Friday 26 December 2008

Orchid kagamibuta

I completed this latest piece just before Christmas, you may have seen some of the images I posted on the forum showing the work in progress. As soon as we get the forum's problems sorted I'll write a little more about this work and end off that thread properly. In the meantime, if you're interested, you can see some preliminary photos by visiting my Picassa gallery here.

If you double click on any of the images you'll see a much larger image, and if you then use the magnifying feature, at top right ( you'll see a little magnifying glass icon ) you can use that to see the image full size...which is ridiculously bigger than the real thing! You can also chose to view the images as a slide show.

The bowl is raised out of a sheet of 1mm thick steel and the eyelet at the back is made in Japanese green gold ( Ao-kin ). The inset disc is also steel, with the flowers in silver, gold and brass. I braided the cord using some rattan-like cord Jo found in a bead shop. I used a Japanese kumihimo technique, which I quite enjoyed. I think I'll explore that process a bit more in the future. I wanted the cord to echo a woven basket, the sort I've seen orchids displayed in, in the East, as well as hint at jungle vines.

The whole idea behind the piece was to try and create a tightly framed nature scene that at the same time was both a painting and a sculpture. As always, the mood and atmosphere was of
most importance to me. I'm quite pleased with the result myself.
I was particularly happy with this close up and tightly cropped shot. Sort of reminds me of the sort of tones you often see in a Rembrandt. Of course, while he was probably the best handler of oil paint and could engrave copper plate quite well he was rubbish when it came to inlaying and carving steel....still, we can't expect him to have done everything, thank goodness! ;-)

As with most images on this blog, double clicking on any of them will give you a much bigger picture.

Thursday 25 December 2008

Peace and Goodwill to all...

Christmas morning, the most magical moment of the year for our little ones. Looking at this photo, from 1967, of my amazing little brother Clive ( the enfant terrible of the netsuke world) and me, I can only wonder at our innocence and our sense of expectation. Jo and I have just enjoyed watching Joel, who's all of 7 now, discover all the treasures that some anonymous bloke in a beard and red suit left under the tree. It's amazing how up to date Santa's elves are though, they make very nice PSP's these more wooden trains and building blocks! Today, our children are far more savvey about what's out there and naturally enough they expect to have access to all the really good stuff. Who can blame them?...and don't we all?

I hope you all have a wonderful, gentle day today. I hope you're with the people you care for the most and that being together is the most precious gift you all receive today. My christmas wish is that some small part of the specialness and togetherness that today brings will last until next time. That we can remember a little of what's really far as I'm concerned, this is all we get in this life and I want to savour each and every moment, I don't want to miss a second. We just don't know when the game's over, so for the love of all that precious in your life, now!, like it's the last thing you'll ever do.

Being alive, here and now, is the most amazing thing. What an incredible gift?...and you get to unwrap that one every morning when you wake up!

Jo, Joel, Kyle and I wish you all the most wonderful year ahead and hope we can all keep a bit of todays magic with us each day.


Sunday 14 December 2008

Where's the forum gone?

If you've been trying to access the followingtheironbrush forum and been getting an error message you'll be pleased to know that the intrepid admin team of Amati and Hallam are on the case. Of course we have no idea what we're doing but we remain optimistic that eventually we'll do something helpful and restore everything to what we like to call "normality"

Please bear with us, we'll get normal service resumed as soon as possible. In the meantime spend some quality time with your families... or maybe even read a book ;-)

Namaste, Ford

Friday 12 December 2008

My Orchid Tsuba

Here it is, I completed it shortly before I left for Japan at the end of October. I think the influence of Kano Natsuo is very clear but I think my treatment of the ground is becoming more my own intuitive process now. I've been quite unconventional in the placement of the leaves and flowers on the back but it didn't raise any comment or negative critique so I imagine it worked.

The flowers are inlaid in a pale gold alloy I made up and enabled me to develop something of an oxide/patina layer to help create a shaded and modulated tone. It was really important to me to get away from the shiny appearance of gold and to use it purely for the colour I wanted to show.
You can follow most of the creation of this piece on the iron brush forum, here's a link to that thread

Thursday 11 December 2008's been a while.

Apologies for the long silence. To be honest I've got so many thoughts that need to be sorted out in my mind regarding my work that I feel a flurry of short essays coming on, so I'll make it all up as soon as I can.

Anyway, Japan was always. The orchid tsuba was very well received...although it remains without a permanent home as yet....hope springs eternal ;-) Personally I was very happy with the way it turned out and I'll let you see the images in a day or two....
what a tease I am?

I've been working on another kagamibuta....I know, I said I was finished with that format due to an indifferent audience but things change. Seems someone with his own museum devoted to netsuke quite fancies my work and ideas. So I'll be making this one and another 8...making a neat dozen that will be on show in Kyoto.

This is what it looks like today. It's a raised steel bowl and inlayed and carved steel lid. the inset rim is gilt brass. I'll polish most of the gold off the outer surface and patinate the brass olive green. I've now got decide where and how many orchids to inlay. They'll be silver, gold and lilac. Bet you're wondering how on earth I'll manage lilac on silver....keep guessing but I'm not telling, you'll have to buy my horribly overpriced book to find out...if I ever get it published ;-)

Monday 13 October 2008

My Butterfly Gavotte

As promised....I know, I know... I rarely keep them but here you go. The link to a short slide show of images of the completed piece, including some tight macro shots. I think Gavin has done a brilliant job of capturing the colours and textures of the work so no doubt I'll have to pay him well with raw fish....he does love his sushi.

I write up a bit of an explanation of the techniques, materials and inspiration etc, tomorrow. It's late now and I deserve a good nights sleep. I've a tsuba, to inlay with tiny yellow orchids, that I need to be fresh and sharp for in the morning...



I'm ready for my close up, Mr Demille...

