Saturday, 29 January 2022

Valuing the valueless

Did you ever see the 1980 comedy movie The Gods Must Be Crazy?

It follows the adventures and misadventures of Xi (played by Nǃxau ǂToma), a member of the pre-industrial San culture that lives in the wild Kalahari. One day, a glass Coca-Cola bottle is thrown out of an airplane by a pilot and falls to the ground unbroken. Initially, Xi's people assume the bottle to be a gift from their gods, just as they believe plants and animals are. It is clear like water but harder than anything they have encountered before - their desert world has no rocks or metals - and they find many uses for it. 

However, trouble is afoot. The San have no tradition of personal possession as everything is shared for the common good. But there is only one bottle and everyone wants to use it. This causes conflict within the tribe. Therefore Xi decides to make a pilgrimage to the edge of the world (a tall cliff above the clouds) and dispose of the divisive object. Hilarity ensues.

The film is an amusing look at culture clash. On his journey, Xi is exposed to Western culture for the first time and, through his eyes, we see how illogical it all is. Interestingly, Nǃxau - who was a real Kalahari bushman - did not understand it either. He had only ever seen three white people before being cast, and when director Jamie Uys gave him his first cash payment of $300 he let it blow away as he didn't understand the value or purpose or money. 

However, the thing I find most fascinating about the film is how everyday objects are viewed through different cultural lenses. To the Westerners the Coke bottle is just waste to be thrown away, but for the San people who have no glass-making facility, it is an object of beauty and practicality. It can be used to carry water or to pound grain. Children play games of catch with it and one tribesman uses it as a musical instrument by blowing across the bottle's lip. For them, it has value because it is unique. But its very uniqueness creates possessiveness and jealousy and so, somewhat ironically, they choose to throw it away.

At the heart of this story is the fact that everything has value ... if we create value. 

Rather than throwing things away we should be asking, 'How can this be repurposed, upcycled or renovated?' Imagine the reduction in waste if everyone in the UK gave objects a second, or third, or fourth life. Or just extended the lives of the objects they own. 

Did you know, for example, that not taking the upgrade on your mobile phone can almost halve your phone-owning carbon footprint? As carbon expert Mike Berners-Lee points out, 'It would take 34 years of average use for the footprint of the electricity you use to equal the footprint of the phone's manufacture. So, if you keep your phone for twice as long, you drastically reduce your impact on the environment.'

I bet you never thought about your phone as a problem, did you? But it is. In the course of his research, University of East London engineer Rabih Bashroush worked out that the five billion streams racked up by the video for Despacito by Justin Bieber (feat. Louis Fonsi) consumed over 250,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is as much electricity as Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic consume together in a single year. Yes, you read that correctly. The amount of electricity guzzled by five billion mobile phones to watch a single Justin Bieber video comes to more than the amount used by five entire countries for a year. Ouch. 

Mobile phones aren't going to go away and they are going to increase in numbers. But we can offset the damage by resisting an upgrade and by engaging in other recycling activities - anything that reduces the manufacture of new items to replace perfectly functional older items. I'm addicted to shows like Find it, Fix it, Flog it and Money for Nothing where items are rescued from being dumped and are turned into things that once again have value. Okay, so the economics of these shows are a fantasy - any profit would soon be swallowed up if any of the upcyclers were actually paid for their time and expertise. And workshops don't come free either and nor does heating, lighting, electricity, tools etc. But I like the principle and ethos behind them.

Make do and mend. Reuse, recycle, repurpose. We are such a wasteful society. 

I do my bit and I recycle what I can. My food waste bit goes out almost empty each week as I use every scrap I can and what's left over goes in my compost bin. I water my plants and veg with rainwater captured by my gutters and some water butts. All of my garden furniture was either made from scratch using pallet wood or rescued from reclaim yards. Most of my crockery (apart from our posh Denby 'for best' set) came from charity shops. And all of the materials I use to create my sculptures are things that would otherwise be thrown away or things that I've found or people have donated to me. The prices I charge cover my time, materials such as paint and glue, and other expenses such as workshop, lighting ... all the things, in fact, that get missed out by the TV shows.

But the most important thing is this: even though my source materials may have no intrinsic value, the finished sculptures do. Every single one is unique - just like the Coke bottle was to the San people. That's why people buy them - because they like them. I create value.

Oscar Wilde once said, 'All art is quite useless' (in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray). But when challenged on this by a reader, he qualified his comment in a letter. 'A work of art is useless as a flower is useless,' he wrote. 'A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it.'

