Tag Archives: Charles Eames

The Journey Within

All Japanese gardens, if done well, done imaginatively and artfully but also done within tradition’s fairly rigid and proscribed parameters (or with an abiding respect for or creative spin on them) have placeness. In their sensitive tough-love partnership of nature and the shaping human hand, they are almost the definitive working model of arslocii. Though the inclusion of certain elements – pathways and materials and physical relationships – can be, need be found in all such gardens, the designers of them have found ways to be faithful and yet to be singular, to take the time-honored and familiar pieces and mold something that feels old and new, even renewed, formal yet comfortable, all at once. Without knowing much about such places, one merely has to go to one, a good one, and to sit in it, and to be in it, and one will know that it is right.

We have been to a few such places, most recently Shofuso, which began life slightly more than a half-century ago as an exhibit in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and which somehow found its way to a small carved-out niche in the westernmost portion of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. Shofuso is, like its not-too-distant neighbor Martin Puryear’s Pavilion in the Trees, an amenity – a throwback to a time when cities believed it was in the public good to provide such things, and when citizens felt that their tax dollars were well-spent in the providing. They are relics of a bygone era – in fact, two eras, from two nations – and in that way alone Shofuso would have placeness.

But, in any discussion of Shofuso and placeness – in fact, of most such amenities and their placeness – inherent nature can be less interesting than situation.

Where Shofuso resides, it is within a park but up against a busy road, and the park is within a hard-scrabble and rundown neighborhood, which is in a city, which is in a large metropolitan area, which is in a cohesive region. Like Charles and Ray Eames’ film Powers of Ten, one can start at the particular and zoom out to the general – from the lake in Shofuso up and out to view the expanse of the encompassing geography. Each element is within another; one exists because the other does.


Often, the placeness of a place is not so much the place itself but the place it’s in, and the place that that place is in, and so on. Much of what gives a place its placeness is the coming upon it. In this way of thinking, placeness is like nested Russian eggs, where, by removing the larger outer shell one finds a smaller one of equal or surpassing beauty within, and by opening this newly found egg, one encounters another. One egg gives over to another, smaller, until, finally, one arrives at the core egg, the gem most nested inside, like a cut stone in a jewel box. Often, what gives this final egg its specialness is not that it is so much more lovely than those that preceded it, but that they did precede it – that there was a process of discovery, a journey, and that coming upon this final egg was the culmination, a bestowed specialness. The prize in a CrackerJack box has little value; it is that it hides from view, and one must send fingers on a burrowing adventure to find it. It is the path of discovery, however messy, that makes the found item something of (even momentary) merit.

But what makes this placeness reductionism even more rewarding is that, unlike the nested eggs, there really is no endpoint to the focusing journey. Within Shofuso, say, there is a teahouse, and within the teahouse is the ceremonial room, and within the room are tatami mats, and one of these mats is a small rectangle, and it is upon this tiny spot that the teapot is placed, and where so much is done in the tea ritual. A place within a place within a place. You could stop anywhere along the placeness continuum and feel the placeness. But if you continue, you can find more.


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Ignorance is Bliss

We who wish to make art, many of us, and who are serious about it and dedicated to the dream, have come at it from essentially the same direction – a direction shaped and codified through the centuries, ever since humans began creating representations of things, or making things that exceeded mere functionality and displayed an “added value” of some sort that appealed to something greater than utility. That direction was either a formal or a catch-as-catch-can student or apprentice training, during which one learned how to perform one’s task, to have the basics drummed into him, then to do the work over and over until one attained a certain mastery of skills. If one wanted to be a painter, say, it would include the grunt tasks of mixing paints and cleaning brushes and stretching canvases, and acquiring a second-nature knowledge of tools and how they are best used, and the nature and properties of mediums to be painted with and on, and so much more. If one were to be a writer, the novice would need to know grammar, and punctuation, and have a good vocabulary, and know how to put words together, and then paragraphs, and how to get as close as possible to putting down on paper what is in your head, and to do so in your own voice. Beyond the mechanical skills, one also needed to be taught the ineffable wisdoms – of perspective, proportion, color, metaphor, assonance, consonance, repetition, rhythm, symmetry, syncopation, harmony, juxtaposition, and so on – all these to modify and enhance and, in the hands of good craftsmen, to personalize.

But the problem with becoming knowledgeable, to the point that these abilities and acquired bits of information become as much a part of your life as breathing, is that too many get mired there, stuck in that place of skill and knowing. For them, the knowing is sufficient – more than sufficient: the knowing, and the doing resulting in replicable, polished, admirable and talented end-products, were the endpoints, the pinnacle. That to have it down is to have “made it.” For many, this is enough, this is the point, like breaking a horse so that it will respond to your slightest knee prompt. And one can make a fine living, and receive the accolades of fans, and also experience some self-satisfaction, by arriving at this level of doing – the attainment of the level of craftsman, of tradesman, of technician.

But, in some sort of ironic twist, to be an artist, a true artist, one must know all that needs to be known about how to do what one does … and then one must venture into areas where one does not know anything, and, by using the skills now inherent in him, must wade into the unknown and grasp it.

This is most perfectly articulated, in a recent documentary about Charles and Ray Eames, by Richard Saul Wurman. In speaking about the multifaceted achievements of Charles Eames – from chair design to filmmaking to exhibition design – and how, in a sense, he might be considered the epitome of a true artist, Wurman said: “You sell your expertise, you have a limited repertoire. You sell your ignorance, it’s an unlimited repertoire. [Eames] was selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about a subject, and the journey of him not knowing to knowing was his work.”

Nice work if you can get it.

To know every step, no matter how skillfully you stroll, is to follow paths and create ruts. To start with the knowledge of how to walk, then to set off in a way that will challenge you to overcome your ignorance, redefine your way of walking to suit the terrain, and arrive at a place that the journey compelled you to find – that is the making of art.

The place where art resides is the place furnished with your knowledge but fueled by your not knowing and your wanting to learn, to do not what is merely acceptable but creatively unexpected, and yet inevitable, to embrace the challenge even if you have never met that challenge before, and to use the old to form the new, and use the new to remake yourself. The outcome will not always be successful – Eames had his failures, and his reliance on the chair that he helped design in many ways limited him (though financially supported him) – but, then, it needn’t be. Perhaps it shouldn’t be.

Art is not the place you are now, but the next one. You get to it with a sense of direction but no map. And where you end up is where you were meant to be.

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