Category Archives: seen & read

The I Ching of the Goldsmith

Hexagram Qian: "Force", also: "The Creative Heaven", from the I Ching.  From top: mandrel, hand forged setting tool, dapping punch, square needle file, hand forged setting tool, hand forged repoussé tool

Hexagram Qian: “Force”, also: “The Creative Heaven”, from the I Ching.
From top: mandrel, hand forged setting tool, dapping punch, square needle file, hand forged setting tool, hand forged repoussé tool

The holidays at last! Time to unwind and have fun. My idea of a good time is reading a book, and for this, I chose Grain of Truth – The Ancient Lessons of Craft, by Ross A. Laird, a book I had read and enjoyed over a decade ago. Guaranteed gratification? Yes, and why not? It is the holidays after all.

In “Grain of Truth”, the author takes us through the process of designing and making a series of woodworking projects. This is not, however, a technical manual or a how-to book (although it is kind of, but in a poetic sense). Organized in eight chapters named after the eight trigrams of the I Ching (Earth, Water, Fire, etc.), and each dedicated to a different project, it flows elegantly and seemingly without effort from chapter to chapter. We follow the maker as he experiences joy and satisfaction or doubt and frustration. And although it deals with woodworking projects, it is quite universal and will resonate with any craftsperson, whatever their craft may be.

Trigrams of the I Ching

Trigrams of the I Ching

The book celebrates the importance of craftsmanship, the beauty of an object made by hand, but not in a sentimental way because, the “truth” is, this practice demands deep awareness and strict discipline. The process of creating and making something by hand, like meditation, requires us to pause and ponder often. “Working with hand tools”, says Laird, “teaches, in a pragmatic way, the art of stillness” (p. 28). When working with wood, or any other medium for that matter, one needs to be receptive, to watch and to listen. Observe the file as it glides on the edge of the sheet of metal. Hear the hammer as it hits the metal. When under pressure or facing deadlines, how many times have I felt the impulse to dominate the tools, to force them to perform a specific task? It is not, Laird adds, about will power, which will only bring disappointment and frustration. Instead, it “requires a purposeful surrender, a willingness to be taught by tools (…)” (p. 29).

This book, so full of wisdom, shows us that patience and humility, backed by concentration and deep knowledge of materials and techniques, will be rewarded with a sense of wonder. In the spirit of the Tao, Laird always starts afresh with each project, open to the possibilities and with “faith in the process and a willingness to be taken” (p. 50).

Happy holidays and best wishes to all for a creative New Year.

Ross A. Laird, Grain of Truth – The Ancient Lessons of Craft, Macfarlane Walter & Ross, Toronto, 2001. ISBN 1-55199-065-2

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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

How to Wrap Five Eggs: a designer’s must-have

How to Wrap Five Eggs - Traditional Japanese Packaging, by Hideyuki Oka. Photographs by Michikazu Sakai.

How to Wrap Five Eggs – Traditional Japanese Packaging, by Hideyuki Oka. Photographs by Michikazu Sakai.

For years, I lugged around a dog-eared copy of “How to Wrap Five Eggs”, a coffee-table size book from my local library. Knowing that it was both out of print and unaffordable, I made dozens of drawings from the gorgeous black and white illustrations so that I could revisit them and mine them for ideas later (until I had received too many angry reminders from the library, and had to reluctantly return the book). I found everything I was looking for, and much more: timeless designs, both practical and beautiful.

Drawings based on How to Wrap Five Eggs.

My sketchbook. Drawings based on How to Wrap Five Eggs.

Hideyuki Oka (1905-1995), a renowned Japanese graphic designer, collected traditional Japanese packaging and his collections were regularly exhibited around the world. A book featuring over 200 traditional objects from his collection, with illustrations by Michikazu Sakai, and commentaries by Oka, was published in 1967. A second edition came out in 1975 under the title “How to Wrap Five More Eggs”. These are pricey, oversized books, with gorgeous black and white photographs, that, as I said, are unfortunately out of print. However, in 2008, Shambhala Publications reissued the second book inexplicably under the title of the first book “How to Wrap Five Eggs”. As a paperback, it is now quite affordable, and also, thankfully, much easier to lug around!

