Friday, November 9, 2012

Snapshots From the Past

 When my Grandmother Worden died in 1988, I found a box of old photographs amongst her things labeled, "Friends and Family".  She was a great saver of everything and there were many photos from the early 20th century. Most of the snapshots had writing on them identifying who, where, and when the pictures were taken. I brought the box home with me knowing that I wanted to spend some time with the contents.

 20 years later I began sorting the photographs into categories such as, People and Pets, Old Boyfriends, People and Cars, etc.  Some of the categories overlapped, such as the one above left of an old boyfriend with the ship's mascot, a cat, and the one on the right which is probably an old boyfriend with his dog and wife. The quality of the photographs and the soft sepia tones were irresistible. I was just waiting for an idea to hit me when I had the opportunity to hear Billy Collins read his poem, The Revenant. The Revenant is told in the voice of his deceased dog and it's humorous because the dog unleashes (couldn't resist, sorry) his real feelings towards his former owner.  I realized that all of the pets in my grandmother's pictures were also deceased and each one had a story to tell.

 My friends at Panda Photo Lab helped me clean up the images and printed them so I wouldn't have to destroy the originals to set them in a necklace that I call, The Revenants. On the back of each photograph is a narrative I wrote etched in copper. However, the interesting contexts for the people and animals were lost when we cropped the images to fit them into the necklace shown below.

  The necklace idea then led to five brooches where we were able to use the entire photograph.
 I have no idea who these people are but I made up a pretty good story about them etched in copper on the back of the piece.  By the way, that is a real wasp set under plastic which is proof that you really can get just about anything on eBay.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Lady Liberty

This morning as I was looking at images of the storm on the east coast, I thought of the Statue of Liberty, my favorite American sculpture. Two weeks ago my friend Mary Ann and I were in NYC and went out to see her. In 1987 I climbed all the way up into her crown for the fee of $1.00. Because I am a metalsmith I am always blown away by how she was constructed. The sculpture, designed by French artist Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, was hammered out of solid copper sheets by French craftsmen. The giant sheets are riveted together and hung from steel springs that are attached to the iron infrastructure designed by Eiffel, one of the best structural engineers who ever lived. In the two closeup images below you can see the individual giant copper plates on her arm and the bottom of her foot and even some of the copper rivets.

The photograph below was taken at the French workshop of Gaget, Gauthier et Cie, the craftsmen who actually made the colossal statue. Note the size of the torch compared to the men in the shop.
 By the early 1980's Liberty was showing a lot of wear and tear so she was restored for her 100th anniversary by a combination of French and American craftsmen and engineers. Below is a photo from July 4, 1986 after the restoration was complete. The flame in the torch was completely remade and covered with pure gold leaf.
 Liberty Island is a national park and they have a great souvenir shop. I bought the exact same thing I bought the last time I was there, a flashlight in the shape of Liberty's torch. It is the item on the right below. The object on the left is a horrible Chinese interpretation of her torch which I bought a few years ago from a costume supply shop. I bought it because I was teaching mold-making at the time and it was an excellent example of bad design, bad molding and a knock-off-on-steroids.  If you look closely you will see that the Chinese version says Made In China. It is a crude misunderstanding of a classic American icon. There is a political metaphor in there somewhere, but I'll let you figure it out.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Fancy Word For Stealing

A Fancy Word For Stealing

Recently I saw the movie, The Words. The movie addresses plagiarism, which is the word for appropriating or copying the work of another.  Plagiarism doesn't just happen in the arts, but it is considered a very serious offense for an artist or writer.  The practice of plagiarism is unfortunately common because it is a very difficult offense to prove. I know several artists who have been knocked off by another artist but the only artist I know of who had the resources to legally pursue an offender (a former employee) is Dale Chihuly. He took the offender to court and won. 

