Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Book of Strange New Things - Another Review

Sorry, next post will not be another book review, I promise.

When I sat down to read this book, I was divided. Part of it seemed really interesting, specially the idea of converting aliens to an Earth religion. Other parts seemed, well, rather boring (the difficulties of a really long distance marriage). It turned out to be very different from what I expected. It is understated, the alien colony is almost boring and everything seems dispassionate. But there is a lot of subtle and interesting things going on at the same time.

The book inverts many of the stereotypes we expect: life on an alien planet is boring while life on Earth is collapsing; converting aliens is easy, a marriage isn't. No matter how terrifying the news from Earth, it gets diluted into the everyday life of those away from the planet. And the same could be said about marriage.

However, the book does lose its pacing at times. The setup of the situations was more interesting than the resolutions, unfortunately.

Yes, I am being deliberately vague. A lot of the interest in the book was in finding out how things worked or didn't, at least for me. I don't want to destroy that discovery. I am somewhat divided on my feelings about this book and I think it comes through in this review!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Yikes, I read an organizational book

One of the things I enjoy about Blogging for Books (besides, well, access to free books to blog about) is the chance to read books I would never otherwise read, just because they are available. This week, I read "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying up" by Marie Kondo, the Japanese organization guru.

Ok, this is not what I would usually read but I had heard of the book and her organizational practices, which was enough to spark an interest. I wanted to see how her outlook was different from our Occidental way of looking at the things we own and how we relate to them. I don't want to generalize an entire culture from one book, so I will stick to calling it her views.

The first thing that stuck out was how much things were humanized: socks need rest, things should be thanked for their services, etc. On one level, this was cute but it started grating on me after a while, specially when things began to want to serve me or to please me. My clothes are not my pets.

Another is the lack of a kitchen section- clothes, books, papers and memorabilia are her basic categories. The kitchen falls under "miscellanea", which seems overly broad.

Overall, the book is quite lightweight. The basic ideas would be enough for a magazine article. The rest of the book is padded with anecdotes from clients and a lot of repeated ideas.

I admit I did not like the author as she presents herself. From the start, she shows herself as something of a meddler, wanting to tell random people on the street on how to roll their socks or discarding her family's belonging as a teen to tidy and trying to make excuses or hide the fact. Although she admits the latter was a mistake, the superior attitude seems to remain, when she states that "obviously, I made [my client] through [the papers] out." She also seems almost naively young at some points.

She also seems rather strongly anti intellectual in relationship to books and course material. No, I will not throw out course notes since I should have learned the information when I took the course. There is often information that will become relevant later, in a different context. Same thing for books: often, books I "should" have thrown out become incredibly useful later. At that time, I might not have been working with a particular style or technique, but I may need to look up information today (and I do).

So, what did I take from the book? I am not going to go out on all day purging spree as she recommends. Perhaps I do not have much of a consumer problem but I do not feel buried in my things. I also cannot make the leap from what she suggest and the amazing results she says she gets, with clients changing their lives completely and never receding. But I did not hate the book. It was an easy ready with plenty of opportunities to roll my eyes.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Martian - Book Review

(my first Blogging For Books review!)

The Martian by Andy Weir

I loved this book for all the reasons that other readers might hate it. I found it fascinating, detailed and I loved the characters. Most of all, I loved how the engineering all played out, to show how a man (a very determined, resourceful man) might survive alone in Mars. The scientific explanations are very realistic and detailed.

First, some background. The book is about Mark Watney, an astronaut who is left stranded in Mars after a freak storm hits the mission he is part of. He is left on the planet, alone, with only 31 days of food (for the 6 members of the mission) and no telecommunications. The next mission will arrive in 4 years. How can he survive until then, considering that most mistakes will be fatal? But at least he had ABBA to keep him company up there.

I won't tell you his many solutions or how far they take him. But they are all well thought out and based on solid physical and engineering principles (the one time I thought "that would never work, because of...", well, Watney had, indeed, overlooked a basic principle). Everything is detailed and explained to the reader. If you enjoy ingenious technical explanations, you will love it. If you don't, the book will most likely drag and bore.

But technicalities aside, the characters are compelling, the situations tense and the story line really moved along. At one point, I thought "he isn't going to get out of this - wait, there is still a third of the book to go, there has to be a solution!"

Did I mention that our main narrator is also a sarcastic smart aleck? You all know how much I love a smart quip.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


One of my goals for this year was to have a better focus for my design work. I used to just make what came to my head, skipping across techniques and styles. It was interesting and fun, but I felt the lack of a clear direction and of an unifying principle.

I began by spreading out all my current work and really looking at it - what do the piece have in common, what are their differences? What do I want to develop further, what have given me what they had to give?

I rearranged them, grouped them, separated them, got them back together until I could see ideas gelling. All those disparate pieces began to talk to one another and to form groups. Finally, my body of work made sense to me.

I also wanted to have an overall theme, which could be broken down to describe each line and to guide its development. I thought of using technique as a grouping principle, but I decided that was too limiting. The same outlines and ideas can be developed in different techniques and I wanted the design to lead, not the technique. I tried out using seasons or the elements. My work could fit in those categories, thematically, and I could tie it with the direction I wanted to go. But, in the end, I discarded this as well. Both of these have a limited number of subcategories (spring, summer, autumn, winter; water, fire, earth and air). What would I do when a new line came up? I don't want to discard the categorization scheme soon and these would feel restrictive in the near future.

I won't bore you with all my ideas that didn't pan out. In the end, I chose to use a mythological scheme. Mythology deals with archetypes, with the broad ideas and feelings of humankind. Surely that was a scope broad enough for me to hang all my artistic development on! I am using Greek mythology, but perhaps other cultures will show up some day. The pantheon was chosen for the principles it embodies, not from a cultural or aesthetic point of view.

So, without fanfare, here are my current lines:

Athena - goddess of wisdom, justice, etc, etc. She was also the sponsor of domestic arts, specially weaving. Here, you will find my woven, braided and knit pieces.

Hades - lord of the underworld and of the Earth's riches - gold, silver and gems. Naturally, this collection features gold and gemstone pieces.

Hephaestus - the smith god, patron of artisans, craftsmen, blacksmiths, metals and metallurgy. Surely I had to include him! Under his auspices, you will find my forged and fused pieces.

Hera - many people have asked me why I didn't choose Aphrodite for my wedding jewelry. Aphrodite was a goddess of passionate love, often destructive and violent. Hera was responsible for happy, long lasting marriage, for children and family life. She also got the short end of the historical stick, but that is a story for another post.

Persephone - the lady of spring, vegetation and plant fertility. I took the liberty of expanding her domain a little and including some animals as well.

Minimalism - ok, not mythological, I admit. But these pieces have a distinct, minimalist look of their own and I certainly intend to continue to develop this line. There is something fascinating about distilling a design to its most basic lines.

Can you tell I love mythology? Yeah, just a little. The next posts will go into more detail into each of my patrons and what they represent.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ooops corrected

Remember yesterday's oops moment? Fixed and finished. I am now working on its bigger brother.

Let me now what you think!

Monday, November 17, 2014


All I have to say for today: when you have carefully textured metal for a ring, make sure you solder the texture side out, not in.

Cutting, reforming and resoldering. No pictures for now.

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.