Thursday, May 31, 2007


People get their knickers in a twist all the time complaining about this or that person ripping off their designs. I was browsing Etsy and came across this little bit of wishful thinking: "I have designed my jewelry specifically to be unlike anything else out there. Please respect my wishes to keep my jewelry looking original & fresh by not copying my designs." I call it wishful thinking for two reasons: the obvious one is that someone intent on copying her design isn't going to be put off by her wishes. But it's also pretty naive to think that your designs really are unlike anything else in the marketplace. Truth is, there's very little that hasn't been done before, in any domain, and with thousands of people making and selling jewelry on-line, you're bound to find things that look similar to one another. (Speaking of the number of people making and selling jewelry these days, this piece from the Onion is priceless: 80% of U.S. Populace Now Selling Handmade Jewelry.)

No doubt there are people on Etsy and elsewhere who willfully and unscrupulously look at what's selling, reproduce it as closely as possible, and sell it at a lower price - but I think that a lot of the complaints people make about copying don't fall into that category. There are basic techniques that everyone making a certain type of jewelry uses and those techniques will result in a fair amount of similarity in designs. There are simple, classic motifs that recur, not just in the jewelry on Etsy and in brick-and-mortar stores, but over long periods of history. We're all subject to the influence of fashion to some degree, so suddenly we'll find ourselves really wanting to make something out of labradorite because it looks new and exciting. Next thing you know, loads of labradorite jewelry everywhere.

More importantly, all art, including jewelry-making, is a conversation with the art that has come before. If you think you aren't inspired by the work of other artists, then you are either walking around not looking at art or you are fooling yourself. Yes, you say, but inspiration isn't copying. True enough. Picasso said, "Bad artists copy. Good artists steal." What I think he meant is that a good artist takes someone else's idea, image, or technique and absorbs it totally, making it their own. That sounds like inspiration to me. (When I posted this quote in an Etsy forum a few months ago the response was, and I quote, "Yuck.")

Saying "I try to be original" feels odd - I suppose I do, but it's not what I think about when I'm working. My focus when I'm working is to be in the moment with the materials as I pursue an elusive image. Where does the image come from? Usually I have no idea. Could it have come from some other person's piece of jewelry? Certainly - just as it might have come from a picture in a newspaper, a texture on a tree branch, a painting, or something someone said.

All that being said, there are some artists on Etsy whose work looks remarkably fresh to me. One is nanopod, a Canadian artist who makes beautifully crafted jewelry in bizarrely organic forms. The ring to the right is one of my favorite pieces - she calls it the Perelandrain Ring II. The other artist, LostandBound, is more mysterious. S/he just joined Etsy in early May and there's no info in the profile. The jewelry is amazing though -- sculptures really. I'm particularly fond of The Vogue, a choker that looks like it's made out of a railroad spike. Their materials, techniques, and styles are obviously quite different, but they're both quirky and a little strange. As you can tell from my weird organic things, I like strange.

That's really all I have to say about originality. No doubt it's all been said before.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Is it weird enough yet?

A few days ago I posted a picture of a pendant in progress and said that I didn't think it was weird enough. It's now finished and it's definitely weird enough. The question is whether, in the search for belle-laide, I've gone over into totally damn laide. In defense of the pendant, I have to say that this is not a great photo. The color of the pearls is washed out - they're a much more vibrant greenish-purple. I guess that's not actually in defense of the pendant but of the pearls. But the pearls are quite important to the beauty of the pendant, such as it is. (The more I write the more defensive I sound. Not good.) I was debating whether to put it on an oxidized chain or a rubber cord and my partner said it had to be the chain, because the pendant needed to be seen as being worthy of a beautiful chain. Because it's so weird. And ugly. I agree that it needs a chain, a nice substantial one, not for beauty PR purposes but because of the pearls, which seem slightly too formal for a rubber cord.

The pendant still doesn't have a name -- to myself I call it "the weird organic thing" (hereafter, WOT). Last night I suddenly remembered a novel by Samuel Delany called Dhalgren. It's an amazing book - not my favorite of his, but amazing. Set in some kind of post-apocalyptic time, the main character is a semi-amnesiac poet with one shoe. Early in the book he's given a bracelet shaped like a flower, except that the petals are blades, so it's really a weapon. It's called a brass orchid and, later, that's what he names his book of poetry. (Great way to think of poetry, right? Something beautiful that, when wielded well, cuts deep.) I couldn't remember the name of the thing but when I remembered its existence I thought it would be perfect to give the WOT the name of the bracelet/weapon. The petals on the WOT are pretty sharp and pointy and, though it doesn't look the way I had imagined the brass orchid would look, it does have some of that post-apocalyptic dystopian thing going on.

