Posts Tagged ‘Lindisfarne’

There’s a TV station dedicated to weather. You can have weather on your TV 24 hours a day. Imagine that! 24 hours of non-stop weather…

Alternatively you can live in the North Pennines – there’s more weather here than you can shake a stick at. Why anyone would want to shake a stick at the weather and what they thought it would achieve is beyond me.

As an artist working predominantly outdoors all year, the weather is a pretty major thing for me. Besides knowing if I’m going to get frozen or soaked all day, there’s the practical challenges of making sure the weather doesn’t prematurely destroy what I create, or make them dangerously unstable for visitors.

There’s been a fair bit of stormy weather here n the UK over the past month. It seems that there’s an unusually large number of these storms heading off the Atlantic for the time of year. Last week, as my house was being battered by winds in excess of 80mph the weather station on Great Dun Fell recorded gusts of over 120mph.

wind speed graph

The weather was calmer yesterday as I set off up to explore Great Dun Fell for myself. Despite living overlooking the Eden Valley I’d never walked up any of the North Pennine Fells on that side so this was a first for me. Great Dun Fell, at 849m (over 2,700 feet) is the second highest peak on the Pennines after Cross Fell and are the largest mountains in England outside the Lake District.

It was a reasonable day in the Eden Valley as I set off from the village of Knock, skirting around the back of Dufton Pike. Walking these fells is much easier than the Breadalbane hills I’d been doing in the Highlands lately. The footpaths are well marked and the main Pennine Way itself is well trodden and maintained. However, by the time I reached Knock Old Man (2,0o0ft) there was a good smattering of snow on the ground and some beautiful rime on the cairn.

rime on old man knock

From there it’s a straight line over the top to Great Dun Fell and with the cloud cover lifted it’s easy to see where you’re heading.

There are dozens of weather stations across the UK and you can track their readings live online at any number of sites. However, Great Dun Fell is a bit special. The readings now come from the radar station – the giant white golfball on the fells that’s a bit f a landmark from both the Eden Valley and Upper Teesdale. Back in 1937 George Manley set up the first mountain meteorological record station in a small wooden hut on Great Dun Fell. That spot of the North Pennines was chosen as this tract of Pennine hills has the most variation of weather in England. When he started his collection of weather data in 1932 he noted:

“I was attracted by the Northern Pennines, in particular around Cross Fell, as the most extensive area of bleak uncompromising upland that England possesses”

Manley's Hut

For ten years Manley’s weather station recorded sun, rain, wind and temperature data every three hours, 24hours a day – at the time the longest continuous weather record ever made. As well as a substantial record of mountain weather data, his station also led to the understanding of the ‘Helm Wind’ – a wind phenomena that only occurs around Cross Fell where violent, roaring winds appear to come from nowhere, even on otherwise fair days. In his research into historical records of the Helm wind there are some great accounts of sheep being tossed around like balls of cotton wool, and brussels sprouts blown off the stalks and ricocheting around the gardens.

The legacy of Manley’s work 849m up Great Dun Fell was the CET (Central England Temperature) – a record of mean temperatures going back to 1649 – the longest weather record in the world. So when the weathermen say it’s the coldest March on record – that’s Manley’s record, started on the North Pennines in the 1930’s.

More importantly the length and depth of the weather record is at the centre of ongoing research into climate change – the Moor House National Nature Reserve, in which Great Dun Fell lies, plays a crucial role in that research today.

gt Dun Fell radar

Nothing remains of Manley’s wooden hut now. It’s all long gone when the radar station was built in the ’80’s. What does remain though is the access road to the radar station. Once a track for the myriad of mineral mines on the high fells, it’s now a tarmac’d road and officially the highest road in the UK. It’s also the only road in the UK that goes up a mountain and stops at the top. Unfortunately it’s a private access road so you can’t really drive it. The height of the snow poles show just how deep the snow gets up here anyway.

highest road


This past year has definitely been a year of walking for me. I’ve always enjoyed walking but never considered myself a serious walker. I still don’t, but this year walking the landscape has been pretty central to my work.

Back in January I started a research residency on the West Pennine Moors. The first day’s walk caught the tail end of the January snowfall up on Darwen Moor with snow up to my knees.

deserted farm

Deserted farm on West Pennine Moors

February was a fantastic lull in the weather with some great long spells of clear, dry and often sunny weather and I got some great walks in over those moors and rediscovered my love of wandering with a camera.

