Saturday 15 October 2011

Pebbles in a river bed - A forged silver ring

I rarely make jewellery any-more but on the odd occasion, Jo's birthday or as a special favour, I'll take time out to revisit my initial grounding as a jeweller and goldsmith. This is a little ring I made earlier in the year as a birthday gift for a very old friend of mine.

 It was Jo, my wife, who actually asked me to make it and as I've known the lady it was intended for for about 25 years now it seemed the least I could do. Anyone still talking to me after such a long time deserves at least a little ring as a reward.

As a designer I'm very much driven by either a strong sculptural sense of form and line or my approach is informed by the processes I employ and the way they impact on the material.

When I went into my studio to "just make something pretty" (Jo's instructions) I had no specific idea in mind. I riffled through my silver box and picked out a short section of a cast ingot, about the thickness of a piece of pencil  that would serve as the starting point of a ring shank. I placed alongside it, on my workbench, a few grains of fine silver shot. 

I sat contemplating these "ingredients", a cup of tea in hand, and found myself arranging the silver grains into little  formations that reminded me of the famous Ryoan-ji Rock garden in Kyoto.

What intrigued me was the seemingly infinite number of  arrangements that are possible with just a few pebbles. The real challenge,  which is so well resolved in that ancient garden, is that of creating patterns that appear natural or accidental.  I think an acute awareness of this quality of  "uncontrivedness" is a defining aspect of much of Japanese aesthetics. 

This appreciation of the "natural" finds it's most obvious expression in the tea bowls used in the, pseudo-spiritual, Way of Tea, the Japanese tea ceremony.   This particularly Japanese aesthetic is often misconceived as being simply one that extols the rustic and  humble artefact. This is to miss the profound subtly of sensibility that becomes gradually evident when one contemplates those treasures that have been identified for us by the tea masters of the past.

 While a celebrated tea bowl may, at first, appear unimposing and "quiet" when we give it space to "simply be" and we allow ourselves to experience it as fully as we can through our, perhaps limited, physical senses we may begin to recognise that there is nothing humble nor rustic about it at all. A great tea bowl is no more humble and rustic than a mountain is. Unassuming, perhaps, but it's undeniable presence and gravitas has the power to point us towards the unfathomable mysteries of our own existence. What the sages of old Japan would have called Yugen.

A less well recognised expression of this apparently artless and unaffected aesthetic is to be seen, I would suggest, in the finely faceted surfaces of many traditional Japanese  wooden sculptures. The consummate skill and sensitivity of the sculptors of these works is undeniable. The subtlety of the finish so self evident that it doesn't always register as being an "as chiselled" surface. Such is the delicacy and seeming "rightness" of the carved planes that the question of it needing further refinement by way of polishing seems superfluous. 

This lightness of touch in the hands from a maker is, to my mind, the epitome of making as "a Way". I use the term Way in the classical Japanese or Taoist sense of Dao.

But back to my little silver ring...

As I begun to forge out the ingot to form some idea of a ring shank I was struck by the patterns my hammer blows left in the surface of the soft silver. Like instantly appearing imprints in fresh snow. An idea was born as I moved the silver toward some vaguely intuited cross-section. I left the edges of the strip of metal untouched and so, as it was pushed outwards by my forging, it begun to wrinkle into a delicate stone-like texture. The area between the edges was worked down to form a gentle hollow filled with overlapping elongated ovals of burnished hammer blows that looked for all the world like a rippling stream. The stone, or earth-like, edges rose gently up to contain the stream so that it required almost no real thought to arrange a few silver grains, like river worn pebbles, in this river bed.

A little bit of selective burnishing to soften and highlight some edges and a light dusting of a "sparkly" texture and I'd made a ring, almost without thought. And one that suggests a myriad of of further ideas and evolutions. At some point I'll pick up this concept again and see where it leads me. Perhaps my "story" about how I travelled this short path might provide some ideas that you might be able to work from too. Happy tapping. :-)

Saturday 8 October 2011

Traditional Edo silver smithing

This is a short film just posted to YouTube that reveals many traditional processes for the first time.

