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THE FIRST BREATH

Updated: May 22

The breath is so fundamental, without which all life ceases.

May is such a wonderful month in more ways than we can imagine. We witness the verdant change in our gardens, roadsides and parks; trees yawn and stretch their limbs from their long winter sleep, their buds, nudged awake in April, are now bursting forth their burgeoning leaves. Our little wood that adjoins our garden is a spectacular colour: a pale, luminous green and each new leaf is so soft and tender to touch. They fill the understory of the wood as well as the canopy.

In this simple process of change we are witnessing life, the promise of abundance heralding all that is good in our world. It is as if the trees are taking their very first breath, as a baby would draw breath when born or a chick when it emerges from its shell.

Photograph of a beech woodland, photographer unknown


Science tells us that perspiration is one of the key functions of a leaf, that exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide that is so fundamental to life on earth, but this simple act is also loaded with metaphor and meaning too. In the 21st century we may choose to believe that trees are simply a biological phenomena but over several millennia our ancestors from across the globe developed a fundamentally different understanding and relationship with trees. Our Celtic predecessors worshipped nature as do people in India today, where nature worship is still widespread.

"Natural features of the countryside such as mountains and hills, rivers and lakes, plants and trees are regarded as the abodes of deities and auspicious places for meditation". "It is popularly believed that every tree has a 'tree-deity', a spirit who is worshipped with prayers, offerings and circumambulations...for it is believed that trees have not only life but latent consciousness." Ritual Art of India, Ajit Mookerjee

It is written that under the natural shelter of a fig tree, also known as a great Banyan tree, Buddha received enlightenment. There are many similar enlightenment scenarios associated with trees in different belief systems. I am reminded of former days in London and Edinburgh practicing Buddhist Theravada Insight Meditation called (Vipassana ), Japanese Zen walking meditation (Kinhin) and T'ai Chi Chuan, a system of movement, meditation, and self-defense from ancient Chinese culture. Maintaining acute awareness of the rhythmic process of breathing is central to most of these meditation practices. The stillness brought about by focusing on my breathing whilst moving was by far the most powerful I ever experienced.


Ajit Mookerjee in his introduction to The Ritual Art of India expands on this with a simple equation, E = mc2 proposed by German born physicist Albert Einstein. His revolutionary theory of relativity tells us that matter is energy, and energy, matter. This was quite contrary to previously held beliefs and precipitated a paradigmatic shift in understanding. We are in essence a quivering mass of atoms that vibrate at different rates. But if consciousness is also an integral part of this mass of energy then one can rightly deduct that indeed all living things have consciousness, which brings us back to the Gaia theory by James Lovelock, which I referred to in my last blog.

"Trees' beauty, adaptability and resilience, their longevity and apparent stoicism have also inspired humans. The role of trees in connecting the heavens and the earth, life and death in ever-renewing cycles can seem almost magical. Mythology makes much of their supposed wisdom, their supernatural abilities and their propensity to host living spirits." Trees of Life Max Adams

This reverence for these amazing species is justified when understood in the context of their use. They provide us with so many resources, as fuel, medicine, food, timber for construction and musical instruments, as a source for dyes and essences, tapped for glue, resins, rubber and sweet edible syrups and waters. My mother kindly gifted me a beautifully illustrated book, Trees of Life by Max Adams, who researched the history, use and significance to our global ecology of some wonderful trees from across the globe.


My favourite tree at this time of the year is the stately beech, Fagus sylvatica also known as Fagus grandifolia. It is perhaps better known for its spectacular autumnal colours that bathe a dark woodland with golden light. A road running through the Forest of Dean is known as the Golden Mile for this very reason, flanked by beech woods. In 2006 I spent 3-4 months on an art residency there and was fortunate to experience this autumnal glow on a vast scale. The beech trees in our wood have retained their low branching arms, low enough to embrace me when I walk through, and despite the low light conditions these branches thrive. It's juvenile leaves are a translucent pale emerald green, and in much the same way that they do in the autumn, they create a magical space under their canopy, filtering and diffusing dappled light. When I look up into the canopy I am surrounded by a cathedral of green light, what better place is there to meditate and observe them.