A few years back one of my collectors called me and drew my attention to an image in a book of a piece of jewelry obviously influenced by my work.  In the late 1990s, I did a series of necklaces using small copper arms.  The arms were made by pulling a mold off of a plastic doll, casting the mold in wax and electro forming over the wax. One of my necklaces that used the little arms, below left, was published on the cover of American Craft Magazine, a periodical with a large, national readership.  For two months, the cropped image of my necklace was seen on thousands of magazine racks  around the country. The image on the right below shows the entire necklace entitled, Casting Pearls Before Swine.  

In all of the necklaces where I used the copper electro formed arms, the little hands were holding something and the necklace was inspired by a story. Below is the knock off neckpiece, using the exact same process, electro forming, and molded from the exact same doll entitled, Choked Offerings, by  someone named Carolina Cabellero.  Maybe Carolina was a student and didn't know better. My solution to the problem was to stop using the doll arm imagery.
  In The Words, the character played by Jeremy Irons hunts down the person who stole his book and confronts him. I got a lot of vicarious pleasure from watching the thief squirm.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Souvenirs Must Be Serious

During my recent stay cation, I took in King Tut:The Exhibition, at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle.  I had seen the exhibition sponsored by Seattle Art Museum in 1978 twice and there was no way I was going to miss seeing that fabulous jewelry up close again. The exhibition is expensive, but worth it. This time there is more stuff and different stuff than in 1978. The sponsor, National Geographic, designed the show so you never feel crowded and you get a close view of the artifacts. There are lots of places to rest your eyes and legs and good text panels to explain what you are looking at. The Golden Inlaid Pectoral with a Winged Scarab below is an example of the quality of the objects in this exhibition.

The biggest difference, however, between the exhibits in 2012 and 1978 was the spectators and their cell phones and cell phone cameras. The guards asked us very nicely in the waiting room to turn our cell phones off and they request that there be no posing with the artifacts. However, there are always those addicts that have selective listening loss and ignore the requests. I looked every statue and object over very carefully, front and back, knowing how little information a 2 dimensional photograph provides compared to the real thing in 3-D. I was very interested not only in the detail but also how each thing was made and what it was made of. I cannot tell you how many times I saw a person go up to the object, snap a crumby cell phone camera image of it and move on, as if somehow their cell phone will see it better for them.

When we got through the show and landed in the gift shop, my friend Lisa and I were looking for good  posters and other mementoes. Here again I was reminded how the world had changed since 1978. There were postcards and a catalogue with poorly lit photos of the artifacts, but no must-have silliness to invite the envy of your coworkers. Below is a photo of a T-shirt I bought in 1978 and still have.

What can I say? The art world has lost it's sense of humor. Go see the show, but skip the gift shop.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Why I celebrate the 4th of July

Recently I attended a movie at the Seattle International Film Festival.  The title of the movie was,
 Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.  It is a documentary about the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.  Ai Weiwei  gained international acclaim while serving as a design consultant for the stadium built for the 2008 Olympics in China.  Since that time he has been making art and bringing the world's attention to what it is like to be an outspoken critic of the Chinese government.  After the horrible Sichuan earthquake in 2008, he became obsessed with documenting the names of the children who died in the flimsy school buildings.  The Chinese government continues to minimize and deny the scale of the death and damage there. For speaking out, his studio was destroyed and he has been beaten, imprisoned, censored and fined.

Above is an image of a bracelet I made in around 2000.  It is made of credit cards, synthetic rubies and sterling silver.  The title of the bracelet  is,"Path of the Eagle" and it is a commentary on the way  Americans are encouraged to accumulate debt.  It could also be interpreted as commentary on our national debt.  The reason I celebrate July 4th is because I am very aware that I am privileged to be an artist in a country where free speech is encouraged and valued.  That privilege was something I was born with but my ancestors had to fight for.  The story of Ai Weiwei  is a good example of why we must never take the First Amendment for granted. Have a happy and safe holiday, NW