Raising hollow vessels is called tankin or shibori in Japanese. In the film we are shown the whole process from the cast silver ingot, it's rolling out in to sheet to finished vessel. That's Mr Akio Ishiguro at work and you can see more of his work and read a little interview with him here.

One of the things that impressed me when I was taught this technique, in a studio exactly like the one in the film, was how precise the work was. The shapes always adhere exactly to the drawings.

Edo (Tokyo) silver ware is generally made from pure silver.

The film also features some decorative chiselling and  work. The cup the artisan is decorating, with a design of pine needles, is called a guinomi. It's a sake cup.

The white "paint" on the silver cup is gofun nuri, a paste of glue and ground oyster shell. Gofun is a white pigment used in Nihonga, traditional Japanese painting.

What the Chokin shi (metal carving artisan) is explaining is the unique quality and "spirit" that real handmade work has as opposed to mass produced products. This is something you hear these older artisans talk about quite a lot.

Mr Nozawa Tadayoshi is also a chokin-shi who works with the same group. Here's an interview with him where he expresses many of the same sentiments as are heard in the film.

The third artisan featured demonstrates the use of a Jewellers bow drill and arrow head drill bit. He then goes on to use a rather novel piercing saw. It's a type I've seen a few times in Japan in studio's of older artisans. It's utterly unlike that odd red contraption (those of you who know me  know the contraption I mean ;-) )  in it's simplicity and ease of use. The resilience or flexibility of the frame is rightly considered an important aspect of the tool and one that the skilled user works with.

The parquetry like technique he demonstrates is called kiri-bame, in Japanese studios.

The forth specialist, Mr Hara,  performs the  traditional colouring process called gin-furubi and tanpan-furibi. These are ways of imparting a mellow pewter-like toning or lilac coloured patina to the silver. It does not involve the use of sulphides. That beige patina on the kyusu (teapot) will turn a lovely purple/lilac in time.

You also see him painting a shellac resist onto the chiselled pine needles of the guinomi. This is so that they will stay bright and sharp. After that you see him applying a fine ishi-arashi texture by means of dropping fine garnet stones onto the polished silver.

Mr Kinshiro Hara may be one of the last of the "old school" specialist metal colourists left. I was fortunate enough to have been taken by Izumi Sensei to meet him and to learn from him 18 years ago when I first went to study in Japan. I still have a packet of tsunako, powdered deer horn, that he gave me for extra special polishing jobs.

I'll always be grateful to Izumi Sensei and his colleagues for so graciously inviting me into their world. I have such fond memories of my studies with those remarkable men that I inevitably get a little lump in my throat whenever I see film of them at work in their studios.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Alchemy - varieties of heat induced patina effects on copper.

Some months back I showed some of these images on facebook. I didn't let on then that they aren't actually paintings at all, in the literal sense anyway. These are actually patina I developed on copper test plates I made while experimenting with fire and water. It wasn't pure water though....I added a tiny amount of an innocuous salt also.

By playing the flame on the plate and quenching in the water when the colour were interesting I was able to gain a fair degree of control of at least some of the effects. As the temperature never really got that high, not enough to anneal the copper properly, I think this technique might have some application on larger copper sculptural forms.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Credit and thanks where it's due.

I've been very remiss. Those of you who know my work and some of the story of how I've made my journey into the world of Classical Japanese metalwork may have heard me mention my first study trip to Japan having been as a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellow. I've not really elaborated on this and I think it's time I did because I owe that foundation a great deal. My own fellowship was awarded in the autumn of 1993 and allowed me to spend 10 weeks in Japan and to get my foot in the door, so to speak. You can learn more about the WCMT from their website here and this is quote, taken from that site, explains how it came about.
The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust was established when Sir Winston Churchill died in 1965. Thousands of people, out of respect for the man and in gratitude for his inspired leadership, gave generously so that a living memorial to the great man could benefit future generations of British people.
Every year around 100 fellowships are awarded to individuals in various categories to allow them to travel anywhere in the world to further their studies, research or simply to experience a different culture's approaches that are relevant to their own work. The idea being that these fellows would then share the fruits of their travels with their own working community.

