July 2022 | An Interview with Alan Craxford— Jewellery Maker and Designer Extraordinaire
Part II: Alan’s second piece in the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is a pair of niobium earrings. We continued our interview on Zoom.
The green drop earrings are 18ct gold and anodized Niobium.
The important point here is that there is no color present at all. It is produced by light refraction, created by passing a current through the metal when immersed in an anodic bath. Different voltages create different thicknesses of transparent film through which light passes. Thus, the color is pure light. The niobium is engraved carved, and textured.
From an Alchemical view, the color is the same as any peacock’s tail, whose colorful tail feathers are also produced by light refraction.
The Story of the Spinning Bowls.
I never intended to make spinning bowls. I intended to make bowls. The bowls are made on a lathe. You make a wooden former and then you press a piece of silver into it. The spinner’s job is to push the metal into the former. The guy I asked to do the initial work had done some work for me when I was a senior lecturer. He’s one of the best turners in the country. When he spins something it’s always a perfect job, perfectly balanced.
The bottom of the bowl is hemispherical. When you put it on a flat surface of polished stone or glass, there is minimum friction between the two so if you stroke it, it will turn slowly and smoothly.
I was excited to discover this simple fact and realized, that our planet too turns on its axis with zero friction without us doing anything about it. There are two ways of our planet doing this. There’s its axis and its orbit. A huge number of planets and stars spin, it is a natural thing to do. Spinning is one of the practices of the Mevlevi Sufis.
I began to look at the implications of spinning on everyday life. The fact that it gets dark at night and light during the day is because our world spins. The side of the moon we don’t see, all the planets in our system around the sun have their place and have been doing it for a very long time. The growing of crops, flora, fauna, the tides—all depend on this spinning. When you transpose that simple fact, it really is rather wondrous because you can’t help being overwhelmed at the thought of it all working together harmoniously. This automatically makes you think of the wider implications of living on this planet and our place in it. We are such little things.
It’s got a lot to do with the simplification of things as I’ve grown older. If you ask anyone at random from anywhere in the world, Where does it all come from? The one thing we can all agree on is that we don’t know. This really could bring people together—because no one really knows.
Alan brought out some pieces to show me. The first one was ‘Earth Bowl. The center bowl is enamelled in an earth bronze transparent color. It is worth remembering that the thickness of the soil we actually grow things in, is such a thin veneer in comparison to the size of the Planet. I feel this simple fact should be more widely appreciated. Those few feet of topsoil keep us all alive.
There is also a tilt on the axis of the planet. This creates our seasonal cycle across the world. The design reflects the balance of what is happening between the opposites of summer and winter, and refers to the broadcasting or sowing of seed rather in the style of the Millais painting of The Sower.
I engrave it first and then take it to a finisher who plates the black and yellow gilding. This takes an experienced hand, for enamel is a fickle material. The changes in temperature plus the passage of electric currents can lift the enamel if it has not been fired at the correct temperature.
I always had an interest in the elements—it goes back to what’s basic. Our culture wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t learned about fire, for instance—the big leap. How extraordinary to have not seen fire before and to suddenly become aware of it!
Each bowl takes as long as it takes. You never know if it doesn’t go smoothly. Generally, it takes some months. There’s an important detail inside the rim. And the enamel (ground glass essentially) has to be laid wet as smoothly as you can from the bottom to the top so that the whole surface is covered in unfired enamel. That can take at least half a day, and you do it three times. It then has to go into a furnace at 700-800°C. Each color enamel fires at a different temperature. The whole form has to be supported by an asbestos-related material (a former). You also need to keep the polished surface under the enamel in pristine condition. Next, it has to be stoned back. You take a water of ayr stone—an abrasive—and wear the glass away until it’s immaculately smooth for the last firing that just fuses the enamel but mustn’t melt it! Most of the engraving is done after the bowl’s been fired. There’s a huge amount of work involved with each one.