When I began my Forest School training a few years ago, I brought a group of students here and in the morning we set up some experiments with clear bags tied onto the end of some branches, trapping a selection of leaves inside. By the end of the day we could actually see evidence of the trees breathing and how much moisture had built up inside the bags; we also listened to the trees talking by placing our ears against the trunks and in silence listened...I remember the first time I did this how emotional I got and could see the effect on my colleague. You should try it! It helps if there is some wind. It was at this point that I fell in love with trees once again. A little knowledge and sense of wonder was all it took. I read research that has proved that trees communicate and care for each other via a mycorrhizal fungal network, which works by sharing sugars in return for nitrogen and other scarce minerals; my mind was truly blown open.


Shirazeh Houshiary


When I visualise trees breathing in their first breath of the season I am reminded of Shirazeh Houshiary's almost performative drawings that are fundamentally about breath, the physical and the symbolic breath. Her artworks appear to be abstract but on close viewing reveal a framework of marks made from a limited number of words repeatedly drawn to create a visual rhythm or pulse.

20th century artist and theosophist Piet Mondrian “believed that behind the outward appearance of things in nature lay hidden an inner reality, which could only be expressed in an abstract language and which would thereby have a quality of universal Truth.” Jeremy Lewison – Introduction to Isthmus, Shirazeh Houshiary, the British Council, 1995

OPEN SECRET 1993, Lead and goldleaf, two parts


She is a noted British artist, Iranian by birth, who has lived most of her adult life in the United Kingdom. Her sculptures and drawings draw on her rich Sufi heritage (an esoteric form of Islam), and though the conceptual threads that are woven through her work are based on Islamic art, her presentation is framed through modernist western discourse. In the 1990s, when I first came across her work, her sculptures and drawings visually referenced sacred geometry and through the use of base metals and gold she hinted at the great mysteries that underpin life. Like her I also had a fascination with sacred geometry, the circle and the square, shapes that in various combinations provide the framework for so much sacred art and architecture.

UNTITLED 2009, Drawing


In recent years I come across the writer Jason Elliot; I read both of his travel books on his journeys in Iran. I cannot recommend them highly enough. His writing engaged all my senses and took me back to Iran, down memory lane, filled some gaps and provided me with so much social and historical information. I was thirsty to learn.

One of his journeys was to Isfahan, a former capital city that under Shah Abbas Safavid's empire prospered, becoming one of Iran's greatest and most beautiful cities. I travelled there in 1997 with my step mother. Jason Elliot describes his visit to the Sheikh Lutfullah Mosque opposite the Royal palace and half way along the famous maidan (square) called Naqsh-e-jahan. Unlike any other great Islamic mosque in the known world this building has no minaret nor a courtyard. Ostensibly the building is square in structure with a circular dome and conforms to sacred geometric principals.

"Above the reciprocating melodies of light and colour stretches the dome, some eighty feet high at its apex and resting effortlessly on the thirty-two smaller arches which encircle its base. Half of these are blind, studded with turquoise medallions; half are windows, which permit a further injection of light and disguise the magical fusing of the square beneath with the circle above. An extraordinary decoration covers the interior of the dome." "But here the resonance and counterpoint of shape and colour and light all conspire together in an alchemy of exquisite balance." Mirrors of the Unseen - Journeys in Iran, Jason Elliot

When I contemplate Houshiary's drawings from the 1990s I see alchemical evocations of light and space that are grounded in geometry yet conversely ephemeral. I was inspired then and still drawn to her work today.


One of the first papers I wrote in 2001 whilst undertaking research for my doctorate was on Shirazeh Houshiary and the sculptor Richard Wilson, another very significant British artist. The paper was titled Are Richard Wilson and Shirazeh Houshiary The New Alchemists of Our Post-modern Culture? When reading it now I find it hard to believe I actually managed to write a half decent paper, but then again I had not long broken my ankle and was house bound for 6 weeks, therefore, I had no distractions and all the time in the world to read books and to write. In the essay I referred to two particular works, most closely involved with the activity of drawing; ‘Halo’ created by Wilson for the Venice Biennale of 1987 and ‘Resonance’, a five part work, inspired by the poetry of Rumi and created in 1994 by Houshiary. Here is one of the 5 panels, a square set within a circle, emerging in rotation as if from a single point of light.