Friday, June 8, 2012

Spring Clean Your Brain at the Museum

This morning I played hooky from work and took in the new show at the Seattle Art Museum Downtown. The show is called Ancestral Modern and it is a collection of paintings by contemporary  Australian aboriginal artists.  This collection was assembled by Robert Kaplan and Margaret Levi, who are husband-and-wife and serious art junkies. Bob and Margaret also collect the work of contemporary American artists, but the Australian paintings and sculptures have been their passion for some time.  They have made excellent choices and collected the work of individual artists in depth, meaning they have multiple works from each artist. This exhibit is quite large and takes up as much space as the recent Gauguin exhibit did. There is a lot of work and a great diversity of work. The artists in the show represent the physical and spiritual world with vocabularies that turned my brain inside out and gave it a good shake. That's the gift of living in a city with art museums; no matter what the weather is like outside, a trip to the museum can brighten your climate on the inside.

 I know many people are intimidated by art museums and large exhibits.  My first real teaching job was coordinating a freshman-level art survey class at Central Washington University in Ellensburg.  I had about 100 students each term and none of them were art majors.  Every quarter I made a deal with my students: they could write a paper or they could go on a field trip with me to Seattle to see galleries and the Seattle Art Museum. I hoped most would choose the field trip; after spending months looking at slides of art, I wanted them to see the real thing.  I knew that most were  art virgins that had never crossed the threshold of an art museum in their life.  My goal was to initiate them, help them feel comfortable in a museum, and do my part in creating future art patrons.

What follows is advice I gave my students for how enjoy yourself at art museums:

  • Give yourself plenty of time. Looking at art is best when you're not in a hurry. Plan to spend at least half a day and give yourself time to absorb what you're looking at.  Going to a museum is a treat for me, not an obligation I squeeze in between errands.
  • You don't have to see most shows in any particular order. Although it's best to see an exhibit in the order the curators have laid it out in, crowded exhibits often make this impossible. When I walk into a big show I tend to gravitate first to where there are the least amount of people.  I often walk through a show one way and then turnaround and see it again from another direction. 
  •  Go through the exhibit at your own pace and plan to meet your friends at the end.  That way you can spend as much time as you want and not have to worry about losing the rest of your party. I do not advise taking small children if you want to enjoy the show.
  •  If you really want to see a big exhibit, go several times and focus each time on a different part  of the exhibit.  The human brain can only take in so much information at any one time and really absorb it. When you get tired, you can miss a lot.
  •  Eat a good meal before you go and take breaks at the museum cafĂ© when you need to. As my friend Lori Talcott says,"Culture is famishing."
That concludes this afternoon's lecture. I highly recommend taking in Ancestral Modern.  It will be on display through September 2, 2012.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What is Talent?

I recently read the bestselling book by Geoff Colvin entitled, Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.  This book drops a bomb on the myth that some people are born with talent. Using examples from sports, business, and the arts, Colvin describes the process that leads to exceptional performance. Basically, what most people describe as talent is the result of rigorous training, the critique process and thousands of hours spent in deliberate practice.
He explains a prodigy like Tiger Woods as someone who had the advantage of superior training at very early age and invested the time so that by age 17 he was a lot better at golf than most people his age. What was rare was that he also had the drive to excel.

I recommend this book to anyone considering a career in the arts. I have always maintained that talent will only get you so far and success is the result of years of hard work. I would even go so far as to say that a natural aptitude towards something could hurt a person's development. In my own life there were always people in high school and college that were far better artists than me. The difference has been that I had to work harder and therefore learned how to work hard. When something comes easily to you, you don't learn how to work. What advantages I had came from many hours spent making things, especially sewing my own clothes. Sewing taught me patience and I was motivated to improve because I liked nice clothes. I also had parents that encouraged me and paid for lessons and materials. I was lucky to live in a town where we had good teachers and examples of good professional art I could look at. I enjoyed making things so I spent a lot of time doing it.

