Geoffrey Smedley

New in the old, old in the new

 One man is almost 90, racing the hearse, he likes to say, as he works to complete his newest work, on the invisible geometry in the drawings of Piero della Francesca (1415-1492).  Geoffrey Smedley has been occupied with Piero for decades, and he has discovered lines and angles that are more than simply illustrations to accompany Piero's treatise on perspective, De Persceptiva Pingendi, which scholars previously took them for. In the introduction to his work-in-progress, Beneath Appearances, Geoffrey quotes Plato: "...when the Creator had framed the soul.. he formed within her the corporate universe and brought them together and united them centre to centre. The body of heaven is visible, but the soul is invisible and partakes of reason and harmony."

Geoffrey asserts that his unearthing of the buried geometry in Piero's work offers an insight into the attunement between sight, geometry and being.

The other man is a young playwright, not yet 30,  a mad reader who steeped himself in old stories of revolutionary movements to create a work that captures the essence of the energies involved in making change. I love the way his protagonist, Olivia, grabs the microphone when she has something important to say to her partner Jeremy. Strangely, when it comes to delivering the "message," she can only stare at the audience and promise that she will never do anything her heart doesn't tell her to do. A lot of followers are attracted to her non-message, and the numbers seduce Jeremy. He thinks the movement should have a name. Maybe the Olivians. He thinks they should lay out their specific ideas for change.

I couldn't decide which of the characters' views I favoured. Then I realized it didn't matter. James Gordon King and director Marie Farsi present the classic conflict between the heart and the intellect. Into the battle comes a most charming shit disturber, who tells Jeremy he's being noticed. This gives Jeremy the confidence to take the microphone himself. The lure of power, so hard to resist. Even Olivia is tempted by the devilishly likeable fellow who keeps changing his name, the fellow who might well be saying...this, all this, it could be yours....

In the end, all three characters are lying on the dirt floor of the pop-up theatre. But they do rise again, like every generation that aims to create the wheel, only to realize they are part of an endless circle. Age and youth, old and new.

Rocking the heartstrings

Piero's head, by Geoffrey Smedley

"Touching the heart strings is something you have to experience. Otherwise you cannot understand human beings from a universal perspective. . . Sometimes you feel good, sometimes you do not feel good, but that's all right. Whatever you say about it, let's just go toward this. In other words, touching the heart is to rock your heart strings to their ultimate state." (Returning to Silence, Dainin Katagiri)

Amidst my karass, reports circulated via wire, wireless, phone calls, email messages. Someone felt stuck in her situation, another had just won an important competition, another struggled with grief. Worry, sadness, frustration and utter joy spun like a ferris wheel that moved one person to the fore, then up and away, immediately replacing them with the next.  Sleep became an instrument for which someone had written dissonant chords.

In the very early morning, shooting stars.

