A Tiny Snail on a Big Mountain Trail.

I am a Canadian sculptor and metal artist, currently exploring elements of the Japanese metalworking tradition.

Connecting two Distant Points.

I’m pretty sure most people blog about things AS they happen, not months after the fact. The writing habits I was zealously trying to develop while in England seem to have fallen by the wayside, although there are no less than 11 drafts sitting in my WordPress account, just waiting for a flash of insight to propel them to completion. And looking over some of those old posts I can’t help but feel like this one is a bit stiff and strained, almost like I’m trying too hard to get the ideas out.

Still, we can’t rely on inspiration and motivation – I saw a quote not too long ago about the fallacy of motivation, and how results come from forcing new habits and just doing the work…a theme that seems to keep popping up. So with coffee in hand, we bulldoze onwards towards creating something that not merely “content”.

At the moment of writing this, I will be closing the circle and moving back to Toronto in four days, after having spent a considerable amount of time with my parents in my hometown. It’s been 4 ½ months since I moved back to Canada from my abortive apprenticeship in England – I don’t think I’ve ever written about that move or the decision apart from saying that it was happening, and some vague rationale as to the reasons. It was an emotional time, I was more than a little distraught about having to cut short something I thought I had committed to so fully – but the necessity of being closer to family was an unanticipated factor.

I appreciate all the messages from friends all over the world (social media is TRULY an amazing thing!) asking about my dad – he’s doing remarkably well for a man in his 70’s, and the health issues that scared me so badly this past winter have stabilized. Now that the good weather has arrived he’s more inclined to go outside for walks and exercise (who can blame him, right?), and additionally he and my mother are planning a trip to the Yukon and Alaska. “Spending my inheritance” is the joke when they do these trips – which is a non-issue for me, really. They’ve seen more of Canada in the last few years than I have my entire life, this trip will be the last province they haven’t seen, and because Alaska is right there, why not? I think it’s fantastic and will be waiting with bated breath for stories of the trip.

I was truly surprised at how affected I was at being away from friends and family when I went to England. Maybe I shouldn’t have been. I mean, I already knew that Dad wasn’t at his best – but I suppose I was caught up in the whole “adventure” of a new challenge to understand what that really meant. But the reality soon became clear – going to England was less about chasing something and more about running away from a whole lot of things. And eventually, we all have to face up to what keeps us from LIVING.

Realizing how important my friends and family are to me completely threw me for a loop. Loners revel in their own self-sufficiency and ability to amuse themselves, but I now wonder if for me, part of that is self-imposed…or has become a habit…or is just mismanaged anxiety. Spending a significant part of my life keeping the world at arm’s reach has made it difficult to embrace a lot of things – and to suddenly realize the OPTION to embrace them is just out of reach… it makes one very quickly reassess the chain of events leading to that point. Moving home was as much about the desire to do something about the idea of “holding the world at arm’s reach” as closing that physical gap…I have absolutely no idea how to go about that though, just that it needs to be done.

So for that reason, I don’t have any regrets about making the choices I did. I accept that the decision to come home has strained a few of my relationships within the metalworking community. I acknowledge that when it comes to the work, I’m now effectively on my own with regards to developing technique and understanding of the aesthetic. But on a personal level it was necessary, and perhaps my work will benefit from an active effort to connect myself with own existence.

Sometimes the Best Laid Plans…

 

Life has a way of throwing curve balls sometimes. At least, that’s how it feels when they happen, then on closer examination you realize that the plot twist was actually set up at the very beginning of the story.

I started writing this on a train to London. It’s 5PM on a Thursday and I’m surrounded by luggage and commuters, all of us absorbed in those things we do to pass the time on trains. I’m writing this to make sense of what’s been happening for the last few months, and why it has all resulted in the way it has.

To start things simply, I’ve cut the apprenticeship short and am flying back to Canada – I have to do this because my aging father is quite ill (which has been the case for some time now), and I feel an overpowering need to be closer to both him and my mother. My preoccupation with this has been largely detrimental to my focus in the studio, and has led to much consideration about my performance and progression. Some of the difficulties I’ve mentioned in previous posts have been directly because of this, and I’ve kind of had my head in the sand about it until last weekend – when clarity came after many conversations with family and friends. As you can imagine, there are conflicting forces at work here – uprooting my life in Toronto and moving to a new country to do something completely different, trying to maintain an open mind while learning new ways to work, think and feel – and trying to balance that with maintaining family relationships when they really needed work when I actually lived in Canada.

