Category Archives: in the studio

“Beyond the Precious” (searching for beauty in all the wrong places)

 

Automobile Junkyard on the North Bank of the Kansas River between the 12th and 18th street bridges. Kenneth Paik, 1973. Wikimedia Commons.

Automobile Junkyard on the North Bank of the Kansas River between the 12th and 18th street bridges. Kenneth Paik, 1973. Wikimedia Commons.

A few months ago, I wrote about the challenges of reconnecting with my creative side and working on three new pieces of jewellery I intended to submit to an exhibition. This post is a behind-the-scenes glimpse into my process and these challenges. Spoiler alert! I did meet the deadline and all three pieces were accepted in the show.

The first challenge was of my own making. I wanted to make rings; my previous projects had been mostly lockets and brooches, and I needed a change. Brooches would have been a more practical choice simply because they offer more space, a larger canvas so to speak, to express myself. But most of all, because brooches are not worn directly on the body, wearability issues are less constraining.

The theme of the show, “Beyond the Precious”, resonated with me because I had just seen an exhibition of Edward Burtynsky’s photographs. His large-scale pictures of industrial sites intrigued me. Looking at these richly coloured and exquisitely detailed man-made landscapes, I wondered how it was possible that I was made to feel both awed and repelled at the same time.

Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings #31, Sudbury Ontario, 1996.

Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings #31, Sudbury Ontario, 1996.

What I was interested in were themes of corrosion, rust and decay. For this purpose, I would use a combination of precious and non-precious metals and play on the contrast between these materials. As well, rusted metals would introduce a variety of textures and some colour. This was quite a departure for me as my work tends to be more figurative with a narrative unfolding around some kind of personal element, such as a memory or a place. For this project, the starting point would be the materials, and the focus would be on forms and textures. It was time to rummage through my boxes of found bits and pieces, my “Cabinet of curiosities” as I like to call it (more on that in a later post, “Confessions of a Hoarder”).

A sampling of found metal objects from my "Cabinet of curiosities".

A sampling of found metal objects from my “Cabinet of curiosities”.

 

Here is what I selected: a piece of muffler, a section of metal strapping and a washer – all nicely rusted out, of course, and with tantalizing patterns and textures. I was drawn to the muffler fragment because of the pattern of small slots repeated all over its surface. The piece of strapping, with its pierced circles of alternating sizes made a strong visual statement. As for the simple washer, I thought it could serve somehow as a setting for a stone. Now, could I just let these strong shapes inform the rest of the rings? Certainly, I wasn’t going to let myself be intimidated by concerns such as wearability! On the other hand (pardon the pun), these rings had to be worn without inflicting too much pain to the wearer. The solution was to use a silver sleeve (the part through which the finger could go comfortably), and to attach the found metal pieces to it. But how would I join the rusted steel pieces to the silver component? Soldering was not an option, so it would have to be cold connections, such as rivets or staples.

Dominique Bréchault, "Spilt". Ring, 2014. Silver, synthetic stones, found washer, patina. Cast, fabricated, stamped.

Dominique Bréchault, “Spilt”. Ring, 2014. Silver, synthetic stones, found washer, patina. Cast, fabricated, stamped.

For “Spilt”, I cast the shank of the ring in silver. Thick and wide, and darkened with black patina, it accentuates the industrial feel of the piece. A dome has been soldered to the top at a slight angle, as if about to “spill” out its contents (a green tube set cubic zirconium visible through the opening of the washer). The rounded silver tabs joining the washer to the silver dome contrast with the rough rusted texture.

Dominique Bréchault, "Exhausted". Ring, 2014. Silver, found muffler part. Fabricated.

Dominique Bréchault, “Exhausted”. Ring, 2014. Silver, found muffler part. Fabricated.

“Exhausted” is a wide silver ring wrapped with a fragment of rusted muffler. As simple as that seems, the difficulty here was to bend the fragile piece of crumbling metal without breaking it, and then to attach it securely to the silver band. I soldered silver wire posts onto the ring and bent them through the slots of the muffler to hold it in place. A thick section of silver plate, with an irregular side to echo the frayed edges of the muffler, holds one end of the wrapped piece in place.

Dominique Bréchault, "(W)holed". Ring, 2014. Silver, copper, cubic zirconium, found perforated hanging strap. Fabricated.

Dominique Bréchault, “(W)holed”. Ring, 2014. Silver, copper, cubic zirconium, found perforated hanging strap. Fabricated.

