Monday, March 2, 2015

The Brass Ring

This month’s Blog Carnival is “My Jewelry Box”  Show us what you have in your personal jewelry box along with the stories or meanings it has to you!
“ Slam Dunk!”, says we. 

After traveling the world and collecting jewelry for over 50 years, we’ve got some good jewelry and great stories to go with it. So off we go to the jewelry “box”  to find a few interesting  tales. We had never looked at our cache of jewelry in this way before. Before long we were completely lost in a dense forest of memories.

In the middle of all this reverie, Corliss slid a large brass object out from the bottom of one of the boxes. “What’s this,” she asked, not recognizing the piece.

What indeed.

“I made that when I was ten years old,” I replied.  “How cute” Corliss gushed, “your first piece of jewelry!” Well,….not exactly. 

At age 10 I was living on the streets of Toledo, Ohio fending for myself. Derelict adults, homeless kids, street hustlers, criminals and worse were the norm in my world. You learn to be very wary of everyone. Despite any measure of bravado, the sense of your vulnerability is never far off.  The “ring” was, in fact, a weapon. It was a ten-year-old’s notion of brass knuckles.  I imagined that when attacked, it might provide me some advantage. It wasn’t long before I had a chance to test that theory out.

There were very distinct and separate black and white areas of town back then. White or black, wandering into the wrong part of town could get you killed by virtue of being the wrong color. Every day I had to pass through the wrong part of town to get to the downtown area where I supported myself by engaging in petty crime.

I had developed a relatively secret habi-trail of alleys, backyards, easements and other navigable paths to move undetected through one area to the next.  There was substantial comfort in the anonymity and aloneness of it all. Then I ran into Gavin.

In truth, we ran into each other coming around the corner of a downtown alley.  I remember how fast we sized each other up at that moment. What a professor would explain to me years later as a “fight or flight” reaction.  All I thought was “Black kid, my size, attacking, punch”.  I hit him square in the face, and he went down.  To my surprise, he stayed down. He was severely stunned. A few seconds later I felt the pain in my hand.

I looked at my hand and realized I had been wearing the brass ring. It felt like my finger was broken. I sat down on the pavement next to the black kid who, judging by the look on his face was just as terrified of me as I was of him.  “I’m John, do you wanna fight some more or be friends?”   “I’m Gavin,” he said, “let's be friends.” 

This encounter was the first either of us had ever had with anyone of another race. We became fast friends over that summer, each of us happy not to be alone on the streets. Both of us knew that we could never tell anyone about our friendship. That made it all the better. It was just for us.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

An eye on the future, a foot in the past

This month’s Blog Carnival** topic is “industry changes in the time that you have been in business”.

That covers a lot of time and territory in our case, over 50 years, half a century, to be more precise.  The short answer to the question is “everything has changed and nothing has changed.  How we make things has changed, why we make things, not so much. What this really means is that technology changes, people don’t.

Its comforting to have a nice tidy view of the universe like this, but in the studio, where we live, this can all get really messy fast.

Example: We employ some of the most cutting edge technology available to the jewelry industry for design and manufacturing. We also invest considerable time, energy and money studying and practicing ancient jewelry/metalworking techniques.

We appreciate the latest technology for the relative speed and ease it brings. We also appreciate the skill and understanding that comes from practicing ancient techniques.
It is not lost on us in our 21st century studio, that texts from the 17th, 18th & 19th centuries contain a wealth of useful knowledge on tools, techniques and materials.  This even extends to studio business practices.  Yes, we have the Internet, but who, how and why people buy art really has not changed much.

Back in the studio this all translates to a mash-up of ideas and methods, a hybrid of the old and new. The one thing that never changes is that everything is always changing.

** Blog Carnival is a project of EtsyMetal Team, an international group of artists, who share perspectives on common topics

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Uncle Chet Makes A Bomb

I don’t know how it is at your house, but around here New Year’s is the symbolic season of change when everyone in the family entertains good intentions for the coming 12 months. “Don’t worry”, we tell ourselves. It will all be over soon and we can get back to whatever we were doing before. 