Unfortunately, I don't think I can call the WOT "Brass Orchid". First, it's not made of brass and I don't want people to get the wrong idea. Second, it doesn't look much like an orchid. Third, the description of the brass orchid, which admittedly doesn't make it sound like it looks much like an orchid either, doesn't sound anything like the WOT. The second and third things don't actually bother me that much. Mainly I don't want to have to write a description explaining why I'm calling this thing a brass orchid when it isn't brass. Seems counterproductive.

Not to worry. I can't post the WOT until a shipment of chain arrives so I've got some time to think of another name.

Paris Mystery pendant

This piece recently sold, so I'm "archiving" the description here.
My first trip to Paris - I couldn't believe I'd finally made it. One afternoon on the Metro I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and looked into the greenest eyes I'd ever seen on a human being. "N'oubliez pas votre parapluie." "What? I'm sorry I don't speak.." At that moment the train lurched into the station and I almost fell to my knees. By the time I collected myself, I was alone in the car. That night I found a key in my pocket with a tag that said "4 Ropon 88-233"...

The pendant is fine silver (99.9%), oxidized to an antique bronze finish. It's 1 inch tall and hangs from a 17 inch gunmetal chain that closes with a lobster clasp.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Credit where credit is due

Recently several people have mentioned that they like my descriptions of items. Not all the descriptions I write are special, but sometimes a piece inspires me to write a whole lotta nuttiness. I think in a couple of cases the descriptions might have actually played an important role in selling the pieces. So I want to publicly thank whoever it was at Etsy who wrote this blog entry about collectibles and personal myth-making. My jewelry certainly isn't "collectible" - but this part really got me thinking: "...I also think that myths drive sales. And this isn’t as esoteric as it sounds — creating catchy episodic will sell things." I'd never seen anyone use episodic as a noun before - maybe that's what stopped me in my reading tracks, or at least slowed me down enough for the next paragraph to sink in:
By keeping a blog about your personal life ... you’re in effect creating episodic content about your life. What if you could tie your Etsy shop’s content into this, in a way that’s more engaging than just saying “Here-I-made-this go-look-at-it”? Make your own myths!
It took a while, but a few weeks later, here I am blogging away.

My blog isn't and won't become a record of my daily life, my past life (notice I didn't say lives - past lives are fair game), intimate encounters, personal hygiene, or other stuff that generally falls in the category of TMI. What you will find in this blog is me writing about life through the lens of art and jewelry-making.

I don't know if that counts as myth-making, but it's turned out to be surprisingly satisfying. So, thanks, Whoever at Etsy. Now, could you get the programmers to give us an easy way to put a whole shop on vacation? And maybe add a "Finish" button to every page of the new listing process? And it would be great if we could have drag and drop photo arranging and auto-rotate of featured items and....

Childhood dream, take 3

Fairly soon after I started working with PMC, I bought a Paragon Quick Fire kiln. There was a less expensive option, but when I read that the Quick Fire can also be used to enamel metal and fuse glass, I was sold. Ever since I saw pictures of copper enameling in a crafts encyclopedia when I was around 9, I've wanted to try it. I still remember clearly the piece that illustrated the article: it was a largish round pendant that had been covered with a layer of enamel and then had a lump and two threads added to make a design like this. Very 60s astro modern. The idea that you could actually take glass that was powdered or in thin threads or lumps and melt it to metal blew me away. This was glass like I'd never thought of it before and the process seemed somehow occult. I kept my fascination with enameling but never took a course and never tried it. Now, the Quick Fire promised to make all those childhood dreams come true, and more! Not only could I fire my pmc pieces, I could enamel them and even make fused glass pendants to go with them! I could turn out amazing multi-media art jewelry made completely from components that I had created, even down to the jump rings! (Never mind that I haven't actually started making my own jump rings in spite of the fact that I have a saw. It just seems so fiddly.) I was sold.