The doorknob locket is a pendant I made when I was a senior in high school. It came about because I was able to talk my way into a jewelry class for college upperclassmen at what was then Central Washington State College. The professor, Ken Cory, allowed to me to attend his class on the condition that I buy all my own tools. I think he thought that would get rid of me. It didn't and the opportunity to work with people who were far better than me was a huge asset. Ken pushed me to put more thought in my art. The heart image is also student work I made at Central in around 1977. I am a living example of why we need to advocate for the arts education in the public schools. 

Monday, April 30, 2012

That's All Folks!

On January 2 of 1989, my daughter Avery was born. It was an amazing year and I got to stay home and watch TV because I had a new baby. There was a smorgasbord of disasters that year; the Tammy Faye and Jimmy Baker PTL scandal, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hurricane Hugo, the San Francisco Earthquake and the Exxon Valdez oil spill to name a few. Many years later when a local art gallery invited me to make a piece of jewelry about my favorite year, I looked up 1989 on the web and was reminded that Mel Blanc had died that year. I got sucked into YouTube clips of him on Carson and Letterman and Jack Benny and Wikipedia had 12 pages on the guy.  Anyway, I was hooked because Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird, Wile E. Coyote, the Roadrunner and Pepe LePew were just too big a part of my childhood to ignore.  I hunted on the web for Looney Tunes stamps since I knew the USPS had done a series but they were too costly and rare, so I kept surfing and found Australian and Kyrgrzstan stamps. Mel Blanc was loved the world over as the voice for hundreds of his cartoon friends and he also developed their characters. He dictated that the inscription on his tombstone should say, “That’s All Folks!” and so it does. He was buried in Los Angeles, of course.

The name of this bracelet is "That's All Folks!" and it was created in 2010 for an exhibition of jewelry at Facere Jewelry Art in downtown Seattle to honor Karen Lorene, the owner and founder of the gallery. Since she was celebrating her 70th birthday, 70 artists were asked to chose a year within her lifetime and I chose 1989. This is what my assistant, Kyle Rees and I came up with. On the bangle is etched classic lines from some of Mel's best loved characters: Tweety Bird, "I tawt I taw a putty tat!"  Pepe LePe, "Ah my darling, it is love at first sight is it not, no?", Porky Pig, "Thaaaaaat’s all folks!", Sylvester,"SSSuffering SSSSSuccotash", Daffy Duck, "Hold everything Fatso!", Bugs Bunny, "What’s up, Doc?" and many more. Yes, the bracelet is still for sale. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012


I just checked and today, April 19, 2012, the price of an ounce of silver is $31.90. In the past couple of years, silver prices have habitually been above $30. an ounce, but historically this is pretty high.  I started working with silver as a student in 1972, when the price hovered around $4. an ounce.  In between 1792 and 1972, the price of silver didn't change all that much. Then in 1978 or 79 the Hunt Brothers started speculating in gold and silver and the price jumped to over $25. an ounce. I was in graduate school at that time and wanted to make a silver object to enter in a competition and maybe win some prize money.  Since I was broke, I decided to carve up a bunch of spoons my grandmother had given me. I flattened them, cut out some shapes and reassembled them into a patchwork cup. The cup did make it into the competition and I did win a little money for me and my school, the University of Georgia.

After a while, silver prices calmed down again and it became the default metal in my studio. Recently the speculators have taken over the market again and now every time we start a project in the shop, I feel dizzy when I calculate the cost of making it in silver. Just to show you, I borrowed this graph showing the change in silver prices between 1994 and today.  It's great if you are selling scrap, but discouraging if you are a young jewelry maker in school or just starting out. NW
 P.S. My professor in graduate school, Gary Noffke, pointed out my math was wrong in my previous blog on the age of the golden helmet stolen from the Bagdad Museum. It is 4700 years old! 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Who Needs Beauty?