When searching for inspiration and new ideas, I always prefer to look at other mediums. By avoiding jewellery, I am more likely to come up with less predictable, fresher ideas. Also, I find that most design solutions can be translated from one medium to another. This book is an excellent tool for the design process. It shows what makes a “good” design – a balanced relationship between beauty and function.

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs page 137

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 137.

(Above) A package of dried tofu slices made of rice straw. It reminds me of the lavender potpourris my grandmother would make every year at the end of the summer. The bundle of long-stemmed flowers was tied tightly together, then bent onto itself to keep the flowers on the inside. A silk ribbon was threaded through to keep it from breaking and spilling its contents on the linens. Simple, but effective.

Drawing 2 (185-186) 160-161

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 160-161

(Above) Tofu and “mochi” (steamed rice) pounded into cakes and strung with rice straw. Can be hung from the ceiling and used as needed. Ordinary, everyday products are beautifully and elegantly packaged. The strong graphic lines of the straw create a very pleasing rhythmical pattern.

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 138-139

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 138-139.

(Above) Basic packages made from natural materials and designed to carry, store and preserve various food items. Palm leaf, and a sheath of straw.

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 150.

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 150.

(Above) Sampling of food from a restaurant in Tokyo wrapped in an unadorned package – except for the elaborate knots of the straw rope. This was meant to be given as a gift. It is quite understated, but done with great care and consideration. According to Oka, “What is the use of a package if it shows no feeling?”

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 138.

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 138.

(Above) A section of bamboo covered with straw, used as a container for pickled roots of mountain burdock. Rustic looking, but its shape is perfectly suited for the long roots of burdock. The handle is a small piece of bamboo inserted into holes pierced into two prongs protruding from the bamboo tube – a simple, but elegant solution that could be easily translated into metal.

Drawing after How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 35.

Drawing based on How to Wrap Five Eggs, p 35.

(Above) Container for candies, from Okayama Prefecture. Pottery in the shape of a peach tied with braided ropes. The design is based on the fairy tale of Momotaro, the boy born from a peach. The bottom part of the container is a half-sphere; the top is made of two domed sections. This is another design that could be adapted to metalwork, for a small locket or a larger scale vessel, with a lid articulated on hinges.

What I have presented in this post is a small sampling of what can be found in Oka’s book. In this selection, I chose to focus mostly on simple packages made with everyday natural materials, whatever was at hand, like straw, leaves and bamboo. “How to Wrap Five Eggs” offers many more examples of wrappers, boxes, baskets and various containers, some more intricate or less rustic, and using clay, paper, wood or fabric. Regardless of the choice of materials, no matter how humble they might be, the craftsmanship is always exquisite; whatever the technique (ceramics, wood carving, basketry, etc.), every piece shows a careful attention for the simplest of details, as well as ingenuity and creativity. These are valuable lessons on how to apply smart, elegant solutions to design challenges; timeless in that they can still be applied today, even with modern materials.

I will leave you with one final quote by Hideyuki Oka : “… what we have lost for sure is what this book is about: a once-common sense of fitness in the relationships between hand, material, use, and shape, and above all, a sense of delight in the look and feel of very ordinary, humble things.”

“How to Wrap Five Eggs – Traditional Japanese Packaging”

By Hideyuki Oka. Photographs by Michikazu Sakai. Weatherhill, an imprint of Shamhala Publications, Inc., 2008. ISBN 978-1-59030-619-2

Luminescence

Luminescence, the silver of Peru, Museum of Anthropology, at the University of British Columbia, until December 16, 2012. 

I was traveling in Peru recently and I had the chance to see many examples of Peru’s dazzling metalwork in the museums and churches of Lima and Cusco. So I was thrilled when I found out I would have another opportunity to see these treasures right here at home.

