Saturday, 21 November 2009

One of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.

I don't watch a lot of often feel as though it could rot my brain :? One exception is the American series of "So you think you can dance" ...and of course I earn bonus points for watching it with Jo, my lovely wife. I have to put that bit in in case she ever reads these blog entries.

My appreciation of this programme may have to do with my mother. She was a classically trained ballet dancer. She danced with the Dutch Dance Academy in Rotterdam and was taught by Corrie Hartong.  Mom corresponded until the grand old Lady died in 1991. Moe also went to study contemporary dance in New York at the Julliard School of Performing Arts where she worked under such legendary names as Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham and José Limón.

This was all before I was born but growing up on the West Coast of South Africa my brothers and I were always surrounded by lots of young ladies in leotards as Mom always felt an overwhelming urge to teach.

Clive, Guy and I obviously survived this early surfeit of nubile female forms and no doubt befitted immensely from this early exposure. Certainly, not one of us was ever allowed the escape of being shy with girls.

I can't speak for my brothers but these early experiences, including annual film fests of the best in contemporary dance (courtesy of the American Embassies Cultural Services Department)has left me with an abiding love of dance.

This is somewhat ironic, especially to my mother and my wife, both of whom swear that I can't dance....but it's more a matter of not wanting to spread my talents too thin. I mean, how much can one mortal man do ;-) get to the point. Here's a link to a dance duet on youtube. This is a contemporary routine choreographed by Travis Wall, winner of one of the previous seasons. This is Jeanine & Jason. She, quite deservedly went on to win this years competition.

I just find this sort of thing, quite literally, divine.

It's been a while since I've had anything to write, that's not right! I've got loads I want to write about. The last 6 months have been a remarkable time. To be honest I'm still a bit wobbly after all the excitement. I'll start putting my thoughts in order in the next few days and get some more post on-line.

namaste all,


Thursday, 20 August 2009

The subject matter must serve the needs of the artist.

I remember years ago my brother, the famous netsuke carver, Clive Hallam, telling me that in terms of subject matter one should always chose those things that allowed you to explore and express what it was really captured your imagination.

I've come to see this as the crux of how I now approach my own work, because in reality, I think of almost everything I do in abstract terms. If I choose to render a dragonfly, for instance, I do so because the structure is so intriguing to me. The challenge of finding a way of giving some expression to my representation of these aspects that reflects the initial appeal is the way I delve ever deeper into my medium. With each new point of departure into a new aspect of exploration I discover more and learn better how to render what I'm experiencing in my medium, metal.

I found the work of Sadie J Valieri, a San Francisco based classical artist, to perfectly illustrate this concept. This is one of her paintings in oils. You can see how her concerns are purely to do with tonal values and subtle textures...almost ethereal qualities the way she renders them. She is undoubtedly a classicist in terms of her technique and perhaps even her subject matter but it still feels very fresh and relevant to me. Some might call this type of work old fashioned...I'd respond that a real artist has no interested in fashion at all.

This is a link to her blog where you can read her ongoing commentary on her own artistic journey and here's a link to her website if you'd like to see more of her art.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Something someone else once said....

“The better work men do is always done under stress and at great personal cost.” 

“But all art is sensual and poetry particularly so. It is directly, that is, of the senses, and since the senses do not exist without an object for their employment all art is necessarily objective. It doesn't declaim or explain, it presents. To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live there is but a single force… the imagination.”

“What can any of us do with his talent but try to develop his vision, so that through frequent failures we may learn better what we have missed in the past.”

“But the thing that stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one: the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things which lie directly under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose. It is this difficulty that sets a value on all works of art and makes them a necessity.”

William Carlos Williams (1883 - 1963)  

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Into every life a little Zen must fall...

"The real master in the art of living makes little distinction between his art and his leisure, He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him he is always doing both."

Monday, 10 August 2009

The littlest deshi.