New Year’s resolutions seem like such an inconvenience. Here we are, happily skipping through snow at Christmas time, eating like pigs, wallowing in gifts….having a good time!  And BAM! - New Years!! THIS SHIT HAS GOT TO STOP!!!! 

In atonement we will then go on an obligatory purge of gruel and sewer water for 3 or 4 days in the expectation that our bodies will shed 30 pounds just to end the 3-4 days of torture. It never ends well.

Now we do things differently.

Instead of looking in the mirror and thinking about all the major life changing things we’re GONNA’ do in the next 10 days, we look at the cumulative behavior of our immediate family over the last year and make a list of all the stuff we’re NOT gonna’ do. Not accomplishing most of the items on the list is made infinitely easier by the exemplary results achieved by family members who have gone before us. 

Even so, forearmed with best intentions and a list of things to avoid doing, we still manage to discover new and even stupider things to do. It’s a growing list, this New Years thing – a work in progress. 

Around this time of year we get an unaccustomed and unnatural urge to clean the studio. We looked back, took stock, and tried to recall why we had accumulated 234 pair of old shoes over the last 18 months. Surely it was a spectacularly brilliant artistic epiphany at the time. Our deep meditation on the meaning of 234 pair of shoes was interrupted by a phone call from Uncle Chet. He was in the throws of a not dissimilar dilemma.

Having caught the New Year’s bug going around, Uncle Chet had determined that he too had good intentions, and must divest himself of the myriad objects and treasures that had found their way to his garage/vault. This was colossal!  Uncle Chet considers it a mortal sin to throw anything away. His preferred disposal method is to transfer his unwanted stuff to someone else’s garage. This keeps balance in Uncle Chet’s universe and ensures that if he eventually remembers why he accumulated the stuff in the first place, he knows where to come get it.  Uncle Chet was wondering if we could use a half-gallon of “yellow liquid.”

This prompted one of those hurried discussions with one hand over the phone receiver you have between you and your spouse.  “Its Chet…want some yellow liquid?!...Dunno, whatisit?…. Who knows? Muriatic acid?, chlorine?, urine!........ its Chet!.... OK, I’ll find a use for…  NO!!!!  

Back on the phone this all came out as, “Uh…Uncle Chet we already have a big bottle of yellow liquid, we’re going to have to pass.” Chet replied we were the last call to a long list of family members who were all remarkably well stocked with yellow liquid at the moment.

This is when it occurred to Uncle Chet that he could at least save some of the containers. He would just fill all the partial contents into as few containers as possible.
This seemed to be going well until he got to the yellow liquid.

According to the police report, Uncle Chet, added “blue liquid to a half gallon of yellow liquid. Suspect then noticed the mixture becoming warm, and then quickly getting hot.  The mixture then began to bubble and smoke.”

At this point Uncle Chet allegedly ran out of the garage with arms waving and screaming for everyone to evacuate the house. This did not strike anyone as particularly odd...its Chet.  So, everyone assembled on the front yard as instructed, just in time to watch the garage explode in a huge fireball. This piqued the curiosity of the neighbors who joined us on the front lawn and wanted to know if someone was filming a movie and if any celebrities might be hanging around.

Everyone, including the town’s police and fire department, seemed quite disappointed to learn that celebrities were nowhere to be seen, and it was just Uncle Chet blowing up the garage. No one was injured, no celebrities were sited and nobody knows what the yellow or blue liquids were.  

Uncle Chet got a stern talking-to from the town authorities and then released to the custody of Aunt Robin. Chet had asked to be remanded to county jail for a few days but the authorities weren’t feeling lenient.

We have since added “Don’t mix blue and yellow liquids” to our New Year’s resolution list. Note to selves: If blue and yellow liquids ARE mixed, invite some celebrities over first, just to be safe. Lesson learned. 

Disclaimer: This is our January blog entry for EtsyMetal Blog Carnival, where various artists post their experiences on a shared topic. Unfortunately the characters and events depicted in this post are all true and no one's name has been changed since there are no innocent parties. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

NEVER ask an artist this one question.

Its Blog Carnival time again that international festival of intensely personal nonsense and babel brought to you by EtsyMetal.

