My brother and I spent our childhood bonding over superhero movies and nerd stuff. A couple of years ago we decided to drop in on a local comic convention to restock our supplies of action figures for our shelves and Star Wars t-shirts for our closets. Over the years it has morphed into an excuse to create costumes with some type of over the top metal work. Inspired by the YouTube show, Tested, and its host, Adam Savage, I decided to go all out this year with a very detailed build.
When I was around the age of five, my mom ordered a subscription of Barbie Magazine for me. Inside was a fold out poster of She-Ra Princess of Power. That poster was so interesting to me that I wanted to keep it just like it was, carefully intact inside the magazine. Fast forward more years than I'd like to admit, and that magazine sits on my desk, the character of She-Ra being my motivation for this costume build. Her metal tiara would be the piece to set the tone for the entire costume. I began with sheets of solid brass, sketch paper and markers, creating outlines and patterns for the component of the headpiece.
Using a hand saw and a foot powered treadle scroll saw, I cut pieces of brass to shape for the wings of the headpiece. Even though these builds are for fun, it is important to me to use them as opportunities to include my own style and push my skillset as a maker. Within the lines of the headpiece, I created elaborate hand engravings, used the hand saw to cut out decorative patterns to alternate between the engraving and gave a hand hammered texture to all of the unengraved metal surfaces.
Once the head piece design was well under way, I switched my focus to starting the dress portion of the costume. A used white dress was the perfect start to alter into my vision for the outfit. I used pieces from a gold table cloth to create some dimension to the bodice and waist. A vintage brooch I had on hand made the perfect jewel for the center of the bodice.
Though I would have had fun forming the brass collar necklace, I just happened to find one at an antique store that was green from tarnish. I polished it up, hand engraved it and added a jewel to its center. The final pieces to the puzzle were a wig. colored contacts and a cape.
The gray skies, heavy snows and subzero temperatures of this winter have kept me inside more than I would like. Evening's darkness falls early and I find myself wanting to snuggle deep into a warm blanket and binge watch old tv series. My current binge has been watching the goofy spy series, Chuck, full of fancy parties, sunny locations and dramatically danced tangos. It was following one of those episodes that I fell asleep and had a dream I was in a vibrant red dress, dancing a tango, wearing a very distinctive silver necklace.
When I woke up, the dream was still vivid and I couldn't get the image of the necklace out of my mind so I drew sketched it out and decided to make this my next project.
Using a scribe, I outlined my design onto a piece of sterling silver sheet and began to hand engrave the details of the pendant I wore in my dream. It is a fairly substantial piece and the largest piece of jewelry I have engraved to this point.
In order to give the neckpiece a bit of a delicate touch, I removed sections within it by hand using a hand saw, then filed all of the edges into smooth curves. The result was the piece I wore in my dreams, exactly as I had recalled it, flourishes seeming to move and dance in a fluid wave. Perhaps those late night binge watches aren't so bad. After all, inspiration can be drawn from anything, at anytime, and likely when you least expect it...even from a dream.
If you follow me on Instagram, you've been hearing me reference an event called: Handworks. Handworks was a gathering held in Amana, Iowa, honoring woodworking tools and traditions. Am I a woodworker? Not really. However, this event was very important for me to attend based on the relationships I have built through social media.
Last fall, a tool maker from Australia whom I follow on Instagram, mentioned Handworks and suggested my husband and I consider attending. If he was coming all the way from Australia, we had little excuse not to drive 8 hours and check out what all the fuss was about. As the months leading up to Handworks passed by, I found myself increasingly excited to meet up with other makers of handcrafts. I wanted to know about their personal experiences, how their businesses got started, what tools they most enjoyed using, and what inspires them.
Many of us in this group of makers have admitted that we are a bit introverted, some are downright shy. We share our work daily or weekly on social media but we spend most of our time drawing ideas, planning projects, building things in our workshops, often alone in our thoughts. I wondered if it would be awkward to be the new kid with some of the people who already had forged "real" relationships. I wondered if we'd have much to talk about.