This is my youngest son. Joel. He insisted I post this image of him here so that Akio Kun, my own teachers son could see him. He's wearing a padded samue I brought back from Japan last year. The karate kid pose is, I suppose, madatory. Samue are a relatively recent innovation in terms of work wear. Originally favoured by Zen monks they are also now a pretty common choice for craftsmen in Japan. They're extremely comfortable and I think, quite elegant. I have 6 suits that I use and it really saves me the bother of deciding what to wear to work...and gives my tummy room to breathe ;-)

You may notice a tsuba in my pitch bowl, it's just a little pink tiger I'm working on at the moment. That's all you're going to see of it for now I'm afraid.

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Monday, 3 August 2009

Now I'm quoting myself...!!

"Real originality comes from a heightened aesthetic actually express this will take a very refined understanding of one's processes and the skill to carry out the task of making real what you feel.

In my view, the job of teaching is to nurture exactly those 3 aspects."

Oh...and that quote is one of my own...cheeky I know but I was re-reading a thread on the Iron Brush forum and thought that I quite liked what I'd said and it stimulated the previous blog entry ;-)

so much to tell you...

It's been quite a while since I posted anything here, despite my best intentions to try and share my thoughts and experiences as I work through this challenge I've undertaken. The truth is it's been such an intense time that I'm going to need a few months to process what I'm learning so that I can express this in some manner that may make sense to others.

What I have learnt that I am very clear about though is the real value of copying the work of past masters. It is utterly shocking to delve into work of such high calibre with complete attention and to become completely absorbed in the world of a real master. The care and attention paid to the most minute detail is, quite literally, breathtaking and if I'm completely honest it's a little disconcerting. I can't imagine a more effective, nor demanding, method of learning than following so closely in their footsteps.

I've described this tsuba I'm attempting to replicate, based on the little b/w photo and the wakizashi tsuba, as a Rosetta stone. I'm pleased to be able to report that I'm slowly unravelling the delicate language of this particular masters hand...this is a very great privilege and one I'm very grateful for.

I've been forbidden by the film maker from revealing any images of the work in progress so as not to spoil the full effect of the final film but here's a much enlarged view of one small section as it was 2 weeks ago. I'm sure you can figure out what part it is?

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

I've been making shibuichi....

The name shibuichi (one quarter) refers to the silver content of 25%, the remainder being copper. It's a generic term though and in reality the alloy is used in a wide range of compositions, from as little as 10% silver to more than 60%. There are also, occasionally, other trace elements present, such as gold and lead. Shibuichi is also called Ro-gin, misty silver (in Japanese), a much more poetic name, that was more common in Edo period Japan (1603 ~ 1867).

It's taken me about a week of experimenting, with various compositions, to eventually get a shibuichi alloy that matches both the colour and fine grain structure of the sample tsuba I'm working from. What I realised right at the start was that even with an accurate technical analysis of the tsuba we have, all I would know was the percentages of the various elements in the metal. The thing about shibuichi that makes it is interesting is the wide range of hues of grey colour and grain size that it can exhibit. These essential characteristics are a consequence, not only of the composition but also the exact times the molten metal is held at liquidus, when the silver is added to the copper and how long it has to diffuse throughout the copper matrix.

Over the past 18 years I've built up a database of alloy compositions based on analysis' made by my good friend, Mark Froneman. We were at school together and he eventually became a forensic scientist. He's a doctor and professor too! I could have become one too...if I could have read his notes, awful hand-writing!

Anyway, By comparing the tsuba with the sample plates I've made up I had a fairly good idea of the rough make up of the metal. I then had to use my instinct and experience to fine tune the mix and the precise timings to get the result I was after.

At this point I have 4 tsuba sized ingots, all cast into boiling water, and have worked 2 down to rough blanks. One of them is exhibiting some cracking on the edges. This is not uncommon in this alloy, it's quite an unyielding material. I'll abandon that one for now and concentrate on the other, which so far is flawless.