Also Known As: the name game

Funny how topics tend to cluster in life and in the mind. Lately it's been names and naming. The annual list of the most common baby names appeared in the news media, Olivia and Liam coming out as the most popular where I live. Will parents who choose these names hand their kids the challenge of distinguishing themselves from other Olivia's and Liam's? Because names do make a first impression and bring with them all sorts of baggage. Wayne? Oh you don't look like a Wayne.
Italica (M.B., 2008)
     Homer names some of the fallen and those who felled them in The Iliad, and goes further to provide a sense of lineage. Zeus is the son of Kronos and the father of Sarpedon, old Nestor the son of Peleus and father of Antilochos and a second son. Other descriptions are rather general, mighty Aias, the famous spearman Odysseus, bronze-armoured Hektor, handsome Paris a.k.a Alexandros. That's the thing about the names in classic and also Russian literature, it is common to find more than one name for the same character, so clarity is sacrificed for, what? Local colour or customs? Homer feels it important to identify the battlers by name, but he realizes that he can't include everyone, not with the masses necessary for the slaughter that goes on between the gates of Troy and the fast ships of the Achaians, or Argives or Danaans, the other names by which the Greeks are known. Choose your favourite handle. Instead, in his catalog of ships he names most of the leaders. The way he refers to them suggests that his audience must have known who he was talking about, at least their reputations, otherwise why bother. What's in a name?
     The chronicler who accompanies the Pasha on an attempt to expand the Ottoman Empire into Albania instinctively realizes that names are only a beginning. He needs to note some characteristic of the principle players to distinguish them in the history he is writing of the the siege, in the novel by the same name, The Siege, by Ismail Kadare. It was great of Kadare to include such a character, someone whose very purpose in his fictional life is to describe, to chronicle events. You'd think there would have to have been similar functionaries in all wars, perhaps poets like Homer, though Homer purportedly got his material from oral tradition, for the war he wrote about happened in the 13th century BCE, say scholars, and The Iliad is said to have first appeared in the 8th century BCE. You know those games of telephone, where one persons whispers something to someone else
and by the end of the line the original message is distorted? Makes you wonder about the oral tradition. Too bad Homer could not draw on the work of a chronicler like the Sultan sent along with his troops.
   This last thought tempts me to open the Pandora's box of historical accuracy and fiction, but that's for another time. Today it's names that cluster in random thoughts and another reference comes to mind from the classic WW II poem, Naming of Parts by John Reed.  Reed speaks in the voice of a soldier who is learning the parts of his gun, but the brilliance is in his juxtaposition of the names of spring flowers - japonica, almond blossom - and "lower swing swivel" and "cocking piece," two of the parts of his gun, i.e. the exuberant beauty and promise of new life the image of flowers produces contrasted with the utilitarian names that apply to an instrument used for killing.
     I like the sound of words and found a way to make a sort of poetry out of the names of tools in sculptor Geoffrey Smedley's workshop.  Meaning and language play into his metaphorical machines, to all the parts of which he gives names. A ball that rolls down a chute, for example, is called The Seed of Intention, another part Confession, another Double Derogators.
     Olivia? Liam?  For many years Michael came out on top for boys. In fact one semester in my classroom I had so many that I called them the Mike section, which immediately stripped them of their individuality, at least briefly, and that wasn't fair because you really cannot assume that similarly named people have the same characteristics. Maybe a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but what about the fragrance of all the girls named Rose?

Men Who Read

Surveys show that more women than men read books, but lately two men have inspired me, Geoffrey, 87 and Jimmy, who is 26.
     At lunch the other day, as Geoffrey and his wife and I sticked our way through the tasty and neatly arranged contents of our Bento boxes, he talked about his interest in the World Wars. He grew up in London and his father participated in both WWI and WWII.  But it isn't his devotion to the subject that inspires me. WWII is an apparently endless source of material for fiction and non-fiction writers, some brilliant, some ordinary. New books on some aspect of the war every season, and in my own reading, I'd like to turn the page. So no, it is not what he reads so much as his approach to reading that stimulates. Most recently he has been working his way through Harold MacMillan's memoirs, particularly Blast of War, and also just finished Martin Amis's latest, Zone of Interest. Now he is going back over the Amis novel and making a list of images he intends to compare with The Iliad. He does not just consume a book, but seems to plot it on his perceived course of human intellectual and social development.  Considering how writers as diverse as Homer and Martin Amis described it, how has our view of war changed, is the question I think he is asking.
     Jimmy, on the other hand, is just beginning his exploration of the intellectual/social graph of our times. A theatre school grad, it was only after university that his reading stepped up. He became hungry to learn, hungry for books of all kinds and when he visited he would prowl my shelves in search of a title he recognized, or that piqued his curiosity. What did you think of this, he might ask, usually holding up a volume I had not cracked for years. So he has roused me to do a lot of re- reading, and to read more poetry, some of which he writes.
     We often agree on what we think is good. Dostoyevsky, for example, which was his Christmas gift from me maybe five years ago. The Brother's Karamazov.  I wanted him to read The Grand Inquisitor speech, something that had so influenced me. A few months ago he referred to that while we were discussing Crime and Punishment. We both have copies of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which we read around the time his mother died. We both devoured The Goldfinch, although I stopped at the last chapter, which felt too much like summing up to me. End a book when it is finished, is my thought on it. Jimmy has nudged me back to Roberto Boleano, whom neither of us counts as a favourite, and introduced me to Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station. I've enjoyed my younger friend's discovery of Henry Miller, and we have both lingered in admiration over scenes and lines in Tennessee Williams plays. We plan to read, even if not exactly simultaneously, A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride.
     As for Geoffrey, after the waitress cleared our boxes and poured more tea he mentioned Giorgio Agamben, an Italian philosopher whose book State of Exception my older friend referred to as a way of explaining how governments can get away with virtual murder in times of crisis. Within a "state of exception" the boundaries of power are precarious and threaten to destabilize not only the law, but one’s humanity, as well as their choice of life or death.  Certainly a timely allusion, and one that applies to government reactions to real and perceived terrorist threats, and to the internment camps, stories of which are the awful and inescapable parts of the WWII books that have Geoffrey so hooked.
     My brother reads and my nephew, mostly crime fiction, and as a person whose life has been concerned with reading and writing I know many other men who read too, despite what the statistics say, so Geoffrey and Jimmy are not really the exceptions. Yet in the power they have to make me think, it's fair to say that they are exceptional.