In retrospect, I think I was a little overly optimistic. Let me tell you something: enameling is not easy. There's some serious chemistry and physics going on in this process and, in spite of having several books to consult, I have not yet become one with the process. At first I couldn't get the powder to come out of the sifter at all. The books always show people doing it with this elegant one-handed tapping motion. All I managed to do was give myself a hand cramp. So I put the piece down to coat it and used two hands (something you're not supposed to do since then you have to somehow pick it up without disturbing the enamel powder). Naturally, when I tried to pick it up, I disturbed the enamel powder and had to re-coat the piece. Figuring out how hot and how long to fire the pieces should have been easy: every book has loads of charts. It wasn't. The first pieces I tried out had a variety of problems: uneven coating, pulling away from the edge, weird texture from being over-fired (or possibly under-fired). And sometimes the enamel just popped right off the metal as it cooled. (Note on the red piece my failed attempt to recreate that childhood memory.) I realized that I wasn't going to be making an fancy enamel jewelry anytime soon, so I put the supplies away and decided to focus on the work with pmc.

A couple of months later I was working with the pinch form in pmc: what you get when you pinch a ball of clay between the thumb and forefinger of both hands at the same time. (The necklace to the right has three pinches that I drilled and strung directly onto a wire cable. One is heavily oxidized, the other two are highly polished.) I fused several small ones together and liked the shape, but there was a hole in the middle that needed something. Then I remembered the container full of glass lumps packed away with all the other enameling supplies. I got them out, fired up the kiln, and stuck a chunk of blue glass into the middle of the cluster of pinches. I heated it just until the glass balled up, not long enough for it to spread out flat. It worked! The light shines through the back of the form so the blue glass looks positively illuminated. I've worn it a few times and fiddled with it a lot and the glass still hasn't fallen off. (The color of the silver in the picture is wrong - it's not actually brown. The color of the blue is right though.)

Not wanting to stretch my luck, I let another couple of months go by before trying enamel again. That was this morning. This time I had a couple of pieces that I'd created from scraps particularly to use with enamel. One is a little cup that I filled with large chunks of transparent red glass. The other is the oval pendant with blue and green swirls. As you can see, I'm still not making beautiful enamel jewelry, but I'm getting the hang of how hot and how long to fire the pieces. I'm definitely having better luck with enamel on fine silver than enamel on copper though. Just to see if I could do it, I tried enameling a blank oval copper pendant. I put a layer of clear enamel over the copper and added just a couple of chunks of green glass in different shades. It was quite pretty - except for the part where the enamel popped off the metal as it cooled. It doesn't matter. The Quick Fire kiln is amortizing rapidly and my childhood dream of enameling on copper is just around the corner. Really.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Work that look, or Artistic Discipline

A piece of advice that I see all over the selling tips in the Etsy Wiki is that the product should have a coherent style. Certainly some of the most successful sellers on Etsy take that approach and there is something aesthetically pleasing about looking at a store full of products that are on the same design wavelength. My store is full of whatever I happen to be making at the moment. There are categories of things, the largest being handmade silver - and I think that's probably where my work will go more and more. But still, I love gemstones and can't help ordering strands after strand of carnelian, chalcedony, iolite, rhodonite - yum. And then there's the weird stuff I want to make combining leather and duct tape and lace and silver and crystals - maybe not all in the same piece, but in bizarre and fun ways. The Punk Victorian "line" also doesn't fit the handmade silver theme, but I have a big supply of the metal mesh that inspired it and want to make more pieces like this pearl and mesh necklace. Truth be told (as the captain of Firefly used to say), it's a little more Elizabethan than Victorian and it's not really punk at all. But if I can't be orderly and coherent in my design, at least I can try to be in naming the pieces. So, anything with metal mesh in my store is going to get the Punk Victorian label.

The same issue exists in painting. I admire tremendously those artists who exhibit the discipline to work within a set of principles or problems for years. Stephen Westfall is one. His paintings are full of energy, but within the bounds of a very strict discipline. He works with "the grid" in a very patient detailed way. In some paintings it looks like he's performing an experiment: "what happens if I take this section of the grid and just skew it like this?" Then the whole thing goes slightly wacky. Here's a really interesting interview with him where he attributes his penchant for segmentation to ADD and dyslexia. I don't know about that, but I do know that he's a terrific painter and a great educator. (He taught at my workplace for a semester. Sadly, I wasn't in his class.) Yesterday I went to an opening at the Phoenix Gallery in NYC. The artist, Young Ja Yoon, is the mother of a friend and her work also shows an amazing coherence and discipline, though it's totally different in style, content, and technique from SW's. Her paintings are serene, minimal, and organic. Most have a soft colored background, often a light sage or spring green, sometimes lightly shaded. Unlike SW's work, you can see the trace of the artist's hand in the few lines (pencil, charcoal, chalk?) and daubs of paint laid on the background. The paintings are very restrained, but also quite sensual, because you can really see the gestures used to make the marks.

