For decades I’ve advocated the importance of playing in other media or learning new things in a different field from your primary one. Sherlock and his dubious violin playing are a prime example, but seriously, how much longer would the world have waited for Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (General or Special) if it weren’t for his famous, violin playing as a way to distract himself into solving incredibly complex problems? You don’t have to be Einstein to know that distracting yourself with something other than your usual work can have exponentially beneficial results when you go back to your day job or main medium.
When lockdown hit, all I wanted to do was curl up with my watercolors. I found comfort in their vivid depth. I’d venture back to the jewelry bench to prepare for teaching, but it was easy to put off playing with metal as I got caught up in wondering if the world would ever again want to buy high end art jewelry, let alone commission six-figure architectural metalwork. Allowing myself to simply play at what I’m best known for proved challenging.
When I came across my friend Cynthia Eid’s online workshop on Micro Forming and Metal Corrugation, I decided maybe it was time to play at my day job. Cynthia is a pioneer in the metalsmithing world and someone whose work and teaching I deeply respect. The first time I taught at Metalwerx in person, she was my teaching assistant because she wanted to try out my methods of filigree in Argentium, a unique silver alloy, and because, like me, she loves learning new things. I joked it was like singing on stage and having The Beatles as my back up band.
In taking her online workshop, I vowed to let myself play, not to care about what I finished or what my prototypes might become when they grew up or how I might encompass these techniques into my usual style of work.
Within an hour my bench was covered in pliers and thin, wavy copper sheet, and I was one very happy camper.
Truly gifted teachers like Cynthia remove the fear of failure and make things fun. She made me realize that, while I’m fabulous at reminding others to give themselves permission to get lost in the process, learn, have fun, and stop worrying about the exact outcome, I totally suck at giving myself this same permission. I was so elated at the corrugated metal beads I made, that I showed them to everyone I Zoomed with over the next two weeks. People would ask was I was going to do with it, and I’d reply with wild enthusiasm, “I have no idea, but isn’t it cool?!?”
That’s the trick: to not be concerned with a practical plan or with an ultimate destination. Hoping the sketch turns into a great work of art or thing you can post on Instagram completely defeats the purpose of just playing.
Of course, days after being enthralled with what I’d made that just made me happy to look at, the ideas started flowing, and I can see so very many possibilities for using these techniques in ways I’d never imagined. The real trick is not banking on that payoff at the start. If my corrugated beads just sat on my bench, forever more reminding me of an entire week of metal fun, that would be more than enough. Like reading a good book or watching a good movie, the joy lies in the moment of doing it, not the accomplishment of having done it.
Filigree Your heart out and Play
As much as people miss being able to learn in person, online workshops offer a unique way to bring many more of us together while time shifting the learning, making it possible to teach more techniques and projects in greater detail than are realistic in an in-person workshop. My friend and former student Milt Fischbein and I are expanding the possibilities of filigree and making the options for mastering it truly international.
Curator Jane Milosch generously credits me with the continued existence of Russian filigree. I was so incredibly fortunate to learn the technique from then artist-in-residence Gia Gogishvili when I studied metalsmithing at Georgia State University, and so I pay that debt forward. My love of teaching filigree has been as important as my doggedly pioneering and expanding both the design and technical possibilities of what the rest of the world calls filigrana.
But my teaching would be nothing without the students who have gone on to make their own voices and talents heard and the even smaller number of those students who generously share that knowledge with others. Together we keep filigree vibrantly alive for future generations of metalsmiths.