As artists, we travel around the U.S. and the world a lot. We get to meet many interesting people, many of whom are also interested in what we do. We are sincerely grateful for and appreciate people's interest in our work, particularly when said interest is not instigated by police or tax officials.

Over the many years we have been doing this we have noticed that one question gets asked more often than any other.  Oddly enough, the question is almost never asked by other artists.   The question: "What is your favorite piece."

Asking this of an artist will often elicit a blank stare accompanied by muted stammering as the artist tries to process the unfathomability of the request. If the artist also inserts a finger into any orifice of their body (nose, ear, mouth etc.) while stammering, this is a sign that you have thrust a substantially large stick into the spokes of the artist's mental processing. It is probably best to back away quietly at this point.

Non-artists often find the artists response to this question equally unfathomable. It's a simple enough question. Except that artists don't think this way. At All. The disconnect is one of perspective and relationship. For example, any artist can tell you which is their favorite piece produced by another artist.  They can tell you this because their perspective is external to the object and simply based on personal preference of aesthetics. There are no other considerations or relationship with the object.

Now switch places with the artist who made the object. The relationship and perspective changes radically and is no longer dependent on aesthetics at all.  Intention and execution are often the standards of measure. You can see this at work with many artists by complimenting them on a piece. Many will respond to a compliment by pointing out where they failed with intention or execution.

The other big disconnect is picking a point in time. For example, many artists will say that their "favorite" piece is "the one I just finished."  This comment is far less connected to the aesthetic preferences of the artist as it is about the process of giving birth to a creative expression. For an artist to point to a single item and say, THAT ONE is my "favorite" is to stop time and completely deny their journey as an artist. The foundations of that journey are evolution and discovery. The criteria for intention and execution constantly change. Thus, many artists will express  that items they were satisfied with or found acceptable at one stage of their journey are no longer so because their perspective has shifted with experience.

So, if you must know, "what our favorite piece is?"  It's the one you want to buy.

Monday, August 4, 2014

How to put 10 lbs. of shit in a 5 lb. box

Welcome to another installment of Blog Carnival, the ongoing international blatherings of the artists of EtsyMetal, of which we are one (well two actually, if you want to get all technical like). Every month we pick a topic and each of who so chooses writes about it from their unique and often unfathomable perspective.

You, the reader, are thusly treated to a real time comparison of how one artist’s dysfunction stacks up against another’s on the same point of reference. This is our gift to students of psychology and snoopy people everywhere. You know who you are. Enjoy.

This month we are supposed to be writing about tools, a subject that all metalsmiths are obsessed with. We have “tool envy”. We look at “tool porn”. We compare our tools to the tools of others. And we fuck with out tools incessantly, changing them, modifying, making them bend to our will.  We can’t help ourselves.  Just know that the fastest way to seduce a metalsmith is invite her up to your room to look at your tools.

While we all like to talk about our tools, we don’t talk so much about the dirty little secret we all live with. Namely, where do you put all those tools.  Yes, we are all trying to fit 10lbs of shit into a 5lb box. As much as we all like tools, studio space and storage is the Holy Grail.

For our own part, we have literally built “floor to ceiling” shelves and storage into every square inch of our 4 room studio space. This has not even come close to providing adequate storage, so we built 3 additional outbuildings – and immediately filled those up too. Stick around for the super-nova sale that happens after we kick it. We’re pretty sure we actually DO have the arc of the covenant in there somewhere. Maybe Jimmy Hoffa too.

Here are two photos showing our individual benches. Take your best guess at which one belongs to Pig Pen and Ms. Lucy.

The arrangements have evolved over the years to put the tools we use constantly within arm’s reach.


The area under each bench is also lined with shelves and drawers that pull out to provide easy access and additional work surface.

We are big on using every square inch of space to compactly store the small tools we use frequently. Such as this modular system for keeping the various flex shaft bits hands.

Revolving trays tucked into dead corners can store a boat-load stuff. Specially if you pimp them out like ours.

