Being G. Moffat

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G. Moffat’s set square.

Is there anything more exciting that browsing through a tool catalogue? (Don’t answer that, it was a rhetorical question) Of course, the printed ones are the best kind as you can write on them and put sticky notes on your favorite pages, but I love them all. To me, tool catalogues are fun because tools are synonymous with possibilities.

Many years ago, when I was still a jewellery student, I was given an old set square
by a friend. It had been passed on to him when he was apprenticed to a
shipwright, designing and building wooden boats. I’ve always treasured it as a
symbol of our friendship and appreciated its beauty and elegance.

1381 e preston and sons copy (1280x960)1384 G Moffat copy (1280x960)

Its patina and slightly worn edges betray a long working life. And it is intriguing; it has a trademark logo with the letters “E P”, and “E PRESTON & SONS    BIRMM, ENG.” stamped on one side of the body, and on the other, a name, “G. Moffat” engraved in an old-fashioned cursive. The trademark, sometimes called the Bird’s Eye, is from Edward Preston & Sons, a tool manufacturing company that operated from 1825 to 1932 in Birmingham, England; catalogues from the early 1900’s can be found online. As for G. Moffat, I don’t know who he was – a machinist perhaps – but I’ve always felt connected to him, and through him, to the brother/sisterhood of metal workers.

1375 - german set square Copy1374 german set square detail copy (1280x960)

Fast forward a few years. I set up my own studio and gain more experience. I feel I can, with more confidence, set for myself higher standards of precision, and decide I am ready for a brand new made-in-Germany set square. Several years later, it is still as crisp as new and milled to perfection; when ultimate accuracy is required, that’s what I rely on. For goldsmiths, as with machinists, precision is essential, and our measuring tools – and set square – are always within easy reach on top of the bench. When you need a straight edge or a straight angle, or to check for squareness, place the blade of the square against the metal edge and put it in front of a light source. No light should shine through.

1376 both squares copy

But no matter what project I am working on, G. Moffat’s set square is always right in front of me on my bench, next to its German-made pristine, younger counterpart. Yes, its edges are a bit too soft, its surface pitted and worn, but it is smaller and lighter and fits comfortably in my hand. What it may lack in accuracy, it makes up with ergonomics. G. Moffat carefully and proudly engraved his name on his set square; that tells me that he cared for his tools and valued his work. It is a reminder of where I come from, the sum of skills, knowledge and experience accumulated by tradespeople who’ve come before me.

If any of you have stories about tools that are meaningful to you, please share in the comments section.

Charles Edenshaw

Charles Edenshaw with his engraving tool and a silver bracelet. Photo by Harlan Ingersoll Smith, c. 1890. Canadian Museum of Civilization. 88926

Charles Edenshaw with his engraving tool and a silver bracelet. Photo by Harlan Ingersoll Smith, c. 1890. Canadian Museum of Civilization. 88926

First, I would like to wish all of you a very happy and creative New Year. During the brief break I had between my two teaching terms, I was able to take in an exhibition of Charles Edenshaw’s work that I enjoyed very much. I intend to take my Jewellery Art & Design students there for an art history field trip in a couple of weeks, but I thought I would give you a short review of what I saw.

Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920) lived and worked on Haida Gwaii and was already well-known and recognized in his lifetime. He is considered the foremost Haida artist, a standout among Northwest Coast artists, and is internationally renowned. He left an important legacy, not only in his work, but through his descendants as well, such as his grandson Robert Davidson, an internationally acclaimed artist himself.

Charles Edenshaw Exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery

Charles Edenshaw Exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery

This exhibition, organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery (October 26 to February 2, 2014), is the first major survey of this incredibly prolific artist. Over 200 pieces are presented in a wide range of materials and techniques, including metal, wood, argillite, weaving, and carving. On display, are totem poles, canoes, transformation masks, model long houses, chests, platters, bowls, spoons, canes and, of course, jewellery.