The project finished at the end of March just as the worst of the winter weather hit and I was cut off for days behind 12ft drifts.

sledging coal

dragging coal to my house over a 12ft drift. Photo by Paul Kingston © North News 2013

However, by April the weather turned again and started a period of dry, hot and sunny days that seemed to last for most of the rest of the year. The end of April was the start of a joint project around ‘God’s Bridge’ on Bowes Moor. Besides being a great project for meeting other artists, it really got me out exploring my home turf – the North Pennines. The result of this project will be an indoor sound installation at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle in the spring.

mountain pansy on Bowes Moor

Mountain Pansy on Bowes Moor

By June, summer was in full flow and positively roasting when the sun got going. I’d anticipated a wet week installing the 20,000 jars of ink on Lindisfarne and the workstation was all set up under cover for the purpose. Although it rained only on the day the TV came day the rest of the show was glorious sunshine with sunburn and heat stroke the major hazards when it came to take the piece down.

_DSC9238 - Version 2

I spent the end of September on Öland in the Baltic sea creating a piece for an ancient forest. Once again the weather gods were on my side and gave me a fortnight of glorious late summer sunshine. The weather was turning however and by the second week the temperature had dropped significantly. The Pavilion for Listening to the Forest was the first piece I’ve made specifically to survive significant snowfall. The fabric is waterproof and under enough tension that rain or snow won’t pool on the surface. It should also have enough tensile strength to withstand a large amount of snow if any manages to settle on it. December had a brief snowfall in Southern Sweden so I know it’s still looking good, but can’t wait to see how it looks when the real stuff arrives.

Pavilion in the first snow. Photo ©Helle Kvamme

The last part of the year has been spent in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland where I’ve been artist in residence since October. Once again it’s been great to get to know and understand the landscape on foot – walking along lochs and old railway lines as well as up some of the bigger hills.  In November I had a weather window of bright and clear conditions and managed to get up some of the less visited Corbetts (between 750 and 900m). The frosty air on the tops made for some cracking views of the surrounding mountains with the bigger ones getting their first real coats of snow.

view NW from Meall an t-Seillaidh

In early December the first of the storms to hit the UK came racing across Scotland. Glen Ogle – where I was staying, recorded gusts of 106mph, ripping down power-lines and felling hundreds if not thousands of trees which disrupted the area for days. Yet, less than 12 hours after those huge gusts, there was a gentle covering of snow on Glen Ogle and a clear,starry sky. With no power for miles and a dark cottage for the evening, I ventured out into the forests to play with some lights in the snow for my Christmas card.

red snow

In between all these projects I also created the ultimate version of the ‘Souvenir’ umbrella structures in Oxfordshire, built an installation from 4,000 remembrance poppies for a royal visit and worked on four other pieces that in the end never happened. It’s also been a year of research and development, not only for new work but professionally too.

souvenir in oxfordshire

It’s not been my busiest year and at times things have been very difficult. However, the time I’ve been able to give to each of the projects I’ve worked on I think shows in the final work and has made a year of good solid pieces. A lot of work has already been done for next years projects and hopefully sets a trend towards a more considered approach to my work.

I’ve got a good feeling about next year. It’s already looking busy – possibly the busiest its been for years. It’s going to be full on and really hard work. There’s some great stuff coming up – all will be revealed over the coming few weeks – and it’s all really exciting, but the proof will be if this time next year I can look back and be as proud of what I’ve achieved as have have been of this past year.

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We did it!

final piece in the priory

Yep. That really is a monk next to it…

After five full days of long hours and really dedicated graft, the ‘Carpet’ piece is gracing the Priory on Lindisfarne for the next few days.

