Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Revisiting

This past weekend I taught "Forever Blowing Bubbles" at the inaugural Metal Clay Artist Symposium (MCAS). I had a great time, and I think my students did too. They learned how to turn a tube into a closed canister to be used as a vessel, and how to make a friction fit lid. Unfortunately we didn't have time to design and create the paper/sheet clay decoration (I was afraid that would happen), but they promise me they'll take photos when they finish their work at home. (insert pouty face here)


The Symposium was held in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The hotel was right down the street, and many fantastic restaurants were within walking distance. I can hardly wait until the next one. I live in Richmond Virginia, so it was super easy to get to, and in fact a number of my local students also made the 3 hour trek. All in all, I think there were about 90 artists there. Which seems like a low count - but it *was* the first one.

Being able to take classes from instructors you might not otherwise have access to is a wonderful thing! At this particular conference, a super talented artist came from Russia, and I'm so sad I didn't have the time to drop in on her class!

Understandably, going to Symposiums and conferences and other types of learning venues is expensive. In addition to the class and materials fees one may have to travel, pay for a hotel, and you always seem to spend more on food that you would if you were home (did I mention how yummy all my dinners were?) - and you can learn online, from books, ask friends in cyber/social groups you may belong to... there are many excuses why a person wouldn't want to go to one of these things. But the benefits far outweigh the potential costs.

I've already mentioned being able to learn with top notch instructors, but just meeting your fellow metal clay artists, spending time, being able to concentrate fully on your work for days in a row, listening to entertaining and enlightening discussions, and having a good reason to go to a part of the country that you would have no other reason to visit are just a few of the reasons why you should try to keep an eye out, and try to attend national conferences. I wish I had scheduled an additional day to visit the colonial town of Old Salem while I was there.

I was able to visit with a friend from England and many from all across the US that I hadn't seen in over 4 years! And that was all the excuse I needed. Back in the day the national PMC Guild had a bi-yearly conference that attracted between 300-400 attendees from all over the world. It's a shame that that opportunity has faded, but we can all try to keep the small regional get togethers happening if we plan and save our pennies. The very next conference I know of is Metal Clay Mojo next summer, and I really hope I hear that MCAS will be back in 2018. In between there is the fabulous Bead and Button show, a variety of BeadFest's around the country, Art and Soul retreats, and more. Some people try to get to a few of these every year - but even if you only go to one a year, or even every other year - You horizons will be expanded in unimaginable ways.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

It's Elemental

Many times when I look at a piece of jewelry that has caught my eye, I like to mentally deconstruct it to imagine how the maker may have put it together. That happened this morning while I clicked on a link and landed at Fox Haven. This particular ring was pretty easy to reverse engineer. 



The Malachite is set in a wire bezel, which is surrounded by a twisted wire 'jump ring', and ornamented with granulation and wire 'buttresses'. The buttress I saw looked like two round wires soldered together. I think it may actually be one wire with a dark shadow line in the center, but I like my imagined element better. The entire assemblage is mounted on a split ring shank (one thicker piece of wire sawn in two at the ends and pulled apart to make the seat). 

I'm known for making, drying and saving small bits and pieces to use  at a later time. My  stock consists of granulation balls, pre set gems, simple bails, and what I call 'micro molds' - tiny molded elements that I use to embellish almost finished designs. Like this artist used many small elements to create interest in what otherwise might have been a rather simple setting. 

Reverse engineering is a very helpful mental game to play when viewing any piece of art. Whether it's a full scale bronze sculpture, an intricate piece of wood working (a cabinet for example), or a piece of jewelry.  Try it! The exercise may help take your designs to another level.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Bezel and Bedazzle

I'm really a magpie. A bird that decorates it's nest with sparkly, shiny, bits and bobs. I'm also a minor league hoarder/purchaser. Earlier this year I discovered a seller of sapphire slices on Instagram. What's a slice, you ask? It's a very low profile, faceted, irregularly shaped, cabochon. Flat on the bottom, faceted on the 'dome'. Usually made with second rate (or less) gem, slab, material. That's why they're not clear, or perfect colors, or expensive. And I've bought a few parcels to fondle.

Hen's teeth sapphires and wire stripper 'bezel cutter'. 