The Story of the Dazzling Darkness Bowl
This piece went through many phases and developments before it finally became the piece in the photograph. It is quite a story that unfolded in its own way—it had a life of its own if you can appreciate this idea, and I became merely the artisan doing the work. During the making process, it went through emotional ups and downs. My original intention was completely lost in the process until it became something quite different and other. So much so, that it barely felt like my work at all, and for a while I disliked it. However, from this experience, I realized that the making process is a collaborative affair. This brings together all the diverse parts of ourselves, like Prospero the Magician, with creative imagination drawing all into order, thus enabling something old to be completed and then something new to come into being.
The bowl is black gilded, and it’s so highly polished, that it appears you only see the rim move, despite the whole piece moving. I made it for an exhibition in Glasgow and started it two years beforehand. One starts to see what the piece wants to be itself. The object has a life of its own. The piece turned into the very opposite of what I expected, so I naturally rejected it, but the gallery Directors chose it as the centerpiece of the catalog! “The stone the builders rejected became the keystone of the arch.” It turns completely silently.
A Pair of Comet Bowls
‘A comet seen at night’ is set on the rim with a diamond for the comet, and the very last packet of small gold stars that could be fired into that night sky of the enamel.
A comet during the day’ has one larger gold star representing the sun. When you use a steel engraving tool, the square graver is cut on the diagonal, so that when you cut a line, the deeper the cut, the wider the line and you get a V cut. As a piece of work moves, the V cut flashes light and the side not receiving light goes dark. You get an effect of something coming in and out of the light; this can animate the work and gives hand engraving such a beautiful quality.
The two pieces work as a pair. You can have them spin in opposite directions. You can play a divine game with the cosmos!
When I was a child, I used to build all kinds of castles and temples with a large set of dominoes made of black and white plastic. That made the edge half black and half white which was very special to me. There’s nothing visibly stronger than black and white stripes.
The Story of a Very Special Lamp, Aladdin Lost and then Found.
My recent work for a collection of new pieces has been based on the story, ‘Aladdin and His Lamp’, and the appreciation of all those who have gone before us and studied the stars and the cosmos. What that gave to cultures across time—geometry, navigation, so many things grew out of that. Whether in Moghul India or Galileo’s Italy, some had to be immensely courageous and even risked their lives.
I experimented with Islamic courtyard design. One square and the placing of mirrors produce an infinity of reflections¾different configurations of basic pattern forms. One can play so many visual games to create confusion and be pushed into a situation where you have to say, I don’t know what is real and what isn’t. The aim is to encourage a desire to find the real and search for it.
Alan related a story where he was stuck in the country at night with no idea of where he was or how to find out where. It was quite frightening. To be genuinely lost is an important experience because there’s nothing you can do about it. If you’re lost, you’re lost. I very much like Maxwell Anderson & Kurt Weil’s song, ‘Lost in the Stars’ written in the late 1940’s, “And we’re lost out here, in the stars.” You can take it in two ways: Isn’t it wonderful, magnificent! or I’m lost, I’m lost, what am I going to do?
I like ‘Catch a Falling Star’–that which is often dismissed as being a pop song can have such profundity in it. It’s so easy to miss it when people don’t want to or can’t see the potential in the everyday. That’s what the work is about. You notice something quite simple and suddenly it’s very meaningful. After all, what would you do with a pocket full of starlight! Save it for a rainy day?
Alan’s exquisite and painstaking work creates a world that sparkles with these mysteries.
Alan’s book “New Lamps for Old’: offers some illuminating thoughts about the world we live in.
New Lamps for Old is £17.50 + Postage & packing, size 25.80cm x 16.75cm, 64 pages in color.
Music and Poetry in Response to Buffalo and Uvalde
Last Sunday, June 12th, poets and musicians got together to offer a healing and uplifting event in response to the Buffalo and Uvalde tragedies. Our event took place outside Community Market, Sebastopol, and was also a fundraiser for SandyHookPromise.org. Many people were particularly touched by Sonoma County Youth Poet Laureate, Ella Wen’s sharing of “what we learned as kids.” The music included upbeat reggae from I-Ray, a soulful Hoytus Rolen with violin accompaniment, and members of Joyful Noise, among others. Performers and participants were touched by each other’s offerings.
