Nobody wants to fail, am I right? That hideous feeling you get when something you are trying to create starts to crumble, come apart at the seams and collapse on you. That awful moment when you feel powerless to stop it from happening. A mass of hard work goes south, and you feel like you’ve just wasted a part of your life with nothing to show for it.
What if you invited that chaos into your process? What if you used that perceived failure as a strength? When I make my jewellery I use a method that means each piece directs it’s own making. When I start to create a piece of jewellery using this process I have no idea how it will eventually look. I use the natural qualities of silver to introduce elements of chaos into the making process and then exploit those inherent weaknesses I’ve created to make texture and structure that is unpredictable. The silver then almost exactly mirrors what I see when I listen to a distorted electric guitar (If you are wondering how that works take a look at my previous post about how I “see” sound). There is no such thing as failure in the way I work, the power of letting go in this way has had a profound effect on my art practice.
It is pure serendipity that Matt Bellamy’s crazed guitar playing matches such a fabulous material. His playing twists, crackles, breaks up, whips back on itself and spills out like a frenzied fountain of white-hot molten silver. The synaesthesia is the easy part, it just happens. The skill is how to reflect the energy of this vision in what I make, how to sculpt these complicated forms into something wearable?
First I draw, and the drawings I make are part of the sculpting process, part of getting to know the shapes and lines, how the sound twists in my visual field. Capturing small stills with my oil pastels or pencils, pulling them down on to the page to help me remember how they look, how they move and what volume they have. The three-dimensional work starts on the page the drawings are part of what informs the course of sculpting each piece of jewellery, although it does not dictate its direction. While I work I listen too, it keeps the shapes and the energy fresh for transference into the workpiece.
Elements of Chaos #1
I make all my work from recycled sterling silver, the Victorians’ mania for everything made of silver means there is plenty of mass-produced, bent and broken old silver cutlery around to purchase as scrap. All silver in the UK has to be hallmarked, so all I have to do is find and buy hallmarked old silver flatware. I look for sterling silver, an alloy that is 92.5% silver and 7.5% copper, this mix increases its durability. I enjoy the search as it is a fun treasure hunt and I find silver to buy from many different sources.
Why recycle? Well, firstly, it means my workshop practice is not so reliant on mined raw materials. Even responsible mining is an invasive environmental process. Secondly, old sterling silver has been around, got dirty, tarnished, and this is my first element of added chaos. I want this metal to misbehave, I need it to be unpredictable, and the dirt affects how it reacts.
Elements of Chaos #2
I decide how large a piece of jewellery is going to be by weight. Sometimes I take the silver item as it is to melt down, so one item of cutlery turns to one piece of jewellery. The next stage is melting the silver, and this is where the second element of added chaos comes in. I use a charcoal block to melt the silver on rather than the more common borax lined crucible. The charcoal block creates an atmosphere conducive to melting and as it gets used its surface changes, burns away, roughens and becomes pitted or even splits. The silver melts onto this uneven surface. This changing surface means the texture and flow of the molten metal differs with every melt.
Elements of Chaos #3
When silver melts what it wants to do is flow together into a neat ball. It attracts itself to itself and wants to get into a nice spinning ball of molten metal. This “spinning” is what you usually want to happen when you melt silver; it means it is ready to pour for casting. I don’t want a neat spinning ball. I attend the progress of the melt carefully and chase it around with the flame from my propane torch so that the metal is entirely molten but neither evenly nor correctly. The difference in heat and cooling created when I move the flame around does not allow the metal to settle into its strongest structure. The third introduced element of chaos is this unstable structure in the metal.
Elements of Chaos #4
Once I have cooled the ingot of silver by quenching it in water, I dry it carefully and inspect it. If it is thin enough, I move straight to the rolling mill. If not I hammer it thinner on my anvil. The next part of the process is where all these additions of chaos come to fruition. Here is where the hard physical work begins. I am very mean to my silver. I put it through the rolling mill as tight as I can and as fast as I can. I want the edges to crack and craze, the silver to delaminate and reveal its weaknesses. This process is like wringing out clothes through an old-fashioned mangle. Two steel rollers squash the metal between them, do this too tight, and bad things happen. The bad things are the exciting things for my process and the fourth element of chaos. I may have to run each piece of metal through the mill up to ten times, heating in between rolls to make the silver more malleable again as it “work hardens” and won’t squash down anymore.
When it is around 1-2mm thick, and the edges have produced a fantastic crackling texture it is time to think about shape and what it might become. At this point, I have no idea what weaknesses or fractured wonders may lie in the body of the silver. I look at how the piece has cracked and use my jewellers saw to pierce out what will eventually become a ring shank or swirl of decoration. The three-dimensional form comes up from the flat piece. Cutting arms out in a specific sequence means I can pull and sculpt up a shape wherever it wants to go.
Taming the Chaos
Let’s call it a ring for now as that is what the pictures here illustrate. It is now time to go to town with the hammers and steel forming stakes, the headphones go on, and I have my drawings round me as the workflow takes over. I use part silversmithing and part blacksmithing techniques to raise, forge and bring volume and texture to the ring. I cold work the silver, and as I work it the metal gets harder and will not move anymore, so I heat and quench it as I go to soften it again, this is called annealing. I keep trying the piece on as I work it to check for fit and comfort. How a piece of jewellery interacts with its wearer is of the highest importance. If it is not comfortable, if it does not feel exactly right when you wear it then it will not be worn and will have failed as a piece of jewellery.
I work on no more than four pieces at a time. More than that and the thought process each one requires gets confused as I am switching between too many complex forms. The path each one wants to take becomes less clear, and it is harder to shift the shape of my thoughts into each ring. There is one other rule. If a fracture in the metal makes a piece drops off, so be it. It was not meant to be, and I do not try to reattach it. The part usually goes on to be something else. This rule perfectly reflects the fractured nature of the guitar sound I am using as inspiration.
Adding a Stone?
Sometimes at this point, the piece decides it would like a stone, not all of them do, but some do, and I get out my collection and see what it might want. What goes, what fits the energy of the piece? I choose the stones I use because there is something odd, intriguing or chaotic about them. I use both natural crystals and cut stones with unusual shapes or inclusions, or just because of their colour, or size and sparkle.
How do You Tell if it’s Finished?
So I juggle and wrestle and hammer and look and follow the flow of the music and the piece in front of me until…Well, until it looks right until it tells me it is finished, then I take my headphones off and lay my hammer down. Some pieces want to be shiny, some I blacken, but all get a light burnishing in the barrel polisher to make them shine and be comfortable to wear, but not so much as to damage the hard-won textures of the process of making.
Relax and Embrace the Chaos.
This “thinking hands” approach to making is an entirely intuitive one. I do not start the process by designing a piece of jewellery to look a specific way. The outcome always hangs in the balance, success or failure are not at issue and failure is invited in the way I treat the metal. A piece has to survive its own violent and tension-filled making process to come to full fruition. Once it has come out the other side, it is strong and infused with energy. This uncertainty means my making life is far more relaxed as I trust to the process, the material and most importantly the visual impression of the music I get through my synaesthesia to make authentic jewellery that communicates the energy and emotion at the heart of the music and strengthens the person who chooses to wear it.