Let that last one sink in for a moment. Because when I did, it hurt like hell.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a good relationship with my parents, even though there were some long periods between phone calls and visits. But there’s been a barrier between my sister and I since we were young, and she has a whole wad of challenges in her own life that I’ve never really connected with. My extended family – well, let’s just say that I see them every now and then, but I’m not as close to them as some other families I’ve seen. But my parents made sure that I saw as much of my family as I could before I left, much like I ensured that I saw as many of my closest friends and colleagues as I could. And it left an impression, one that suggested that I was falling short in how I maintain those family ties. Laziness? Being busy with other things? More important things? Things that had a skewed sense of value? All of the above, and yet something more – and the seeds of doubt were sown.

But never mind! The adventure was upon me, and I was off to New Hampshire and England to start the next chapter of my life! But the nagging doubts had already started – my parents are in their 70s, and I was suddenly aware of how I was leaving things “back home” in a less than ideal state. I could go on and mope about this, but suffice it to say the homesickness that arose from what I left behind was an unexpected bit of extra baggage that was brought to England. And it made some aspects of what little training I did a lot sharper than expected.

Ford has mentioned in the past about how the work is a mirror, and that if one is fully engaged with the work, it will reflect back only what you put into it – and if you don’t let go of your “stuff” when doing the work, it will also be shown back to you. This is absolutely true, if you haven’t found yourself in such a situation yet. My personal experience, as I’ve mentioned previously, has been like the peeling away of layers. Layers of ego, of misapprehension, of the soul even…until you’re left feeling raw and exposed…and then you have to come back for more. And I have to say that even the scratching of the surface that I did during my time was enough to throw me for a loop, and make it apparent that a lot of reflection was necessary to approach the work honestly and openly.

And that reflection revealed that I was too preoccupied with my dad’s health, and that I couldn’t get to him very quickly if needed. And so here I am on this train. Obviously, there are still many questions about how to proceed from here. I don’t have a studio space at the moment, so will have to downscale significantly to keep doing the work in whatever capacity I decide. But the work will continue, and hopefully the answers are out there…to be found when the stresses and distractions are properly put to bed.

More to come. Meanwhile, here’s to the temperatures in Toronto warming slightly by next week…

Give More of Yourself

Merry Christmas, everyone!

I have to be honest, this time of year has always been my least favourite – I’ve always caught myself being curmudgeonly and Scrooge-y at some point, and have traditionally needed to really force myself to be at least participatory. It’s so EASY to armour oneself in anti-corporatism and anti-materialism while so many people submit to some level of excess – but this has inevitably led to a certain detachment. A few years ago I decided that I needed to strike some kind of balance – so while I typically don’t do “Christmas shopping”, I’m quite happy to buy a few good bottles of wine and tasty snacks for whatever holiday gathering is happening. It has to be about your relationship with the people you’re spending the holidays with, not whether they’ll appreciate the bauble you’ve spent money on.

Which makes this Christmas especially heartbreaking, and I really didn’t expect it to be so.

Don’t get me wrong, the household I’m spending Christmas in this year couldn’t BE more Christmassy, and the people I’m spending it with are becoming as close friends as I’ve ever had, which takes some of the sting away and I’m incredibly grateful for that. But the simple fact is that right now I’m not able to enjoy a drink with friends that I’ve known for years, share a laugh with my parents, or watch the toddlers and small children in my family trundle around my parents’ living room with their new toys. But here’s the dirty little secret: I’ve been secretly dreading today and tomorrow not because of these things, which are terrible enough. The detachment I mentioned earlier, and the armouring that leads to it has led to a few Christmases not being spent with the people I just mentioned…in some bizarre petulant “statement” made to…nothing and no one in particular. And perhaps not surprisingly, it isn’t the ocean separating me from the people I really want to be with, but the work I’ve been doing that has brought on the dread, and the crushing realization that I could be so absolutely wrong about certain things.

