Friday, October 10, 2014

Book Recommendation - Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit

How people get inspired, develop their ideas and form a body of work is something that fascinates me. No two artists have exactly the same process but I have yet to come across one who does not have a work routine - and hard work at that!

When I came across Twyla Tharp's book, I was immediately hooked. Creating a piece of modern dance is something that always mystified me. So many unique movements, the use of the stage, the interplay between bodies and negative space, all of it coming together to form a work of art.

Of course, we now take a break for a little snippet of her work.

Tharp constantly stresses the need for structured, disciplined work: researching a concept, refining ideas, exploring the accidental detours but remembering your core. She also cites many other artists and their creative habits, ranging from a writer to a chef, showing that all of us do share some aspects of working on our creativity while still maintaining our own distinct style. She also proposes a series of exercises for each chapter, to allow the readers to work on the concepts themselves and find their own way. I will honestly say that I did not do all of them - some got a little too out there for me!

I loved her description of how a choreography is created and how it is, in many ways, a collaboration between the choreographer and the dancers. For the curious, the ladder she is sitting on for the cover isn't just a weird photo. That is where she sits during her work sessions, to have a better understanding of the use of space. It is a tool.

To finish off, here is another bit of contemporary dance, by Grupo Corpo. I love how fluid their movements are and how joyful. The music isn't bad either.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A new beginning

Metal cracks when it is over worked. In mechanics, it is called "metal fatigue" and a lot of thought goes into the design of equipment, cars and airplanes to avoid it. After all, no one wants the wings cracking off a plane in mid air or the axle of a car snapping on the road. One of the first lessons a metalsmith learns is how to anneal metal, making work hardened material flexible again and avoiding the dreaded cracks.

Personally, I love the cracks. They capture something of the nature of the material. They reflect the unpredictability of nature in their curves. They are pretty.

Many years ago, I forged this heart as a cathartic exercise.

It is still a favorite piece of mine and it is quite expressive of that moment in my life. But I moved on, kept making other pieces and I never went back to cracking metal again.

But the motif kept showing up in my sketches and in my mind. Today, I decided it was time to take it up again. I prepared some metal, cast a button and got to work.

This wasn't the crack I was expecting. I wanted something more dramatic, branching out across the metal. Something that made a statement. Instead, I got an almost clean break. My first reaction was to toss it back in the crucible and start again. But this is what nature gave me, so this is what I will work with. If I want to explore an unpredictable process, I have to be willing to work with what I get.

Now, let's get designing.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Weaving chains, part 2

First, I would like to address a few things that have been asked about the first part.

Yes, I am using a continuous wire, from a spool, instead of working with a couple of feet of wire at a time. Since I am not drawing the entire length of wire through each loop (instead, the needle allows me to draw just enough to make each stitch), I can work on the spool and not worry about joining new wires, work hardening and other annoying things.

Since I generally get a decently sized spool of wire, I am not very precise with how much wire I will need beforehand. I generally estimate around 10 grams of silver for a chain, give or take according to diameter or length. I admit I don't usually bother to convert this to meters, since I buy wire by the gram. And thin wire is just about the only metal I don't prepare myself. It is just too time consuming!

Ok, last time, when we left off, we had completed a simple woven chain. Now, let's start mixing things up.

Double weave

Double weave is when each stitch goes through not only the stitch in the previous row but also through the one previous to that as well, so your needle goes through two loops instead of one. The result is a thicker, heavier chain, instead of an airier, lighter result. It wears very well.

Use the two previous rows, instead of just one

Making double weave is slower than single weave, since part of the stitch will be hidden by the next row. And since each loop will accommodate two stitches, it is helpful to make the loops a little longer than usual. Or not, for a very fine, very closed chain that will kill your fingers to make but look amazing.

Two double weaves, same wire. The oxidized chain was made with tiny stitches,
the polished chain was made with larger loops.