What else made this event stand out from the plethora of local talent on offer weekly at the Barlow and other venues? I believe the intention of all the performers who gave of themselves completely freely, and of those who chose to attend⎯-to feel our pain and grief at these almost incomprehensible tragedies, and, at the same time, to celebrate our spirit and strength of renewal. All twelve groups of performers touched on both sorrow and joy. One audience participant said, “It’s unusual to come together with our feelings of grief. Usually, I’m stuck on my own with them.” We ended the event with a circle of people holding hands and singing, “We Shall Overcome.”
As the Sandy Hook Promise says, “Our hearts are broken; our spirit is not. This is a promise we make to our precious children. Because each child, every human life is filled with promise, and though we continue to be filled with unbearable pain, we choose love, belief, and hope instead of anger.” Please consider making a donation to SandyHookPromise.org.
what we learned as kids
– written by ella wen
My English teacher taught me the term “juxtaposition” once.
In a classroom setting, we’re seated in plastic chairs
Faces facing the white board
Pencils poised on lined paper
We are ready to learn
And we learn “juxtaposition”
To put two things of great contrast next to one another
Evoking a sense of irony, a paradox, a shock factor
Juxtaposition is a stylistic element.
It should not be our reality today.
We have elementary schools
A place of rainbow patterned curtains
Clipboards, yellow pencils, construction papers
Strewn across colorful carpets
Chalkboards and whiteboards
Painted with smiling suns and beaming skies
Berenstain Bears displayed on wooden shelves
Crayola paint splattered on plastic easels
And yet this is the same place
19 children can be stolen.
This is the same place
Where vigils can be held.
This is the same place
Where mournings can be shared.
This is the same place
Where murder is allowed.
It is not just juxtaposition.
It is not just irony.
It is cruelty at its finest.
And it is chosen to be so.
Their childhood not in joy but in fear.
Fingers not red-stained with strawberries but blood
Reciting one nation under God,
Not knowing that we are in fact one nation under fire.
Remembering the numbers 911
But never knowing that they’d have to dial them some day
Learning not ABCDs but AR-15s
Hide and seek but with a life on the line
Playing a game they never wanted to play.
Adults are supposed to know what’s better for their children
Well is this?
Is this knowing better?
You are right, I am a child.
I want to scream at you, I want to stamp my feet on the ground
Shake my fists and rip up the grass into shreds
I want to scream it is your fault, it is all your fault.
I want to point fingers at the big tall towering
Adults who have created this world
Created this reality
In their navy blue business suits and ties
Their stupid stupid business cards
And their stupid stupid handshakes.
Sitting up in your white pillars of stone and marble
Surveying and overlooking carnage that happens
Under your policies, your godforsaken constitution
A constitution written for the masses
And yet is somehow misinterpreted enough
To put guns over children.
You are giving us an expiration date
You are telling us that we do not matter.
It is not a matter of “these were actual lives”
Nor is it even that of “these were childrens’ lives”.
It is now the matter of do you even care?
We are just children
But we were forced to mature.
We know more than ever now
And we know that anger is not an answer.
Because this is a world where anything can happen
We were taught that when we were very young
We just didn’t know that the “anything”
Could be something like carnage.
But in saying so
Even when we are seemingly destroying ourselves
And our world
Even when our communities are being eaten
Alive by the monster of grief
By the gross excuse of law enforcement
By the lie that is the general welfare
There is still nothing this world cannot heal.
We are a hurting generation.
We are deeply wounded.
And we are deeply scarred.
But we are still living.
We, the younger generation,
The generation that will not have our graduating class year
Be defined by mortality rates or showers of bullets
The generation that will not have
We, the younger generation, will decide when we survive
We, the younger generation, will decide when we live.