My style as a painter isn't much more coherent than my style as a jewelry-maker, but I'm less worried about that since I haven't even shown anywhere much less tried to sell my paintings. I'm still exploring materials and techniques in a very basic way. A couple of things are clear to me though:
  • I'm more interested in color and texture than in line, probably because drawing still freaks me out. (See yesterday's post on art education.)
  • I'm fascinated by the way random acts with paint on canvas create meaning. Humans are very good at discerning patterns, even when they're not there. It's why random repetitive noises can start to sound like garbled language or why we see faces in wood grain or why, if you look at random flashing lights while listening to music, the lights and music will seem to synchronize.
When I'm painting I usually have a problem I'm working on: what does this new medium do to the texture of the paint? what happens if I use a roller instead of a paintbrush? how can I link this shiny drippy part of the canvas to this rough sandy part of the canvas? what do these colors do to each other? I don't know if these local problems or puzzles will necessarily lead me to a coherent style of painting. Mostly I'm just having fun and hoping that at some point the lights and music synchronize.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Tools, redux

I've had my new pliers for a few days now and am in tool heaven. Using the new round nose pliers is like driving a Porsche, so sleek and maneuverable. The jaws are quite a bit longer than my old ones though, which took a little getting used to. Since one of my mottoes is "why buy one tool when you can buy three?", I also bought a pair of thin chain nosed pliers and a new set of wire snips with a retainer. No more bits of wire zooming around the studio! Yeah, I know the old finger-on-the-wire-to-prevent- shrapnel trick, but I never remember to do it. I think because it always seems like the wire could go shooting into my finger flesh. The thin chain nosed pliers are fantastic for working in tight spots, though they feel so delicate that I'm inclined to be a bit tentative with them.

And for once the denizens of the 8th dimension were cooperative: I found my old round nose pliers the day after I received the new tools! They were in my wire drawer buried under, what else?, a bunch of wire.

If only I'd had an art teacher...

Even though my father was a professional musician (a drummer and band leader in the circus - yeah, I know, but that's a story for another day), I've always traced my creative inclinations to my mother's side of the family. For a long time my mother made her living by sewing clothes for people, including some pretty fantastic over-the-top square dance outfits. My youngest aunt and her husband ran a "rock shop" where they sold geodes, arrowheads, and jewelry made of large chunks of polished stone. (Once she gave me a beautiful faceted quartz crystal - I thought she'd given me a priceless treasure, until she told me it was worthless because it had a line of gold running through it. I couldn't understand how having a line of gold running through something could decrease its value.)

My other aunt, Mary, is the one I always thought of as irrepressibly creative though. She crocheted more lace tablecloths, afghans, baby clothes, and toilet paper cozies than she knew what to do with. She also made things out of those plastic mesh baskets that cherry tomatoes come in, empty bleach bottles, the tubes inside toilet paper and paper towel rolls, egg cartons, all kinds of stuff that people normally threw away. My Aunt Mary practiced upcycling before it was cool. My Uncle Frank was another crafter. He made sculptures and wind chimes out of old silverware and hardware, used woodburning to decorate boxes, and could paint a paint-by-number canvas so that it looked like a real painting.

A couple of years ago I collaborated with the art teacher at a local private school on a project that still brings me great joy. His students, ages 10 - 13, designed and painted a series of very large (5' x 6') paintings for my work place. The paintings are terrific, but seeing the kids take ownership of the project was even more exciting. These kids are incredibly lucky to be going to a school that has the resources for a real art program. Maybe none of them will grow up to be full-time artists, but they've had the experience of creating in an environment that is not just supportive of their efforts, but is also rich in resources. Their confidence in their own creative abilities was thrilling to see.