One of the parcels was really small in diameter. When I got them I called them 'hen's teeth' sapphires. Pink. Yummy. And I actually have an idea of what to make with them! But of course setting cabochons involves making bezels. I could try to set them directly in metal clay, but because they are cloudy and have all kinds of inclusions that I can't see, and because I really like them - I don't want to chance it. I might experiment with one I don't like so much another day.  In general - sapphire does really well in the kiln.

So today, I'm making bezels. Hopefully 5 of them. I'm on #1, and I'll give you a few minor league tips that I learned many moons ago.

See how the reflection of the wire in the tool looks like a chevron?

This time it's straighter. Hard to take photos with one hand
and hold the tool with the other. I swear if you were in my studio
the wire on the left, in the reflection, and on the right would
all be in a straight line.

1. I  use fine silver, commercial bezel wire. It comes in many widths and I have three.
2. I place the stone on double stick tape to fit the wire around it. (so it doesn't move and jiggle and fly into deep dark corners of my studio)
3. I use a hardware store wire stripper to cut the wire. It creates a very flush cut and if you look at the wire, and it's reflection in the side of the tool, you can see if it's straight. If the wire and it's reflection are in line, chances are very high that you're cutting a perfect right angle. I tried to take a picture - but I'm afraid it doesn't really 'read' online.
4. I use a coffee stirrer stick to form the bezel around the base of the stone. Once you have correctly determined the width of the wire, that's pretty much all you should care about at this point. That the bezel matches the contours of the BASE of the stone perfectly.
5. I fuse the bezel closed instead of using solder. That way I don't have to think extra hard when I want to use it with either a metal clay base or a sheet metal base. A fused silver item can be fired onto the base with slip/oil paste/overlay paste or soldered.

The bezel is too small and doesn't touch the pink paper/double stick tape
all the way around.
6. If the bezel is just a tiny bit too small, you can put it on a steel tool like a ring or bezel mandrel, and roll it on a steel bench block, and it will stretch a little bit. I'll tell you another trick. I have a set of really inexpensive Harbor Freight dapping tools to use just as mandrels! I form metal clay beads and long container shapes on them, make jump rings of all sizes, and occasionally dap with them too. Great tool to get for alternative uses.
7. When the bezel is attached to the base plate, and the stone is inside, I use a chopstick to push the wire into place. Fine silver wire is very soft, and as I'm not an expert stone setter I sometimes use too much 'push power' and have been known to scratch the stone. Wood doesn't scratch. When the stone has been set securely, I switch to traditional metal pushers et al.

The only way to become proficient at anything, is to practice, practice, practice. So that's why I'm making all the bezels at once. And I might make even more bezels for stones that I don't know what to do with yet. Practice makes proficient.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Before you go...

One of the very best ways to check your work, to make sure that it's ready to be finished, patinated, stones set, or whatever the next step is - is to photograph it. Even if you've examined it wearing a visor. The lid of this canister has already been repaired and refired once! I took photos of it only to see which stone I liked best so I could made and attach a bezel. And look what I found! A tiny rip in the seam just below and to the left of the top surface. See it? Sigh.


Monday, July 25, 2016

Soldering Tips For the Faint at Heart

I've developed the habit of designing fiddly, little solder joins into my work as of late. Whether it's a safety chain for my friction fit lidded bottles, or a hanging chain design for earrings - I seem to feel the need to drive myself crazy with these tiny joins! The thing about obsessions is that they sometimes teach you techniques that you didn't know you needed to know. Such is the case with me and fiddly, little solder joins.

All done.

Thing One: It's hard to see the seam in teensy jump rings! After perfectly closing the jump ring, holding the seam to the light to make sure it's really closed completely (solder won't jump a gap - so one side of the ring MUST touch the other side), and moving from the fabricating area of my studio where my pliers are to the soldering side of the studio - I've completely lost track of where the seam is so I can place the solder! It's also a rule that solder won't flow if the metal is dirty. But just what constitutes dirty? 

I mark each end of a jump ring with black marker prior to closing it so I know to place solder in the marker gap. The marker doesn't seem to interfere with the solder flow at all! In fact, sometimes it burns completely away before the metal has gotten to temperature. 

Each side of the open jump ring marked with Sharpie.
(Please pretend I've had a manicure)

:: Bonus Tip :: If you're trying to anneal silver and are not sure when the job is done - mark up the work with black marker and when it's burned away, the annealing is done!!