The copper vase is now completed, we, obviously I mean Gavin, just got through doing the photography earlier today, but the images need to be processed before I can reveal all. In the meantime, by way of a teaser here's a close up of the surface of the vase after I patinated it....I'm a happy bunny :-)

I should have the final images on-line later today....I did some carving of white mother of portray magnolia flowers, which are inlaid in the copper. The effect is quite pretty I think. The butterfly flying across from the other side seems to have worked least that's what people who have seen it say. Intrigued....? I'll try not to keep you waiting much longer ;-)

Thursday 2 October 2008

Chameleon brooch

Some of you may have seen the images I posted on the Iron Brush forum showing the initial stages of the making of this brooch. I actually completed it a little while ago but only got round to taking some photos this morning. So here it is....gilded and enamelled. My generous wife had me make it as a donation to be auctioned to raise money for our youngest son, Joel's school. He goes to a Montesorri school called Chameleons...hence the subject of the brooch ;-)

Here's a link to some more images of the making of the piece and a few other views. You can view some of the images in very close up too, the effect of the enamel and the gilding is quite fun, I think. It's just a pity it is all so tiny. It was very liberating doing this little piece and it reminded me of the joy I take in working metal in this way...I've got a few, slightly more ambitious, ideas in mind as a consequence.

The work on the copper vase has been going ahead very smoothly and the butterfly is all but done. I've been carving magnolia flowers in white mother of pearl to inlay on a shibuichi branch on the opposite side to the butterfly. I'll get some more images of that project on-line in a day or two...I wouldn't want to spoil you ;-)
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Friday 5 September 2008

a bit of bling!

This is the underside of my little vase/pot/sculpture....I'm happy with the contrast of texture and the gilding. I made a stamp of my initial "F" and will probably use this on these sort of pieces in the future, I've got a series planned and I've already ordered the boxes!

I'll spend the week-end drawing Jasmine flowers and leaves and preparing some alloys to make the butterfly... I've got an interesting combination in mind. You'll have to come back next week for the next installment. I hope you've enjoyed the process so far.
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Thursday 4 September 2008

a little bit of colour...

Today I completed the new base and I'm much happier with the result. You can just get a glimpse of it along the bottom edge, when it's completed that part will be a marbled gold and will hopefully provide a delicate "underlineing" or framing of the arrangement above.

The opening at the top has a green gold ( aokin ) lining that I will work further and will actually be the start of the composition. I was very happy with the texture I managed to create so I did a quick patination to get some idea of the effect of solid colour on the form and overall feel of the piece. So far so my opinion ;-) oh,'s about 9.5cm across, a little less than 4 inches. If you double click on the image you can see it in huge size.
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Wednesday 3 September 2008

...a bit more.

I refined the top today and made the base. I reckon the bottom looks rubbish so I'm busy doing another one that is far more me, the view from the front, of the base at this stage, looks rediculous. When I get the new shape right I'll let you see both. I'm very pleased with the top though, especially the texure. It's going to sing when it is deep red. I'm thinking of making the base gold and a discreet liner to the opening at the top in gold too....yummy!
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...and now for something completely different.

I've put my dragonfly away for the moment, I'll get it out in a few days time and write up my thoughts about it and a short description of the process that lead me to this result.

I am brimming with new ideas now, all clamouring in my mind for attention. So to help me re-focus on this next project I started pushing metal around yesterday. I just took these images this morning, it's a lovely clear blue sky and the light in the studio is wonderful. It's still very icy outside and the studio is a bit cold but I'll warm up quickly as I get back to hammering and annealing the metal. I'll try and keep you abreast with my progress...;-)

This time I'm aiming at a subtle, natural sort of stone texture on copper. You may be able to see some of that finish in the images. The patina I will probably use at the end will be a deep red gloss. I'm toying with butterflies now, an entirely different different feel to dragonflies...softer, fluttery and fun. A butterfly gavotte.

Monday 1 September 2008

...the end!

well, it's finally come. I've completed my dragonfly fugue at last. I'll write something about the title when I get my breath back....for now here's a link to a short slide show of images that I hope will reveal what I've been trying to express.

A huge "thank you!" to my mate, Gavin. Brilliant could do this for a living, Gav ;-)

.....and just one, obligatory, shot to end on my blog to end off this personal metal odyssey. p.s. please click on the image to enlarge it....after all, " I'm worth it!" they say in the cosmetic ad's.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

...a little bit more

This is the underside after patination and with the silver "water" base in place. I finished the silver with a very fine "ishi-arashi" texture because the highly polished finish just looked cheap and harsh. It felt too "noisy" for the feeling I've been pushing towards.

You can see the cut-outs for the wings ( they are not yet in place in this shot ), behind the leaves. When in place they add yet another little surprise, glowing in the dark as they do. Because I thinned the mother of pearl quite a lot to allow light to shine through from behind, it also means that the veins are visible when seen from behind. The shadows cast by the leaves also play across the back of the wings when seen from the front, giving the impression that the dragonfly is flying in their shadow. It's all turned out to be quite kinetic!

Monday 25 August 2008

A bit of piercing work

It's been a while since I provided any idea of what I was up to with my pet rock project so here's a peek. The underside of the rock was to be left open to allow light to shine through the mother of pearl wings when the piece was picked up. I experimented with a couple of options and finally settled on this "woven" effect being created by overlapping leaves. I need to be sure that the whole space was reasonably evenly covered but at the same time to suggest a random and natural arrangement...I think it worked out OK.

The material is a variety of brass which allowed me to develop a very pleasing and warm ochre colour. The chiselled texture on the leaves, a combination of kata-kiri and maru-bori ( gouge work ) allowed me to actually use two different tones of colour, this really added to the painterly effect I was after. The other thing that I did to heighten that feel was to model the flowers by only very roughly working them with a simple rounded punch. They were then gilded.

The first image shows my jewellers bench and the 3 different piercing saws I use. The biggest one is necessary for those cuts that simply can't be reached on larger than usual pieces, like some of the work on this back plate. The middle one is my standard saw and one I've been using for nearly 30's my old faithful and feels like part of my hand. They just don't make them like this any more. The smallest one there is actually an antique German one. A lovely birthday present from my mate in Berlin, Karl Wunderlich. It's nearly 200 years old but it very precise and handles very well. It's especially good for very delicate work.

If you have a fast internet connection and you'd like to see these images in higher resolution, and much bigger, you can simply click on them.
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Tuesday 22 July 2008

It's been a little while...

Despite the "no show" here on my blog, I've not been entirely idle. I've been plodding away on a number of related projects and with a bit of luck and a tail wind I hope to finish the year with a bit of a flourish.