Charles Edenshaw. Argilite platter.

Charles Edenshaw. Argillite platter. Pre-1899

Haida Gwaii Map

Rose Spit, Haida Gwaii. Photo: Royal BC Museum

Rose Spit, Haida Gwaii. Photo: Royal BC Museum

I had the opportunity to visit Haida Gwaii twice, a few decades ago. Back then, it was still called Queen Charlotte Islands. It was renamed Haida Gwaii (which means “Islands of the People”), to acknowledge its aboriginal origins, as part of the Reconciliation protocol between the Government of British Columbia and the Haida people. This archipelago, constituted of two main islands surrounded by over a hundred smaller islands, is located on the North coast of British Columbia, just south of Alaska. The overnight crossing from the mainland, 150 km on the rough open seas of the often stormy Hecate Straight gives a taste of how remote and wild this place is. It is home to pristine old growth rainforests and species that are found nowhere else in the world, and to astounding cultural artifacts, like Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and its totem poles. On both occasions I was taken not only by the wild beauty of this place, but also by the power and the spirit of the natural world. While there, everything was fodder for my imagination, I always had very vivid dreams, I often felt the urge to draw, to write or to make sculptures or jewellery. Each time, this creative energy fuelled me for several months afterwards.

Totem Poles at Ninstints, Haida Gwaii. Photo HelloBC

Totem Poles at Ninstints, Haida Gwaii. Photo HelloBC

Charles Edenshaw was remarkable in his ability to harness the spirit of Haida Gwaii, transform it and create magnificent works of art. The exhibition shows his evolution as an artist. We see him early on in his career explore European designs and iconography, and masterfully incorporate them in his work, surprisingly revitalized. We see him draw on his ancestral Haida traditions and stories to build his own distinct vocabulary of shapes and forms. Anyone who has been on the West Coast knows how powerful and exuberant nature is here. Northwest Coast Native art is highly formalized, as if Native artists want to bring some order to this chaotic world. Images are contained in strongly defined ovoids and S and U shapes that are organized into larger forms, all interconnected to fill the entire surface of the piece. Charles Edenshaw’s technique is precise and controlled, whether he is working in wood, argillite or metal. In his silver and gold work, his engraving is astounding. Hand engraving is a demanding technique that requires a lot of finesse and control; curved lines are the most difficult to achieve. In Edenshaw’s work, the lines, despite their precision and their control, are never rigid or contrived. Elegant curves flow, seemingly with ease, connecting the different areas of the design organically. Take for example his series of silver and gold bracelets which features themes that he revisits several times. Each individual piece, thanks to subtle details added or to different inflections of the lines, remains equally fresh and strong. They may be similar pieces, but not copies drained of their energy and spirit.

Charles Edenshaw. Silver bracelet. Photo : Vancouver Art Gallery

Charles Edenshaw. Dogfish bracelet, silver. Late 19th cent. Photo : Vancouver Art Gallery

Charles Edenshaw. Argilite chest.

Charles Edenshaw. Argilite chest. late 19th cent. Photo: Vancouver Art Gallery

As I wrote at the start, it is my intention to bring my students to view this show. Nothing can replace the actual experience of being in the presence of this artwork. We do have amazing technology that gives us easy and (mostly) free access to art anywhere anytime, but experiencing that art, just like the environment that inspires it, involves much more than just our visual sense.

Charles Edenshaw at work. Photo: Royal BC Museum, PN 5168

Charles Edenshaw at work. Photo: Royal BC Museum, PN 5168

Charles Edenshaw's engraving tool

Charles Edenshaw’s engraving tool

Vancouver Love

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Over thirty years ago, I came to Vancouver and I fell in love with it. And it loved me back.