This has been something I’ve been mulling over for the last few weeks, and considering how to put it into writing without making myself feel like I’d been eviscerated. But last night Ford said something that snapped everything into sharp focus while out for my weekly ramble around Torquay today. I’ve lately been working on making a fuchi/kashira set, and developing my filing technique to make a set of scalloped seppa to go with them. Now, this is not just for the sake of learning how, but with the express intent of developing the skills to do these perfectly every time. These are a series of demanding technical exercises that I’m gradually getting the hang of, and quicker at. But at the same time, they can’t just be technical exercises – as an artist, you need to be able to respond to the materials as they speak to you, and develop a sensitivity to the work in order to let yourself BE the work. So when Ford said to me “you need to give more of yourself”, it really got me thinking about everything that has been running through my mind a little differently.

I am easily running the risk of misinterpreting such a statement. Of course, you can’t “just” give more of yourself to whatever it is you’re doing. It’s really easy to take such a thing literally, and for me it’s going to require a lot of consideration on just how to do that as it pertains to the work. Living the work, devoting yourself to the work – I think this is the beginning of the effort I need to put towards this idea. And when I think of those pieces I’m working on, that intuitive connection is just the thing I need to work towards. Although I can’t help but wonder if that intuitive connection, or indeed ANY heightened experience, is just the thing for everything else. You work on the piece and do the practice exercises in order to get everything perfect, you pour everything you’ve got into the endeavour in order to get a bit further and a bit better than you did last time…how is this NOT something one would pursue in their own lives?

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve been incredibly homesick during my time in England, in spite of the thrill at doing the work I am. Being away from my friends has been hard, and the realization that I could have been “more” while we were all in the same place compounds that feeling. But what has really surprised me is the longing to be close to my family, and that I could have been more available to them over the last few years. Sure, we talked and visited and all that – but I’ve allowed myself to become more insulated for one reason or another and that leads to a certain drift. It aches now to think about all the things I want to say, and the connection that, while certainly present, could be a lot more.

Give more of yourself.

Fear is one reason not to. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of not measuring up, fear of not being what you thought you’d be. Fear is what keeps us insulated from the world, a protective blanket that ensures we don’t take chances or keep on trying. Fear begets anger, which merely obscures the root causes of fear. The question I’ve mentioned in a previous post – when you strip away the ego and all pretense, what’s left? The work, certainly. Or a relationship for what it truly is. Or an honest assessment. But for me, the thing laid bare is fear – fear that I’m merely pretending at all this, that I’ve never really tried to maintain and preserve the relationships that matter, or that I actually give a shit about anything.

Give more of yourself.

I decided last week to write some letters home to people, to actually sit down and write real letters instead of emails or messages in Facebook messenger. Has anyone reading this actually done that lately? I’m genuinely curious because it was another one of the hardest things I’ve done recently. For one thing, they became strange stream-of-consciousness pieces, instead of a reasonably-structured thing like you’re reading (I’m making an assumption on that point – just run with it, dear reader :P). Coupled with the inevitable crossed-out words and handwriting that gets worse as the letter goes on, I’ll be surprised if the people they’re going to don’t message me with something that starts “so, about your letter…”. But I realize that I need give a damn, to use some my time for a more personal touch on a friendship, or anything for that matter. I’ve always been envious of people where that seems to come easily, and yet have done nothing about it. Give more of yourself.

Anyhow, it’s almost 2AM on Christmas morning here in Torquay. Time for bed to rest up for company tomorrow and I hope you all have a wonderful holiday, however you choose to spend it. Thank you for reading this blog and following along with the journey, and with any luck I’ll soon have more actual work to show instead of just musings about it. And to everyone back home, I miss and love you all desperately and am looking forward to the day when I can see you all again.

Namaste.

I Know absolutely Nothing.

It’s a bit dramatic, isn’t it? The sort of thing you expect from a martial arts blog, something to allude to the idea of mushin, or even the idea of leaving preconceptions at the door to leave way for “The Way”.

There is nothing philosophical about that here.

Oh, sure – I think I know a few things. I’ve been taught a bunch of things by an excellent teacher, read a bunch of books, talked to a bunch of people and even made a few things. Most of those things I’ve fortunately managed to sell to people to help support myself, and I’ve even won a few prizes and recognition for my work. Does that contribute in any way to my base of knowledge, as something that I can apply to other situations or projects?

Absolutely not.