Museo Larco – Lima

Cathedral – Cusco

Museo Inka – Cusco

The exhibition is well organized and divided into four main historical periods over three thousand years: pre-Columbian, Colonial (after the Spanish conquest in 1532), Republican (after Peru’s independence in 1821), and finally the contemporary era. From the pre-Columbian period – my favourite – which consists mostly of Moche, Chimu and Inca artefacts, there are body ornaments and various ritual objects, including two remarkable tunics made out of hundreds of small silver tiles. During the Colonial period, silversmiths made altar decorations and liturgical objects commissioned by the Church. After Peru gained its independence, they created delightful naturalistic pieces inspired from the fauna and flora of their country. A few striking contemporary pieces are included as well. The exhibition gives a very good overview of the prodigious silverwork of Peru and of the exceptional level of virtuosity of Peruvian silversmiths.

The curator chose to present the artefacts in a way that really emphasises their beauty – or, as the title of the show states, their luminescence – and conveys the importance of silver in Peru. Silver and gold were associated with the Moon (Mamaquilla) and the Sun (Inti), the two most important deities; silver was considered to be the tears of the moon. And this really resonates with me. I remember back in July when I was on the Inca Trail on the way to Machu Picchu, standing outside the tent at night under the Milky Way, with the brilliant silver moon above; it was hard not to believe that Mamaquilla was watching over us. Machu Picchu itself is perched on a ridge between towering mountains, and is perfectly aligned with the movement of celestial bodies. Silver, because of its reflective qualities, of its luminescence, was indeed at the heart of the Andean civilizations.

Machu Picchu from Inti Punktu, the Sun Gate, at sunrise

Despite the fact that I really enjoyed seeing this impressive display of extraordinary work, where dramatic lighting brings the objects to life as you walk through the darkened rooms of the gallery, I had some issues with the display.

The captions are much too brief. Even a succinct description of each piece would have helped, particularly some information about the techniques used (i.e. casting, embossing, filigree, etc.), so it would have highlighted the virtuosity of the silversmiths. Of course, as a silversmith myself, I always want to know how things are made, but I think that even for the general public, finding out more about the techniques employed by the metalworkers would have shown what they could accomplish, even with limited technological means, and how skilled and sophisticated they were.

I understand that the premise of the exhibition, according to Dr. Anthony Shelton, the curator, was to focus on the “idea of silver” rather than on the objects. I think that the way some of the objects are displayed, especially some of the pre-Columbian pieces, is not doing this justice. Let’s take for instance the nose ornaments.

Nose ornament – Chimu, 1100-1450 AD
Photo: Museo Larco

The caption seems self-explanatory enough, but it was in fact much more than an ornament. The guide at Museo Larco in Lima told us the true function of these objects. A nose ornament would have been worn by the ruler, the Inca for instance, or a member of the nobility. It was attached to the nostrils and hung over his mouth so that it would flutter when he spoke. And the words coming from his invisible mouth would have materialized in the gleams of silver and gold as the metal moved. To see these supernatural flashes of light as he spoke would have made him look more otherworldly and divine. Unfortunately there is nothing in the way this piece is displayed that hints at its role as a ritual object. It would have been helpful to display it on a mannequin or to include an illustration of how it would have been worn, and in what context.

Museo Larco – Lima

Silver and gold played a crucial role in the Inca Empire, not only in its culture, but in its politics as well. For the people of the Andes, silver and gold were especially important not because of their monetary or aesthetic value, but because of their spiritual meaning. These luminous metals embodied the divine power of the moon and the sun. This is very well articulated in the catalogue of the exhibition (ISBN 978-612-46274-0-8, edited by A. Shelton) which is thorough and informative. It provides substantial historical and sociological context, and explains the role of silver in pre-Columbian religion and politics. Sadly, unless you buy the catalogue, you won’t be able to find out. Some of this information should have been readily available on the panels accompanying the exhibition; instead, these panels are too general.  

Despite these disappointments, I would still recommend this show, and if I were to rate it; I would give it 4 out of 5 stars. These are beautiful and important objects; many of them are being been shown outside of Peru for the very first time. It is a rare opportunity not to be missed!

Richard Mamani, Hugo Champi – Madre Sponsylus – 2002
Photo: Patronato del Plata del Peru