Upon arriving at the Handworks grounds on Friday morning, my husband and I headed to a little brick building to start making our way through the venues. When we opened the doors, there stood Instagram's @anneofalltrades and @toddnebel. Without really thinking it through, I threw up my arms and said, "Hey!! It's my friends!" They turned around and laughed and we all shared a group hug.
As we visited and toured the rest of the grounds together, meeting up with other friends along the way, we laughed, ate beef jerky and swapped stories. By the time evening rolled around, we met for dinner and the volume in the pizza parlor was uproarious. I joked, "Who knew that introverts could make so much noise?" The truth was, we all shared a common ground. Even though many of us were meeting for the first time, we were invested in each other's journey. In some cases, we had already spent years encouraging each other, offering motivation to one another, even collaborating on projects across state lines and across oceans.
Community, as defined by Google is, "a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals." I returned home grateful for the time spent with these friends, recharged and ready to make new things, happy to have forged lasting friendships in a community of makers.
**Shown below are some of my favorite photos from the weekend. Click on them to read a bit about each maker**
Links to the makers in the photos above:
Anne of All Trades - www.anneofalltrades.com/
Todd Nebel - www.instagram.com/toddnebel/
Matt Eich - muleresophonic.com/
Konrad Sauer - sauerandsteiner.blogspot.ca/
Kieran Binnie - overthewireless.com/
Chris Vesper - www.vespertools.com.au/
Jason & Sarah Thigpen - www.txheritage.net/
Handworks - handworks.co/
These rings may look old but they are handcrafted and brand new with a bit of a story behind them. My mom loved antique jewelry and would sometimes take pieces to a local jeweler for cleanings and repairs. I remember going into the jewelry store with her and watching the jeweler polish rings on the buffing wheel while I surveyed the myriad of tools and wax molds on his workbench. There was also a book I would thumb through containing engraved rings with ornate designs. Eventually, the shop closed and I had no recollection of who the jeweler was. However, I never forgot the unique look of his work.
About five years ago, my husband heard of a tiny jewelry shop that someone recommended we check out. When we walked in, I immediately recognized the jeweler's face and the style of work in the case. I'm not ashamed to admit that I got a little bit choked up as I was remembering my visits to his earlier shop. My mother had recently passed away and I inherited her diamond ring. I asked the jeweler, Mr. Ken Olsen, to make a new setting for her diamond, but the story doesn't end here.
The ring in the photo is not the ring using my mother's diamond, it is made with the stones and gold from my own wedding ring. Fourteen years ago, my husband proposed with a classic, ideally cut diamond, with six channel set diamonds flanking each side. It's a sturdy ring but I still remove it when I work and generally tuck it away in a safe place. Recently, I thought I had lost it. I looked everywhere for it. Unbenounced to me, my husband had taken my wedding rings to Ken to have reset into the rings above. On the anniversary of when he originally proposed to me, he took me to the restaurant where we had our first date and proposed again with the ring Ken had created.
As someone who is a craftsman, I am even more enamored now with Ken's work than I was as a young girl. I understand the amount of time it takes him to create a mold, to make the ring, and to add the intricate engraving. It was visiting shops like Ken's, and my mother's love of vintage jewelry, that planted seeds of interest in engraving that didn't take root until many years later. These rings are a meaningful heirloom treasure with a layer of unique history.
So, yeah. These pictures are both of me. I’m getting ready to go on vacation with my parents in Florida soon and I was reminiscing about a past Florida vacation. There I am, an awkward nine year old, hitting puberty, wearing a ginormous dental retainer with a head strap on the beach because I had to get my 12 hours in or my teeth would forever be scatty wompus. It wasn’t a good era. I’ll just say that. It was subsequently followed by red jeans and high tops, flannel and overalls, and the ultimate culmination of nerdity in my senior picture. Forever recorded in the almanac of my alma mater, I wore corduroy pants and a tribal sweater. Really. *face palm*.