This is a shot of the dragonfly I took a little while ago, do you like the "arty" soft focus around the edges? I'm working on the underside and base of the piece now...and will probably "unveil" the finished piece in a couple of weeks...the iron patina is developing slowly, like a fine wine ;-)

Just so you know, the body of the dragonfly is not really in it's fished state in the image nor are the wings really. I've got a few more tricks to apply.

...and on a completely different note, pun intended, my lovely wife bought a CD yesterday that I've been playing to death. Missy Higgins; On a Clear Night. I absolutely love her might too. Here's a link to her beautiful song "Where I stood"

Namaste, Ford

Friday 27 June 2008

some more quotes by Odilon Redon

Just for Doug, here are a few more quotes, from Monsieur Redon, that I particularly like.

"It is precisely from the regret left by the imperfect work that the next one can be born."
I think we all feel this one to be very true.

"What distinguishes the artist from the dilettante? Only the pain the artist feels. The dilettante looks only for pleasure in art."
This is, I think, the reason it is so difficult, perhaps even impossible, for these two to communicate.

"The artist yields often to the stimuli of materials that will transmit his spirit." I really adore this sentiment.

and this one, I'm particularly drawn it's very suggestiveness.

"My drawings inspire and are not to be defined. They determine nothing. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous world of the undetermined. They are a kind of metaphor."

Wednesday 25 June 2008


I could kick myself...I just stumbled on this site.

I had this idea some time ago, when a young chap was amazing us all with fantastically complicated origami creatures. I thought no-one would take me they do anyway ;-) ( I really do need smilies on this blog...I ought to look into that )

Anyway, it's hilarious and I fully expect this chap to become a celebrity just like that American artist who produces hand drawn money, J. S. G. Boggs

Mr Boggs makes a very important comment about the value of money and I think this "genius" makes a similar point about art. ;-)


Friday 20 June 2008

Odilon Redon

This is a painting by the French artist Odilon Redon. 1840 ~ 1916. It's titled " Silence"
He seems to have been quite a productive sort of man and appears to generally have been content to stick to his own artistic concerns with almost no reference to developments in the greater art world.

I'm feeling a bit lazy this morning so rather than try and sum his work up here's an excerpt from "Symbolism" , by Michael Gibson.

"Standing outside trends and movements, Odilon Redon, a native of Bordeaux, produced a rich and enigmatic corpus: 'Like music', he declared, 'my drawings transport us to the ambiguous world of the indeterminate.' In contrast with Goya's monsters and Kubin's nightmare visions, his work is imbued with a melancholy passivity. While origins of this disposition must be sought in the artist's experience, the overall effect is entirely consistent with the moods of Symbolism ... : nocturnal, autumnal, and lunar rather than solar. During the early part of Redon's career, the nocturnal did indeed predominate. Only later did he admit the light of day. His mature production began around 1875 when Redon entered the shadowy world of charcoal and the lithographer's stone. This period yielded sequences such as [Guardian Spirit of the Waters (1878)] and [Cactus Man (1881)]. Redon made it clear that they had been inspired by his dreams, and they inspire in the spectator a conviction like that of dreams.

"It was only in the 1890s that he began to use the luminous, musical tones of pastel and oils. These became the dominant media of the last fifteen years of his life. Redon's art was always commanded by his dreams, but the thematic content of his work over his last twenty years is more densely mythical, brimming with new-found hope and light which rose quite unexpectedly out of the depths of the artist's personality. This is particularly apparent in the various canvasses depicting the chariot of Apollo, the god of the sun."

I've also been drawn to many of the ideas he writes about in his diaries to himself. This one is a current favourite.

"Materials have their own secrets to reveal, they have their own genius. It is through them that the oracle speaks"

Friday 13 June 2008

take a moment and listen...

...I dig it, dig it , dig it...


and Pascal Obispo...this track from the first album I bought of his...; here you go

and one of my favourite contemporary Chanson singers Patricia Kaas

...but as a final standard setter; Marie Carmen singing the same song...

and she does it so sexily...

while we're listening to all this French music I might as well slip in one of my favourite bits of opera. It's, uncharacteristically, not in Italian, or German!....but in French. This is the famous male duet from Bizet's "the Pearl Fishers"

It expresses the devotion of 2 friends, a younger man and his older mentor, to one another. In the song we learn that they are both in love with the same woman but to preserve their friendship they both pledge to abandon the lady. Needless to say, the younger man cannot resist the urging of his heart and the story evolves toward it's inevitable end. Here, however, ideals and emotion are pure.

The actual story of this particular recording, the gold standard in terms of this song, is very interesting too.

I suppose I ought to get back up to date now, so here's something that makes me feel very proud to be English, the way this man was seen purely for what he expressed....not what he looked like. Absolutely brilliant; here's the link.

Enjoy, and Namaste.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

Lots more words ...and some more pictures too.

I've just posted an essay, which provides a bit of an overview of Traditional Japanese metalwork, over on the Iron Brush forum. Here's the link.

...and in case you missed it, I also posted a gallery of most of the tsuba I've made over the last 20 or more years. Here's the link to that collection.

Namaste, Ford

Friday 6 June 2008

Can tsuba really be art?

I’m posting this response to a little discussion that’s been rumbling on, on the iron brush forum. I’m putting it here because I don’t want my opinion to be seen as “official policy” there just because I started the thing. I must admit I really do find that sort of discussion, about functionality , to be very much out of place on that forum. The Bladesmiths forum, Sword Forum International and E-budo are all far more appropriate places for such ponderings.

The only aspect of functionality that is relevant to art is what it brings to our interaction with it. I say interaction because it is a process of exploration. Of the work, and of oneself. This is where the fun lies, this process of being changed by what we study, and then, again, seeing what we're learned in a different light...and so the cycle repeats.

Some art is capable of keeping this process of re-evaluation going far longer than others...the greatest art...perhaps, never stops, as long as we don't.

To return to my babies, tsuba, there are in fact a number of practical considerations I am always working from. The plates ability to withstand a sword strike is absolutely not one of them however. I seriously doubt it ever was.

A very common guard at the time when warfare was rife in old Japan, was merely lacquered leather. Hardly bullet proof! ;)
There was also a fashion for guard-less swords. When we do see guards on older, utilitarian, swords they are often very thin, 3 or even 2mm thick. Clearly not too much concern with anything more than the bare minimum.