The last few weeks have been hard. I mentioned in my last post that there was a sense of “reality” that’s become apparent in the work I’m doing here, that I really need to lock down basic techniques and studio practices. The thing I didn’t mention (because I was still thinking about how to relate the two) was the notion of putting yourself under scrutiny, in order to challenge the knowledge you have, and to (possibly) completely rebuild it. It’s one thing to develop knowledge – but how do you know that it’s true? How do you know if it’s something that will withstand scrutiny? You test it. And possibly reject that it’s “true” to establish a new body of knowledge.

And that’s the challenge right now – to test knowledge in a situation where it really matters; to truly think through processes and materials, and to develop a way of really “seeing” what I’m doing.

When I first got here, I really wasn’t sure how I needed to proceed. I knew that I had to leave preconceptions at the door and approach the work with an open mind. But I also knew that I would have to draw on what I thought I knew in order to properly assess (or rather, for Ford to properly assess) if that knowledge was valid. And to be perfectly honest, I’ve discovered a massive disconnect between how I was taught to do things (being a combination of actual teaching, tutorials and conversations had online, and my own process experiments back in Canada), how I did the work back home, and how I’ve applied everything to the work I’ve been doing here. Sure, I’ve muddled through and learned A LOT in a very short time so far. But a spotlight has been shown on HOW I’ve gotten through those things – and that spotlight shows every little bit of sloppy technique, lazy studio etiquette and ego that can throw a project into disarray.

Ego is the big one, much to my dismay.

Ego trumps knowledge every single time, making the above musings about knowledge entirely moot.

For example – just this morning I set up the patinating station to colour three sample squares of copper alloy. Everything was clean, fresh and ready to go. After a little bit of problem-solving to resolve some unevenness, the samples were done and I was quite pleased with the process and the colour (patination is something that I’ve always known I needed to get better at, because it’s so finicky). But the next job was patinating a brass tsuba, and for some reason it all fell apart. The work area became messy and disorganized, and gradually the problem-solving became faulty… sending everything into a spiral until it was calmly pointed out that each step in my process was likely causing contamination of the next step.

Now. I KNOW this. I’ve been reading about this process for years now (from the only reliable source), and am normally fastidious about keeping my workspace clean. And I knew that it was how I needed to start out when I began this morning. I can’t for the life of me understand how the knowledge fell apart and prevented me from keeping a clear head about the process. Or maybe I do and don’t want to see it. Ego is a strange thing – I don’t consider myself an egotistical person, but in the last few weeks it’s become apparent that ego is a HUGE part of how I look at the work. And it fucking hurts to realize that.

They say experience is the best teacher, and that you only learn from making mistakes. But if your ego is fragile, then those mistakes and experiences get amplified so badly that they begin to cascade into everything. This is something I MUST learn to let go of – not only to do this kind of work, but as a way to live my life. I knew that there would be some of that during my time here – the idea of tearing oneself down in order to build up again more properly…but I had no idea it would be so gut-wrenching and relate so sharply to the work. It hurts.

Still – I got a good copper patina this morning, a good iron patina yesterday, and tomorrow is a whole new day. That brass tsuba is still waiting, and I have a clearer picture of how to go about it. So maybe that’s the first step – not just relearning a bit of knowledge, but learning to not let oneself get in their own way.

 

On precision.

So – we’ve just finished up the first UK Iron Brush class and are in the process of cleaning up the studio, while generally decompressing after the race to get things set up. The last 3 weeks have been an interesting time in Torquay so far – I think it’s safe to say that (in Jo’s words) I’ve settled into life here at Chez Hallam. I just need to work out a running schedule to replace the long morning/evening walks to BMD back in my old Toronto life…which seems so far, far away right now. I’m sort of aware what my friends and family are up to back home, but we’ve been so busy prepping and battling nasty colds here that I’ve frankly been feeling a bit disconnected and displaced.

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The very first UK Iron Brush class.