It took 22,000 bottles and 2,500 litres of water mixed with vegetable dyes to make it. I know it was hoped to be 30,000 bottles, but that proved just too much even for my optimism. Still, over 20,000 is still a shed-load and way more than you can count so I doubt anyone will notice. When the sun comes out the piece really becomes alive. It’s immense.

lots of jars

There was something appropriate about the scale of the task I’d set and the long hours of physical repetitive work. We typically did 11 hour days filling the jars with measured mixes of dye and water to get just the right colours, then taking quantities over to the artwork for laying out. By the end of each day we were utterly exhausted and ached all over. I knew it was going to be hard work but never imagined it being quite so physical. Yet, in a strange way the aches and morning stiffness became part of the process and part of the piece.

carpet detail

I wanted to create a piece which said a whole bunch of things about the Lindisfarne Gospels and linked them to the place. Starting with the idea of pots of ink as a simple connection to the drawing of the original designs, it was also about the use of colour in the manuscripts as a reflection of a multicultural Britain in the 7th century. It was also about how the colours in the inks were the product of the island – why import materials to make ink when you can make them all from local sources? The colours used are not only made from local materials, but the palette is informed by the colours of the island – all the familiar sights and tones. Even the decorations in the originals are inspired by the world around the priory. These bird heads are clearly based on the gannets:

lindisfarne birds


Gannet – image © Tony Heald / naturepl.com

I didn’t want to recreate one of the original carpet pages. Besides not being a particularly original thing to do (where’s the ‘art’ in that?), had I done so there would always be a comparison to make and due to the coarse resolution of the jars, probably quite an impossible thing to do. instead I wanted to create a new pattern for the here and now, but made exactly the same way as the original patterns. It’s a bit like experimental archaeology where you get a real feeling for the historical process by actually doing it. For me that also meant creating a pattern as a direct response to the site and the location through the medium of the original design.

layout design

First off I needed to find how the patterns were made. The original carpet pattens are a mixture of Celtic, Pictish, Viking, Saxon and Egyptian influences. You can still see a direct descendent of that process in Islamic art today. Hardly surprising when you consider that Islam started at the same time the Lindisfarne Gospels were written and both have middle-Eastern origins.


Da Vinci proportions

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice (1485-90)

I based the basic layout on Saxon pattern-creating methods. In 7th Century Britain there were no rulers marked with inches or centimetres. Instead, the key points on the pattern were determined by ‘sacred geometry’. Taking a vertical centre-line of a known length, the rest of the pattern is derived from arcs and circles. Radii are then taken from those intersections to create further arcs and circles. The whole thing can then be scaled infinitely while preserving the proportions. It’s those proportions that all the carpet pages in the Lindisfarne Gospels are based on. Again, it’s just the beauty of maths and the purity of the geometry of circles that does this. It’s the same geometry that Da Vinci used some 800 years later. (above).

carpet Lindisfarne 008

OK. So, it wasn’t just me. There was a whole team of people doing it. Most notably Bryony Purvis who generally took charge (in a good way), and Andy Raine, who just did everything with a smile and lots of energy. We also had big chunks of help when we needed it most from the time-lapse photographer Cain Scrimgour, fellow artist Helen Tuck, a class full of brilliant kids from Easington, Andy’s wife Anna, and the PR team from English Heritage who mucked in for a few hours. Even Wayne, the overnight security guard got his hands coloured from time to time.

It was a real team effort. Great team. Great effort.

Here’s Cain’s time-lapse video of the epic install:

Carpet – Gospels on the Grass from Cain Scrimgeour on Vimeo.



Yesterday I spent an amazing hour in the presence of the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon books in the UK. Having immersed myself in weeks of research and then a gruelling week installing an artwork inspired by them, it was a particularly moving experience to see so many so ancient manuscripts.

The Lindisfarne Gospels are currently on display in Durham – a bit of a homecoming as that’s where they spent a good 500 years or so. The exhibition on Palace Green has also brought together most of the surviving 7th and 8th Century books including the Durham Gospels – reputed to be the original source of the Lindisfarne Gospels. By comparison, the few early medieval (11th & 12th century) manuscripts seemed positively modern and strangely not half as interesting.