For me, the "practical" considerations have to do with the feel of the guard against my hand when on the hilt. I don't want a cheese grater rubbing away at my flesh The size and shape is very relevant too, I don't want it impeding my grasp of the hilt when I draw the sword.

The most easily recognised, visual, consideration is the decoration and it's placement in relation to how the sword is worn. This "display" is probably the most significant aspect of a tsuba's function. It signals the taste and sensibilities of the wearer, whether hardened warrior, officious bureaucrat or ostentatious merchant. Once these aspects are fully understood, and become unconscious, the real work of trying to sculpt your art begins.

This sort of work is not quite sculpture and not yet painting, we have far too many restrictions in that regard, but, we can have the best of both worlds...if we learn the medium well. This is what I'm engaged in, it's what excites me.

I won't argue that there are not a lot of "show off", and" parade" type tsuba in existence but just because there are millions of "chocolate box " style painters out there too doesn't mean that a painter can't still achieve something meaningful using that particular art form. So too, there have been many, truly great, artists in the miniature art form of tsuba. The language they developed is still not well known, beyond a few, very refined, connoisseurs.

As for defending myself, what is there to defend? Despite appearances, I am not trying single-handedly to preserve a tradition , I merely offer my experience and what little I do know, that works. I have tried to present my rationale in these matters too. There is not much more I can do. Traditions only survive, in a vital way, if the ground out of which they have grown is well assimilated. Only then can we say that we are working as part of a particular continuum. Anything less is just clip-art.

And by "we", I mean anyone who actually wants to try and make that journey into Classical Japanese metalwork. Not every one is that bothered to, they may have equally valid artistic concerns that lead them elsewhere.

I must confess to a little discomfort though, at the superficial borrowing of the obvious, and most easily applied, aspects of the tradition I value so much. It is a very sophisticated language that the master metal artists of the past have left us, a language I am trying to interpret , as accurately as I am able, so that I can gain something more than merely fashionable gimmicks.

To paraphrase the 18th century Chinese writer, Shen Tsung-ch'ien ( The Art of Painting, 1781 )
Do not slavishly copy the masters of the past, seek instead that which they sought.

Namaste, and keep tappin’

What matters...

I just watched this on youtube, it started my day off pretty well....perhaps it'll do the same for you.

Here's the link

p.s, it's not naughty at all ;-)

oops!...wrong link...that one is actually a bit naughty ( in a funny way )....but I know you'll definitely want to watch it now ;-) so I'll leave it there.

The one I meant to link to is this
It's possibly more wholesome. This was the winning entry to a competition organised by the Vancouver Film School. You can see the other 2 winners by following the links from their home page.


Wednesday 4 June 2008

Some light entertainment...

Well I suppose if you're still here with me you deserve a treat. Here's a sequence of images, in reverse order because I'm too tired to redo them now, of some trials I made to work out the effect I was after with my dragonfly wings. The image above shows the final version but this is not one of the wings I'll actually be setting in the stone. Those ones are under way now and will hopefully be a little more delicate, and tidy. Practice, practice, practice. son, Kyle, wants to apologise for his bitten nail, those are his fingers,he's quite embarrassed about it but his are so much more youthful looking than mine ;-)

The effect you see here is what I was after and this will be what the wings on the finished piece will look like. It's perched on a section of the iron patina I'm toying with at this point also, not sure yet......and don't bother asking me how I went about this, because I'm not telling...go figure out your own madness.

This is a brooch I made to see if my idea of cutting metal away behind the mother of pearl wing would have any effect. I think it does, it really glows when light gets behind the piece. With the gods on my side the effect on the stone will be what I imagine. I've even been thinking about having some fibre optics in the back of the stone to give the wings an " inner glow".

The silver wing is rendered in nunome-zogan and was just another little test of an idea. I think it has interesting possibilities. The body of the brooch is iron, of course.

This was the first version, and is awful, I think. I engraved the pattern into the mother of pearl, using a hand pushed scorper, then filled the lines with black urushi and polished level. It seemed a logical approach to trying to capture the feeling of the wings.

The end result looks far too hard, and harsh. The actual engraving was a shambles too, which didn't help. The effect of the lacquer was to make it look like a cheap printed design. I had to also figure out an effective way of transferring the pattern onto the shell. The solution was actually obvious, and was used a great deal in the Renaissance. didn't expect me to give that secret away too... did you? ;-)

p.s, you did get it...didn't you? My clever play on the use of the word light in the title...

Tuesday 27 May 2008

a little clarification...

I wrote the following post late last night and it wasn't really a "well thought out" statement at all. This morning, re-reading it, I've made a few minor word changes but it remains a reasonable expression of part of what I feel.

I should say at this point, that the opinion I hold here relates only to the tradition I personally have experience of. The other thing to keep in mind that this notion of "tradition" is not at all a static thing. A tradition is a living thing, it continues to evolve, and be enlivened by those who work from within it's influence. One of the points I try to make in the post that follows is the need to first absorb that influence and to understand the guiding spirit of the tradition, only then is it really possible to do your work and for it to be seen as adding to that continuum.

It might seem that this, rather strict, approach denies the student the opportunity to express their own creative urges and may even crush their emerging sense of originality. I think this is an illusion, if that urge is so easily snuffed out then I wonder how fiercely it burned in the first place. I believe the modern tendency to treat the student like some delicate and precious "new born" is far too self indulgent. It invariably results in work that is utterly self-referential and shallow. How could it possibly be any other way?

The masters of the past, who have been my inspiration and guide, didn't treat this work as fun, it wasn't a hobby. Of course, people today, particularly in the wealthier parts of the world, are able to dabble with whatever they like, and to their hearts content. And that is not a bad thing, nor would I deny them their fun. But let's not deceive ourselves, a 1000 years of tradition has a lot more value than merely being the source of some part-time amusement. That incredibly rich vein is available to anyone who is prepared to truly become part of it, and that takes a lifetimes commitment.

Monday 26 May 2008

some thoughts on being a good student

It has been a while now...since I last had the urge to get all philosophical late at night. In fact it's been a while since I last had anything really heartfelt to say at all.

I'm learning that this type of intimate journal entry, sort of dialogue, and what would be the point if it weren't intimate and honest, is not quite as easy in the, apparently, impersonal atmosphere of the internet compared to my preferred format...having a decent meal followed by a good drink together.