I made a quip on Facebook not too long ago about how my accent will undoubtedly change during my time here, which led to a conversation about things that actually change between Canadian and English accents. The thing that stuck with me most from that conversation was a point about enunciation – the idea that consonants are more crisp and there’s less “rolling” of the -ing form. It’s gotten me thinking a lot about how I pronounce most of my own vocabulary…whether it’s a local (or Canadian) “accent”, or if I’ve gotten lazy in how I speak to people. To be honest, I sometimes find it awkward speaking to people – ideas that make perfect sense in my head get jumbled as they come out, or stop completely and I have to search for words. I can’t honestly remember a time when this wasn’t the case, although I’ve been a lot more conscious of it in the last 10 years or so. Since I (for the most part) prefer my own company anyways, it hasn’t been a point of concern. But now that I’ve committed to this particular path, there’s suddenly an imperative to be able to communicate effectively – not just with people, but in articulating ideas and concepts in order to do the kind of work I want to do. Of course, I have to also develop a “feel” for the work and allow a more emotional response to it – but a certain precision in thinking, communication and hand skills will be critical as well.

Which brings me to the point of this posting.

How does one develop precision in their life? Practice, certainly. It requires a certain awareness of what you’re doing and how you’re doing it – you can’t just skim through steps in a process. This was a learning moment yesterday, while inlaying a circular silver moon flat into an iron ground. The two metals are (obviously!) of different hardnesses, and so the polishing process isn’t as simple as “just” scraping, stoning and polishing. These actions need to be performed “just so” and with an awareness of the entire process in order to end up with a perfectly flat bit of inlay – this is precision as well, the awareness of the big picture in order to perform the action perfectly.  This same idea applies to speaking and pronunciation – being aware of the thing you need to say (not necessarily what you WANT to say) so that it can be communicated concisely and properly.

I’m suddenly aware of how lazy I’ve been with a lot of things in my life, just skimming through processes and encounters – I pay attention, but not really. I’ve gotten into the habit of automatically asking people to repeat what they’ve said regardless of whether I actually missed it or not. Even the metalworking is affected by it occasionally – although part of this is because a lot of my knowledge is from self-teaching. Part of the point of taking on the apprenticeship is an acknowledgment of this…agreeing to put myself under the microscope and having everything broken down and built up again. But it’s very easy to intellectualize such a thing…it’s quite another to stick yourself into the situation and realize “oh shit, I really DO need to tighten this stuff up.” I wouldn’t say yesterday’s challenges with the moon inlay upset me at all, but the idea of “shit’s gotten REAL” was a major theme.

There will be A LOT to work on over the next few years. I think I’ll start with paying closer attention and not rolling over certain parts of words. Oh yeah, and that damn moon. 😉

 

And We’re Off!

So the autumn session of Iron Brush classes has come and gone. It was a typical autumn in New Hampshire – rapidly changing leaves and a crispness that reminded me of autumns growing up. We even had a small flurry of snow to see us off on the drive to Logan airport.

I’ve been a little lax in posting, but that’s solely to do with the fact that when “the crew” gets together we tend to stay very busy. A typical day is packed with classes and evening extracurriculars – sometimes it’s seated around a table with some good bourbon, but most times we’re up in the shop producing tools or other pet projects. This time we managed to churn out a Japanese-style raising stake, some experimental ingots of wootz (crucible) steel, various hammer, chisel and scraper blanks, a couple of little knives and even a billet of pattern-welded stainless steel. A talented and driven bunch to be certain! (See my Facebook and Instagram feeds for more on those…) But now things have calmed down somewhat, and I’m in England seated at the dining table at Chez Hallam. A tasty Sunday roast is in my belly, a frosty beer is close at hand, and I’m having a look at some of the posts I’ve started in an effort to cobble something together and get into a writing groove.

There’s so much I want to say about so many things. I have old drafts dating back to when I made my first NBSK competition entry in 2015 (which will see the light of day, I promise), and have been keeping notes about what we’ve been up to since I got to England.  But I’ve come to realize that there’s a common thread running through them all, a thing that is keeping me from finishing and hitting that “Publish” button – rather than merely telling a story, I’ve been trying to find meaning and get all metaphysical with things that have happened. As Ford often has to tell me: Stop Thinking and Just Feel It.

Alright! A story with occasional amusing anecdotes it is, then.

I’ve only been in Torquay for four days, and we’ve packed an astonishing variety of things into those days. The apprenticeship has technically started, of course – even though we still need to sort the work visa paperwork and a myriad of other little details – but it does seem a bit like we’re taking time to get used to all being in the same house and in each others’ space. I’m so used to living on my own and not having to answer to anyone regarding common spaces that I need to relearn a bit about respecting those spaces – so I’m appreciating the relaxed transition. Being a “monjin” is a lot different than merely sharing a workspace!