Mentors, interns.. HELP WANTED!

#literary fiction

I remember reading Raymond Carver's homage to John Gardner, in the introduction to On Becoming a Novelist. It does not take much searching to find stories of more great mentor-novice pairs, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, Boudin and Monet, plus uncounted others, relationships between experienced writers and artists less well known, and younger writers and artists they not only inspired but often helped in practical ways, by, for example, recommending their work to publishers or galleries.

I think it is time for the energy flow to reverse, for young writers and artists, who are generally savvy about complex internet pathways, to offer to guide their elders through the vast web of possibilities for making useful connections.

My dear friend Geoffrey Smedley, for example, is trying to spread the word about his brilliant book Dissections. In his late 80's, still energetic if not AS energetic as he used to be, and having just recently surfaced from a work that absorbed much of the last 20 years, an ingenious four-part electrical mechanical sculpture, or metaphorical machine, as he calls it, that spoofs Descartes' view of man as a collection of mechanical parts, Geoffrey's direct approaches, and those made by supporters have too often found silence at the other end of the line; this seems to be the new, in my opinion, discourteous, way many traditional media outlets (perhaps also gallery owners, certainly publishers) deal with the great unsolicited. Just ignore them. It is not that people who see his work fail to respond; a critic who reviewed his exhibit at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal described Geoffrey's piece as one of the best and most mind expanding exhibitions he had seen this year.

The challenge  is GETTING anyone to look at it or read about it. In the new world of epublishing, the problem is called discoverability, and it is exactly the same thing I face as a novelist. Responses from people who actually find and read my book Shinny's Girls, the Trilogy are generally enthusiastic, but...Promotion has never been a snap. As a publicist I once worked with told me, it's easiest to promote things people already know about. But at least there were ways of doing it that were familiar, journals, newspapers, well established radio shows.

I suggested to Geoffrey that he call on old colleagues in the academic world to put the word out to potential interns. Students who would like the experience of making known  to the world the work of a fine artist in late career. Because everyone connects through the internet, I told him.  This "conversation" all took place via email, something even we mature writers/artists appreciate, adore. So I didn't hear but only imagined the sigh. With the future fast dwindling, with what has to be a limited amount of time to finish one's life work, does it really make sense to let oneself be swallowed by the bright brassy world of internet promotion? Half in and half out of its gorge, I holler (on behalf of all veteran artists and writers in this position), Help!