 I was encouraged by a specialist dealer in Japanese sword fittings (tosogu), Mr Graham Gemmell, to apply for a fellowship so that I could finally get to the source of this tradition that had so captivated my attention. I had actually met Graham 2 years earlier at the opening of an exhibition he'd curated and which is now reasonably well know in collector circles from the excellent book that accompanied it, Tosogu: Treasure of the Samurai 

In fact it was Graham who first planted the crazy notion of being a full time artist in this field in my head. He's got a lot to answer for really ;-) It was though our many and lengthy conversations that I began to realise that accurate information, at least in the West, about the technical aspects of tosogu manufacture was essentially non-existent. In time I was to discover that the situation wasn't all that better in Japan but I'll write about that another time.

 The initial application that was required by the Trust was a simple, one paragraph, explanation of what you wanted to do, why and what the outcome might be. Apparently my desire to go to Japan and seek out a real Sensei and to study first hand with practising artists was seen to be a good idea. I was living in Penzance, in Cornwall, at the time, 6 hours by train from London. I was duly informed (by internet back then) that I'd earned a 15 minute interview, return train ticket included.

 I arrived on the appointed day, having set off from Penzance at some ungodly hour to catch the earliest train, with 5 minutes to spare. A quick freshen up in the bathroom and I was briskly escorted in to the interview room by Sir Richard Vickers. A slightly built, retired, military man who reminded me of my grandfather,  also a retired military man. I say, interview room, it was more of a ball room really. At least it felt like that to me.

 I was seated in front of a table of 3 interviewers, like a more refined version of Pop Idols, while Sir Richard seated himself slightly behind and to my right. A thoughtful touch, I felt, in that his presence was very reassuring. The questions I was asked were very thoughtful, probing and insightful and allowed me to express my enthusiasm for my project and to convince the trustees that I would make good use of the opportunity were it offered to me.

 One answer, to a question I imagine all candidates were asked, was probably very different from most and may have helped my cause a little bit.
 I was asked what the memory of Churchill might mean to me personally. Of course, the obvious reaction to that name is to reflect on his leadership through those terrible years of World War II and every British person would have older relatives who endured those times. My own family being no exception. I grew up in the Veld of the West Coast of South Africa though, surrounded, beleaguered one might suggest ;-), by young Boer boys who still harboured a great deal of hatred for the "rooinek".

 I was one of only 3 English speaking boys at the Vredenburg town school, bizarrely, we all had surnames beginning with H. Hansen, Hoskins and Hallam. There was another English family called Hutchinson but they were all girls.

 Being the new boy in town and quite a lot smaller than the local farm lads, all prospective Springbok rugby players and built like the proverbial brick outhouse, I was seen as fair game. Being very blond and well spoken didn't improve my chances of survival much either. It was in an attempt to arm me, at least psychologically, that my father told me the story of how the young Winston Churchill, a war correspondent in the Anglo Boer War escaped imprisonment by the Boers and evaded capture while travelling over 300 miles to safety. The image of this resourceful Englishman outwitting he Afrikaners was evidently enough to bolster my courage in the face of a number of unpleasant "incidents"

My "trials" came to an abrupt end when one of the bigger lads tried to push me over so that they could all have a game of footie with me. Somehow I managed to grab his fingers as he reached out for me and I had him on his knees bagging for mercy before I had time to think. I admit that even now I can remember thinking I'd grabbed a tiger by the tail and that once I let go I'd be in even more trouble. To this day I don't quite know what happened next but somehow the collective anger that had been directed at me melted away and was replaced with a sort of grudging respect. The tension dissolved, my "captive" seemed resigned and so I just stepped back and let him go.