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The view from my little attic bedroom.

That’s not to say we aren’t doing much, far from it!

One of the primary mandates we have at the moment is getting the new teaching space set up and ready for the class scheduled for November 11th. Ford is finally in a position where he can teach students in the UK and Europe (or anyone who wants to make the trip, for that matter), so we’re converting part of his house into a teaching studio. We’ve been working away building benches, organizing the purchase and shipping of all the little “bits” needed for the new space, cleaning, organizing and planning. We’ll be taking delivery of a very large bench top tomorrow, so hopefully by this time tomorrow night we’ll have the bench assembled. I’m particularly excited about the teaching space, and we’ve spent much of our first few evenings making plans and bouncing ideas off one another about the studio, the classes and the revamped Iron Brush online shop (yup, keep an eye open for that).

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Building the students’ communal bench.

Yesterday we welcomed a collector of Japanese sword fittings for whom Ford acts as a consultant on occasion. I’ve met him before, and seen a few of the pieces in his collection that were being restored or otherwise studied. He came down with some pieces to be assessed for shinsa submission, but I’m a little suspicious that my “education” was a topic discussed previously, as he also brought a large selection of some high-end work. I spent several hours poring over tsuba by some big names, and wishing desperately that I had more time and a microscope on hand. So it goes.

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As the autumn school resumes tomorrow and Chez Hallam returns to a normal schedule, I suspect things will become a bit more structured and straightforward. Time now to finish up tweaking some Iron Brush “motivational” posters (check out the rough mockups on Ford’s Facebook page) and get a good night’s sleep. I suspect I’ll need it.

And just maybe we’ll build MY bench tomorrow. 😉

The Story Thus Far…

I suppose a bit of background is necessary before I start talking about the particulars of the apprenticeship, or where I am in my Japanese metalworking practice – I’ve gone back and re-read the last few posts, and realized there’s a two-year gap to be filled. Again, I think most of you know the story because you follow my work on social media…but I don’t want to take any liberties with what I think people know. That isn’t very mindful to the future, and I don’t mind telling the story again.

Let’s see – my last posting about the work itself was in October 2014, just as I was getting ready to announce my first solo show. Long story short, it was a series of utsushi of some openwork tsuba, meant to introduce the general public to my work. I’m very fortunate to have friends that own a coffee shop in Toronto, and they support local artists by showing work in their gallery space – so off I went. The show went very well, I ended up selling every piece, and had some stimulating conversations with people coming from other disciplines that had never seen this kind of work before.

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Right around this time I was also becoming very dissatisfied with my day job. I’d been a production designer at a downtown graphic design firm for 14 years, and was starting to let myself be open to the idea of “moving on”. Sure enough, an opportunity came up at a high profile design firm…so I went through the interview process, and got hired relatively quickly (which was an ego boost that I really needed at that point – the new gig promised a very different role than I was doing currently, one that would make use of the seniority I had built up).

But as they say – when it rains, it pours.

Not 24 hours after I had been hired, I was having a conversation with Ford and he very casually dropped the invitation to apprentice with him. I missed it at first, actually. Then I scrolled back into the conversation thinking “wait, what?”.  I can’t remember exactly what transpired next, but suffice it to say that we chatted about things a bit more and I had to respond with a “conditional” acceptance.

Now, what is that, you might ask? Well, given that I was offered an opportunity to step away from graphic design (a field that I wasn’t being fulfilled by at that moment) to do a thing that I was growing to love, I was surprisingly unsure about what to do. I had just been hired for a new gig that would allow me to do many things I couldn’t at my old job, and (of course) it came with a substantial pay raise.  But when faced by a/ a thing you want as much or more, and b/ having to give things up to pursue it, I sometimes hesitate (well, usually is more apt). So the conditional acceptance was a deferment of sorts. We’d revisit the offer in a year (it ended up being a year and a half) – which would give me an opportunity to do as much as I could in the new design job, and feel better about walking away from a career that I’d sacrificed a lot to get into. For whatever reason, I couldn’t JUST let go – because of the immense investment of time, I felt that there were loose ends that needed to be addressed before I did.