I've been crafting since I was a kid, but never thought I could be a real artist because I couldn't draw. Art class in my school was what you did when it was too rainy to go outside for recess and, as far as I can remember, consisted of making things out of books of wallpaper samples. I don't think anyone in my family thought that "real art" was something that had any relation to our lives. I wonder what my Aunt Mary and Uncle Frank might have done if they had grown up in a place and time that encouraged their artistic tendencies - hell, I wonder what I would have done. Maybe they would have lived their lives in exactly the same way, but maybe they would have felt more empowered to create on a larger scale, to identify themselves as artists, to explore the talents they clearly had. Maybe I would have started painting at 12 instead of 52.

You can probably tell I have this thing about the importance of art education. And in case you're inclined to think "art education is nice but what's the payoff?" there's all sorts of research that demonstrates what a good investment it is. So, you see, when I heard on NPR yesterday that the Navy was hoping to build another aircraft carrier at a cost of $20 billion, it made me incredibly sad. How many art classes in underfunded public schools would that fund? I have no idea, but I'll bet the answer is in the vicinity of "a lot". I've got no quarrel with the Navy -- it's been the service of choice for men in my family for generations. The story just reminded me of the criminal imbalance between defense spending and education spending in this country -- and of how happy my 10-year-old self would have been to have an art teacher to show me that I could draw.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Xena, Feline Princess

One of my cats, Xena, just came home after being out in the world for about 36 hours. I've been calling for her night and day - the neighbors were probably ready to sic the local police on me for causing a public disturbance. The problem is, when cats go walkabout there's not really anything you can do. They're either on an adventure, in which case they'll come home when they're good and ready, or they've gotten locked in someone's garage, in which case the only thing you can do is walk around listening at garage doors, which will definitely have the neighbors calling 911, or they've gotten hurt and are hiding, in which case you're not going to find them anyway. Then there's the ultimate, awful possibility that they've had a fatal encounter with something. I resisted walking around the neighborhood looking for Xena because I knew that what I would have been doing is looking for a body. So all there is to do is call and wait - incredibly frustrating.

Xena got her name because when she was a kitten she was a fierce hunter. We had a cat door and every day she'd bring in grasshoppers, birds, butterflies, voles, mice, large beetles, and once a young rabbit that was almost as big as she was. She always brought them in alive and I almost always managed to catch them and release them before any real damage was done, but she was relentless. Also, her fur is a beautiful shiny black, like Xena's hair and she doesn't take crap from anyone. On the other hand, she's a total people coward. If anyone else is in the house, or even if she suspects anyone else might be in the house, she goes into hiding. And I don't mean "cute kitty behind the sofa with her tail sticking out" hiding, I mean "Weatherman going underground witness protection program" hiding.

She's home now, sitting here with that classic cat look on her face that says "What?" She's actually probably thinking "--------". Though I love my cats to distraction, I have no illusions about cat cognition. (If there weren't copyright issues, I'd insert a link to Gary Larson's great "What we say/What they hear" cartoons about cats and dogs. You'll just have to Google them yourselves.) But I've been honest from the beginning: I never said I loved her for her brains. Welcome home, Xena. I'll be right back with another serving of wet food.

By the way, here's the link to the Wikipedia definition of walkabout and to the fantastic movie of that name.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Love the Stuff

You gotta love the stuff or you won't love what you make out of it. I love silver - got a package of silver wire yesterday in all sorts of gauges and shapes and could barely restrain myself. Same with pmc and gemstones. Check out these drusies. I got them from Heart of Stone Studios a couple of days ago and can hardly take my eyes off them. I have no idea what to do with them -- setting stones isn't something I've learned to do yet -- but drusies are my new obsession. A drusy is a stone which is covered with a layer of tiny crystals. You know what the center of a geode looks like? That's drusy. Usually the color of the base stone determines the color of the drusy, but some are coated with a very thin layer of metal, which gives them a spectacular multi-color appearance. These are natural color drusies - seriously! The pink ones are cobalto calcite and the orange one is agate. I've also bought a couple of beautiful pale blue chalcedony drusies and a white quartz.

Starting a couple of months ago I tried making some things out of polymer clay, using both the regular colored type (I think I had a mix of Sculpey, Premol, and Fimo) and Sculpey 3. To me, the first batch of polyclay pieces looks like a bunch of cheap crappy plastic. I let a few weeks go by and then, inspired by the work of my friend at DC Designs, I tried making some swirly clay with translucent areas. These looked better as far as the clay itself went. The beads and pendants still look clunky and boring to me though. I found the Sculpey 3 more interesting, partly because it bakes to a ceramic-like hardness. Also, it's not colored so I painted the pieces and painting always makes me happy. Still, I'm left with a feeling of "eh". I know people do amazing things with polymer clay, but I am not likely to become one of those people because the stuff itself doesn't move me. If it doesn't move me as stuff, working with it becomes a mechanical process and the product reflects that.

