Rebuilding the Dome of Human Kindness

After nearly fifty years since its inception, The Dome of Human Kindness has at last been rebuilt and donated to Cornwall Faith Forum. Download a PDF about the dome to print it at home or save it and read it off-line.

The trial installation in St Columb Major 15th – 17th July 2019

Two of my brilliant studio assistants for this project, Sally Hobson and Gabrielle Hawkes

The sub-frame and base goes in to begin the installation at Cornwall Faith Forum’s Dor Kemmyn (Common Ground) site near Truro on 4th August 2019

Fifteen of the eighteen panels shown in place with hidden jointing system as devised by John Harris.

The completed dome

Looking into the interior where a non-figurative colour scheme is now in place to encourage use of the dome as a contemplation space for people of all faiths and none

Scroll down the page for an illustrated account of the history of the dome since it was designed in 1972 in Italy until the completion of its rebuilding and development in Cornwall in 2019.

Rebuilding the Dome of Human Kindness

It’s not every day that a piece of art I made nearly fifty years ago takes on a new lease of life. This however is exactly what has happened for me through being involved in Cornwall’s Faith Forum.

The fact that I’d rediscovered a student art project that has faith themes at its heart during my move from St Just to St Columb in 2013 was what led to this unusual experience. The original piece was something I made while studying art in Italy, based near Florence, in 1972, accompanied by New York artist and musician Laurie Finestone whom I had met in that city three years earlier and had married in 1970. The eighteen triangular mural panels that make up the dome were inspired by historic fresco paintings in Florence that I had seen while studying there. They use interwoven elements from the tales of St Martin and the beggar, the good Samaritan and the prodigal son to explore the way that everything in life is inter-related.

Piazza di Bellosguardo
Aerial view of the Piazza di Bellosguardo (at the junction), where my studio was located. The disused tennis court where the dome was originally constructed and painted is at top right.

At twenty-three and fresh out of my Fine Art degree course at Newcastle University, I felt that anything was possible for me in the practical domain of art projects. Mural painting fascinated me, a bonding of art and architecture and I was ready to make my own walls to paint if need be. Learning of my plans, a friend living just south of Florence lent me a disused tennis court to work in. Having then decided on a scheme to create a dome out of eighteen triangular canvases, I stretched them on light-weight wooden frameworks and linked them together with a set of wing-nuts, bolts and washers. I had already, in a series of other less ambitious pieces, developed a kind of filigree technique of paint application to enhance my designs and for a couple of months that summer I used this with the aim of bringing my ideas to life within the interior of the dome structure.

I had spent four years studying at Newcastle University and for the last three had chosen to devote much of my time and energy to drawing and painting at what art colleges call ‘from life’ where a nude figure is routinely available to study. At Newcastle, this happened in a big sky-lit studio that also contained gilt-framed wall mirrors and life-sized plaster casts from classical sculpture. It was as if a bank of figurative poses had been stored in my memory. So now, given the stimulus of Renaissance figure paintings incorporated in the great historic buildings of Florence, I was ready to devise and realise such figurative schemes as the wrap-around mural that was to become the Dome of Human Kindness.
I remember that as I worked outdoors in the heat of that Italian summer an exuberant growth of fennel gradually took over the ex-tennis court where the dome was located. Then wildlife began to populate it. On one occasion a snake quietly appeared in one of the three entrances of the dome and after watching me for a while just as quietly slithered away.

original dome structure shown at Newcastle University
The lightweight stretched canvases that made up the original dome structure shown at Newcastle University, autumn 1972.

That autumn we travelled by train across Europe, transporting these and other rolled-up canvases with their stretcher pieces in sleeper cars and guard’s vans to Newcastle University which had funded me through its Bunzl Scholarship scheme. There, as part of my report-back I reconstructed the dome in one of the wide corridors of the Fine Art Department. The students weren’t yet back from their summer vacation but a few of my ex-tutors were around and showed an interest. The funding body seemed satisfied and I was able to return to Italy with Laurie later that year, having left all those canvases in my parent’s loft in Huddersfield.

Returning to live in the UK a year later was challenging. Florence was a hard act to follow. Memories of visiting Bath, where my father had spent much of his youth in the 1930s and had met my mother during WW2 while he was a junior doctor and she a nurse at the Royal Infirmary; such memories gleaned from childhood visits to the city at intervals during my own youth convinced me that here was a worthy English equivalent to the Florence I had grown to love.