Yes, I know it’s completely unnecessary. But we do funny things without the benefit of hindsight, don’t we?

And that’s it, really. I started the new job, got to work with some amazingly talented people and be part of some great projects. At the same time, I started pushing myself harder in the metalworking and produced some of my finest work to date. I entered the NBSK Tobunkyo competition in 2015 and 2016, placing very well both times.

Finally, things started to wind down for my life in Toronto around the time I was getting ready to travel to Japan to accept my award for this year’s competition. I received a notification from my landlord that I was required to vacate my apartment of 11 years, so that he could use it when he and his family moved to Toronto from Thailand. I took that as a sign – uprooting my life to move to England as an apprentice wouldn’t require much more than the uprooting of my current living arrangements. Plus, I was becoming more and more aware of the commitment I’d need to make in order for my work to make any appreciable advances in the future. The decision suddenly wasn’t hard to make.

Which brings us to the present. We’re now drawing to the end of September, and I’ve been technically homeless since the end of August. I spent a few weeks with my parents, then left Canada for rural New Hampshire, where I’m writing this. Ford will be coming over to teach a series of classes at Tannery Pond Forge then we’ll be heading back to England at the end of October, where we’ll be prepping and running a couple of classes for the folks in Great Britain/Europe.

Now you’re all caught up, dear reader – and I can move onto some more meatier topics.

 

The Whys and the Wherefores

September 24, 2016

I’m writing this on the plane from Toronto to Boston, my third coffee of this still young morning cooling on the meal tray. This is the first moment in the last almost two months that I’ve been able to even think about relaxing.

I think by this point most people that are reading this already know about the events leading up to this moment, and of the events still unfolding as a consequence. But I still feel compelled to write it all down, for two reasons, mainly:

1888569_797602156935356_951244967_nOne, this is probably the biggest decision of my life. And it’s certainly the most CONSCIOUS decision I’ve ever made, where the goal is crystal-clear, and my actions can directly influence that goal. I think I owe it to myself to chronicle the whole experience as a way to keep myself on the path, and to maintain a level of mental clarity. I always feel more equipped to make decisions when the mind is clear (duh), and I’ve always felt “clearer” when I write everything down…something I’ve not done in a very long time. More on THAT lapse in a later post.

I also need to develop my writing again, even doing this post is proving more difficult than it really should be…

Secondly, this thing I’m embarking on is unique. Oh sure, goldsmithing apprenticeships still happen, and I enjoy reading about apprenticeship experiences. But the uniqueness lies in the discipline – nobody (not in even Japan) approaches the metalworking traditions in a “traditional” way. The notion of apprenticing in this kind of work hasn’t been done at least since the end of the Edo period – even the metalworking programs the Tokyo Art offer are only a glimpse into the techniques, by offering only a baseline of technical instruction. Apprenticeships and full-time craft studios force a curiosity about the work, provide the necessary time to learn the skills correctly, and invite innovation in order to stay ahead of the curve – so students and studios are critical to the rediscovery of these atrophied artforms.

11059290_1050670298295206_989643724899067697_nTo be blunt, even those of us that are “students” of Ford Hallam are only scratching the surface of what we need to know; dedicated, mindful work is crucial to relearning these skillsets. A few online tutorials and looking at photos of antique work on museum websites are NOT ENOUGH – we do what we are able, but to do this properly, we need to find a teacher and immerse ourselves in the work as an apprentice, deal with the steep learning curve and be prepared to give more than we might be prepared to. It’s like a question I was asked what seems like eons ago: “WHY do you want to make tsuba?”.

So it is this very particular necessity and unique situation that requires a chronicler.  Much how my teacher has blazed the trail exposing this kind of work to the world, as one who has undertaken the challenge I humbly submit myself as someone who will attempt to shed a light on this thing that needs to be done.

On the cusp. Or – yummy, yummy tarts.

I didn’t want to write anything here until things were a bit further along, and now they are.

Firstly, an advance apology. I’ve purposely been vague and selective about what I tell and show people about the solo show I’ve been putting together. I wanted to make sure that everything gelled completely before starting to promote, because there were nagging doubts throughout the entire process about whether I could even finish everything I wanted to. Hence the little snippets of information, the macros of tsuba details – everything but the “big” picture. My intention has always been to do a “proper” announcement of the show, with full support in the way of a writeup on my blog, a “proper” website with good studio photography of the pieces, the venue…all of that.

