zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Nancy Fouts and the heart of the matter

Nancy Fouts and the heart of the matter

[ by Charles Cameron — Nancy Fouts, sculpture, juxtaposition, essence of creativity, pocket universes, Arthur Koestler, Mark Turner ]

Nancy Fouts is an American artist based in London. I ran across her work a while ago thanks to Michael Weaver on Google+, and was immediately struck by the intensity of her images, each one of which seemed like a landmark from a larger geography, more precisely focused and dense with meaning than our own world usually appears to be.

First impression:

The first image I saw was of a snail on the straight edge of a razor blade (above, left) — an image out of the script of Apocalypse Now to be sure, but presented by Fouts in sharp detail and unadorned by any other context, visually, direct from eye to mind and heart.

This may be the image many people first see of her work — very, very striking, exquisite, terrifying if you allow it to be so, and yet as clear and simple, almost, as a single drop of water on a leaf.

Singer and song:

But it was this next image that conquered me:

The juxtaposition is impeccable: sewing machine, record on turntable – and the overlap between the two, the link, the vesica piscis between them, is the needle.

The music of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi — particularly on harpsichord — has been disparagingly called “sewing-machine music”. If that phrase gave rise to this marvelous image, perhaps the slight can be forgiven.

The sewing-machine? It’s a Singer. And in what must surely be an ironic, gender-influenced choice coming to us from an artist so assured and exacting — the music that the needle draws from the groove of the record is, as you can tell from the record label, the music of His Master’s Voice.

Philosophical aside:

I have pointed before to this diagram from Mark Turner‘s The artful mind: cognitive science and the riddle of human creativity, based on those in Arthur Koestler‘s The Act of Creation (eg those on pp 35 and 37):


It shows the essence of the creative act — the “release of cognitive tension” that occurs when some form of analogy, similitude, overlap allows the mind to join conceptual clusters from two fields in a “creative leap”.

Nancy Fouts’ work doesn’t merely make use of such twinned field overlaps, it makes twinned fields with overlap the defining quality of her works.

She is aiming right at the heart of the creative process. And it shows.

Moving further afield:

In that earlier post of mine, I talked about Ada, Countess of Lovelace, and noted that her analogy between Charles Babbage‘s Analytical Engine and Jacquard‘s mechanical loom, famously expressed by her thus:

The Analytical Engine … weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.

was precisely the creative leap that led to the us of punched card systems in computation from Babbage to Watson…

I could give other examples. The Taniyama-Shimura conjecture which formed the basis of Andrew Wiles‘ proof of Fermat‘s Last Theorem, bridges two previously distinct branches of mathematics precisely by showing that for every elliptic curve, there is a related modular form

And no, I don’t understand the mathematics. But I understand the concept of twinned fields, and the power of their overlap.

Some favorite tropes:

Back, then, to Nancy Fouts:

One thing that interests me about her work is that she has a few simple “essences” that she returns to time and again: in this case, bees, forms that resemble honeycombs, and by implication, honey.

In my own work, making similar connections between what we might paradoxically call “kindred ideas in unrelated fields” — I might set Nancy’s honeybees across from the verse from the Upanishads [Brihadaranyaka, fifth Brahmana, 14] which says:

This Self is the honey of all beings, and all beings are the honey of this Self.

Another of Nancy’s tropes connects nature and music…

The piercing:

And thimbles, those miniature emblems of armor and protection, are another recurring theme:

Let’s take a look at that last image, of the thimble transpierced by a needle.

I believe it has a history — again, accessible via an associative leap. Here are three images of the “wounded healer” motif, two of them specifically images of the Inuit shaman who has harpooned himself — a motif which the anthropologist and zen roshi Joan Halifax writes “captures the essence of the shaman’s submission to a higher order of knowing”:

Armor, the defenses we have in place to protect our selves, and vulnerability, the ability to to allow our selves to be wounded, so that the “self” which is “the honey of all beings” may shine through us. The paradox of Selflessness and Self.

Koan and sacrament:

Among wounded healers, we might count the crucified Christ, his side pierced by the spear of a Roman soldier — and here I might suggest that Fouts contrasts (image below, left) the self-sacrifice at the heart of Christianity with the pugilistic approaches of some proponents of his message:

And the image of Christ (right) balancing on a high wire?

Again I’m reminded of the language of shamanism. The anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff studied the religious beliefs and practices of the Huichol or Wixaritari of the Mexican Sierra Madre Occidental, with Ramon Medina Silva, a mara’akame or shaman of the tribe.

In her book, Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians, she describes a feat of balance that Ramon performed, which appeared to serve a “sacramental” function for his people – providing them with what Cranmer‘s Book of Common Prayer calls “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”:

One afternoon Ramon led us to a steep barranca, cut by a rapid waterfall cascading perhaps a thousand feet over jagged, slippery rocks. At the edge of the fall Ramon removed his sandals and told us that this was a special place for shamans. We watched in astonishment as he proceeded to leap across the waterfall, from rock to rock, pausing frequently, his body bent forward, his arms spread out, his head thrown back, entirely birdlike, poised motionlessly on one foot. He disappeared, reemerged, leaped about, and finally achieved the other side. We outsiders were terrified and puzzled but none of the Huichols seemed at all worried. The wife of one of the older Huichol men indicated that her husband had started to become a mara’akame but had failed because he lacked balance.

It’s easy to read the description — but by no means as easy to keep one’s balance — something that Fouts’ image perhaps suggests more vividly than words easily can.

Richard de Mille describes the mara’akame‘s function in Huichol society as to “cross the great chasm separating the ordinary world from the otherworld beyond,” and suggests that Medina Silva’s feat of acrobatics on the barranca that day is to be understood as offering “a concrete demonstration in this world standing for spiritual balance in that world.”

Myerhoff herself was never entirely sure whether Medina Silva was “rehearsing his equilibrium,” or giving it “public ceremonial expression” that afternoon: it is clear, however, that for the Huichols, such feats of balance possess a resonance and meaning that extends beyond the “merely” physical.

Bringing the viewer into the picture

I may of course be projecting some of my own ideas onto Nancy Fouts’ work — and indeed, perhaps that’s the point.

She has some pretty fierce observations to make concerning matters religious — Christian, Buddhist and other — and I’ll leave those who are interested to make their own discoveries on her website. I don’t doubt there are places where her sympathies and my own overlap, and others where we differ.

Fouts speaks a direct and visceral language of images — and her juxtapositions, carefully chosen and choreographed as they are, provoke us to feel and think.

Thank you, Nancy.

No need to reach for the gun, fellas — but that’s art.


credits for images of Harpooned Shaman: Charlie Ugyuk (left); David Ruben (right).

2 Responses to “Nancy Fouts and the heart of the matter”

  1. zen Says:

    Duncan Kinder had this up on his FB page:

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, Zen — and Duncan, too.

Switch to our mobile site