270 D’Oyley No. 9, Victorian crochet, from Beeton’s Book of Needlework
All my life’s a circle, sang Harry Chapin.* And in another world and time, Black Elk, …the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.** The form of a circle or embedded circles with a central point, often sectioned in four, is ubiquitous and basic: our solar system with its concentric planetary orbits; our globe with its hemispherical divides and its recurring cycles of seasons.In mythologies across culture and time, the circle stands in for these natural occurrences and becomes a graspable metaphor for the universe and our unfathomable relationship to it. As DaVinci showed in his famous “Vitruvian Man,” our bodies themselves are circle-related structures. Even our four-chambered hearts, centered in our chests and central to our physiological and emotional functioning (metaphorically at least), partake of this archetypal form.The Chinese yin-yang symbol implies the ever-repeating flow of daylight into darkness. The mandalas of Hindu and Buddhist origin map the cosmos and the all-important path to its center of stillness. Stone circles all over the world eternally correspond with and praise the sun. Ancient (and modern) epics narrate human journeys that start from and return to home, to origins.
L to R: Diagram of Majorville Medicine Wheel, Alberta, CA, c. 3200 BC; Leonardo DaVinci, Vitruvian Man, about 1490; Tanka painting of Manjuvajra Mandala, Tibet, 1400–1500
In this way, the stone circles, the mandalas, even Da Vinci’s drawing are functional as well as mysterious and beautiful. Domestic arts are easy to understand as functional and pleasing, but they also “try to be round.” They, too, have metaphorical qualities. Look at “D’Oyley #9,” above. Its circular perfection encloses an asymmetrical universe of shapes that nevertheless reside and abide in relation to the center. Its biomorphic forms are reminiscent of a garden or, less obviously, of the distribution of organs in a body. The D’Oyley feels organic, a term that means “developed naturally,” as well as in some sense, unmediated, not interfered with. Complex, quasi-symmetrical, hinting its connections to other aspects of creation, it feels so satisfying. Why is that?
Here’s our globe regarded from the eye of a satellite. After considering the D’Oyley, how elastic do we have to be, to zoom in or out and see a pileup of snow as a patch of French knots, or imagine a storm as chain-stitched around its tight central core? Or to understand the clumps and rows of clouds as a kind of sweater, perpetually knit and unknit? The globe and its activities are a cosmic manifestation. The D’Oyley crochet is both a rendering of cosmos and a physical object—which, deepening its mystery, could be returned to thread with one long pull. It occurred to me that weather and stitching are “Penelopean labors,” circular, recurring labors of making and unmaking that mark the doings and fates of planets and humans.***
The arts don’t merely mimic nature but of necessity engage and reveal it. Art allows us humans, whether as maker or audience, to play-act our circlings and spiralings, much like a child who invents games or demands to hear certain stories over and over in the quest to master complex emotions and circumstances.
The circle and other forms in nature are the structures upon which existence is built, irreducible patterns that reveal the shape of being, what we exist within and are made of.**** We intuit these forms and possess a seemingly innate desire to re-make them—in homage, solidarity, yearning, imitation. The Hebrew God said he created humans in his/her image, forms of a Form. Could this not be where the sense of beauty originates? Beauty, experienced via recognition, resonance, like responding to like. We are “struck” by it, like clapper to bell. Our inherent formal structure recognizes and seeks its twin in the external world. Art is a love letter.
The first time
I laid eyes
on you, I knew
we were made for
You encompass me,
is yours. You
live within me
and I, in you,
P.S. Please see enclosed!
What does all this have to do with creative practice? Art-making is our attempt to find and express meaning—and to participate in the cosmic unfolding, whether to revel, rue, praise, lament, witness or question. There’s nothing to really “practice” here, as the urge is innate and happens by itself. We can cultivate awareness of forms and their effect on us as a species and personally. We can remember that we embody these fundaments. My own contemplation leads me to the understanding that all art-making is ritual and spiritual (and functional)—without any effort to make it that way. No matter what, it can’t be divorced from this essence, it can’t become single, alone, unmoored. When we struggle, when our work gets little recognition, even when it fails, it is grounding to remember that we are graced to be working in this archetypal realm, reflecting the cosmos, refocusing and dispersing it like lenses, little prisms. In making art, we are enacting behaviors as old as the human race. And we are continuing the unending re-expression of cosmic order. Underneath our struggles and the more mundane goals we have for our work, that is what we are doing.
Observable universe logarithmic illustration, Pablo Carlos Budassi
* Harry Chapin, 1942-1981, “Circle,” from Sniper and Other Love Songs, 1972.
** Black Elk, 1863-1950, as quoted in Black Elk Speaks, John G. Neihardt, 1932
*** Penelope, weaver, wife of Odysseus, The Odyssey, Homer, 8th Century B.C. See one of the many translations, or Wikipedia, to understand the role of Penelope. But also google “Penelopean labor” or “Penelope and feminism.” Also note that textile and text share the same root, from the The noun form means, essentially, “structure,” referring to the pattern and of weaving and the texture of cloth.
**** These forms-that-are-expressed-everywhere include not only the circle, but also the golden section and spiral, fractals, the Fibonacci sequence, and the Pi ratio, among others (to which I may return in other posts).
And thank you to Alan Monasch for his contribution to the “Dear Circle” poem.