In those convivial circumstances I have no difficulties opening my heart and revealing all my frailties, I can't imagine I have any...but I do... I'm all too human, or expounding on my "grand theories". The written word is so final, there is almost no going back, it seems so absolute. I'm a particularly opinionated sort of chap, in the most reasonable sort of person, honestly! And there's the rub. We're not getting getting it together, "in person". I actually really enjoy provoking an original response from those I'm engaging much as I would love the same to be stimulated in me.

Naturally enough, this isn't always the preferred form of engagement on the net. If the use of the word "engagement" sounds a bit combative I make no apologies...nothing will get hurt other than ego' what's the big deal. Why do we take ourselves so seriously? and surely, we can separate who we are, from a bunch of vaguely constructed opinions.

I happen to be quite good at defending my opinions, but I suspect that this says more about my abilities to "box clever", than the truth of them. Similarly, I find that many opinions I encounter, and challenge, are in fact very poorly conceived. Never-the-less, we seem to be prepared to go to war for our opinions!

Recently, I was prompted by a rather unfortunately expressed thought, on my forum, to respond in a deliberately provocative way. I hope the author of that post will forgive me drawing attention to this brief exchange but he in fact did me a great service.

I don't need to elaborate on the stimulus but my response was summed up thus; "the master serves the tradition...most useful students are merely a means to that end".

I hadn't previously thought of it in this way before, my response was an almost instinctual reaction. I won't go into a messy analysis of how it is I feel this way, or even if I am "right" in this assumption. No-one told me this, as some universal, traditional where did it come from? The answer to that is obviously bound up with who I am...and that will take a long night to begin to reveal.

What immediately caught my attention with this statement, and it is sort of cheeky to quote oneself, was the ambiguity contained therein.

At first glance it seems incredibly arrogant and unfeeling. Particularly in a world where the student, who is inevitably paying for their instruction, feels that the instructor owes them something. That's the first mistake the teacher makes...he ( or she ) hands control to the student. How absurd is that? I've never charged anyone for anything I've been able to impart, perhaps I'm a fool to give away so freely what has cost me so much. Perhaps this is also why I often get the impression what I have to offer is taken so lightly. That aside, as I've not taken the kings coin...I need not bow to his whims. ( here I'm rather obscurely referring to the consumer idea that the customer is king ).

In my view, if someone seeks your teaching then they must empty their cup and be prepared to learn. There is no discussion involved. This is not a two way sort of deal...the opinions and feelings of the student are irrelevant. In time...on the odd occasion, the student may actually, eventually have something original or significant to say. But, it is a profound arrogance and display of self indulgence, for a student to think, at the very start of their journey, that they may have anything of real consequence to express, in the face of hundreds of years of the accumulated understanding of previous masters.

It's very fashionable to pay lip service to traditions of late, and we hear people humbly expressing their respect for past masters and their respective traditions. I really don't see much more that words though, it's as though it's all about association, to make us feel a sense of importance...or significance, and that demeans the past.

We really aren't that important, if we amount to anything at all in our all to brief lives it is due to so much of what has gone before us. The contemporary tendency to place the highest value, in fact the only thing worth anything, on the individual, loses sight of our tiny place in the continuity of humankind.

I am well aware that my, rather idiosyncratic, view is something of an anachronism in this age, but the way I see it, that's all the more reason to stand by it.

So, return to my provocative quote ( of myself...what a sneaky trick? ).

There is always a master somewhere up'll recognise them when you aren't able to understand where he ( or she ) is coming from. That is as it should be, if you understood it all then you'd be at least as masterful. There are people out there who are pursuing excellence, they are rarely the most lovely people you'll meet, but if you recognise some small spark that draws you to them, then you must approach like a child in the face of a new and wondrous world...and maybe, just maybe...if you're very lucky, you'll get invited on a unique journey. A journey not without cost...or peril. One where you will learn all about the things you set out to explore, but most'll learn about yourself... and it's a bloody good ride.

While on that ride you'll discover at some point that in fact the person you thought was the master is also a student, and that your objectives are not so far apart as you may have once imagined. The true reverence is when this is understood and you understand your part in the continuum.

Good night and Namaste

Saturday 17 May 2008

The Making of the Kagamibuta, "Basho". a photo-essay

I’ve just uploaded 55 images, into an online photo album, that illustrate the making of a Kagamibuta I created last year.

The piece is titled “ Basho” after the famous Japanese haiku poet, Matsuo Basho. He took the name “Basho”, which means banana tree, in honour of a tree in his little garden which he loved. I conceived my little tribute to the poet as a “Metal Haiku”. I hoped to evoke the same sort of feeling a good haiku poem does and to craft my Kagamibuta with the same sort of delicate and careful arrangement . In fact I coined the term “Metal Haiku” as the name of a group of 12 Kagamibuta I made in 2006/7.

I’ve not offered any explanations as to the processes and techniques because I think the images are actually self explanatory. In traditional training situations there is little opportunity for the student to ask questions of his teacher so he must learn very quickly to “steal with his eyes”. By looking carefully at the images you will be able to find everything you may need to know to understand what I did.

In fact, the extreme enlargement of these images would of course not be seen my any pupil in the past…you’re seeing this as it’s really never been seen before.

I’ve included a number of different images of the completed piece because it is so difficult to capture the real feel of the object in one shot. You’ll also notice the constantly changing lighting of the images, this is to a certain extent unavoidable in a workshop situation as it would be far too time consuming to replicate the exact light each time I took an image.

The basic material of the disc is mild steel and the inlaid leaves are in 2 different alloys of a brass/bronze type called sentoku. You’ll see the selection of colours and metal I was considering using and the larger disc of metal which is actually the base of a badly damaged Meiji period vase I restored years ago. My attempt at recycling ;-). The bowl is boxwood and has been stained with potassium permanganate and tea.

Here’s the link; The Making of the Kagamibuta, "Basho".

You can view the individual images or select the slide show option. If you select a single image you’ll also be able to view a very close up shot by using the zoom feature located at the top, right ,of the area around the picture.

I hope you find this photo-essay interesting.

On-line photo album

I've just been playing with a handy photograph album bit of software called "Picasa". It's offered as a free download from Google. Here's a link to some images of Japan.

I'll eventually get all of my images up there but it will take a while....this software does make the job so much easier, and quicker though.