The whole history of these British manuscripts is a fascinating one as is that whole era of early Christianity in the North of England. In the 7th century there were two main sects of Christianity – the roman church and the missionaries from Ireland. One of the main points of contention was the calculation of the date of Easter. THis was resolved at the synod of Whitby in   with the irish church losing. The uncial script used in those early books was a way for the dejected irish monks to assert their allegiances. I love that subversive undercurrent. kind of still two fingers up to the establishment.

script sample

The designs used in the Lindisfarne Gospels reflect the cultural hot-pot of those monastic communities. There are elements of Pictish, celtic, saxon and even Egyptian and middle-eastern design in them. Multiculturalism isn’t just a 21st century thing – it’s been going on here for centuries. It’s the fabric of Britishness. Take that you EDL folk!

more detail

However, the most amazing part of the exhibition was in the room where the original Lindisfarne Gospels were. They themselves are stunning. Pictures in books and online can never do them justice. The level of detail, the fluidity of line, the intensity of colour is just breathtaking. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything else that comes even close to their refinement.


And as if that wasn’t enough, also in that room were artefacts from the coffin of St. Cuthbert – the guy who commissioned the Lindisfarne Gospels in the first place. I’m not really big on religion – it’s just not my thing – but seeing the possessions of a saint an incredible thing. His cross, and ring in particular, look as if they had just been made. The craftsmanship was staggering. And then the thing that finally blew me away was his own copy of the gospel of St. John, buried with him in the 7th Century. A little leather-bound volume – like a  paperback novel. This is the oldest surviving book still in its original binding. In the world. We’re talking a book that’s nigh-on 1,400 years old. Still in one piece. Still looking as though you could just pick it up and read it.

St. Cuthbert’s Gospel. image © British Library

st cuthberts gospel

St Cuthbert’s Gospel. image © British Museum

Sometimes words fail me.

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I like numbers. Numbers can be cool. On the surface they can be quite straightforward and be about tangible quantities of things – like boxes of eggs or boxes of screws, but it’s when they do strange things, or stop being tangible that they start becoming really interesting.

It hasn’t always been that way for me though. I remember when I was 14 my maths teacher asked the class if anyone hated maths. Well, maths at 14 is pretty dull compared with the other things in life so I presumed everyone would put up their hands. No? But it was just me. OK, it was the top set in the year and all that, but honestly – no one else hated maths? My argument was that maths was ok when you were adding things up or working out practical stuff, but do you really need to understand logarithms and quadratic equations to buy half a dozen eggs? The irony of that was I subsequently worked in photography where logarithms were a daily event for calculating things like reciprocity failure or the change of development time with increased temperature.

My youngest kid is still getting to grips with quantities. At the moment he is obsessed with big numbers like a googol and a googolplex. A googol is 1 followed by a hundred zeros. That’s a really big number. I think a five year old knows it’s big too but I don’t think most people realise how big that physically is. It’s certainly more than the total number of things on this planet to give you an idea. And then a googolplex is a 1 followed by a googol zeros. That’s a number that’s so big that there aren’t enough atoms in the known universe for it to actually exist. I like that we can create numbers so big that they can’t physically exist.

lots of jars

So the 30,000 bottles I’ve got to install this week seems tame in comparison. It’s still bigger than you could possibly count in one go.

I’ve often wondered how scientists count flocks of starlings. They’re far too big to count individually and as flocks are less dense on the outside, counting a section isn’t going to accurate enough.


a murmer of starlings fly over my house every winter

Counting big numbers is quite difficult. Some birds can recognise quite large numbers of birds in one go, however most people would struggle to count more than nine birds in a field without physically counting them one-by-one. We can easily recognise when there are two objects without counting them. In fact most people can recognise up to nine things just by looking at them. Anymore than that and you have to physically count them one at a time – or in twos, threes or small chunks. So to count all 30,000 jars, given that by the time you get to a hundred you’re down to one a second just to say the number in your head – even saying “twenty-three thousand three hundred and seventy-seven” – takes three seconds, –  it’d take over eight hours – or all day more or less.

One of the best shows I saw last year was Mark Wallinger’s ‘SITE’ at Baltic, Gateshead. His piece – 10000000000000000 – a series of chess boards with a pebble on each square was beautiful on so many levels. Made from a grid of 32 x 32 chess boards, there are 65,536 pebbles in all. This is what’s called a superperfect number – made by squaring numbers up from 2 – 2×2=4, 4×4=16, 16×16=256, 256×256=65,536. The title is that number represented in binary form. That it’s 1 followed by sixteen zeros is kind of perfect too.

view of site show

Beyond the number bit, it’s an awesome sight – the scale of the piece has such presence up close. Lie on the floor and the piece just disappears into the horizon. I’ve written before about the unique emotional response artworks of a certain scale have. There’s something about a work made of quantities you can’t count that’s a little awe-inspiring.