So much for being "on time"

Broadcasts can be saved to listen to as podcasts, whenever I want. People with sophisticated TV's have the option of delaying programs. The sense of anticipation as news time approaches is a thing of the past. We don't all see whatever evening news we like at the same hour, or even in the evening. This is both convenient and somehow disappointing.
      Of course one still has to be "on time" for live events. I can still enjoy moments of anticipation before the lights go down and the curtain goes up, before the concert master precedes the conductor onto the stage.
      Geoffrey Smedley says,  Time is paint without pigment. Einstein said, time is a persistent illusion. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote:
     ‘Time passes.’ ‘That’s how it goes,’ Úrsula said, ‘but not so much.’ When she said it she realized that she was giving the same reply that Colonel Aureliano Buendía had given in his death cell, and once again she shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle

     Oola said, "Grandma, you're too deep; you should get out of your heart and into your eyes."

What's the Story? Geoffrey Smedley Part 2

I thought he was 85, but he is 86 and one-quarter, he reminded, with the precision typical of this intellectually rigourous man. That in itself is a story. No lying back for this artist.

The other thing is that he makes his art in a studio on Gambier Island, which is accessible only by passenger ferry or private boat from Vancouver or Gibsons. There are a few gravel roads, and some of the 150 or so permanent residents barge over vehicles to drive them, but nothing is simple when you live on an island. It requires desire and determination to brings things on or get things off. That's another big part of the story.

And I haven't yet introduced the work itself, 20 years in the making, an electro-
mechanical sculpture in four pieces, collectively called "Dissections," it is a literal interpretation of Descartes' view of man as a collection of mechanical parts. Each of Geoffrey Smedley's pieces are one of the organs of the character he calls Descartes' Clown, the last robot on earth.  

"Like Descartes, the Clown is neurotic. Each call into question their existence and non-existence, " he writes. "....The Clown removes the pineal gland Descartes thought the foyer to the immortal soul, the agent of life, and asks, is it here I shall find truth? It is the intuition that truth lies beneath that propels the robot to dissect himself."

Those passages come from a book that accompanies the work, which will be exhibited at the Canadian Centre for Architecture beginning June 6. The book is also called Dissections, white on black, featuring 100 fragments Geoffrey photographed himself, and facing-page texts that are as thoughtful as they are, often, hilarious, which comment on the metaphorical implications of each part. Much of the text is narrated by the Clown/robot himself. Not yet halfway through, I have found enough quotable lines to keep me tweeting for months (once I open an account.)

Because I think people have to know about this man, his vision, his commitment, his intellect, his skill as a machinist (he tooled all the parts himself, in his Gambier Island workshop), his sense of artistic elegance, his wife Brigid, who is dealing with a second bout of cancer, the Herculean effort it took to get the pieces into 12 crates weighing several tons onto a barge, then into a truck for the ferry across to Vancouver and the 4500
km journey to Montreal. The crates are on their way. Geoffrey and Brigid will follow in a couple of weeks. The story will continue.

The Strength of Materials

 This is a sound poem based on the work and the workshop of Geoffrey Smedley, who has recently completed his massive "Descartes Clown," a four-piece electro-mechanical creation weighing several tons that will be exhibited at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal.
( It's fun to read aloud if you like the sound of words and the images suggested by them.)

The Strength of Materials

Words and sounds from Geoffrey Smedley 
Arranged by Mary Burns

Centre drills, end mills
Angle plates, allen keys
Facing cutters
Feeder gauges

Five-speed heavy drill press

Boring bar
Knurling tool
Brass tock
Shim stock
Step blocks

The Spindle of Necessity
The Penetrated Cross
The scriber Mr. Perryman made to pass his trade test
The Greater Ptolemaic Cams

Draw bar
Diving head
Deburring tool
Centre drill, clearance drills, jabbing drills

The undercroft
Argon arc
Corner features
Creode Cone
Character Rod

A small anvil
A large anvil
Parallelogram linkage with counter weights.