I've also been suffering from a severe case of internetlessness for the last 2 weeks as my server ( ironically named 24-7online! ) has been playing silly buggers switching over to an apparently faster service. I'm not holding my breath...but it would be handy to be able to upload stuff without having to wait ages...and keep losing my connection.

As soon as normal service resumes I'll get some more stuff on the blog.

Namaste, Ford

Monday 5 May 2008

Ford Hallam, a (not so) brief biography

What follows is a transcript of a talk I delivered last year while artist in residence at Hishio; a small cultural exhibition centre in the beautiful town of Katsuyama, Okayama, Japan.

I was born in June, 1963, in Munster, West Germany. My father, Brian, was a soldier in the British Army on the Rhine and my mother, Erica, had been a dancer, both ballet and contemporary, up until my birth. The first few years of my life were spent, like so many children of military personnel, shuttling between various postings in Europe. When I was four years old, my family (I’d been joined by another brother by then, Clive) immigrated to South Africa.

As a boy growing up in the Cape Province of South Africa I was always making small things, or trying to improve the appearance of the occasional toy that had been bought. Later, like many teenage boys, I graduated to building plastic model kits, something I evidently had a flair for. In my final year of high school, with the expectation that I would go to university to study law, my interest was piqued by a poster advertising evening classes in jewellery making. As it transpired, the gentleman offering these classes had just returned from London where he himself had trained. This new world of creating in metal seemed to me so exciting and multifaceted that I abandoned my father’s plans for me to become a lawyer and threw myself into my new interest.

After graduating high school I worked part-time as a barman and completed a foundation year at The Ruth Prowse art school in Cape Town. Although I was practising jewellery making and design there, I felt that the technical training I so desperately craved to be very much lacking. To remedy this I began a classical apprenticeship under a German master goldsmith, Uwe Kotter, the following year. Five years later I passed my trade test to become a fully qualified goldsmith.

It was in fact while at art school that my attention was drawn to the techniques used in the decoration of Japanese sword fittings. I still have the few pages of photocopied diagrams and instructions which one of my art tutors had copied for me from an old book on jewellery making. As it turned out these descriptions of Japanese metalwork technique were horribly inadequate, and inaccurate. Never the less, the promise of these exciting, and ancient, techniques completely captivated my imagination and so started my love affair with this unique tradition.

While still an apprentice I had made a start at trying to create tsuba but soon realized that I would need to travel to Japan to find the real craft. At that time however, it was virtually impossible to get to Japan directly from South Africa, not to mention a complete lack of any prospective introductions without which traditional Japan often remains a closed society. I imagined that London would perhaps offer some inroads. In March 1988 my youngest brother Guy and I arrived there with rucksacks on our backs and my hand tools which I carried in a small satchel.

Our second day in London was spent walking and exploring. As luck would have it we passed an interesting looking shop near the British Museum, called Nihon Token ( Japanese Sword ). Naturally, we went inside and met for the first time Mr Michael Dean. Mike recognized my interest and enthusiasm and was generous enough to invite me back. Over the next few years I made repeated visits to Mike’s shop where we spent many interesting hours studying fine metalwork and it was from Mike that I first began to learn about the more subtle aspects of Japanese craftsmanship and design.

Around this time I started to consider the possibility that I might be able to devote myself to this tradition on a full time basis. So it was in 1989 that I moved to a small farmhouse between Penzance and St Ives in Cornwall. Here, in the solitude of the countryside, I made my first chisels and began to teach myself how to carve steel. I was further encouraged in my efforts by Mr Graham Gemmell, a specialist dealer in tsuba and other fittings. I think we’d been living in Cornwall for about a year when Graham suggested that I apply for a Winston Churchill travelling fellowship.

These fellowships are quite remarkable in that they offer individuals the opportunity to travel to anywhere in the world and to study any number of subjects. The only real criteria being that the applicant have the enthusiasm and determination to succeed in their chosen project. Apparently the committee that interviewed me thought that my proposed study visit to Japan would be worth supporting. I was awarded a two month project.

The spring of that year, 1993, was quite an emotional one for me.
My first son, Kyle, was born in January, ( 7 years, to the day, after my father had died ) and there I was, suddenly a father myself, being offered the chance to pursue my dream…but having to face the prospect of being apart from my baby boy.

Once I realized that I would actually be going to Japan I began to wonder how I might get some much needed introductions to people who might be able to teach me the techniques I was so hungry for.

When I discussed this project with Mike, on the telephone, he immediately suggested that his wife, Hiroko, might know someone in Japan who might be able to help me. I think Hiroko took a small chance, but she agreed to ask her long-time friend Izumi Koshiro Sensei if he knew of anyone who might be able to help me in my attempt to study this tradition in Japan.

Izumi Sensei’s response was absolutely characteristic of the man who has so generously given me a life as an artist craftsman that I never imagined possible. He offered to teach me himself and wherever he felt any of his colleagues might be able to add to my instruction, he told me he would arrange for me to study with them in their own studios. All he asked of me was that I learn as much Japanese as possible before I came as he didn’t speak much English. The next three months, prior to my trip, were spent trying to get to grips with Japanese grammar and making lists of words relating to metalwork and art.

And so, it was autumn 1993 when I finally arrived in Japan for the first time. My visit flew by and by the end of my stay both Izumi Sensei and I had come to the decision that I would simply have to return if I was to make any significant inroads into the world of this ancient tradition.

With the support of Kashima Ikokku, a national living treasure, Izumi Sensei applied for, and received, a grant from the Japanese, Agency for Cultural Affairs on my behalf. I went back to Cornwall for Christmas and six weeks later I was back in Tokyo ready to learn more.

During my second stay in Japan I began to get a sense of the way Japanese craftsmen approach their work. This, almost gentle and intuitive application of technique and respect of material seemed to me to be very familiar, I felt as though I was coming home.

On every occasion that I stayed in Japan I was, and continue to be, very moved by the kindness and consideration that has been afforded me. Particularly, the openness and generosity that so many artists and craftspeople have shown me. My desire to learn and experience as much as possible has always been met with a remarkable degree of support.

Towards the end of this second trip it was decided that I wasn’t quite yet immersed enough in the Japanese metalworking tradition so I was offered a further two month stay later that year.