Mark Wallinger: 10000000000000000, 2012 (detail). © the artist. Courtesy of the artist, Anthony Reynolds Gallery, and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Photograph: Colin Davison

By pure chance, ‘Carpet’ will be about the same size, although only half the number of objects. Whereas in Wallinger’s piece we know exactly how many pebbles there are, it’s unlikely I’ll ever know how many jars will be in ‘Carpet’. That’s kind of nuts. How can I make a piece when I don’t know how many things I’m using? The jars come packed on pallets. Because they are round they kind of fit together to fill the space and then stacked up, but because it isn’t an exact fit the quantities are just an approximation. So I can’t even go by the number I start with. There’s also likely to be failures and disappearances, and given I’m not going to spend 8 1/2 hours counting them, the final number will never be known.

Yet all these numbers are mere fist-fulls compared with Ai Wei Wei’s sunflower seed installation at Tate Modern in 2010. ‘Sunflower Seeds’ saw part of the Turbine Hall filled with 8 million hand crafted porcelain sunflower seeds. This took an entire town over a year to manufacture. At that quantity there’s no way of counting them numerically. That can only be estimated by weight, and even then there was bound to be failures and loss during installation, let alone the numbers which ‘disappeared’ during the exhibition.

sunflower seeds

The Unilever Series: Ai Weiwei Sunflower Seeds 2010 Photo: Tate Photography © Ai Weiwei

It was a shame that the infamous health and safety rules stopped people from walking on them. When I saw them late one afternoon the view from behind a security tape under the watchful glance of a uniformed invigilator didn’t really give you a feel for the sheer quantity involved. Also, despite the huge volume, it still only occupied less than a quarter of the vast Turbine Hall. That aside, as a volume work, it was pretty incredible.

people walking on the seeds

people walking on the seeds at the start of the exhibition. Image from leiweb blog

I’m now thinking my lowly 30,000 pieces seems very reserved. Still, at a strike rate of one every five seconds, that would still take me over 42 hours on my own. So glad I have a team to count on.

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I’ve finally lost my marbles.

I’ve thought the same thing a number of times in the past. Every time I do something ambitious or occasionally reckless. But since I’ve still managed to get this far in life afterwards, they were probably false alarms. This time it’s for real. I know that because in a week’s time I start installing an artwork so vast in ts constituent parts that I have no idea even of the scale of it. For a couple of weeks I am creating an artwork based on the 7th Century Lindisfarne Gospels, in the very place they were originally written, using 30,000 jars of liquid colour.

carpet at Lindisfarne Priory

mock-up of the ‘Carpet’ installation


I have no real idea how many that is – I’ve never counted something that big before. I’m clearly delusional.

Still, commit to doing I have and it all starts next week.

So how to capture the effect of the colours of the original illuminated manuscript and explore the impact they must have had back then. If the sheer volume of pieces wasn’t enough, my original idea was to use the exact colours the 7th century monks used – a little bit of dark ages authenticity in a contemporary artwork. I was really interested in how the colours were made, where they came from and why they were used, but it’s ended up with me looking at my own relationship with the different colours…

There’s something about the colour blue I have a problem with. It’s not that I don’t like it – it’s a useful colour after all, but there’s something awkward about it. I know where I am with red. I feel very comfortable using it, and in a strange sideways movement yellow is manageable too. But Blue I find tricky.

It’s got all these cultural connotations with it – sadness, lightness, distance – although even here the cultural stuff is confused – different cultures see blue in very different ways. In fact in most of the world blue doesn’t exist. Some places have very different words for light blue ad dark blue, but not a generic blue. In many others, blue and green are one and the same. So it seems I’m not the only one who has problems with blue…


Sometimes I’m not sure which weather is worse for me – rain, snow or sunshine. I guess in a very English way I’m easily distracted by the weather, whatever the weather. Lately it’s been doing a lot of this: Living on top of a fell in the North Pennines, I don’t get much of that stuff in the best of years, so it seems silly to waste days like that sat at a desk or beavering away in the studio. Instead I’ve been out wandering as much as I can while the weather holds. taking the opportunity to further explore the landscape on my doorstep.

blue sky

It’s usually a colourful time of year out in the North Pennines with the spring flowers coming into bloom and the trees very verdant with their new leaves. A couple of years back I did a piece for a paper making client of mine down in the woods at the bottom of the fields here – near the secret waterfall.

blue boxes

I think I made a couple of hundred of those paper boxes in all. I remember it took me ages to cut them out and fold them up, and there still didn’t seem to be enough, but the effect worked well. Particularly when the sun peeped out from behind the clouds and I got some dappled light on the ground.