In making “(W)holed”, I wanted the strapping to be the focus of the work as I felt it was so visually striking. Again, the challenge was to connect this large piece of rusted metal to the silver ring, and not only physically, but visually as well. The strapping is held in place by two thick strips of silver soldered to the shank – a tension setting of sort. Pierced holes laid out in a regular pattern on the double-layer silver ring mirror the holes in the strapping. A small white cubic zirconium lights up the deep dark rusted tones of the top of the ring.

All found metal components were sprayed with Krylon®, a clear matte sealer ideal for protecting these types of materials without being too obtrusive.

IMG_2957 (2) (1024x768)

The show is now over and, reflecting on the process of making these rings and the challenges I faced, I can appreciate how far out of my comfort zone I wandered. In fact, I am feeling quite adventurous again, so much so that I started working on a submission for another upcoming show. This time I will be making a series of brooches, and exploring new themes and materials. I will keep you posted on my “travels”.

 

 

 

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Being G. Moffat

1388 title photo copy

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.

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.

Cat wrangling tips for the small studio

The working life of a studio jeweller is pretty much a solitary one. Now that the hectic craft fair season is over, and another crop of students have been sent on their own jewellery-making journey, I am back at the bench. Clang – clang – saw – saw – the studio is alive with many sounds. No human voice is to be heard though; except for the occasional swearing (yes, sometimes metal can test your patience). This being a one-woman operation, my only companion in the studio is a tuxedo cat named Sasha.

Sasha

Sasha

Sasha is not allowed to be in the studio by himself. When he visits, he usually likes to sit on the window sill or on the stump that I use for hammering. From his vantage point he watches and listens. Movements, activities, sounds, nothing escapes him. He loves the rhythmic scraping of the file on metal, and the whirr of the flex shaft. He is fascinated by the torch, but because he is a well-behaved cat (generally), and because I have trained him to stay at a safe distance, he has developed a healthy respect for it, and keeps well away.

Our partnership would be perfect, except for the fact that I cannot always keep Sasha entertained or interested (Is my work not good enough?). When he gets really bored, he jumps on top of the bench, and starts pushing everything off the edge – pieces of metal, small hand tools, stones – and then lands in the scrap drawer; his paws now nicely coated with shiny silver filings. To make matters worse I sometimes let things get a little messy in my studio. In-progress pieces left out on my work table are allowed some “breathing space”; they can evolve more freely somehow. I might also leave out samples of textured sheets that could spark some ideas for a new project later on. And I find that not putting tools away encourages me to “play” with them and use them in a more creative way. There are always sketches spread out on the table, and various found objects. A little bit of mess provides a more stimulating environment and helps creative juices flow more easily. This, unfortunately, is also a very stimulating environment for a bored cat.

Good cat

Good cat

Bad cat

Bad cat

In a small space with a lot of tools and equipment, things could quickly get out of control and compromise your pet’s safety, and yours. In a jewellery studio, safety should always be a priority, for everyone’s sake.

There are areas of the studio that should be off-limits to your pet: soldering station (don’t leave the torch unattended, the tanks should be secured), polisher, flex shaft, ultrasonic cleaner and pickling pot. All chemicals should be stored safely in a cabinet, all containers labelled clearly. Small parts should be put in bags or containers. Sharp objects should be stored away when not in use. Chains or spools of wire (Sasha’s favorites) should be stored safely as well. Be careful with magnets (used in clasps for example). Some are very powerful and can pose serious health risks if ingested. With etching, make sure your pet is not around. Period.

Charles Lewton-Brain has written extensively on studio safety. He has published numerous articles on this subject; several can be found at: www.ganoksin.com.

His book, The Jewelry Workshop Safety Report (ISBN 0-9698510-4-9), is very comprehensive and deals specifically with safety in the goldsmith’s studio. And don’t forget to consult MSDS sheets (Material Safety Data Sheets) to find out how to handle and use products and chemicals safely. They are available online.

The holidays are fast approaching. So what to get the cat who is not on the naughty list?

What about a Charming Collar for a Lucky Cat?

Dominique Bréchault - Charming Collar for Lucky Cat - Gold plated copper, silver, crystals. Fabricated, cast.

Dominique Bréchault – Charming Collar for a Lucky Cat

 

Dominique Bréchault - Charming Collar for Lucky Cat - Gold plated copper, silver, crystals. Fabricated, cast.

Dominique Bréchault – Charming Collar for a Lucky Cat – Gold plated copper, silver, crystals. Fabricated, cast. Charms: Fish, bird, food bowl, number 9, yarn, cheese and mouse)

Best wishes to all for a prosperous, creative and safe New Year!

Nice cat

Nice cat


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