Triple weave
Sorry, no photos here since I rarely bother with triple weave. It is very similar to double weave, except that you will pull each stitch through the previous three row (instead of double weave's two). The result is an even heavier and stiffer chain - I find it too stiff for my taste, since I love drapey weaves. You will need to make each loop very long, so that there will still be some open space after 3 rows. If you are curious, go ahead and experiment. It is not hard to figure out but it is hard on your fingers.

Graduated necklace
This is a fun variation and you can do a lot with it once you master the basics: you can trap beads in the thicker section (use a thick needle and open weave so it will be visible), you can do several "pods" on a single chain or layer chains with differently placed "pods", you can do wider or tighter graduations, etc.

The idea is simple add stitched to increase the diameter of the chain then decrease the number of stitches to reduce it back to the original diameter.

Make your stitch as usual. For the next stitch, instead of going to the next stitch on the right, we are going to go back and add another stitch to the previous one. If we try to add the extra stitch to the same on we were working with now, it would just merge into the other stitch.

Reach back to the previous loop to add the extra stitch
See how the two stitches are sharing the same loop?

Now, we are going to skip the next loop (since we already did a stitch there) and move on to the first empty loop to continue the chain. Go on as usual, with an extra loop per row. For the graduated look, you will need several increases over several rows. I generally stagger the increases, so they are evenly spaced instead of lined up, so that it is less perceptible. If you want an abrupt increase in diameter, you can add more than one stitch per row, spacing them out. 

Skip the next stitch and work on the first empty loop

So, you've gone round and round, increasing regularly, until you reached the diameter you wanted. Time to start decreasing. If you want anything (pearls, beads, found objects) in your pod, add it now. Your next stitch will be the first decrease. Instead of going through one loop, you are going to insert your needle through the next loop and the one next to it. Before making your stitch, take the time to line the two loops up and make sure they are sitting nicely together. Draw your wire, finish your stitch and you have one loop less per round. Easy, peasy.

Capturing two loops at once

Finished reduction stitch

And that is it for today. Chain making is all about practice, keeping stitches even and regular. Considering how "fast" I am pushing these articles out, you will have plenty of time! If you, dear reader, aren't making these, I do hope these articles show you how fantastic this is and how time consuming.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

An artist's statement

There are many beautiful things in the world. I cannot make them all.

I cannot be true to myself by copying others or by being influenced by so many that my self is lost.

I must find my core, develop my art. I accept influence, process it and express it in my own way. Refusing to acknowledge what others do is to shut out the world, ignore advances and declare my own views better than any other. Accepting influence blindly, without reflecting on it and fitting it to my work is to deny my own views, to stifle my voice and shut myself out of the world.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A new studio

It is sometimes good to look back and see how far we've come. This is where I started out:

My bench was set up in a corner of the kitchen. I was using a small butane torch and pretty much all my tools are up there. The bench pin was new and whole (someday, I will share a recent picture of my benchpin). This was the first ring I ever made, forged sterling silver.

Of course, tools are well known to breed and increase in size and quantity. They slowly took up the cabinet on the right (who needs a microwave anyway?) and the one on top. The dining room table was the perfect place (or the only place) to sketch, lay out stones and set up the computer. A corner of the living room was dedicated to the rolling mill and another to the lightbox. The reference materials, technical books and beautiful eye candy took up a chunk of my bedroom bookshelves. Not even the bathroom was jewelry free - it was the perfect place to run the tumbler, of course (running water, easy to clean up tiles and a door to isolate the noise). Can you say "house takeover"?

When the time came to move to a new city, a dedicated studio space was a must have. And this is what I got:

Isn't that window just gorgeous? All the empty space, just for me. To top it off, there is a small bathroom on the opposite wall and a large closet on the other. But it is looking a bit sparse.

Ooops, not after the movers brought all the stuff in! They were not happy with my solid hardwood bench and quite puzzled by the stump. I scavenged a table from the rest of the house and I was able to start working. There is even tea for me.

What does a metalsmith do with all that floor space still available? Add a 6 foot hardwood bench, of course. It holds my mill, soldering station, a standing work area and an area for odds and ends I am working on, stones I am planning to use and other random things.