This year, the bluebells have gone crazy. In fact all the spring flowers are far more voluminous than normal. It’s something to do with the colder than average winter and the late spring – a good four weeks later than normal here. I’m not sure the mechanics of increasing the flowers but it’s very noticeable.


The other week, I ventured up to Widdy Bank Fell, overlooking Cow Green Reservoir in Teesdale in search of some very old plants. Spring Gentians are Alpine plants normally found on the higher slopes of the Alps and the Atlas mountains. Tiny, tiny delicate blue flowers which ony open up in the sunshine. Very beautiful and extremely blue. But also unique here in the UK.

Spring Gentian

Back at the end of the last ice age (well, still this one technically, but let’s not go there for now) Upper Teesdale, like most of the UK was covered in ice, the big glaciers carving out much of the landscape we see today. The climate of upper Teesdale was very much like the upper reaches of the Alps then and alpine plants thrived here. However, as the glaciers melted and the planet warmed up again, those Alpine plants survived on Widdy Bank Fell and are still there today. These spring gentians have been there for well over 20,000 years. These delicate blue flowers are mind-bogglingly ancient. Older even than the landscape. That’s nuts. But cool too.


But back to the Lindisfarne Gospels.

It had long been presumed that the blue on the manuscripts was made with lapis pigment. There were certainly well established trade routes to Holy Island in the 7th century. At the time the only source for this precious colour was a single mine in Afghanistan. However, the most recent analysis of the colours suggests the blue isn’t mineral but rather organic.

detail of a carpet page

Detail of a ‘carpet page’ from the Lindisfarne Gospels

There are two primary sources of organic blue pigment. The first was from boiling up the mucus of whelks and steeping them in urine for a number of weeks. The resultant blues eventually gathered tend to be on the purple end of the spectrum although richer dark blue and indigo is possible. It’s certainly possible this was done on Holy Island. There’s no shortage of whelks on the shores.

The other likely source was using woad. It was certainly widely used at the time. There are records of Vikings using it to dye cloth at the time and the Roman records of the Picts painting themselves blue was almost certainly a woad product.

I’ve not been able to find a supplier of whelk-based indigo, but I did manage to get a pure woad watercolour paint to use in my designs on paper.

woad blue

woad blue

The other peculiar property of blue is that so much that we see as blue isn’t actually blue. The sky for instance isn’t really blue – it’s just the way light is refracted through the atmosphere.

The iridescent blue of birds and butterflies isn’t real either – again it’s a trick of refraction through clear cells.

It’s this property of blue which has complicated the blue for the installation. Having got a blue liquid that worked well as a mass, when I started testing it outside in the sunlight, strange things started to happen.

up against the light, the liquid is a good vibrant blue…

bright blue

however, in bright sunlight against the green grass, instead of just looking darker it starts to look distinctly purple and verging on red.

blue jar going purple


The current solution (forgive the pun) is to mix a much diluted colour solution. Individually against the light it appears very light and watery. However, when viewed as a mass it becomes a much richer shade.

blue jars

Yes, I know it’s not the same hue as the woad pigment samples. THe idea of replicating the original colours just wasn’t working on a piece of this scale and within the landscape. It was too earthy and natural-looking, whereas for the piece to have the impact of colour – which is the whole point behind the piece – the colours all needed to be much richer.

I guess from this I’ve learnt a little more about how blue works and I’m beginning to see how it’s functioning both within the piece and the broader landscape. I think within the jars it’s taking on a more ecclesiastical quality which fits well with the piece. I’m beginning also to understand its unique properties in the way it interacts with light.

Somehow I don’t think this’ll be the last piece I play with blue.

but I hope it’s the last time I do something with 30,000 pieces. What was I thinking?!

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