This is one of the ingots as cast, this is what it looks like straight out of the water and before it's pickled in acid. As you can see, it has a beautiful surface and no oxide layer at all.


This image shows a small ingot I cast earlier while working out the right mix. I polished the edge to test the colour. Notice how smooth the upper surface is. That's as cast and untouched by me the whole ingot coloured when I did the test patina too, which surprised me as "as cast surfaces tend to resist colouring. I haven't been able to get that degree of smoothness on anything over 250 grams. Not sure why the larger ingots develop that area of crust but I'll figure it out one day.

Alongside it is the ingot I am now finishing. You can see the dished upper surface where I've scraped away the rough patch of porosity and I've done a preliminary colour test on that one too. Also in the picture is the earlier blank, the one that started to show cracks on the edge. It will still be usable but in this case I don't want any nasty surprises some time down the road.

It was my birthday on Monday, Lorenzo and Karl sent me this photo of the 2 of them in a pub in Berlin, drinking to my health. It just made me envious....but I appreciate the sentiment and the good wishes. Thanks fellas, Prost! That's Lorenzo on the right, with the facial hair, Karl is the handsome one ;-)

photo by Makiko, Lorenzo's lovely wife.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Time to let the cat out of the bag…

Or more accurately the tiger!

My journey into the exacting world of Classical Japanese decorative metalwork, or Kinko in Japanese, (so much more concise a word) has been a long and exciting one. I’ve been blessed, it seems, by a series of opportunities that came about with the help and support of a wide range of individuals who have entered my life. At some point I will need to write an account of those peoples impact on my life and career, and my ambition to get to where I am now …but that will be a very long essay and not what I want to tell you about now.

About 2 years ago Bob Morrison first contacted me via the Nihonto message Board about some of my tsuba that I was offering for sale. Since than Bob has acquired a few more, including my most recent tsuba. The one the with tiny gold orchids. It’s safe to say that he’s the holder of the largest collection of my work, something I’m obviously very grateful for because without this sort of patronage I’d be unable to continue doing what I do. The number of people who do this sort of work professionally can be counted on the fingers of one hand, or should that be finger?, and I often feel like an endangered species, so Bob’s commitment means more than just being able to pay the rent. I know he’ll be embarrassed by me saying this but it needs to be said, I’m touched and extremely grateful he sees something worth investing in, and supporting, in my quest to find what the masters of the past were seeking, to grasp something of that past glory and to attempt to express myself authentically through this medium.

Earlier this year Bob raised the possibility of me recreating a missing tsuba, the larger companion to a wakizashi guard he owns. I’d commented on the extant piece when he posted some images of it on the NMB a couple of years ago. I was struck, at the time, by the very evident design accomplishment and, from what I could see, the very high standard of workmanship. I was confidant that it was no generic work but had come from the hands of a real artist.

A month ago Bob and I begun seriously discussing this project and the possibility of photographically documenting the making so that it could be presented as a slide show with a commentary of sorts by myself. I then got a little excited and over enthusiastic and suggested that I might be able to get some short bits of film as well, if I could only get hold of a decent camcorder…and that was when things took on a life of their own.

A few days after Bob and my conversation another friend of mine, a kinetic sculptor by the name of Justin Fiske, called to ask if he could bring a blacksmith friend of his, Conrad Hicks, over for a studio visit. Always happy to meet other mad, creative types…especially metal bashers, they popped in for a cuppa on the Wednesday. In the course of our wide ranging and rambling conversation I asked Justin, almost as an after thought, if he didn’t know where I might hire a decent high definition film camera for a couple of months. He responded by suggesting that I contact a good friend of his, Brad Schaffer, who’s a film maker and had in fact done the videos on Justin’s own website.

After a lengthy , and animated, phone conversation the next day, Brad and I met in my studio on Friday. By the time heleft a few hours later we had fleshed out a documentary film and the handling of the subject…me and the tsuba!. The minor sticking point in our scheme was, as it always is, the financing.