And this is my studio at the moment. Of course, it is liable to change at any moment (I do need a proper desk) but it is a wonderful working space, where I can have all my tools, space to work in and light. That was quite a journey.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Designing a Collection

Like most people when they start metalwork or other artisan work, I tend to think of single pieces, not of a collection or line. Of course, I might explore a theme in more than one piece, but it tends to be more of an exception than a concentrated effort.

For a while now, I have been toying with the idea of doing a themed line of pieces but it always fizzled out, mainly from the lack of a framework to build on. This time, I am publicly taking on the commitment! So, my readers get to follow the process, I get the pressure to make this work or face public embarrassment (feel free to mock me if I stall or delay this).

I chose to create a line of beautiful, mainly utilitarian hair accessories (aka, most pieces should be able to hold back hair, not just look pretty, although I am giving myself license to make a few that are just for ornament).

Why hair accessories? Simply because I don't see a lot of good quality hair stuff out there. Most seem to be cheap plastic, mass produced base metal or the good old pencil in a bun. There are too many well dressed, well accessorized women going around with plain hair. I felt the need myself when I worked in an office: I wanted my hair out of the way (clipped back, braided or whatever) and looking elegant, but I could never find a decent looking clip or pony tail holder.

I have already made several hair forks or hair sticks, which sell well, and a couple of hair clips for my own use.

Hair fork
Butterfly hair stick 
So, here is the collection so far:

Focus: functional hair accessories, including (but not limited to - who knows what I will come up with!):
- large barrette for holding a full pony tail
- small barrette for holding a half pony tail
- tiny barrettes for holding back bangs or clipping hair to the side of the head
- decorated bobby pins
- pony tail holder/cover
- head band
- hair fork or hair stick
- comb for a chignon or french twist
- comb for the side of the head (are these still used? I see so many gorgeous antique ones)
So, what did I miss? What do you need or would like to wear in your hair?

Target audience: sophisticated and elegant women (sorry, guys, I am focusing on the ladies now) who want to look polished and well put together, not fussy or childish (aka, no bows or childhood hair things)

Look: minimalist, sleek, modern

Inspiration: deserts. I want to explore some of the world's deserts, ranging from sandy and hot to rocky and cold: the vistas, the flora and fauna that survive there as well as the people and cultures that live or lived there.

To get started:

From, a pagoda in the Gobi desert
Uploaded to Pinterest, Atacama Desert

From, a girl from the Namibian Skeleton coast

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Making a Handwoven Silver Chain

I have said before that I love weaving chains. They are quite labour intensive but the results are so beautiful. They also require a lot of patience and calm - each stitch must be perfect before moving on to the next. Once it is folded in place, the wire will kink if you try to adjust it.

Blatantly showing off my latest woven necklace.

This is where it all begins - 20 grams of wire, well annealed. I am using 0.4mm sterling silver wire for this project. The choice of wire - metal and thickness - influences the final chain. Some alloys are harder and less flexible, which will make both a stiffer chain and give you a harder time. Thicker wire will give a nice weight and make the stitches more visible. Finer wire leads to a more subtle chain. Some of my double or triple woven chains are made with wire as fine as 0.2mm while the thicker ones can be as heavy as 0.5mm.

The second design consideration is the thickness of your chain. This is mainly determined by how many stitches you start out with (5 to 7 is a good average) and how thick your needle is, which will make your chain tighter or more open. You can also work some fancy stitches for different textures. I am particularly fond of very large - huge! - stitches with a messy texture.

Messy weave with a twist

Ok, let's get started. I will mention other design ideas as we go along.

First, we need to make the initial row of loops. There are many, many ways of doing this and they all work if you end up with a circle of similarly sized loops for you to start making your chain on. I prefer methods that make a neat beginning but don't worry too much. You will cut the very beginning off at the end so just go ahead.

