“What TV shows did you grow up with, and how did they impact your view of the world?” asked the coach in a course I recently took. As the Zoom chat filled with so many women listing Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, I felt a fond nostalgia for the improbable antics, mishaps, and adventures of the beloved, witchy companions of my Gen-X, latchkey childhood. The coach replied almost matter of factly, “Yep, powerful women who were forced to hide their magic,” and suddenly I felt like someone had punched me hard in the stomach.
As a child, I dreamed of cleaning my room by twitching my nose. In fact, I remember standing on tip-toe to see in the bathroom mirror as I tried to make the tip of my nose move while keeping the rest of my face still. I longed for my room to look like the inside of Jeannie’s bottle. – Anyone who has watched my original videos from my Metal Techniques of Bronze Age Master series may recall I’d done my best to make at least the window seat corner of my studio feel exactly like that with colorful cushions and drapes made from saris.
I believed with all my optimistic heart that one day, despite their mates’ best efforts, everyone would find out that Samantha and Jeanie had supernatural powers, and (here’s the wildly naive part) everything would then be ok. Gladys Kravitz wouldn’t freak out or wake Abner, no NASA missions would be in danger, astronauts would still fly safely to the moon, and I would forever more get out of cleaning my room the old fashioned way.
As reality continued to dawn on me long after that Zoom call, the extent of the damage those pop culture messages left was slowly revealed. What Samantha and Jeannie did was hide all their effort, whether by magic or by drudgery, to clean the house, keep the nosy neighbors at bay, straighten out the endless shenanigans of Sam’s family, right the slapstick catastrophes of incompetent military leaders, and appear at the end of each episode, the perfect blonde glamor girls their mates’ coworkers (and the TV networks’ producers) expected them to be without anyone catching on that these women were remarkable.
What the hell kind of screwed up message is that for a little girl to carry around for 50+ years???
There is definitely some sleight of hand in how I pull off what I do. It’s magic that I’m happy to share others whether by putting my work out into the world for collectors or by mentoring other makers in what I’ve pioneered.
Within the larger culture, however, my magic stays all too hidden.
Most people’s view of working with metal is limited to 3 mental images: the sparks flying in the face of a hooded welder, the glowing red hot iron shaped on an anvil by a blacksmith, or the flow of molten metal poured from a crucible into a flask for wax casting, and, unless one of their favorite movies was Flashdance, those iconic, mental, process images rarely feature women doing the work.
Describing what I do for a living is an uphill battle that flies in the face of all of that, and, when people are actually interested in broadening their cultural assumptions rather than immediately asking, “Is there a market for that?” It’s too easy to fall into the trap of talking tech rather than talking art and design.
Through an enormous amount of micro-decisions, a forged or fabricated object comes into being through the technical requirements of its design. In reality, to tease apart how I make an object from how I design it is impossible. Design is not a skin on the outside of an object, not a ghost in a low-tech machine. The magic of metal is that the process by which to execute a design is inherently the design itself. The techniques are the steps on the journey from design idea to completed object, like a mental map is the way to go from home to the grocery store. Imagining that map in my head and letting it guide my hands, that possess over 100,000 hours of skill building, to form an object is my own, all too often, hidden magic power.
A friend recently sent me an image of the most amazing solder joint on a vessel in progress. The silver had yet to be cleaned up, and the photograph had not been retouched, but there were no missing bits nor big blobs of solder, no pits, no hours of grinding or filing in store. The extremely difficult joint was perfect.
Instead of taking my compliment about how extraordinary her work was, she blew it off as an easy process and gave all the credit to her having taken enough time to set things up well before she turned on the torch. “Who are you kidding?!?” I fired back at her. “How many people do you know who could have done that without making a mess no matter how well they set it up? Probably only a few, and I only know one person who would have been able to design the object the way you did: That person is you.”
She caved because, like me, she hates hypocrisy, and she’s busted me all too often for blowing off similar compliments. Anyone who has survived the battering of Tall Poppy Syndrome needs that kind of accountability buddy.
No one should have to hide their magic, talent, or superpowers simply because they make others squirm. Magic in the witchy sense may not be real, but then neither is ‘normal.’ (Normal is a setting on your washing machine.) In a complex mix of ironic reality and fiction, Samantha’s and Jeannie’s magic was known…to us. While we might have gotten the dysfunctional message that they were supposed to keep under wraps who they really were, we knew all along just how magical they were.