Professional film production is hugely expensive…and after a few weeks now of getting more of an insiders view of the process I can well understand why…and that’s not even including the make up I’ll be needing ;-)
That Friday evening I spoke with Bob again and filled him in on what had developed during the week and how we’d suddenly gone from a slide show to the possibility of a full blown, professionally produced documentary.

I’d discussed with Brad the possibility of obtaining some funding to at least cover the initial production costs but as Bob and I spoke we came to the conclusion that to keep the project going in the direction we envisaged it needed to be kept free of outside vested interests.

At the end of that conversation Bob had decided to become a partner in a film production. Partly, I suspect, encouraged by thoughts of brushing shoulders with lovely starlets at Canne Film Festival.

Me being in Cape Town and Bob in the Midlands of England did leave him a bit out of the loop in terms of the discussions that would need to follow though so Bob decided to deliver the little star of our show himself.

The following Thursday evening I had to miss the final dress rehearsal of Madame Butterfly ( I wasn’t singing in it…just in case you thought I was... ) to collect Bob from the airport and next morning we met with Brad and his producer, Richard, and went over the details of the project in detail. Clearly they’d done this sort of thing before and things came together somewhat seamlessly . We dotted all the “I’s” and crossed all the “t’s”…and we now have a film in the making thanks to Bob’s willingness to cover the initial filming costs.

We agreed that the subject would yield 2 films. The first, in some ways the simpler project, will be a fairly straightforward documentary account that will follow me as I analyse and investigate the tsuba we have as I recreate the alloy and work though the many exacting and complex stages of the making of an exact a copy of the missing tsuba possible. We estimate that filming will yield around 20 hours of footage so we’re pretty confidant this will be an exhaustive and detailed visual record. I’ve also committed to withholding nothing in terms of technique or process. My intention is to reveal as much as we can about the making of work like this and I think that due to the complexity of the actual tsuba and it’s sophistication this film may in fact be a very thorough introduction to kinko tsuba making.

The second film, the one most of interest to Brad as a film maker, is what he calls the “Character film” . I almost feel as though I ought to apologise in advance because this film, a more “human interest” story, will attempt to get inside my head…(and I think many of you already have your suspicions about what lurks there), to follow my emotional and intellectual journey as I attempt this huge challenge. A "warts and all" look behind the mask of confidence and bravado...I'll try not to cry ;-)

By the time he got back on a plane to return home on Sunday evening Bob and I’d spent 3 evenings talking to the early hours and really getting to know one another. I’ve also spent a lot of time with Brad in the last 2 weeks and he and I are also getting to know one another very well. So at this stage I feel very fortunate to have such understanding support in this project because I have a feeling that one day I’ll look back on this and realise what a perspective changing opportunity this actually is.

Now I need to calm my nerves and ignore those nagging doubts in the back of my head and simply get on with what I’ve spent all my working life preparing for.

Before Bob left we spent a few hours working out what we could based on the only image we have of the missing tsuba. We’ve tried to be as thorough as possible and when things settle into a less hectic work pattern I’ll do a blog entry detailing exactly how we reached our conclusions about size and what the back may have looked like.

Brad and I started with some preliminary filming last week...when I discovered how hard it is to look directly into a camera and not at the person behind it. I’m trying to imagine you all inside the lens now ;-)

This week I’ve been refining the working drawings and developing a shibuichi alloy to match the colour and grain structure of the existing tsuba. It’s proving to be a more intuitive task than a purely scientific analysis would suggest. This evening I’ll be casting a trail ingot (based on my experimentations so far), it’ll be pored into boiling water just as it would have been done in the past and as it’s such a visually interesting spectacle we’ll do it again tomorrow evening in front of the camera. I have to get a bit of a rehearsal in beforehand because if I make a mess of it on film I know you’d never let me live it down.

These are some images of our little tiger, with some detail shots. It’s those details in fact that are quite literally Hagia Katsuhira’s fingerprints. I’ll elaborate at a later stage on these features and what they tell us about this artists approach to his work…it’s very exciting and I think may reveal something quite special.
The tsuba is very delicate and measures only 70mm top to bottom. The one I will be making will be 74mm high.