Lately I have been going to art museums and seeing work that either insults my intelligence or insults my aesthetic.  Okay, I acknowledge that aesthetics, the study of beauty, is culturally defined. In other words, not everyone agrees on what is beautiful. However, assuming that we still have standards within my own culture (21st century-middle-class-educated-American), what I am seeing is either a lack of understanding of beauty or a concerted effort to create something ugly.  I have made some ugly things in my time but never intentionally. I can not imagine getting up in the morning and telling myself," Let's go to the studio and make something really ugly." I start with very modest materials, often things that nobody notices but give reference my place and time on earth. Then I try to assemble something that is thoughtful and beautiful. I don't always pull it off but that's the gamble of being an artist.

 This is an image of a gold helmet from Ur dated 2700 BC.  I scanned this image from a book I bought long ago when I was an art student (during the later part of the 20th Century), Jewelry Through the Ages. This helmet has been missing since the war in Iraq when the Baghdad Museum was looted.  When I think of beauty, especially man made beauty, I often think of this helmet.  I'm pretty certain it was considered beautiful 2900 years ago when it was first made.  Thank goodness it was made of gold which doesn't deteriorate, because we at least got to photograph it before it disappeared. The point I'm trying to make is that the beauty of this object is undisputed almost 3 millennium after it was made.

 I think the desire to seek and create beauty is innate in humans. Who needs beauty?  I do. By the way, if you happen to see this helmet somewhere, call the U S government. They are looking to return it to the museum.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Jewelry Idea Sources

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

People often ask me where the ideas for my jewelry come from. Most of the time the topics address a specific incident, something that happened to me or someone else I know. I try to take that incident and distill it down to the essence of the situation so that other people can see themselves in the narrative. An example would be the necklace below, The Revenants. The idea for the necklace came from reading a poem by the American poet, Billy Collins, who often writes about his dog and some old photos I found after my grandmother died.  The photos dated from the early 20th century when my grandmother was a girl and are of people posing with their pets. The poem by Collins is told in the voice of his deceased dog that he had to put down.  On the back of each of the snapshots I included information my grandmother recorded, like names and places and dates. To this, I added a narrative told in the voice of the pet in the picture. The narratives and the Collins poem are intended to be humorous. However, whenever I have had to put one of my pets to sleep, I have felt immense guilt.  We all do; no one likes to watch their pet suffer, but we suffer when we end their misery.  The necklace was made a few months after my old cat, Louis Armstrong made his final trip to the vet's office.  He was my buddy and I miss him.

Many times people have commissioned me to make something that is personal for them or a significant other.  Below is a necklace Robert Kaplan commissioned me to make for his wife, Margaret Levi, when she directed the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington. To better understand her work, I read about Harry Bridges, the man who organized the longshoremen and helped create the ILWU. I also read a lot about the history of the Port of Seattle and the evolution from loading and unloading the ships by hand with a hook to the modern day crane and container technology.  The end result was a necklace with arms and hands holding hooks that grasped ebony bars, since originally the major export from the Pacific Northwest was timber. The beads at the back are made of silver American quarters pierced with letters that spell ILWU on one side and UNION on the other.  The necklace celebrates the history of the longshoremen and labor, which is a subject Margaret teaches.  I loved working on this commission. It's one of my favorite necklaces.

Another commission came my way when the curator Barbara Johns retired from Tacoma Art Museum. Her staff called me and asked me to make something for her. I was honored to be asked but I needed an idea. I looked through some of the catalogs Barbara had written in her tenure at the Museum and decided to make a necklace about writing that was also a record of her major exhibitions at TAM. The necklace is a collection of handmade beads. I used IBM typewriter balls as a reference to writing and then made smaller beads from silver Precious Metal Clay and stamped into them the exhibition titles.  The clasp was fabricated from ornamental silver wire made by the late jewelry artist Ken Cory and Barbara and I had collaborated on an exhibition and catalog about his work.  I think she liked it because every time I ran into her for several years afterwards she was wearing it.

 Many artists are reluctant to take on custom work or commissions.  I have always enjoyed them because jewelry as an art form has always had an intimate association with the lives of the people who wear it.