the same.  Intense.  The artistic expressions, which afflict me in this manner, are always very old.  From primitive times.  Primitive.  Not primitive as in crude, but as in primal, primeval, fundamental.  The beginning of things.  The source of things.
Whenever we start a new project, new work or a new relationship, we enter it with fresh energy. Renewed energy. It is as if we are given, or are able to liberate, a new energy to get the project at hand off the ground, with some chance of success.  Primal energy.  Basic energy.  Strong energy.  Like a cosmic gift. It reminds me of the energy of birth.
So I imagine that, like a cosmic/universal law, any culture is given a parcel of primal energy to start off on its own particular journey. And I imagine also that this primal energy is expressed through the earliest work which this culture produces. And that, somehow or other, this primal energy and power is able to manifest itself on a level on which we do not usually communicate anymore. But which may well be communicated through works of art, or poetry.
Ever since this first happened to me, I have been trying to understand this strange and moving phenomena. I call it ‘The Poetry of Art’. This seems to me the only aspect worth pursuing in my work because it gives it lasting value, strength and an inner power. The power to move, the power to influence. I have never been interested in the fashionable expression in art. I enjoy it, but it does not inner-move me. I need to be involved in art which moves me at this deep and magic level.
I live in the forest
I started my journey of investigation by visiting ancient places. By listening to ancient sounds. I visited the sites of ancient traditions and tribes, from the coast of western Ireland to the most northern edge of Europe. From the cultures of the Mediterranean, to the ancient mountains of Korea. I visited the desert centre of Australia and the painted desert of Arizona.
I sat for months near the ocean. Listening to the meditative, deep, in and out breath of this liquid mother. I observed the ocean’s primal quality and powerful energy. I crossed it on a boat. Being near it, I became aware of its energy. I sat. I walked. I absorbed. I waited. I visited, and stayed in, a 5,000 year old eucalypt forest and listened to the ancient whispers and shouts of the trees. I spend time alone in the desert of Australia and listened to the inner stillness. I was able to hear my heart beating.
Always looking for the ancient spirit, the ancient energy, and the ancient power. I experienced the creative and destructive power of a bush fire destroying thousands of acres of forest and farm land. The heat-energy melting the earth like the inside of a kiln melts glaze. This was a most powerful experience. It was to influence my work for many years.
At the conclusion of this long journey I built a small studio in a strong mountain range, purported to be 6 million years old. It was here in this isolated and powerful place that I made my first work.
After eight years of travelling the world, searching for the power with which to fill my work, I asked:  ‘How and where do I start?’.  ‘Any journey starts with the first step’ was the answer.  My first step was a simple burnished black-fired bowl. I concentrated on this form of ‘the bowl’. Next, a pictorial aspect developed. It was closely related to the bushfires I had observed. My work started to reflect both the destructive and renewing elements of these fires. Upon completion of the making of a bowl and before firing it, I broke it. Then restored it after firing the shards. Reflecting here the concept of both the transient nature of our existence and the hope which change promises. Yet at the same time the work expressed the stillness, quietness and intensity which make up my work’s inner message. After many years, I still work with the form of the bowl.
A quote from the Buddhist Master:
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
Venerating the past in itself will not solve the world’s problems. We need to find the link between our traditions and our present experience of life. Nowness, or the magic of the present moment, is what joins the wisdom of the past with the present. When you appreciate a painting, or a piece of music or a work of literature, no matter when it was created, you experience it now. You experience the same now in which it was created. It is always now’.
After many years of living in the mountainous desert I left and moved into the forest
I am my work.
I live in the forest
Always the same, always different.
I live in the forest amongst trees, birds and animals
The clay I use comes from the earth 
The fire I need burns the wood collected from the forest
The water I use is collected from the roof of my house
The air I breathe is fresh and clear
The vegetable garden provides and sustains
Although I was born in the city, 
I now live in the forest. 
I live in the forest by choice.
I have built a house
I have built a studio
Both are small and strong
I have created a vegetable garden
What, you ask, has that to do with my art?
I live in the forest
I made my tools
I built my kiln
I collect the wood from the forest
I collect the water from my roof
What, you may ask, has that to do with my art?
Why is it important for me to live in the forest? 
There is more fun in the city. 
There is more entertainment in the city
There are more people in the city
There is also more noise in the city
Art and nature
In order to understand, catch and express even an aspect of the power I spoke of before, I need to live close to nature. In nature. As part of nature. The strongest aspect of nature I can find. I sleep under the stars, I eat fresh food from my garden and I drink water from the well. All this in order to harness the energy of nature, the energy of stillness, which I need for my work.
