Edited today to add the story of how this piece made me cry. I was too tired last night and forgot.
Last semester (Spring 2011) my jewelry class concentrated primarily on chasing and repoussé, a technique that involves hammering steel punches against a softer metal (e.g. copper, silver) to create three-dimensional relief and fantastic texturing. It's the closest to drawing in metal I've ever experienced. Chasing is when you work the front side of the metal, creating outlines or adding detail to a previously "pushed out" section. Repoussé, or more properly repoussage, is when you work the back side of the metal to create volume, the aforementioned "pushing out".
In preparation for our first big assignment, we made tools (intimidating but useful) by grinding steel punches into different shapes. We then practiced tap-tap-tapping the tools against copper to get an idea of how much you can manipulate metal into the form and design you desire. Metal really is more like clay than you'd ever imagine. It's amazing how elastic it can be when manipulated with punches and a hammer.
Our first assignment was to create a piece that expresses a dichotomy, ideally using chasing and repoussé. We were challenged to be conceptual, and to express two polar opposite concepts within one piece of jewelry or sculptural object.
Nearly all of my ideas for this project revolved around the idea of ornamentation vs. clean space. I love patterns and embellishments, but they need some negative or quiet space to feel balanced. Taking it further, when I create hand-drawn patterns or do repetitive decorative work, I get into a trance-like state. The work is very meditative, and I find it ironic that by making something so "busy" I am able to attain the clean-mind state of being that is the goal of most meditation. That was my conceptual dichotomy - the contrast between ornate, busy embellishments and the quiet, blank mind-space I reach by creating them. Now how to express that idea in metal...
I first started by sketching some pattern progressions. I wanted to make a necklace where each link would be progressively complex in form as well as texture/ornamentation. My inspiration was from a Nanettte Lepore dress I coveted earlier in the year.
Once I had a progression I was happy with, I started to sketch out the center medallion for the necklace. I wanted it to be mandala-like, a repetition of the shape used in the links. My idea is for the outside of the mandala to be super textured, but for the center to be very clean and smooth to express how my meditative mind feels while making all these patterns and textures.
After I got my idea sorted, I started to work in sterling silver. In order to chase and repoussé, you need something to support the metal when you strike it with the steel punches. We use a bowl full of a resin-like substance called pitch that is viscous and tar-like when heated, then dries to a hard consistency that will securely hold your metal in place while you work it, yet is supple enough to allow the metal to expand and contract. It's messy but pretty amazing.
Once I'd worked each link in my necklace, I cut them out with a jeweler's saw and soldered a border on the back to reinforce the edges (they get pretty thin with all that hammering). The links between the chased and repousséd pieces were cut from very thick silver that I recycled myself.
Back and forth, back and forth. You have to flip your metal several times in order to get the desired effect. It takes time. Lots of time. And all that hammering and holding tools is pretty hard on the hands and forearms. I struggled with repetitive stress injuries nearly all semester despite being really vigilant about stretching, resting and good posture.
I also had a mini-breakdown due to this piece taking so much out of me. I had about 10 times the work I'd anticipated, and spent 12-hour days in the studio everysingleday of Spring Break. That Wednesday it got to me. I hated my work. I was exhausted. I resented not having a vacation when I already so desperately needed one. I was especially frustrated because it was a *choice* to do this project, and a *choice* to work every damn day of my break, and a *choice* to push myself so hard. I had nobody to really blame/thank for how I felt but myself. After stepping outside into the alleyway outside the studio and having a good, lonesome cry I felt somewhat better. Still, I thought quite clearly, "I don't want to do this anymore." In that moment, I wasn't sure what that feeling encompassed. My specific project? School? Becoming a jewelry artist? Having my own business at all?
Although I worked a ridiculous amount on this piece, I wasn't able to finish it in time for the deadline (or even for the end of the semester, although I had good intentions). That was tough, but there came a point where I just had to set the necklace aside and concentrate on the next project so I wouldn't fall behind on that one as well. Being super burned out didn't help either. Honestly I didn't want to work on the dichotomy piece anymore. We needed some time apart. It was useful to see how much I can push myself, where my limit is, at what point I burn out physically and/or emotionally.
At least I was in good company for this whole experience. I think nearly everyone in our department has turned in a piece late despite their best intentions and efforts, and definitely everyone has had a crisis or three. I felt ashamed, defeated, tired, and stressed...but I felt like part of the team. Ha!
This is how far I've gotten on the necklace. I still need to do some texture work on the center mandala and then saw it out. I also plan to use dark patina (liver of sulfur) to add shadows to each of the elements and bring out the texture of the chasing and repoussé. I also need to finish a clasp. I'd estimate I have another 40 hours or so before completing the piece. Looks like I have my work cut out for me this summer!
The center medallion is about 5 inches in diameter and will hang just above the bust when worn. This is not a necklace for the faint of heart. Fittingly, it's being custom-made for a very strong woman: my mom. :)