It was summer and the beaches and the mountains were beautiful. Maybe too beautiful, I thought, for what I wanted was a meaningful relationship, not just a pretty place. Then came the long wet winters. Tough love, I thought. But I stayed, and eventually learned the dozens of words Vancouverites have for “rain”. In time, I found a diverse and vibrant creative community (Vancouver has the highest number of artists per capita in Canada*) who helped me blossom into the artist I always wanted to be. Turns out there was more to this city than postcard pretty scenery.

Vancouver, English Bay Photo Wikimedia Commons

Vancouver, English Bay
Photo Wikimedia Commons

Last Friday I received the City of Vancouver Mayor’s Arts Award for craft and design. These awards recognize established and emerging artists in various disciplines, from craft and design, film and new media, to community art, from poetry, music, dance, theatre, to culinary art. The recipients are chosen by a jury of their peers.

I am, of course, very proud and happy, and extremely grateful for this recognition. When I walked onto the stage to receive the award I was terrified, as with any public speaking that is required of me (outside of my classroom). All I wanted to do was hide, so I only managed a few words of thanks. This is what I would have liked to say: I’ve always felt comfortable in my community of craftspeople where sharing is just something you do; we pass on information, bench tips, etc. We help each other. I’ve always felt that I was part of a big brother/sisterhood of craftspeople. Most of the metal techniques we use have been perfected over several millennia by other metalsmiths all over the world. Personally, much of what I know, I have learnt from my teachers, mentors, and colleagues who have been generous enough to share their knowledge and skills. So, in that spirit, I acknowledge that I did not win this award solely on my own.

Thank you Vancouver!

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Thank you Mayor Gregor Robertson !
Photo: Dan Bar-el

* quoted by the Craft Council of British Columbia – October 31, 2013.

The Lab

Still from "The Bride of Frankenstein", 1935.

Still from “The Bride of Frankenstein”, 1935.

It is funny how naming things can impose a different shade of meaning on how we perceive them. As a native French speaker, I often lament the neutrality of the English language. While, I admit, a gender-neutral language is often more practical and better suited to our modern day society, I find it at times less colourful and poetic. For me it is natural that flowers and cars are feminine, and trees and trucks masculine. And of course everybody will agree that the sun is masculine and the moon, feminine.

Henri Bué, Second French Book, Hachette, Paris, London, Boston, 1893.

Henri Bué, Second French Book, Hachette, Paris, London, Boston, 1893.

In the college where I teach Metal Techniques, our classrooms are called labs – a term I wasn’t comfortable with at first, maybe because it is a somewhat painful reminder of my “bad lab days” in high school when I never amounted to more than a “C” student in chemistry and physics. Up till now I was more partial to “workshop” or “shop”, but after much pondering, I am reconsidering.  The word “shop” conjures up a time not so long ago when most goldsmiths were men. When I think “workshop”, I see cute elves working frantically at their benches while Christmas music is playing in the background. None of that is really a true reflection of who I am and what I do professionally.

Ateliers Fabergé

Fabergé workshop, late 19th century. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In fact a science lab and a goldsmith’s studio have quite a bit in common, and not just their physical attributes – the workbench or countertop, lots of cabinets and drawers, and a journal or notebook to keep track of the results of the experiments. In my previous post I expressed the need to explore and ask questions in order to reawaken my creativity. In that spirit, seeing my studio as a lab, a place for investigating and exploring, will certainly give me the freedom I need to do just that.

Ultimately, it comes down to the birds and the bees (No, I don’t mean that!). A goldsmith in her “lab” is more inclined to look at other forms of artistic expression, look at other disciplines and see how they might intersect with metalwork and jewellery; play with different materials, draw on a wider range of techniques and try new ones, explore new technologies, try a different hat on, collaborate AND allow for cross-pollination.  I will leave you with a quote by Andy Goldsworthy: “Every so often I feel as birds must before their first migration – a gut instinct that something is wrong where they are, a strong sense that they must now go where they have never been before.”