I understand that the power, for which I have been searching, to make my work strong still exists in nature. Many ancient cultures have gone. And with them the way of that powerful type of expression I sensed in the artistic work of the time. Yet I feel that it is still available in or near strong natural locations, such as the forest, the mountains and the ocean. So, if I am to tap into the natural strength of nature in my art, I need to live there. Additionally, I need to live as simply and with as little complications as possible. Simple and strong. The same quality I want in my work. I need to live the power of my work in order to be it, to create it. Work is not something I do, but something I am. The work is an expression of my life, a manifestation of my spirit.
The reason I continuously search for this powerful energy, is that I feel the need to express it in my work and, consequently, communicate and share the magic of it with a wider audience. I see this as my contribution to society.
I hope that my work is able to communicate this power, stillness, intensity and meditativeness into any environment in which it may find itself. I also hope it radiates this inner energy into the chaotic elements of twenty-first century life. The natural intensity and quietness may, through my work, seep into the daily environments of our culture and, hopefully, create an aspect of healing. At least a stillness in which we may hear the message from our heart.
And here I remember, from a time when I was younger, the advice of lots of people around me. ‘Keep busy, Petrus’, they used to say.  Maybe they still do.  Then I met the Buddha, his advice was: ‘Keep still’.  It is this advice I am trying to communicate in my work. No more, no less. Plus the joy of making beautiful things by hand.
I have dedicated the last thirty years to this work. And now, after many years of work in solitude the need to refresh arose, the need to see things renewed. In order to respond to this need, I travelled to an ancient land. The only thing I knew about this land was that it was an ancient culture. And there, one afternoon, on a visit to a museum in Seoul I came across a bowl which, once again, moved me to tears. Tears of recognition. Even though I knew nothing about the work I stood in front of, I recognised it.
I knew at once that I, in a strange but beautiful way, had arrived at home. My spirit home. My home which exists in a simple clay bowl.
It is a few years ago now since I returned from my art project in Korea. I went there with an open heart and mind. Consequently, I returned home filled with images, feelings, emotions and ideas. Overfilled. Overwhelmed to the extent that is has taken a year for all this to settle, to stratify into its layers. And, like a lake stirred up, it has taken a year for the mind to settle, to become clear. To see the way forward. A year of many thoughts and strong impressions of Korea, all talking at once. However, I attained silence by sitting quietly in the forest, by waiting. It is here that I am able to communicate with my self, it is here that I can hear the wisdom of the heart speak.
Nature is my sanctuary. In this sanctuary of stillness I am able to settle, recoup and retain my strength and receive my instructions for life and how to develop. How to grow, how to journey.
As a result of my Korean experience, many images have manifested strongly and are now part of me. Part of my vocabulary. Bamboo groves, Rocks piled on top of rocks, Mountains (especially mountains). Korean calligraphy on rocks, Mudom (which are traditional gravesites found in fields) The sounds of the jong (light bells which are suspended from the corner eaves of temples) walking in the forest, The lessons from traditional ceramics. Old tools. I returned home rich. Almost too rich.
After two years of strict and disciplined work in my studio all the above has presently come together in the form of a simple burnished wood fired bowl. This bowl expresses my love for poetry. Korean calligraphy and its patterns. Korean love for nature. The sound of running water in the forest. The stillness of the mountains, The strength of meditation. Traditional ceramic skills and the expression of the creative spirit. The skills I have learned in the world at large and practiced in the solitude of my studio for many years, in combination with my love for concrete poetry and the influence of my time in Korea. All these elements have come together in my present work.
Unlike Korean ceramics, my work is not glazed. The techniques of burnishing and black firing were learned in the south of America, in a culture where glaze technology was not known. This culture, in order to attain some sort of non-porous quality for their storage jars, burnished their ware, then smoked it at the conclusion of the firing in simple wood firing kilns. For me ‘the ceramic experience’ has never meant the necessity of glazing. Thus, when I first saw this work I felt at home with it. I decided to adopt this technique and develop it into my own.
This technique of working, combined with the Korean influence of calligraphic patterns, create in my ceramic art an expression of poetry. Ceramic Poetry. There is, of course, more to the work than just the image. Within these works my love for other things Korean is contained. Simple but strong things such as the way goods are displayed in the market. The way Korean people look after, and care for, trees. Especially ancient trees. Their reverence for rocks, their ethereal watercolour paintings, which for me are very close to their calligraphy. All these things and more, much more, have touched me deeply when I lived in Korea.
The past only lives in our memory The future only lives in our imagination The present only lives in the here and now
For all I receive I am, and will be, forever grateful.
Art and Life
Petrus Spronk
A Journal about craft and creativity
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