Last week on my Instagram page, I shared a story in which I talked about removing a post due to criticisms left in the comments. It seemed to have struck a cord with many people and I received several messages from craftspeople who admitted feeling insecure in posting things based on the judgmental comments received from others. Some of these people had tens of thousands of followers. I was a little surprised that THEY would feel insecure. In an ironic twist, I received a private message that very day from a master engraver that I had never spoken to. The message had one sentence, “How did you get 30,000 followers?” When I read it, the “you” was flashing in neon and it made me feel incredibly insecure.
The question didn’t feel very nice, but maybe it wasn’t meant to be hurtful, maybe he just wanted to know how to get his work viewed. I replied that I don’t buy followers, that I just share my work with others. I’m a primarily self taught engraver, still learning, and finding my own style. I complimented his amazing masterful work (which it really truly is) and left it at that. The next day he responded that there was indeed a “cheeky tone” to his question and he apologized. Though I appreciate that he apologized, it's not the first time that higher skilled person has poked at my work and I’m quite sure it won’t be the last.
A friend asked me a few months back why I didn’t have a YouTube channel. It’s a question I get all of the time. The above scenario is exactly why I don’t. I’m not a trained, traditional engraver. I’m an artist using engraving to create my own visions. I cannot imagine the ways my technique would be ripped apart. It told my friend, “My skin isn’t thick enough for YouTube.”
I’m not sharing these stories looking for an ounce of pity. I am sharing them because they caused me to reflect on myself and I realized I’ve allowed a lot of labels to stick to me. I don’t want to be a person who is scared to share my journey of learning because someone says something hurtful or demeaning. For every one of those people, there are so many others who have encouraged me and given me advice out of sincere kindness. One such person is a toolmaker from another country. I opened the mail one day last summer and there was a package with pieces of ebony wood. This person sent them to me to encourage me in wood turning. At that time, I had only turned two things. He was sending me the best of the best wood to encourage me to keep going. I was floored.
You know what? The girl with the head strap retainer, bad perms, bleached jeans and high tops never realized quite how dorky she was until after the fact. I had a circle of friends who encouraged me, came to my spelling bees and piano recitals, and told me they liked my art. I believed them. It’s time to put the labels in the trash. If anyone reading this is struggling with an inner sense of inadequacy as a maker, use it to push yourself forward and better your skill set. Don’t hold onto the label, learn from it. Keep your eyes on the goal of honing your craft, listen to the voices that want to help you and tune out those that are mocking you. You’re in competition with who you were yesterday, not them. That last sentence is a paraphrase of the master engraver who apologized for his snarky question. Something good came out of that and I’m going to learn from it, not add another label.
Follow these easy steps to make a standard t-shirt into something that fits a curvy girl just a bit better!
(Click on the photos to see the captioned instructions).
I have ideas. I have a lot of ideas. Sometimes I lack focus. This morning I saw a quote on an Instagram page that read, "You get what you focus on so focus on what you want." Immediately, I grabbed a pen and sketched the quote in my sketchbook. The past few months, I have realized the importance of keeping perspective and keeping focus. Here are a few things I have learned that may be of help to you in your journey.
Usually, I'm quite comfortable in my workspace. It's my own little slice of peace and quiet, the place I can create and be myself, typically by myself. I can jam out to Huey Lewis while I sketch, stream a favorite car show while I pack orders, or quietly engrave while listening to jazz late in the night. Tomorrow a photographer from a serious national news publication is coming to do a photoshoot and I'm nervous, maybe even a little self conscious, because my office isn't all business, it's personal (and a little weird).
I have a metal pedal car with a 31 inch Han Solo action figure parked alongside my bench. To some people, that is going to seem a bit strange. To me, it's hilarious and makes me laugh when I am stressing out about a project. The various action figures I have collected since I was a kid line the shelves on the opposite wall. My grandfather's hand built desk is now in place across from my bench and atop it are Star Wars mugs filled with pens and pencils, trinkets from friends and a blue picture frame that matches absolutely nothing except for the denim shirt worn by the person I'm standing next to in the framed photo.