The black and white image is the only record we have of the missing tsuba.

Friday, 29 May 2009

and another one...

sorry about the music stopping so abruptly, but redoing this is taking too much time right now :-)

Lights, camera, action...

...well nearly! No this isn't the big secret I've been hinting at...I'm still working on a little essay and some nice piccies to illustrate what's going on.

I've been playing with Picasa, which I use to maintain a number of on-line image collections. It's really very handy and quite versatile. I put these little slide shows together in a matter of minutes and then added the soundtrack from my music collection on one of them. The other two had their sound tracks taken from the pre-licenced material on you tube...I've got a channel of my own there too now. Look for Iron Brush.

I've got to redo the Ginko one as the images don't loop throughout the song which was sort of the whole point.

Oh...and please choose the HQ ( high quality) option to get the most pleasing images.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

It's finished...Ginko Vortex

I put the final touches to the latest piece last Thursday afternoon. I didn't look at it at all on Friday and Gavin came over today to make the sexy pictures. We're now enjoying a lovely red wine while waiting for my Malay chicken curry to mature.'ll forgive me not saying much about the finished work right now, I'll do that tomorrow sometime. For now though, here's a glimpse of part of it...and a link to a few more images.

It's becoming more important to actually give these little sculptures names now because I'll be doing similar subjects in the future and labelling them in this way will make it easier to identify them. Jo, my lovely wife, just suggested "Ginko Vortex"...I like it, so that's what it's called.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

This is how I ended up chiselling those silver Ginko leaves.

After much experimentation on some of the trial leaves I made as to a convincing skin that captured something of the feel of the real leaves I finally settled on this finely chiselled effect. I used a tiny half round gouge shape about 0.3 mm across the cutting face...that'll give you an idea of the size of the lines. The whole assembly is just under 4 cm wide and is in fine silver.

I should also acknowledge a source of inspiration for this effect. I was browsing the net for images of ginko leaves when I stumbled on the blog of a young lady, designer jeweller called Abigail A. Percy. It was some of her beautiful, and delicate, drawings of leaves that had caught my attention. The slightly abstract treatment she had developed perfectly reflected where I was looking to go with this piece. So, thank you inspired me!

If you'd like to see some of Abigail's lovely jewellery creations as well as her drawings you find links to it all, here on her blog.

Now I want to add some tiny spots of gold "foxing" around the edges using fire gilding and will finish off with some sort of toning of the silver. I'm trying to get some sort of blue/green tarnish but it's been a bit elusive thus far...something will work out, eventually ;-)

You can see some more of these sorts of close-up, detail shots here

Saturday, 31 January 2009

In case you were wondering what I've been up to...

I've been working on a new piece that features ginko leaves. I've used the leaves in a very sculptural way and have been experimenting ways of creating a convincing texture that is both delicate and emphasises the form. Ultimately, the best result came from some very demanding, and very fine engraving. I'm quite chuffed with the effect, I'll get some images up shortly. The image above is a greatly enlarged close-up of one of the leaves prior to the texture being engraved. It's carved fine silver. If you click on the image you can see it even bigger. That section is probably only 7mm across.

I woke up at 5:30 this morning and rather than lie awake in bed I got up and did some calligraphy ( shodo ) practice. I don't usually show my brush work but I was quite pleased with this little bit because it's so idiosyncatic. It's just the name I sign on my tsuba.

While I'm here I thought I'd also plug a website that markets some pretty cool music. A strong emphasis on acoustic guitar with a bit of singer/songwriter/folk/blues is what you'll be able to sample at

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

"Following the iron brush" is back!

Thanks to the untiring efforts of Lorenzo Amati, my faithful hatamoto, the forum is back on-line. Sorry for the long delay...but you only really realise how much you love something when it's gone...;-)

Lorenzo has managed to recreate accounts for all members who have ever posted on the forum...what you now need to do is email admin for your password to get in. Once inside you can change your settings to suit.