 Peg board is simply the most important discovery for artists since the invention of the automatic coffee maker and margaritas.  I would line my refrigerator with this stuff if Corliss would let me. One of the many things we are using peg board for is to store our wire stock. We picked up this remarkably efficient trick many, many years ago on a visit to another artist’s studio. See the pattern here? 

Sheet gets stored in an open filing system and smaller pieces migrate to sorted bins in the drawers.

Any wall surface that does not contain selves is lined with peg board. This one is over a bench and contains frequently used tools.  We have found that stacking the peg boards is far more efficient than having one tool per hook which in our case would require a building approximately the size of Hong Kong International Airport. And, its not for sale. We asked.
As you might imagine the daily workings of a studio creates a powerful swirling tornado of tools, materials and project in varying degrees of progress. This lends itself to an environment of barely controlled chaos. Considering the context, the word “controlled” is itself a variable term, open to a wide range of interpretation. 
By way of example here are two views of our “mini machine room”.  The room itself is most definitely a work in progress, much akin to attempting maintenance on the car while you are driving it. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014


Patina is a thin layer that forms on the surface of stone, copper, bronze and similar metals (tarnish produced by oxidation or other chemical processes); a sheen on wooden furniture produced by age, wear, and polishing; or any such acquired change of a surface through age and exposure. Patinas can provide a protective covering to materials that would otherwise be damaged by corrosion or weathering. They may also be aesthetically appealing.

This month’s Blog Carnival topic is “patinas”.   While the original intent of the assignment was no doubt the common practice of applying patinas to metal, patination also refers to the accumulated changes in surface texture and colour that result from normal use of an object such as a coin over time.

 Of course all of this can be said of people too. That part about  “may also be aesthetically appealing”, is where things get really interesting where people are concerned.

For instance, Billy Gibby here, who tattooed the web address of several porn sites on his face as part of a breakthrough idea to become a human billboard.  Don’t get us wrong, we love the art of tatau, particularly as practiced by indigenous cultures the world over.  And far be for us to dredge up that old saw “but what will it look like when you get old?!!” 50 years from now we’re all going to look like shit and people will still be watching porn.
The patina people exhibit over the years often goes far below the surface, and the accumulated age, wear, texture and polishing exhibits itself in so many strange and beautiful ways – or not.  In the worst cases, we just end up scared and damaged from years of abuse, frequently self-inflicted. In the best of cases we acquire a glowing inner light and perspective enhanced by accumulated experience and knowledge.

 And then there’s Charlie Manson who, in a supreme twist of irony, looks like someone’s grandpa, except …what’s that on your grandpa’s forehead!?   

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Art Versus Craft

This month's Blog Carnival Topic is "Art or Craft, to which we reply...

There once was a kingdom that had two villages. All the subjects of the realm lived in one village or the other.  Much ado was made by the inhabitants of each village that they alone were the favorites of the Gods, and thus obviously superior to the inhabitants of the other village. These frequent declarations led to constant warfare and skirmishes between the two villages.

Despite generations of warfare, neither side was ever able to win a decisive victory in their claim to superiority over the other. This did nothing to dampen the fervor and tenacity to which each side proclaimed its virtue over the other.

Now, as it happened, this warfare between the villages was carried out in full view of all the other kingdoms in the land.  Rather than taking sides, the inhabitants of the other kingdoms were confused and frightened because both villages seemed completely the same to them.  What are they fighting about, they thought, the people in those two villages must all be crazy.  And so, the people of the other kingdoms stayed away from the two villages, not wanting to get dragged into the fighting.

So caught up in the fighting were the people of the two villages that they didn’t notice that no one was minding the crops, and the people of both villages were starving.  Or that the people of the other kingdoms no longer came to trade at their village markets and fairs.  To make matters worse, the generations of warfare had left some villagers so confused that they no longer could tell which village they belonged to.
It was if they were all the same.

Of course, this could never be. For the wise men of each village had prophesied, in tongues no less, the certainty of their differences. More sacrifices were needed, said the wise men, so that we may prove once and for all throughout the realm, which village is indeed the best.

And so the villagers continued to fight and starve and sacrifice their children in a battle that no one outside the villages cared about and those in each village no longer understood.