On the other hand, working with pmc definitely moves me. (The way it dries out so quickly drives me nuts though - seriously, Mitsubishi, can't you work on that?) Trying to figure out what to do with the weird organic piece from the last post, I started messing around with polyclay. Nothing looked good - but after a couple of hours of messing with pieces of clay, a direction started to emerge, but it was clear it needed to be done in pmc, not polyclay. Then I remembered that I had ordered some of the sheet pmc that you can cut like paper and click click click - I knew what to do. Here's what it looks like at the moment, unfinished and unfired. Not as bizarre as I had initially hoped, but we'll see. There's always time to add more weirdness.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

In search of Daniel Craig

Daniel Craig, the most recent James Bond, isn't what you'd call handsome. The Rolling Stone called him a "rugged, jug-eared Brit, whose irregular features improbably radiate a megawatt star charisma". My partner told me about a French phrase, belle-laide, which means "ugly beauty". That's Craig - it's a look I like, and not just in people.

Yesterday I wrote that the more I work with pmc the less I care about making pretty pieces. It's not that I don't care at all, but sometimes the process is more interesting, more compelling than the final product. So there are times when I have a decent looking piece of silver that could be turned into an acceptably pretty piece of jewelry, but I can't help but push it. I hammer it, torch it, twist it to see what happens. Recently I sold a necklace that I think is very much in the belle-laide category. When I listed it, I honestly didn't think anyone would buy it, though I quite liked it. The first thing my partner said when she saw it was "That's creepy." I named it the Xena pendant (as in Xena, Warrior Princess, a guilty pleasure), but at home we called it The Mouth of Doom. An acquaintance bought it the other night and when she tried it on I was really taken aback at how much better it looked on her than it did in the photographs or even on me. Some pieces of jewelry don't really show you what they are until they're worn by the right person.

Working this way is exciting -- you have to be willing to trust your instincts, take risks, and enjoy the outcome - even if it's not pretty. It also means that sometimes things go terribly wrong and instead of something pretty or even belle-laide, I end up with a bunch of truly ugly bits, like these. I've heard that some places will melt scrap into raw material, but some of these pieces are enameled or have non-silver wire fused into them, so I think that option is out. Perhaps I'll collect a few more of these plug uglies and make a charmless bracelet.

There's a piece I'm working on that's similar to the Xena pendant. It's a combination of heavy gauge sterling silver wire and fine silver and it's really been through the wringer. It's not finished and I've been puzzling about where to go with it for a couple of days. The frame and teeth are sterling silver wire, the organic looking center is pmc - it's sitting on a coiled, fused base of thinner gauge sterling silver wire. What I can't decide is whether to fill the area between the center and the frame with weirdly organic petals or pods or tentacles. And if yes, then what should they be made of? More pmc? pmc touched with gold? more sterling wire? polyclay in odd organic colors and shapes? chunks of enamel? paper? And do I cover up the coiled, fused backside or just let that be part of the design? In other words, how do I move this piece from creepy to Daniel Craig? So far I think I've achieved "rugged", "jug-eared", and "irregular". The question is, how do I get it to "radiate a megawatt star charisma"? Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Friends, inspiration, and recycled artwork

It's been weeks since I've done any painting - jewelry making and the job have been taking up all my time. A couple of days ago some e-friends were sharing snaps from childhood so I posted a few. Elli said she liked the composition of one of them and it made me look at it in a whole new way. Instead of looking at it through a haze of not very pleasant memories, I looked at it as...a picture. She was right - interesting composition (good job, Mom!) and also a strange kind of oppressive small-town America atmosphere. (At that point I could hear the memories stomping their way back into the room.) Didn't matter - once you figure out how to look at something in a new way you can get it back. So I printed out a few copies of the photo on regular paper and started playing around with it. Here's what I came up with. It's mixed media - a collage of paper and canvas on canvas. I glued one of the prints to a piece of unstretched painted canvas and added layers of texture with a couple of silkscreens I'd made about six months ago using PhotoEZ, which is so much easier to use than regular silkscreen. The painted areas are strips of trial canvases I painted and silkscreened, using the same screens, also about six months ago. They're ripped rather than cut, so the edges are frayed. Around two sides of the photo I've written out as much as I can remember from a poem I wrote in the third grade. I'm not sure what I think of the piece yet, but I am sure that I'm very happy to have paint, ink, and glue all over my hands again.