If you were previously registered but didn't ever post then I'm afraid you'll have to re-register.
It's not a big job...and then you can introduce yourself to us too ;-)...and get involved...c'mon, don't be shy. We're quite welcoming really.

See you there, Namaste


Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Nearly there....

Some of you might have noticed that the forum is looking normal again. At this stage Lorenzo is heroically re-establishing every member registration individually...he tells me he's down to the last 20! Please don't try to log in or register he's had to assign new passwords ( your original ones are unknown to us ) and we'll let you know how to get in and change them once everything is ship shape.

By doing this the hard way Lorenzo has managed to keep all the posts so we owe him a huge debt of gratitude for all his efforts.



Just a brief update. All is looking good. We've still got everything in the forum but to ensure everyone's posts are visible Lorenzo still has to assign another 80 members. This will be completed by tomorrow evening. At this point you will need to contact admin to get a password so that you can access your account. You can then change it to what ever you want so we can't spy on you ;-)
Unfortunately, if you'd previously registered but never posted you'll have to re-register...sorry, but we have no way of finding you.

Hopefully we'll see you all inside within 24 hours....lets have a party!

If you're registered you can now email Lorenzo for your password ( log in and change it to suit )
Here's his address: amati.lorenzo AT

Monday, 5 January 2009

Ox kagamibuta

I found this little chap this morning while digging around in my studio. As it's the year of the ox I thought I post an image. It's shakudo with silver eyes and shibuichi horns. The disc is steel and measures about 28mm across. I made this about 15 years ago...but he still appeals to me :-)

If you double click the image you can view it as a much bigger picture.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

a new year, a new idea for the next piece...

I've been toying with some ideas for the next piece and am still intrigued with long expressive leaves like those on the orchid tsuba and kagamibuta. I'm really enjoying developing a more direct sort of carving technique whereby the actual chisel marks are left to articulate the surface. I also love the juxtaposition of very refined and delicate inlay with these very immediate marks as left by the chisel face.

I found a beautiful piece of cloudy white mother of pearl in my scrap box, actually an old button, that just screamed "moon" at me. So I want to try and use this, set flush in a steel ground, to represent to moon seen through some grasses. I'm also going to try and develop the basic idea of how kagamibuta are made. I don't think any real exploration of the format took place in the past so I'll give it a go ;-) Basically exploring the way a metalworker can produce an artistic work that is still light enough to function as a netsuke and yet also make use of the full potential of our materials and processes.

I went out walking our dog yesterday and collected some various grasses. I've just been playing at minimalist ikebana. Here's one of the compositions I might get some ideas for working out designs like this too, it trains your senses and eyes and it's good fun too.

Here's a link to some of the other images I took of grasses. Feel free to comment on them and if they're of any use to you please feel free...

Thursday, 1 January 2009

It's 2009..

...and apparently the year of the bull! No doubt we'll get a fair amount of that from our glorious leaders, assorted economic egg heads and the media in, it'll be business as usual then ;-)

But in a more humorous vein here's a link to a brilliant classic. May Warden ( then in her 70's) and Freddie Frinton. They'd been performing the sketch in Blackpool, England, during the summer of 1962 and were invited to perform it in Germany. As a result of it's very positive reception it was subsequently filmed in Hamburg the following year, a month before I was born!

Remarkably it went on to become a new years eve institution in Germany! and is an essential part of tv viewing each years who says the Germans don't have a sense of humour?

Einen guten rutsch ins neuyahr! to all my German freinds and everyone else, too.

Another odd custom from that part of the world is called; "das Bleigießen". This involves melting a small amount of lead in a teaspoon and pouring it into a cup of water. The resulting shapes are interpreted as omens of the forthcoming year. I might try that...but use pure gold, you never know, it may help improve finances ;-)

All the very best to you all and Namaste,