After these three very intense and condensed study periods, I moved from Cornwall to Chippenham, a town in Wiltshire. Here, I was only about an hour by car, or train, from London. Shortly after my return from Tokyo I had been contacted by a major specialist in Japanese antique metalwork, Mr Malcolm Fairley, who was keen to utilize authentic and traditional processes in the restoration of Meiji period metalwork.
Not being too sure as to how I was actually going to make a living at this point, I rather naively agreed to try and apply my newfound skills and techniques.

My first year as a restorer was terrible frustrating and painful. While I had learnt the basics of making new items, the procedures for restoring damaged, older pieces hadn’t actually been developed at all. Through a process of repeated failures and the occasional breakthrough which satisfied my rather demanding and particular client, I slowly gained a thorough understanding of the work of this remarkable tradition.

This experience was probably unique. No-one with my particular training had previously had the opportunity to handle so many varied items like these, and actually get to work on them. I was able to make the most profitable use of it all, as a consequence of my studies with Izumi Sensei.

One particularly interesting aspect of the work of the Meiji period masters is the way in which they attempted to make the transition from the kinds of product they had previously made for the home market and Japanese connoisseurs, to producing art objects intended primarily for a foreign market. The transition to a vital contemporary expression is, I believe, ongoing.

For about the next ten years or more, I worked almost exclusively on these truly remarkable works of art.

Two years ago my wife, Jo, and I were invited by Miss Barbara Warren, to Boston, to attend the opening of the new Japanese metalwork galleries in the Boston Museum of Fine Art. After we had walked into the main galleries with the tsuba and sword fittings directly ahead of us, we turned to look at the display behind us. We both had to suppress our amusement because a significant number of the 20 major works of metal art, which had been loaned to the museum for the exhibition, had at some time, to quote my wife “been on our kitchen table!”

Although the demands on my time made by my clients during this period never eased up, I was still able to explore my own aesthetic response to these processes and have slowly been working towards finding my own expression.

I had long promised myself that eventually I would reduce the amount of restoration work and devote more time to my own pieces, but there never seemed to be a quiet time for me in the antique trade. Finally, my wife and I decided that we simply had to escape… by leaving the country.

At the beginning of 2006 we moved to Cape Town and despite many obstacles and difficulties, we are now reasonably settled and I feel as though I am at long last able to be true to myself and hope to be able to produce some work that will justify the faith so many people have placed in me, particularly my teacher, Izumi Sensei.

My journey to Japan and into her long tradition of metalworking began sometime in 1981 in the Cultural History Museum in Cape Town, South Africa. Looking back on my first exposure to Japanese metalwork arts, it seems to me that initially, there were two distinct aspects that attracted me. The more obvious was the remarkable level of technical precision and skill that many examples displayed as well as the wondrous array of unimagined decorative processes.
The other aspect of these artworks that continues to affect me profoundly, was the understated elegance of design, and in some cases, a very subtle aesthetic expression, which for me verged on the spiritual.

I can well remember the sadness I felt when I learned that most authorities in the West considered these, seemingly magical, techniques lost to modern workers and were only to be seen in museums and similar antique collections. As a young man though, the exciting possibility of rediscovering these "lost treasures" was too great a challenge to resist. More than 25 years later I'm very pleased that I decide to "go and look for myself".

I have tried to enter into the spirit of my adopted tradition with a feeling of genuine reverence and I believe that this attitude has served me well.

The Japanese metalworking tradition, which has been extant for more than a thousand years, is potentially the richest source of technique and inspiration available to contemporary art-workers in metal.

It is my contention that only when a craftsperson is sufficiently grounded in the technology of their medium, will they do full justice both to themselves and their material, in relation to their creative endeavours.

One particular aspect of this tradition which I feel is a valuable example; is the relentless pursuit of technical perfection. It is probably exactly this aspect of Japanese metalwork (and most other tradition based crafts of Japan) which represents the greatest challenge, or barrier, to Western craftspeople, schooled in the belief that skill, is at best, merely a means to an end.

While it would be perhaps na├»ve to rely solely on technique, I believe that the effort required in the process of acquiring these skills, results in a deeper and more sophisticated appreciation, of both the medium and one’s own creative response.

I believe that for Classical Japanese metalwork to survive into the 21st century, it needs to continue to evolve, just as it has done for hundreds of years. To remain true to the guiding spirit of this craft however, we must be firmly rooted in the past while extending our vision and efforts towards a more contemporary and vital expression of the arts of metal.

Katsuyama, Japan / Cape Town, South Africa
December 2006

Tuesday 29 April 2008

It's got eyes now...

To day I started work on carving the body. Because of the way I've chosen to set the wings so low on the iron the point at which they join the body must naturally also be quite low. I've fiddled in photoshop to simulate what that area will look like when it's done because the open area there is a bit distracting right now and I wanted to present an idea of what I'm working towards.

Although the point of attachment for the wings is very low I've been able to leave the head, and more importantly the eyes, quite raised. The abdomen is also quite proud of the surface, almost completely 3D in effect.

The eyes are done in black lip, mother of pearl and seem to work rather well. I've given the body, which is shakudo, a bit of colour like it will be when completed. I intend to inlay a pattern along the body, in gold. The wings at this stage look a bit garish but there I will be engraving my "new and improved" vein pattern on them and filling the very fine lines with black lacquer. This will hopefully bind the black and gold body and the black and gold wings together as a whole. The wings are now close to their final thickness and are showing some lovely flashes of green and pink.

Monday 28 April 2008

Murakami Jochiku and artistic innovation

I thought it was about time I introduced some of the inspiration I have drawn on in my studies of the classical tsuba making tradition. In this case the particular use of mother of pearl as an inlay material in metal.

The artist generally credited with this innovation is Murakami Jochiku, who died at the close of the 18th century. Unfortunately we don't know when, or where he was born nor much about his metalworking lineage. We do know that he had about 10 pupils, 2 of them being his daughters, Jotetsu and Josui. We can also recognise a genuinely original artist of this tradition.

The tsuba illustrated above ( borrowed from the Museum of Fine Art, Boston's on-line gallery ) displays his 2 most recognisable traits. The mother of pearl inlays are used to very effectively depict the eyes of the insect as well as the delicacy of the narcissus bud. The background texture is also very much associated with his work. This fine, crepe-like, texture is called chirimen in Japanese and refers to the silk fabric that this emulates. It creates a very different visual feeling from the more formal, perhaps even rigid, nanako ground.