The geometry of more than one centre

Shear and Brake
Brake and Roll
Taps and dies
Feeds and stops

Milling machine
Mortising machine
Metaphorical machine
Memory machine…. I don’t have names for the parts

The Prime Mover

The Inhibitors, an eject
Feed shaft shift
Face plate
Feeder guages
Inclining angle plate

Escapement mechanism
The Theatre of Will

Number punches
Letter punches
Palate-inhibited strob wheel

The Trigger of Chance
The Ejaculator

Vernia calipers
Odd leg calipers
Medieval escapement
The Pulse

Abrasive wheels, angle grinders

Lead screw
Screw-cutting lathe
The Seed of Intention
The Tabernacle
The mow shaft turns, the feed shaft turns

In death the robot needs to know what it is

Three jaw chuck, four jaw chuck
Diving head for collets
Rotary tables, xy table
Thread gauges, feeder gauges, ball gauges, Arkansas slip

Pin vice

Bubbles of Glass

Thread dial indicator

The Bearings

The Brass Bound Followers

Draw bar
Canede otto drilling machine

Power is provided by gravity
The Foundation of the Inner Horizon

Two sources of Movement
The Dante Wheel
Radial limit switch interfaces with the sequence

The Sisyphus Pipe

Air extraction/dust extraction

A 20 ton hydraulic press
A 2 inch hack sawing machine
A horizontal band saw, a vertical band saw

The Inhibitors

The Paten

Carving mallet
Thickness planes


The Plane of Grace


The Gland Wires


Cross-slide, mandrell
Adhesive sealing strip, files, wrenches, wire cutters

Cast iron series
Rod tube sectors
Free cutting steel rods

The Rising Beam

The Table

Sectional saw blades.

The Scissors

The results of an autopsy conducted by the last robot on earth.

Preparing for "At Work"

Geoffrey Smedley has been invited to participate in an exhibit, "At Work," at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. This is part of his response to the CCA. “I am, for better or worse, conditioned to work. I do so partially in order to find out what I am doing. Drawing, making machines, photographing and writing are processes of exploration, discovery and invention that are conditioned by thought, intuition, improvisation, blunders, accidents, pleasure and luck. About everything there is an unbounded zone, a penumbra; the soliloquy goes - well yes, possibly, but then there is this, and that- and by the way there is... “I work reasonably but not rationally. I am in sympathy with Hamlet’s tactic Let us by indirection find direction out. My way of working is sometimes rigorous, and sometimes not, often straightforward yet frequently oblique - I shall provide a number of studies, maquettes, and drawings to illustrate this. “As to the substance of my undertaking I reckon that like Pound’s Cantos my work has a long rhythm. I did not foresee that it would be so in the earlier stages of the project (Descartes Clown). In hindsight I have come to realize that the whole undertaking concerns the dissection of the idea we have of ourselves, in other words is a process of taking to pieces what might be called the Architecture of Man.”


Steve Wright recording the sounds of Geoff Smedley's Descarte's Clown
Homage to the concept in a Festival at deercrossingtheartsfarm. The planned events reflecting some synchronicity among creators, and spontaneously creating something among the spectators, we hope. Production week began today. A risky venture in that we're hoping to put the pieces of this event together in five days. It will be intense, revealing. For my part so far, A Fable with Cell Phones. Fun to imagine. Visual, active, playful. A challenge for me, and I'm hoping it inspires the visual artists, the musicians, sound artist, not to mention the actors. But I think I have imagined characters that will draw out qualities of both actors. What I had to consider: it will take place outdoors, in three different locations, so a promenade play; it must be for all ages yet must reflect my desire to avoid platitudes, the facile. There must be lots of room for other imaginations to play, ie the visual artists Diego and Sandy, the sound/music artists Serena and Steve. Eilis contributed six juicy lines from her poem Grimm. That Chad and Lani will bring imagination to their roles is assured by their motivation and the broadness of both characters. The land has a natural narrative shape, in my view. Cell phones as magic wands capable of transforming a situation. Here we go...

And then there's The Strength of Materials, based on Geoffrey Smedley's immense sculpture, Descarte's Clown. Steve Wright recorded the sounds of the machines. I jotted down words and rearranged them into a kind of list poem, guided by the rhythm of syllables and the sound of words, the potential for alliteration. I hope the piece gets its due during Synchronicity, but, because of place, time, other constraints, it may not. Already I have more ideas for the list poem. Diego and I should mount an exhibit somewhere, with his photographs and this sound piece. Much to contemplate --- a happy state.