Andy Goldsworthy Yellow elm leaves laid over a rock low water Dumfreisshire, Scotland, 15 October 1991

Andy Goldsworthy
Yellow elm leaves laid over a rock
low water
Dumfriesshire, Scotland, 15 October 1991

Back to school

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., 1919
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

September is my favourite month of the year. Yes, the air is crisper, sharper even, as if infused with a sense of purpose that I find invigorating after the lazy days of summer. I have always loved going back to school. For me, the New Year, with all its possibilities, really starts in September, not in January.

This year marks a new beginning as I am starting a new job. Instead of being a travelling instructor working in several schools, I am now “permanently” attached to a college where I teach metal techniques and art history. (Note: I don’t have tenure yet, hence the quotation marks). I have been asked to create a whole new art history curriculum, which is both very exciting and very terrifying. Art history is my first love, but this was a long time ago (in the twentieth century). I have since explored other disciplines: photography, fine arts, and lastly jewellery. So here I am now, on both sides of the desk, so to speak.

Here, in the twenty-first century, art historians are of course asking themselves the same age-old questions, such as: What is art? Why do we make art (or jewellery)? And what does this all mean? But this is also the Digital Age, with the emergence of new technologies, and the ever-present social media. As the making and disseminating of art is transformed dramatically, more questions need to be asked. Should not we take a new look at the art institutions, the museums and the art galleries? Do we still need them? Are they/should they be the only custodians of art? In today’s society, where everything can be turned into a commodity, what it the role of art and artists? And then, there are questions more specific to jewellery-making. With climate change, ethical questions concerning the mining of precious metals and its effects on the environment become even more pressing. So, how does that affect us as makers? And what about new technologies, such as 3-D printing among others, what impact do they have on the production of jewellery? Are traditional metal techniques then still relevant? Will that give designers more freedom to explore, and to push boundaries?

I could go on and on. These are only some of the many questions that any art historian should be pondering and that any art history teacher should be asking her students.

Well, barely two weeks into the school year, I realize that I haven’t done enough of that myself, as a goldsmith – the asking and questioning. I hope I can be forgiven, after maintaining a studio and running a jewellery business for so many years, for becoming maybe a bit complacent and forgetting that increasing your customer base or growing your sales should not be the primary goal of an artist.

So I am full of anticipation as I go back to school and begin a new year. I hope that this new job will give me the freedom to keep exploring and asking questions. Here is a quote from “Ways of Seeing”, a series of essays on art criticism by John Berger, a classic that should be on the reading list of any art history student – or teacher, or artist.

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.”

― John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 1972, BBC & Penguin Books

My first school.

My first school.

Alchemist’s Travel Kit – Update

Dominique Bréchault - Alchemist's Travel Kit - Locket with chain.

Dominique Bréchault – Alchemist’s Travel Kit – Locket with chain.

In a previous post, I related the fabrication process of “Alchemist’s Travel Kit”, a locket I intended to submit to an exhibition. It was a long process involving several metalworking techniques, like die-forming, a technique I also described in that post.

I was under a lot of stress, trying not only to finish the piece, but gathering as well all the material and information needed for the submission, and all this, under a fast-approaching deadline. In the end, everything worked out: the piece was finished, the photos shot, the statement written on time… and my piece was accepted!

This juried exhibition called “Circle Craft – 40 years and Beyond” is a group show featuring 45 members of Circle Craft Cooperative in celebration of its 40th anniversary. Here is an excerpt of the Media Release: This show marks an important anniversary, a recognition of the past, but…is also a show about the future. Forty years ago, Circle Craft Cooperative was formed in Victoria, BC to support the viability and growth of craft in British Columbia. A measure of its success can be seen in the works created by today’s members, works that push the boundaries of “the applied arts”.

I have been a proud member Of Circle Craft since 1998, and I am thrilled to be part of this show.

The exhibition takes place August 6-23 at the Pendulum Gallery, HSBC Building, 885 West Georgia, in Vancouver.