It’s been a challenge to focus on the work primarily and do all the “back-end” work in parallel, along with a day job – something eventually had to give, and the framework for promotion unfortunately has suffered as a consequence. And since I just finished the last of the tsuba for the collection on Friday, it will have to be put off just a bit longer.

I had an “out of the blue” conversation yesterday with an art director for film and TV.  Word made it through the grapevine (quickly, I might add) that I had just finished a collection of tsuba, and they apparently were interested in renting them for couple of days for set dressing on an episode of a new show they’re doing. The arrangement we’ve made is highly beneficial to both sides, so the pieces are now on a film set being mounted and framed. The physical manifestation of the last 5 months of my life is now in the hands of strangers (professionals, of course), I have no idea how they’ll look in the scene, and the show won’t air until 2015 – and a lot more unknowns than I’m typically comfortable with.

Unfortunately, this means my photography schedule has been torpedoed and I won’t be able to get studio photography done until after the show comes down. However, I’ll be in New Hampshire next week, and plan to create opportunities to do some “candid” shots in a lovely autumn environment. But most importantly, this is a RIDICULOUSLY cool opportunity that I KNOW I would regret if I let fear and mistrust have their way. Who knows if it will result in sales – this is all about the coolness factor, and dealing with a “dusty corner” relating to my comfort zone.

“Take tarts when tarts are passing”, they say. But this sometimes means getting rid of something else before indulging in the tart-taking. Perhaps it’s clearing your schedule, clearing your mind, clearing your conscience. It’s easy to say “no” when you’ve already committed to a particular path – but what if “yes” means a forced redefinition of that path into something that is better? We’ll never be able to compare the two states except in our imaginations, except that we run the risk of adding regret into the mix by not even trying.

My next posting will be the “press release” post for the show, talking about the motivations and process. Please be patient for just a BIT longer…

Namaste.

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The practice is you, are you the practice?

There was a topic posed on a martial arts blog not too long ago about the idea of “adapting an art to yourself.” In it, the author explores the idea of modifying a martial art to suit individual body types, and concludes that it isn’t the ART that is modified, but the self being molded to the art.

The self thus informs the practice, in essence making the practice (not the art) one’s own. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the Japanese metalworking practice I’m currently engaged in (my iaido practice is on hold at the moment), but as there are plenty of parallels between both practices, I think it’s still relevant.

It’s long been said in the fine arts that the visionaries are the ones that “break” the rules and make the art their own. But I question the wisdom of students trying to break rules before they are fully understood. You still need to master the capabilities of brush and paint (or hammer and chisel, in my case), you need to understand composition and perspective, you need to be engaged in the subject matter enough to be able to get your point across clearly. Once these fundamentals are grasped, they can be manipulated according to different situations – we’ve all heard this argument in budo and artistic practice many times, and I’m sure I’ve mentioned this on the blog before.

I think that there are “active” and “passive” aspects to this idea. An “active” role in making an art your own suggests that you either A/ have extensive knowledge of the art in question, realize it doesn’t work for you thus requiring modification, or B/ reject the art as it stands and make changes to suit yourself. To me, this suggests a very negative and ego-driven approach to ownership of the practice that misinterprets “figuring things out”. Or, molding the practice to an immovable self.

A “passive” role in making an art your own is (in my experience) learning it as fully and mindfully as you can, and over time your personality creeps on the practice, turning it into something that is both faithful to how it was learned, and unique because it’s YOUR practice – molding yourself to the practice.

I think that from a visual arts perspective, this is what is meant by an artist having a particular “style” – not actively trying to “do” something unique, but rather their unique philosophy/worldview creeping into the work, that is clearly realized by a firm understanding of fundamentals and technique.

It’s surprising how having a death grip in tenouchi with a sword is equally relevant with a tiny hammer and chisel, and how our reaction to centuries of developed technique means as much to the practice as the practice itself.

I welcome your thoughts, a blog post written before noon on a long weekend may have questionable clarity. And now, progress photos of some pieces for the show in November. ‘Coz that’s really what you want to see, right? 😉

 

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imageNamaste.