Thing Two: If you heat the solder too fast, the solder balls up and drops off. And/or if you have the flame too high/big, it will produce just enough wind to blow the solder off the workpiece! So frustrating. The solution is to hold the flame a little away from the workpiece until the flux has started to burn out. Then as it gets a little glassy, it will hold the solder (which has indeed formed into a little ball) in place. I play the flame around the piece and perhaps on the most distant part of the silver until it seems like the solder has stuck, then I hit and run with the flame right on the join until the solder flows. Then just to make sure - I play the flame back and forth in a slow sweeping motion until I'm positive that solder is on either side of the seam. Then I quench. Then I try to open the jump ring with pliers to make super sure it's soldered. Then I fist pump myself in celebration. 

Closed jump rings on the soldering board. The thin chain is
underneath the earring piece so it has less chance of melting.
I use paste solder (about the size of a poppy seed for something like this jump ring) and a butane torch that has a flame adjustment and make sure it isn't too long (hot), but also not too small (cool). Remember the three bears - you have to use just the right amount of heat to get the job done. It's a practice thing. And I don't always get it the first time. Sometimes I have to try, try again. One of my favorite sayings is "Practice makes proficient". I don't believe in perfection. I'm happy to be pretty darn good. Where would the excitement and pride come if I did it right every time??? 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Crafting Style

In 2011 I started writing a book. "Crafting Your Artistic Voice". A guide for the newly inspired jewelry artist. I sent it to a couple of publishers, got some nice feedback and a couple of rejections, and although I kept at it for a while - eventually lost steam and put the book to bed.

Recently some of my students have brought the topic up in class. How do you find inspiration? How do you know what to make? How do I start? So I thought I'd re-read my original draft to see if any of it was still viable. And I think it is! so I'm gonna give it another go. No  promises when it will be ready. I'm thinking it would be a nice self published e-book. I'll let you know when and where you can access it. But in the meantime - I thought I'd occasionally publish a paragraph or two right here on my blog. All comments will be not only welcome, but extremely helpful.

Small ceramic pot I made in elementary school
Excerpt #1


Everyone has been on the flip side of artistic expression. We’ve been consumers of stuff all of our lives. We’ve bought (or bought into) this or that because:

A. Our families steered us towards a certain way of looking at the world.
B. An ad company was good at their job and convinced us that we really needed their product.
C. Our peers all decided to embrace a certain trend at the same time and we felt compelled to follow along.
OR
D. A particular item struck a chord within us. We related to what the maker infused into their work because we recognized something in its story.


It’s the inspiration we feel when we visit a certain museum, see a particular movie, or save a postcard and tape it to the wall. We do the things we do, and like the things we like, because we have an innate connection to the subject matter.

Some of my home decor

Exersize #1

Go on a scavenger hunt in your own house and community. Use your camera phone to document similar motifs in your home's decor, photograph architectural elements and street art that you're drawn to, and edit shots of favorite works from a local art gallery or museum to focus on small details that grab your attention. Print the images on regular paper and tape them to the walls of your studio space. 

Pendant I made as a class sample. Notice the repetition of the
scroll motif?

You may be surprised, once you gather the images, how similar your current interests are to the motifs you've always been attracted to.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Cutting Kerf

Whenever you divide a material into sections - whether you're felling a tree with an axe, piercing metal with a saw, or cutting a slice of birthday cake, the amount of material that is wasted by the thickness of the tool is called the 'kerf'. This is also the term I use for the amount of clay that is dragged away from a fresh slab of metal clay when using a pointy tool to cut a shape. If the tool is thick, the kerf is wide. If one uses a thinner stylus or 'needle' tool, the kerf is narrower and the piece of fresh clay tends to retain it's shape better. I'm sure you've noticed that the clay is sometimes pulled out of alignment as a 'pin tool' drags a path through the clay. A thinner tool won't do that. A friend of mine uses an ultra thin beading needle that makes a practically unnoticeable cut, but I find something THAT thin to be too bendy and unwieldy. Especially if I've already had my morning cup of coffee.


I use an actual dressmaker's pin when using a template to cut a shape in clay, you know - the ones with the pretty pearl on top? I suppose I could set it into a thin wooden dowel, or make a polymer clay or thermoplastic handle for it - but I like the pearls and have a wire shelf in my studio that contains the pins perfectly.


So the next time you're reaching for a tool to remove a tiny bit of clay from a big slab, think about how much you can afford to 'lose' to the kerf. That might encourage you to reach for a tool with a narrower tip.