Dominique Bréchault - Alchemist's Travel Kit. Locket. Sterling silver, 18k & 14k gold, patina. Fabricated. die-formed, cast, stamped, fused. (Shown with lid closed)

Dominique Bréchault – Alchemist’s Travel Kit. Locket. Sterling silver, 18k & 14k gold, patina. Fabricated. die-formed, cast, stamped, fused. (Shown with lid closed)

Dominique Bréchault - Alchemist's Travel Kit. Locket. (Shown with lid open)

Dominique Bréchault – Alchemist’s Travel Kit. Locket. (Shown with lid open)

Gilakas’la! Welcome to Alert Bay!

Alert Bay. Totem poles, Namgis burial grounds.

Alert Bay. Totem poles, ‘Namgis burial grounds.

I have just returned from Alert Bay, a small village on Cormorant Island, off the North Coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The trip started very early in the morning with a ferry ride from Vancouver on the mainland to Nanaimo, then a long drive to the Northern tip of Vancouver Island to Port McNeill to take a final ferry to Alert Bay, just before sunset.

Port McNeill, BC. Ferry to Alert Bay.

Port McNeill, BC. Ferry to Alert Bay.

Alert Bay

Alert Bay

This was my third visit, and still, driving the whole length of this big island is always thrilling. The road stretches for miles and miles through big dense forests, with almost no one except for deer grazing on the side of the road and eagles flying above. It feels as if the forest will swallow you as soon as you stop moving. What’s even more astounding is that Port McNeill is “only” at the half-way mark to the north of British Columbia where it touches Alaska and the Yukon!

Alert Bay is the traditional home of the ‘Namgis First Nations who had established a thriving salmon fishing community there long before Captain Vancouver anchored his ship off the coast in the late 1700’s. It has always been an important fishing and supply centre, as the turn-of-the-century wooden buildings that still stand on Fir Street can attest. And it is famous for its totem poles.

Alert Bay from the ferry.

Alert Bay from the ferry.

Fir Street.

The bay from Fir Street.

Fir Street.

Fir Street.

Totem poles on Namgis burial grounds.

Totem poles on ‘Namgis burial grounds.

Totem poles on Namgis burial grounds.

Totem poles on ‘Namgis burial grounds.

This tiny island with a population of about 1,400 people has a very rich and, at times, turbulent history. On my first visit in the late eighties, the tension between the two communities was palpable (the population of the village is roughly half native and half non-native). Potlatchs (gift-giving festivals practiced by the Northwest coast tribes) had been made illegal in 1884 by the Canadian government and all the artefacts had been confiscated. After the ban was lifted in 1951, people continued fighting for the return of their ritual objects that were by then dispersed in several museums in Canada and around the world. Most of these objects have finally been returned to the village. They now constitute the “Potlatch Collection” of the U’mista Cultural Centre  – “U’mista” means “Return of our treasures”. This world-renowned collection of copper shields, dance regalia and carved masks is alone worth a trip should you consider exploring this part of Canada.

U'mista cultural centre.

U’mista cultural centre.

U'mista.

U’mista.

U'mista.

U’mista.

On my second and third visits, I found a healed community, warm and welcoming. In 1999, the Village of Alert Bay and the ‘Namgis First Nations signed the Alert Bay Accord, “a unique document under which they agreed to mutual support in civic and cultural matters affecting both jurisdictions”. U’mista strives to keep the rich cultural history of the First Peoples of the island alive and to “forge links between the past, present and future generations”. The traditional songs and dances of the potlatchs are being taught, as well as kwak’wala, the language of the Kwakwaka’wakw people.

Alert Bay, Front Street.

Alert Bay, Front Street.

Strolling through the village, accompanied by the croak of Raven the Trickster echoing from the tall cedars, I am reminded of the power of these treasures, and the totem poles come alive.

D Brechault Alert Bay totem poles

D Brechault Alert Bay totem polesD Brechault Alert Bay totem poles