One way is to hold the tail of the wire, loop it over your needle and back to your fingers. Twist the loop a couple of times so it will stay together. Repeat until you have your starting loops. Wrapping the "stems" together will keep it neat and give you something to hold on to when you begin.

My favourite way, though, is to simply snip off about 2cms of chain I just finished weaving, before I stretch it or do anything else. To start a new chain, I tuck the new wire down the center of the old chain, give it a light twist around the old tail and start working. Of course, this won't work for your first chain but consider saving a few ends to use as starters. It saves time and makes the first rounds a lot neater, so you will have less waste.

Ooops - my starter chain is quite tarnished!

Now, let's make our first stitch. Push your needle through the first loop, hook the wire and pull it through. Don't pull a lot - just a little, to form the new loop. It is easier to make a little larger in the next step than to make it smaller without kinking the wire.

Hook the wire and pull it through

For your chain to look good and hang right, all stitches should be same size. To make this easier and to take the guess work, my crochet needles flare out in the middle. I choose a good loop length (so that it will be snug but not too tight) and I mark the right place on the needle with a permanent marker. Then, I push the needle straight down through the new stitch, until it just hits the mark, pulling enough wire to make it the right size.

I am using just the beginning of the flare to mark the stitch size
Fold the stitch up neatly and your first stitch is done. Move on to the next loop (I like to work counter clockwise, but that is a personal choice) and repeat. Be careful that you don't pull your first stitch out when you form the next one!

One stitch done - more to make (ok, I exaggerated a little)

Now, keep going round and round and round, as your chain slowly grows. Don't rush it. Make each stitch perfect and your chain will be beautiful. If they are uneven, your chain will kink, twist and not hang right. Every once in a while, stretch your chain out and check that all the stitches are lining up straight. Since we are constantly turning the chain to reach the next loop, the chain may sometimes twist a little as well. Hold the very end of the chain with two fingers of one hand and about 2 inches further down, with your other hand. Gently untwist the chain. Gently! If you move too fast or pull too hard, you may end up twisting it the other way or marking your work. Do this every once in a while, so that the entire chain grows straight. It is easier to do this as your work than trying to get any twist out at the very end.

Work patiently, make sure every loop is right before moving on and that it is growing evenly. Perfection is the result of making step perfect, not of trying hard at the end to fix something.

You can count on it stretching around 10% in the next step so you can stop when your chain is an inch or smaller than your final size for most chains. Once you hit that length, cut the wire and we can move on to finishing it.

Here is the first nerve wrecking step. You want to anneal your chain before we smooth it out and stretch it. Use a large, bushy flame, keep it moving constantly and never, ever concentrate the flame on one spot. Bring it up to annealing temperature slowly and evenly, so that the wire doesn't melt. If it gets bright red at any one point, pull the flame out, fast! Quench, pickle and let it dry thoroughly.

I like to use a wooden drawplate to even the chain. Here is my fancy-schmancy one:

Yes, I made it myself with drills and a ball burr (to flare one side a little). It also doubles as an anticlastic "stake". What can I say? I make do! There are commercial ones available but I hate spend money that could be better used for other tools or pretty stones. Extra holes are drilled as needed and I make a note of the size in pen.

Find the hole where your chain fits snugly and pull it through. I find that I can do this with my bare hands but use a pair of pliers if you prefer. Repeat in the next hole down, keeping the direction consistent. This should be enough to make it neat round and smooth. If you continue working your way down, your chain will grow longer but it will also be stiffer and the stitches will be distorted.

Finished chain, after stretching and tumbling

Now you can solder on some end caps and add a clasp. Brass brush and tumble to make it shiny and you are done!

One more safety note: don't polish a chain on a buffing machine! It can whip out of your hands, taking a few of your fingers with it and whipping you in the face. No, I am not joking. I am deadly serious - this is dangerous. While you don't need all your fingers to make fine jewelry (Tom Herman), it makes it a lot easier. Healing from an unexpected amputation also takes a long time and a lot of pain.

Next time, I want to show double stitches as well as how to increase and decrease the diameter.