 I never had any problems with any of the farm boys after that. I later mastered their native tongue and even managed to get myself picked for the school rugby team. No-one thought to ask if I knew the rules though....they just appreciated my willingness to get stuck in. Needless to say, I was never noticed by Springbok talent scouts.

 I didn't relate the details of this particular story in my interview but I did explain how, as an English boy growing up in the veld, the Young Winnie had been a great inspiration. I think they rather liked that, especially Lady Mary Soames who is Churchill's youngest daughter.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust placed a great deal of faith in me when they awarded me my travelling fellowship. I hope I've delivered on my promise and I remain grateful to the memory of a great Englishman.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Bags of hush all round, please.

When I woke this morning I had a strong feeling that I simply wanted to not speak today....or at least to speak when only absolutely necessary and then very quietly. I spend so much time intensely focussed on my work, in solitude and quiet that this morning's urge seemed a little surprising. What I was aware of was a feeling of fatigue despite having had a good nights rest. I have begun, of late, to suspect that noise does actually stress me and and leave me feeling very drained. I also recognise that in this agitated state my responses and reactions to events, ideas and people is sometimes strained and somehow not really my own. As an artist this is of significant interest to me hence my intuition that I need some extra quiet.

People sometimes ask what music I listen to when I work. This always amuses me because when I'm concentrating on what I do I can't hear any music. I'm also aware, intellectually speaking, that any music playing in the studio will be having some influence on my body. To be unaware of something like this seems, to me, perhaps to be a little bit careless so I tend not to have music playing, especially when doing very delicate or sensitive work.

When I checked my YouTube account this morning I was bemused to find a new upload from National Geographic that seemed to reaffirm the thoughts I'd woken to. This is an inspiring mediation from a remarkable man, John "Planetwalker" Francis.

The Ragged Edge of Silence

I've played the guitar for almost as long as I've worked with metal but only in the last 2 years have I finally submitted myself to the real discipline of studying classical guitar. I'm extremely fortunate to have as my mentor and guide a very accomplished and wise maestro with the wonderful name of Ulliano Marchio. Ulliano is remarkably patient with me and when we get together of the occasional 45 minute lesson, which takes 2 hours as we talk a lot, I invariable leave a little more attentive to my own thoughts and to my own slow but steady progress. Ulliano allows me to relax into my own pace and understanding of what I'm doing. He's gently led me to a point where I hear the silence between the notes, those elemental pauses that make the music. When I practice, now, I'm acutely aware of the noise the notes produce, the timbre, the resonance and clarity...and the need to allow each of these notes to ring true. I'm an awfully long way off achieving what I'm speaking of but I've had a glimpse of that far away land and if I keep mindfully to the path I've been set on I may eventually reach the borderlands before my time is up.

Just last week someone expressed surprise, almost outrage, that I didn't use electric belt sanders and other machines in my studio so that I could be more efficient. I think all that noise would probably make my journey almost impossible. I don't think I could find my path though that jungle of's far too ephemeral.

Monday 29 August 2011

Shudan - a conversation by hand

Shudan refers to the intimate communion between the craftsman's hands and his materials.

This short (2 minute) film was edited out of a much longer film Brad Schaffer and I are working on at present. I put this one together as an entry in the The Power of Making exhibition that's being held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London, over the following few months.

In it I demonstrate Yuwake, a traditional hot water casting procedure. The subsequent forging, yama-oroshi or "pounding down the mountain", of the water cast button transforms it into a tsuba. A guard for a Japanese sword.

I first came across the term, Shudan, on the website of a manufacturer of fine Igo equipment. 

This is what they had to say; 

In old days, clamshell was shaped one by one using this handmade traditional tool and craftsman finished it as truly artistic Go stone. Go was called "Shudan", which literally means 'hand conversation'. Craftsman and stone interact with each other from the beginning of manufacturing process.

In old days, clamshell was shaped one by one using this handmade traditional tool and craftsman finished it as truly artistic Go stone. Go was called "Shudan", which literally means 'hand conversation'. Craftsman and stone interact with each other from the beginning of manufacturing process.