When it comes to art, value is in the eye of the beholder.

But, for me at least, it's also in knowing that my art is doing its small part in trying to save the planet.

Friday, 21 January 2022


I made a lot of monsters from junk last year. But now, here in 2022, my side project will be invertebrates. I'm going to make insects, spiders and other arthropods from recycled household waste. Here are the first three made during this January.

And if you're the kind of person who's interested in how these things get made, here are a few 'under construction' pics.
Now, I wonder how they would look in a specimen display case ...

Wednesday, 12 January 2022

Painting Techniques #2 - Rust

We return again to the experts at Laser Creation World and to the excellent Marklin of Sweden for today' lessons on how to create rust textures using painting techniques. 


Sunday, 2 January 2022

New Year Mythbusting

Happy New Year and welcome to what I hope will be a better year for us all. And I thought I'd kick it off in a positive way by attempting to dispel a common myth.

Some people are born artists and some are not.
Absolutely untrue. 

As Picasso once said, ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’ 

Everyone is born an artist. 

It's true. At some time in your life you must have made marks on a piece of paper for fun. Or drawn on a wall (and maybe got told off for doing so). Or maybe you splashed some poster paint around, or made a monster from modelling clay, or stuck pieces of pasta and glitter onto a paper plate to make a Mother’s Day present? Even the person who considers themselves to be the most un-artistic and unimaginative person on the planet has had a moment when they created something, enjoyed doing so and were delighted with the finished result. You were, as Picasso pointed out, born an artist. We all are. The problem is that we lose sight of that fact was we get older. Children don’t know what they can’t do. 

The late creativity guru Sir Ken Robinson used to tell a story about a teacher friend who one day asked a young pupil what she was drawing and was told that it was a picture of God. ‘But no-one knows what God looks like’, said the teacher. ‘They will in a minute’, said the child. That child didn’t recognise any limitations on what she could or couldn’t draw … until an adult imposed them. 

When we are young children, we don’t recognise creative boundaries and we take chances … just like the little girl who decided to draw God. We are all born with imaginations and we believe that anything is possible … until someone comes along and tells us otherwise. 

My granddaughter painted these elephants when she was six. She couldn’t remember what an elephant’s tail looked like but she had the confidence to ‘have a go’. Meanwhile, the animal below was drawn by my grandson when he was five. 

When I asked why the animal had five legs I was reliably informed that it would be able to run faster with five legs. What a joy to have an imagination unbounded by the laws of both physics and natural selection! 

My kids were always delighted with what they'd painted. 'It's a train!' they would tell me as I tried to find anything even remotely train-like among the raw blue, yellow and red splodges of paint. Children see the value of what they've done. It's naïve art in its purest form; they have not yet developed a knowledge of other artists’ work against which to compare their own efforts. And they have no preconceived notion of what their art should ‘do’. They feel nothing but joy in the act of creation. Sadly, as we get older we become more self-aware.  The curse of adulthood is knowledge. With knowledge comes the loss of our naïveté and confidence. 

The only difference between you and people you think of as artists is that they didn’t lose that confidence. You are just as talented and capable of creating art as anyone else. You were born with exactly the same tools and ability as Picasso and, had you been at school with him, you would have both made very similar artwork. 

Sadly, for whatever reason, some people stop creating. Ask people if they rode a bicycle as a child and most will say yes. It wasn’t a skill they were born with – they acquired it. The majority of us are born with eyes, arms, legs and a sense of balance. We are then encouraged to use them in a particular way to ride a bike. Some of us get it quicker than others but we all eventually get it. And, once we get started, practice makes us better. Compare that to the ability to make art. The majority of us are born with eyes, arms, legs and a basic aesthetic sense. We are then encouraged to use them to create art. Some of us get it quicker than others but we all eventually get it. And, once we get started, practice makes us better. If you ask an adult if they can still ride a bicycle, they’ll generally say yes. They haven’t lost the ability (though they may be a little rusty). Most importantly, they have no hang-ups about riding a bicycle because no one ever told them they were riding a bicycle ‘wrong’. But if you ask an adult if they still make art, a lot of them will say no. And that’s usually because someone – sometimes their own brain – has told them that they’re doing it ‘wrong’. And that’s a very curious thing because there is no right or wrong in art, as we've previously discussed (see here).

You just need to find that creative child again. 

As Spike Milligan said, ‘Children don’t grow up. They disappear.’