The design itself is worth commenting on too. If you consider when this was made, sometime in the second half of the 18th century, I think it remarkable how much it seems to prefigure the European Japonisme expression of the late 19th century's Art Nouveau movement. The reality, of course, was that Japanese artists were engaged in a continual reinvention of design modes and this, bolder and more elegantly flowing style, fits perfectly within that development.

When European designers and artists first encountered Japanese art they had no way of placing the individual items they saw in any sort of historical or aesthetic context. It was all just so exotic, and novel, that it was impossible to comprehend the Japanese artistic heritage in it's entirety. The unfortunate consequence of this is that it is still regarded, by far too many artists and designers today, as a sort of exotic design source catalogue with no real appreciation of the logic of it's own aesthetic developments.

In my opinion, the only way to begin to develop a genuine appreciation of the art of this tradition is to go beyond the unusual materials, techniques and subjects, and to try to feel the aesthetic urge that is being explored and expressed. To try to comprehend how these inventive artists achieved their aims and what those actually were.

Saturday 26 April 2008

still fiddling with wings...

I think it was Natasha Popova, mammoth carver extraordinaire, who posted this amazing image on "the carving path", a year or more ago. I was so taken with it I saved a copy...and now it seems as though my world revolves around these little creatures.

I've just about finished the final fitting of the mother of pearl wings into the surface of the iron stone, without damaging the natural texture of the iron. At this point I need to decide whether I keep the surface of the wings relatively flat, and allow them to seem more independent of the stone as real wings would... or do I shape them to follow the curve of the stone and create a entirely different, soft feeling, that is at odds with reality but in keeping with the overall feeling I'm trying to evoke with this work.

The thing is, if I keep the wings flat, and straight, then they will appear to be quite thick at the ends and the sense of delicacy will be lost. If, on the other hand, I follow the curve of the stone I can thin them until they are just barely proud of the iron. This way they will be delicate enough but will perhaps appear limp.

This option, the floppy solution, is often seen in Japanese work of the past and although I'm not in this instance trying to follow that example I think I'm leaning toward that option. The other big decider for me is the need for this piece to be very tactile...hmmm, well, I think I've just made my mind up as I've written this, thanks for your help... and for listening ;-)

I'll get back to it and post some more images tomorrow evening.

Thursday 17 April 2008

Distilling dragonfly wings.

I spent a few days this week drawing, and redrawing, countless times, the veins that make up the very characteristic patterns on dragonfly wings. What I was trying to do was create a slightly simplified pattern which still retained enough detail so as to appear natural. So by studying them in such close detail I wanted to understand the logic to their structure. At this point I reckon I could draw convincing wings from memory!

My problem was basically, "how do I engrave this crazy and complex arrangement" and still keep some sort of order without it becoming too contrived. I am rather happy with my "solution" but you'll have to wait until the whole project is done before you get to see the full effect. So will I for that matter...but there are a few hints in the images.

The tools I've used thus far...and a close up.

If you click on the top image you will see a really close up view.

Inlaying the abdomen

The abdomen has now been inlaid, in shakudo. The rest of the body, thorax and mouth part, will be done tomorrow.

Sunday 13 April 2008

an explanation.

The image above is just of some pure gold, in the various forms I use it.

I thought I'd better make some sort of effort to post something here,( and every one appreciates gold, or shiny things ;-) ) it has been a while now. To be honest I've got a few ideas rumbling round in my mind, things I'd like to express clearly in words, as much for myself as part of this ongoing communique. I don't seem to be able to summon the enthusiasm though, the well seems I await the rain, I apologise if you've been waiting impatiently, although I hardly expect that there has been any overwhelming sense of disappointment at my lack of diatribe...;-)

Work proceeds slowly on my dragonfly project, I'll post some updates this week,...and the forum stumbles forward.

If I'm honest, it's probably the forum that is leaving me feeling so unenthusiastic right now. I don't know what I expected from it, probably far too much, and too soon. I can't see how we can really make it work in the way I'd hoped, as a focal point for an emerging, revivalist ethos in relation to working on a small scale, and specifically ( though not exclusively ) with metal as the primary medium.

I'll keep thinking, feeling...trying, but there doesn't appear to be any easy solution or direction ...yet.

Monday 31 March 2008

My dragonfly on a far

The "rock" is 13cm long ( a bit longer than 5 inches ) and is made from a single sheet of 1mm thick mild steel. The lower images shows the underside and the hollow filled with pitch. I'll now secure it on my pitch bowl to make the next stages possible.

The image at the top shows the wings of the dragonfly in roughly the position I'm happiest with. The material is reasonably thick but the golden colour is only in the top 1.5mm. The tricky part now is to shape the wings underside to follow the contour of the iron. Then I'll inlay them. If It's possible I intend to cut most of the ground in the recess away so that the wings will effectively be like stained glass windows; or plique a jour enamel. The veins will be engraved directly into the MOP and filled with urushi. The eyes are black lip mother of pearl.

The original concept has evolved somewhat. I will be adding some grasses on and over the front, sloping edge of the stone ( in 2 alloys of brass with pale gold tips ), and the whole thing will rest in a turquoise patinated silver, uchidashi formed, rippling "water"

The larger rock I was forming is put aside for now. The basic shaping is completed and that piece will develop the theme and concepts of the smaller one even further. In a sense this is a series of stepping stones...I wonder how far I can take the concept.

Thursday 27 March 2008

Goat boy lives!

This is a rather special Meiji period carving in wood. I don't have much to say about it right now, perhaps I'm just feeling a little "goatish" myself, of late ;-). This is a handsome chap though and the artist has captured that slight snootiness that I admire in these fellows. The hair is beautifully rendered too, with so much gentleness...The artist, Ishikawa Komei, lived from 1851 until 1913 and was designated a Japanese Imperial Court Artist ( Teishitsu gigeiin ).

The carving is about 12 inches long and the wood is left with the "as carved" surface. I think the subtle effect of the almost invisible chisel cuts really adds a certain vitality to the form, it seems to me to bring the surface alive.

I've been a bit distracted from my blog for a few days now but I can feel a couple of late night rambles building up so who knows what might bubble out...I can hardly wait, it's always a surprise to me!