Sunday 28 August 2011

A load of old balls or music to your ears?

No, not CGI. It is apparently real as is the sound. It's funny how when confronted by something as time consuming as this there's an immediate tendency to finds ways to minimise it's effect. There seems to be a discussion in the blogosphere about whether the sound is real etc. If any people would go to this sort of trouble and devote so much time to getting something just right it would be the Japanese.

Just thinking further about many of the responses to the Docomo cellphone ad (the wooden ball running down the track in the woods). I think it's a sad reflection of our present cynicism with creative media that so much of the discussion is about how the whole thing could be effectively faked.

From suggestions that the sound was added in, that the wooden track is actually only one short bit but reshot from different angles to the whole thing being CGI. Perhaps this level of devotion is threatening. Perhaps we feel the need to dismiss amazing efforts like this because they remind us what we might achieve ourselves....if we just put in the effort and devotion too.

I don't care if this isn't entirely "real"...I want to keep it in my imagination as an ideal, and one I want to keep living by.

More about the ad  here

Cornel Schneider - devoted to realism.

This remarkable piece of carving is the latest work by the Swiss carver, Cornel Schneider. His utter devotion to realism never fails to astonish me. This grumpy toad on a lotus leaf is actually carved from a single piece of box wood and features acrylic "droplets of water". As life-like as the toad is, and he really does seem to be a grumpy fellow...the toad not Cornel ;-), I'm particularly drawn to the understated delicacy of the leaf and those beads of  water. Lovely!
If you'd like to see a few more images of this piece you'll find some on the Iron Brush forum, here.

You can also see more of Cornel's work on his own website, here;

Saturday 27 August 2011

Hisashiburi!'s been a while, ne?

Waking... Jasmine!
scents the still cool air.
I hear Spring.

I keep meaning to get back to writing blog entries but as is all to often the case life gets in the way of well meaning plans. Knowing me, I just need to get back into the rhythm of writing about the things that keep me awake late at night or that are being mulled over in the studio and there'll be no stopping my running commentary. To be honest, of late, there have been a number of issues I've really wanted to say quite a bit about but I really didn't want to get involved in protracted on-line "debates". I've decided, instead, to use this platform to have my say and if you get something from my opinions, views and observations that's just fine by me....if you care to disagree, start your own blog and I'll read what you think. ;-) ....I promise.

This is a tsuba I've recently finished, I'm quite chuffed with it. I've been working towards a way of revealing the actual structure of the metal and allowing this feature to appear as part of the patina. I've also been developing a more variegated and subtle tonal range in the actual patina colours I create on copper. I'm very satisfied with the way this one's worked out and the fine gold inlay, which stands ever so slightly proud of the surface and so catches the light beautifully, seems to to compliment the more organic qualities of the piece nicely, methinks.

If you're interested you can see some more images here, on the Iron Brush forum.

Someone asked if by "hearing spring" (in my haiku at top) I was referring to birds. I might have been....but in the Japanese incense game the act of smelling and identifying the scents is referred to as listening. 

Monday 20 December 2010

Utsushi - the search for Katsuhira's tiger.

Some of you have already seen this short documentary film but I've just uploaded a High Definition version with Japanese subtitles onto YouTube.

You'll find details about the film maker and links to alternative text translations of the audio in the description below the film screen.

You'll find part one here.
and part 2 here.

You'll see the default quality setting on the play bar is usually 360p (on the right just below the screen). The film can be viewed in higher quality (up to 1080 High Definition ) by selecting a higher resolution setting. At the higher settings you can watch it in an expanded view to fill the screen.

There are some high res photographs, like the one shown above, posted here in my Picasa gallery. You'll also find a cover design for the dvd should you want to use it.

Please feel free to download the files for your own use. You'll need to use RealPlayer software to do this. It's available for free here.

If you're interested you can read more about the project the film follows and how it came about here in a post I wrote last June.
I hope you enjoy it.

best regards,

Ford Hallam