So, what did I learn today? Don't throw any of your artwork away. You never know, that scribble or scrap could be a crucial part of another piece further down the line. Also, friends can help you see things in new ways, even your own past. Thanks, Elli!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

PMC Process

When I started working with precious metal clay I was very nervous about the cost and feared that I would waste the tiny lump while fiddling around trying to figure out what to do with it.I sprayed everything in sight with so much lubricant and covered my hands with so much Badger Balm that I was dropping tools right and left. Between the slippery surface and slippery roller and slippery hands, just getting the damn stuff flat was a major undertaking. I used an old brass filigree to texture some clay – but the filigree was probably the only thing in the room not covered with lubricant so, of course, it stuck and tore the sheet of quickly drying pmc to shreds. Panic! By the time I had a couple of pieces drying on the cup warmer, my heart was pounding and I was exhausted. Who knew working with pmc could give you a cardio-vascular workout?

Those first pieces looked ok, though they were quite ragged – I forgot to sand them while leather hard. And let me tell you, it’s much easier to sand pre-fired pmc than to sand post-fired actual silver metal. But all was not well. One of the pieces snapped in the hands of my curious partner and I broke another while polishing it. (I think the problem was that I hadn’t fired them long enough.) I was devastated. Then I read some online instructions about working with pmc that included the line “Make lemonade”. So I did.

Making the next batch was much less stressful – it helps if you’re not holding a lubricant-doused clay knife in a death grip. That’s when I made these two pieces, which are what I’d had in mind when I first started thinking about working with pmc.

It’s a thrill when an idea becomes a real object on your work table. They aren’t exactly what I imagined, but, as Pablo said: "An idea is a point of departure and no more. As soon as you elaborate it, it becomes transformed by thought."

The more I work with pmc, the less I care about making pretty things. I've been hammering it (see Ragged Heart below), bending it, carving it roughly after firing, even heating fired pieces with a torch to see what happens when they're over-fired.

Then a couple of weeks ago I was reading Donald Friedlich's preface to Tim McCreight's PMC Decade -- an unbelievably gorgeous and inspiring book -- and found this: "...Mimlitsch-Gray has taken [an] irreverent and almost violent approach to metal clay, by simply stepping on the clay with her sneaker to make a wonderfully raw and crumbly object that is rich with texture. This object could be made of no other material." Lightbulb! It's clay! Then it's metal! Stages! Process! I immediately went into the studio and made this pendant by rolling some pmc into a ball and stamping it with a sealing wax-type stamp. I smoothed the edges only enough to prevent injury and oxidized it. Yes, you could do this with lost wax casting and probably some other techniques that I don't even know exist yet, but I love this piece because it's all about what you can do with stuff that is clay first and then metal.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Tools and life

My round-nose pliers have disappeared into the 8th dimension. I know that's where they are because about a million years ago I saw The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and I learned that the 8D denizens are evil, greedy bastards. (Also that brain surgeons in chaps are hot.) Am I crying? No. It's a chance to buy tools and, even better, upgrade! I love tools. Tools are my second favorite kind of accessories, right after shoes.

About ten years ago I started woodworking - it all came from my love of Craftsman furniture. (Speaking of movies, remember Dead Again? That might be my favorite Ken Branagh movie. It's got one serious issue though: he's a lowly-ish detective with a house FULL of Craftsman/Mission furniture. Sorry, not economically plausible.) I found a wonderful book of reprinted instructions for making Mission furniture originally published between 1909 and 1912. The instructions were so simple and clear that I was inspired to try my hand at woodworking. And, with just a power drill, jigsaw, and hand tools, I made this:

It turned out well, though I did goof and put a non-authentic satin finish on it. Still, many years later it's a very serviceable and handsome piece of furniture. Apparently gambling addiction often starts when the first bet is a winning bet. The same is clearly true of tool addiction. After that initial success I started accumulating power tools at an ever increasing rate. Within a couple of years I had three power drills, one of them a hammer drill, a circular saw, a table saw, a compound mitre saw, three sanders, a router, and a biscuit joiner. I was in tool heaven. I built a 10' x 7' wall of built-in shelves in my office, complete with a built-in desk. I built several tables, gear boxes for horsie friends, a wine cabinet, and a couple of free-standing bookcases. In the garden I built two Wave Hill chairs and a table, a tuteur, an 8' long trellis for climbing roses and clematis, and several raised beds. And I repaired furniture, cabinets, woodwork, whatever. I learned many things:
  • Power tools aren't optional for women who lack upper body strength - they allow you to work much more safely and accurately. Don't obsess about being a "real" woodworker and doing everything first with hand tools.
  • "Fine woodworking" isn't for me - the fiddly, precise, incredibly time-consuming work drives me nuts. Especially the sanding, hours and hours of sanding. Not happening.
  • Varnish is not my friend.
  • Even a new biscuit joiner can't save a failing marriage.

I haven't done much woodworking for the last 4 years or so, partly because my current basement is wet and moldy, party because I moved on to painting and jewelry making and a whole new set of tools. Which brings me back to the round-nose pliers. The question is how much to upgrade. Do I go for the $56 Swanstrom pliers, the $43 Lindstrom Rx pliers, or the $18.50 apparently generic German pliers? My inner shoplete says, go for the Lindstroms, but I rather like the longer jaws of the less expensive German pliers. With any luck, the 8D denizens won't return my old pliers till after I've ordered new ones.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Come Hither pendant

(sold 5/4/07)

"What should I call it?" I asked, dangling the pendant from a handy dental pick. Her eyes fixed on the red jade facets, she said, "Call it 'Come Hither'. It's...oddly seductive." And she lunged. With a quick twist of the wrist, I flipped the jade and sterling silver pendant over my head and into my vest pocket. The candlelight glinted on the fine point of the dental pick. "You want it?" I said, "Then buy it on Etsy like everyone else."

Epilogue: The handmade (by me) sterling silver pendant and faceted red jade briolette come with a 16" nylon-covered steel cable choker that closes with a magnetic clasp. Dental pick not included.

Ragged Heart pendant

Sold 4/25/07.

I'm not a big fan of heart jewelry. I'm a sentimental fool, a complete romantic, a total sucker for baby animals - but I don't like heart jewelry. So, I was bashing a silver nugget with my trusty hammer the other day and imagine my surprise when I looked at it and saw...a ragged heart. And I realized that what I dislike about so much heart jewelry is that the hearts are all perfect and shiny, with lots of swoops and curls. Whose heart looks like that? Not mine. My heart is sturdy, tough, with lots of scars and wrinkles. It's been around the block and got dragged into some back alleys, but it always emerges stronger. And I imagine it looks kind of like this pendant. Maybe you can relate.

The one-half inch pendant is made of lightly oxidized fine silver (99.9%) and, with its companion rhodonite briolette, hangs from an 18" sterling silver snake chain with toggle clasp, both heavily oxidized for contrast.

Jewelry, painting, writing

The world doesn't need this blog. But I do. This is a public space that feels semi-private, a useful illusion.

Dear Diary,
Today I started a blog...

I started making jewelry just last year after I saw a bracelet in a jewelry store that cost around $200. It was a long narrow suede strip with tiny gold beads sewn all along it. You wrapped it around your wrist several times and it closed with a button and loop. Very simple. I went to the local bead store, bought some suede lacing and gold-foil lined beads for under $20 and made myself a lovely bracelet. Not as labor-intensive as the one in the store, but a nice effect. Then I made a few for friends. Soon bead lust set in and then tool lust and metal lust and now, less than a year later, I've bought many tools, a small kiln, a tumbler, and turned a spare bedroom into a jewelry studio. I don't live off painting or jewelry-making, which means that I can love it without requiring it to support my life. I love my other work, but these days my fingers itch and images of jewelry that wants to be made run constantly through my head. I want to be making - everything else is a distraction. So why am I writing this? I need to get meta with what I'm doing. Not usually a problem for a professional intellectual. When I paint, there's always a problem I'm working on, maybe technical, maybe conceptual, something I'm trying to "solve" with the work. Not so much with jewelry-making, though it's coming along.

Here's another reason for this blog: I have a store on Etsy and I've been surprised to discover that I love writing descriptions for my pieces. Sometimes they take the form of little story fragments - but when the piece is sold, the story disappears. So I'm going to post the stories with pictures of the pieces here, so that they can live on in active cyberspace.