"The notion of rotation and spinning is fundamental to Sufism; the spinning motif is one of the most frequently recurring patterns in Islamic art." Jeremy Lewison – Introduction to Isthmus, Shirazeh Houshiary, the British Council, 1995

RESONANCE1994, Graphite and acrylic on canvas, Five Parts


The ‘Logos’ is fundamental to ones understanding of her work. The Logos is the Divine Word of God incarnate; Logos is Greek for ‘word’ and is understood universally as the first breath: the beginning. For Houshiary the ‘breath’ is essential, transformative and transcendental:

“The reason I am doing this work is that I set out to capture my breath. Breath is equated to life, it is energy, life force”…”This particular body of work began with the idea of the word being the manifestation of breath”. Shirazeh Houshiary in conversation with Anne Barclay Morgan, Sculpture Magazine, July/August 2000 – Vol. 19 No, 6

Implicit in Houshiary's work is her motivation to work with the phenomena of light and dark and the analogies that these inevitably evoke: as universal symbols for the divine. Bazars, palaces, old bridges, mosques and ancient buildings in Iran, that are both secular and sacred in nature evoke the same phenomena of light and dark. The qualities these architectural spaces evoke are unique and are fundamentally cultural in origin: inspired by nature.

“Darkness gives birth to light and implicitly contains it; but light contains darkness because neither can be perceived without the other.” Jeremy Lewison – Introduction to Isthmus, Shirazeh Houshiary, the British Council, 1995

When I was an undergraduate in Edinburgh I was not aware of Houshiary's work but in retrospect I can see that I was exploring similar themes but lacked the ability to articulate it to myself. These themes may arise from our shared cultural heritage, however because I am half Iranian and half English with both western and eastern values as well as culture, I grew up ostensibly feeling that I was an outsider with two fundamentally different identities, not belonging to either. This state of mind persisted in me for many years and is perhaps one of the reasons why I do not directly reference my cultural heritage in my art work. In Houshiary I see an artist who has laid claim to her identity: her work has clarity of intent and honours her cultural and spiritual traditions.

The breath continues as a theme in her work and in 2013 she created an intimate and immersive sound installation for the Venice Biennale in Italy, called Between and the following gallery piece called Breath. If you are intrigued and interested to learn more then I suggest you also watch another short video by the Tate that takes you inside the installation, which includes a short interview of the artist.

Artist's website: http://www.shirazehhoushiary.com/

As I finish writing this in the garden, I have become very aware of the increase of traffic on the road and greater movement of people. The tranquillity of the last two months is finally coming to an end. Increased traffic will inevitably men increased pollution. I find it ironic that during this Covid-19 lockdown the only good news to come from the media is the effect that lockdown has had on reducing pollution. They say by 17% across much of the globe, this doesn't sound like much but if you look at the high polluters such as Portugal in isolation, the percentage is greater, there is a 50%+ reduction. Follow the link to a Guardian article on this topic.


The India Gate war memorial in New Delhi, India, on October 17, 2019. Anushree Fadnavis/Adnan Abidi/Reuters

India and China have seen even greater percentages. Cities most effected by pollution, enveloped with a permanent impenetrable smog, have seen a staggering clarity in their atmosphere within less than a month. People world over are suffering from chronic health conditions like asthma or heart disease and dying from associated illnesses as a result of pollution, normally responsible for about 470,000 deaths in Europe each year. Very little has been done to reverse this trend. Sadly pollution is also having a direct impact on climate breakdown. So a part of me hopes that the global consciousness around pollution could motivate nations to make drastic changes. The lockdown has shown us what is possible to achieve in a very short space of time. We now need genuine change, everyone of us can contribute to that change. Green technology, disinvestment in fossil fuels and carbon sinking are some of the solutions to our ailing planet. Trees are a significant part of that answer. They are the lungs of the world and we must value and aid them to succeed where we have failed.

The India Gate war memorial in New Delhi, India, on April 8, 2020, after a 21-day nationwide lockdown. Anushree Fadnavis/Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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© 2020 Copyright Dr Katayoun Dowlatshahi

Contact +44 (0)7944 731081 / info@silverwoodstudio.co.uk
Northrepps, Norfolk, NR27 9LF, UK
Professional artist website / www.katayoundowlatshahi.com