The reality was different, however. Job-centre visits led to supply teaching and my studio time was rapidly curtailed. Our son Miles was born in Bath in 1974, a delight and a weighty responsibility for one who had grown up myself in a loving family. My need to further share the results of my Italian art experiences led however to a Bristol Arts Centre exhibition that included the dome. This was in 1975 when I began a post-graduate teaching certificate at Bristol University. It was on the strength of this qualification and the art teaching supply jobs which ensued that Laurie and I were able to buy our first home in Bath. There followed a three year period of commuting to teach in central London at The Arts Educational School and I was then appointed to teach art at Mounts Bay School in 1980. The rolled-up Italian canvases were stored in the lofts of our homes in Bath and later in Penzance. However, Laurie and I parted ways in 1982 and in 1984 I moved to my own cottage in St Just. Two years later Gabrielle Hawkes and I opened Visions and Journeys Gallery on Fore Street there and were married that spring. The eighteen canvases for the dome, among others that had gradually accrued in the meantime, came home to roost in the loft there and were largely forgotten about until it came time to move to St Columb Major in 2013. The wooden frameworks for the triangular panels were by then unusable but the canvases had survived well.

First page of dome kitBy that time I had been practising as a Nichiren Buddhist for thirty years having encountered it through a colleague at work. The positivity I generated in my life through this practice enabled me to re-launch my painting career in the late 1990s based at what had by then become The Turn of the Tide Studio in St Just. I was also making friends with people from a variety of faiths through Cornwall Faith Forum and I decided to photograph all the Italian canvases when I rediscovered them, making use of the wonders of our digital age to put together and print a six-page model kit. This has since then been for sale in order to help raise funds towards the Dor Kemmyn Oval, a multi-faith building that the Faith Forum plans to erect near Truro. The ‘graphic novel’ aspect of the design would now, I decided, be shown on the outside of the dome, making for a more public statement of its themes. (click on the image link about the kit here to visit a page all about it)

Following the move to St Columb Major these canvases were again stored in our loft space there. Then in 2017 two significant events occurred that sparked a new phase in the dome project. Early that year I was diagnosed with prostate cancer which had spread to my bones and I went through six bouts of chemo-therapy that summer. Then in October at the Faith Forum Annual General Meeting the decision was taken to develop their whole site at Penmount rather than just to raise funds for the building. To me this meant that I was able to decide to reconstruct and develop the dome in order to donate it as a feature of the site. The cancer diagnosis gave an urgency and a focus to this decision. The wonderful treatment and care I have received for this condition have highlighted the meaning of the dome for me. It is, after all, about human kindness, something I have received in full measure over the last few years from National Health Service personel, from care agency staff and from numerous friends and family members. I was able to crowdfund the project largely due to the practical help of Babs Roundswell of cafe Chaos whose video making skills made it possible for me to reach a large audience of potential donors.

Darren of TP Timber delivers the remaining canvases
Darren of TP Timber delivers the remaining canvases that had been bonded to 20 mm marine plywood
John Harris creates his hidden jointing system
John Harris is shown here using a router and jig to create his hidden tongue and groove jointing system.
Richard Pursall installs the sub-frame and base frame
Richard Pursall installs the sub-frame and base frame for the dome at the Cornwall Faith Forum Site on August 4th 2019

In 2018 plans and consultations led to the process of bonding the canvases onto marine plywood carried out by T.P. Timber near St Just and to making a start on a colour scheme for the interior. In late November I had to go into hospital for a total of five weeks due to a drastic loss of power in my left leg from the pressure of a spinal tumour. When I came out I was at first able to benefit from physiotherapy to the extent that work on carrying out the colour scheme went really well thanks to the skilled studio assistance of both Gabrielle and our friend Sally Hobson. However, the power to both my legs was lost in June 2019 and I became confined to a wheelchair. Another friend, John Harris, using skills he had developed in his career as a pattern maker in the motor industry, helped me to create a hidden jointing system that would hold the panels together and Richard Pursall of New Town Mills Joinery in St Columb designed and made an excellent sub-frame and base for the structure. We did a successful trial installation in St Columb in mid-July using the hexagonal base while the addition of the sub-frame came into its own for the full outdoor placement of the dome at the Faith Forum site at Penmount in early August. We were thus able to create a level surface on gently sloping ground to which both the base and the dome structure were then securely bolted.

Distant prospect of the dome
Distant prospect of the dome down the slope of Cornwall Faith Forum’s Dor Kemmyn (Common Ground) field near Truro.

One of the most remarkable features of carrying out the dome project has for me been the way that it has brought the enthusiasm and combined skills of so many people together at each stage. There is a Buddhist concept of unity know as ‘Many in body, one in mind’ which has been amply demonstrated for me by this experience.

With its roots in a Christian upbringing, the concept of the dome has nevertheless taken on an aspect of Buddhist humanism now with the way its more public-facing display, shown externally, intrigues the eye, even from a distance. Its filigree of interlocking patterns seems to emphasise this, dependant origination shown graphically with everything in life being interrelated. In carrying out the interior scheme, on the other hand, there was for me sheer enjoyment in the varied and juxtaposed colour areas that were created by my team of highly capable assistants. One human kindness leads to another. There is hope for a transformation of society for the better.