I think most artists want to be taken seriously for their craft. I know I do. However, I don't take myself too seriously and try to enjoy the funnier things in life. That is amply reflected in my unusually decorated workspace and my quirky personality. The older I get, the more I realize the ever changing journey in adulthood of becoming comfortable in one's skin. (Even if it's the nerdy skin of an introvert whose comfort zone of odd always seems to be a surprise to people). It's possible to do serious, focused work in a place that is not so serious. And, for that, I feel thankful and blessed.
It's early fall, nineteen eighty something, and little Jenny is proudly marching down to the gym after a long day in first grade. The gym is full of smiling little girls who are eager to learn the ever useful art of baton twirling. However, as the class begins, Jenny starts to second guess her decision to be there. Looking around, she notices girls twirling like pros. "Wait," she is thinking to herself. "Isn't this where we go to learn when we don't know how to twirl?" Moments later, she reaches out with her left hand to grab a baton from the teacher, as the teacher utters the words, "Oh, you're a lefty," along with a disapproving sigh. Apparently, the label of a lefty is not a good thing in baton class. One has to stand off to the side, alone, trying to figure out on their own what the rest of the class is doing. Feeling a bit out of place, Jenny starts to panic (and subsequently runs down the hall crying, vowing never to go back to baton class ever again).
I have grown up a lot since the story above but I still kind of feel that inner panic when I am getting ready to try something new. This past year someone asked me to engrave a custom monogrammed stamp to use in conjunction with wax. My first instinct was to say no. However, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to see if I could do it. The stamp I made for myself (several months earlier) worked fine but the handle was a piece of scrap metal soldered on and that would not do for this project. A new handle would be needed and a new skill would have to be attempted: woodturning.
The feel of cutting wood is quite different than that of cutting metal but I instantly liked how it felt, until the first time my tool caught the piece and left an unsightly gouge. Holy smokes, that will wake you up and set your heart into a wild rhythm. My idea for the handle was a little unconventional, a smaller, masculine style knob as opposed to the traditional long, thin handle. During the whole process I was nervous. Even though I was nervous, I found I really enjoyed watching the wood take shape. I was bitten by the bug that my woodworking friends warned me about.
Those moments standing alone on baton twirling day were rough. Looking back, it probably led to my deep rooted inhibitions about learning new skills amongst a crowd. That has never been a comfortable place for me. If you're like me in that sense, I hope that you will find something that sparks your interest enough to step outside of your comfort zone and learn. If a class isn't your thing, consider YouTube. There's an arsenal of tutorials on just about any handcraft (And, as an added bonus, you can watch them in your pajamas while you eat popcorn and take notes).
This item is a watch component made by a craftsman in the 1770s. Though the watch it was a part of is no longer in existence, this little piece has sat on my desk for several years. It both inspires and intimidates me with its complex, intricate beauty as it combines the art of hand engraving with the delicate precision of hand piercing metal.
It was only about a year ago that I picked up a jeweler's saw for the very first time and used it to cut out a pendant the shape of Michigan. The shoreline of my home state has many curves and bumps, which was probably a bit ambitions for a beginner, but I wanted to see if I could do it. Perhaps it was beginner's luck but I ended up with a pendant that looked like Michigan and more importantly, I discovered that I love cutting metal. I haven't spent as much time metal piercing as I would like so this month I decided to do a project that combines three of my loves: hand lettering, hand engraving and hand piercing.
The process begins with a sketch on paper. I then redraw my idea onto metal with a fine tip permanent marker. For this project I used my favorite metal, brass. Brass engraves and cuts smoothly, making it a perfect medium for my designs which generally involve another love of mine: curves.
After the engraving is finished I use a small punch to mark points around the design. These points are drilled out and used as pilot holes to thread the blade of my jeweler's saw.
Not only does the piercing give my engraved designs a new dimension, the cutting process is one I find so enjoyable. It forces me to be quiet, focused and in the moment. I can't glue a piece back on or thicken a line I've cut too narrow, it requires my complete and full attention. In some ways, I regret not having tried it sooner. I spent a really large part of my life not trying new things because I was afraid of failing, of not being good at it. I've realized that it's not worth missing out on experiences just because you're scared you'll do it wrong. You might be missing out on something that you will love, something that will stretch you to new limits or motivate you to take another leap forward.