Dusting, Rules, Madness

Blog post
Published: 06.04.2012


Yesterday, while dusting (yes!) the top of our bookshelves, I was cleaning a couple of handmade baskets that sit up there. The best way is with a brush, following the weave around the form, following the path of the patient fingers that wove them. As I held and ran my fingers around them, marveling at the fine regularity of the texture, noting slight bumps where the material thickened or overlapped, I wondered what it might be like to work with these grasses and reeds. Made in New Guinea about a hundred and fifty years ago, they remind me of others I have seen, made by women of remote Aboriginal communities in Australia, as they have been for some 20,000 years. I imagine the quiet, broken by the sound of wind or wave, by bird call, by the susurrant activity of weaving grasses and reeds, and by the convivial confab that undoubtedly would have accompanied such activity.

Observing the way in which material and process, as much as proposed function, appear to determine the form of these baskets, I wonder about this in relation to the abundance of materials and techniques we use, as jewellers. One of the things that attracted me to the genre so many years ago was the remarkable range of possibilities afforded by these, following my frustration with clay, with which I was attempting to work — it either collapsed in a soggy heap, or cracked, became friable and turned to dust before my eyes (qualities I now appreciate) 


 And the potters’ wheel, which masqueraded as an elegantly engineered aid to the presumably inevitable formation of serenely centered work, was at times, for me, an infuriating device that flung mud in all directions at the behest of the laws of centrifugal force. Metal looked more promising, more versatile, more tractable, less equivocating, less infuriatingly spineless. I crossed the hall in RMIT where I was studying, transferring from the Ceramics Department to Gold and Silversmithing. I soon discovered that metal is far from tractable; stainless steel, which I explored early, even less so, though in time I found its resistance congenial. Working with wood, as I do occasionally, I know that I must respect the imperatives of grain. And I am aware, from observation and a little practical experience of textile, that warp and weft determine both structure and form. And, of course, in the garden, there is a need to collude with the forces of nature. (Matilda, also, is a force of nature requiring discretion and respect. Oh . . . yes . . . yes . . . reverence!)

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I have been working with stone for over fifteen years— granite, marble, basalt, slate — cutting it; breaking and chipping it; carving and engraving it; painting and staining it; abrading and polishing it. Each type of stone ― each singular piece imposes its own rules, and I have learned to understand but not necessarily to obey them, leading to unforeseen and often gratifying results, also “disasters”. Previously, for ten years, I worked with lead. Before that, stainless steel and titanium, and, initially, with silver and gold. Also, from time to time, according to the project in hand, with paper, fibre, metallic mesh, balsa and denser woods, brass, thin Britannia silver (958) sheet, and 24 carat gold.

Every time I pick up a material to work with ― a small piece of the matter of this world ― I am reminded that it, and every material, has its innate physical and mechanical properties; each has its own aesthetic potential ― so easily type-cast; each bears its unique cultural history (its “baggage”) — its allegorical, metaphorical and metaphysical loading; each bears its recommendations and restrictions; each demands understanding ― not necessarily deference; each takes time to become a collaborator (I might say a familiar); each is a potential conspirator (wiling or reluctant) in the process of abiding by or subverting accepted or perceived “rules” in the quest for its innate or potential poetics.

 We might see our technologies ― our variety of materials and processes ― as two edged swords, as fork-tongued serpents, as mythic chthonic hydras with multiple heads and two more growing for every one that has been removed, with their dual natures of enablement and determination. Understanding of our jewellers’ technologies ― our materials, processes and their potential ― both enables us to make what we wish to make and determines what we are able to make. And with every test, with every exploration, for the imaginative and adventurous, new possibilities arise and multiply.

 Which leads me to think of the extravaganzas of virtuosity masquerading as . . . what ? . . . I almost always find the exhibition of skill for its own ends heartless, soulless, passionless, tedious. My response beyond a momentary “wow!” is inevitably: “so what?” But skill exercised with the mandate of passion, of wit, at the behest of a particular poetic sensibility: that’s another matter. Consider Julie Blyfield’s windfall pieces  ― that combination of steely determination and watchful delicacy; Daniel Kruger’s hybrid of consummate technical prowess and almost mischievous playfulness; and Helen Britton’s delighted (and sometimes, perhaps, despairing) omnivorous engagement with her direct environment expressed through her celebratory romp with the encrusted nature of jewellery. Technically excellent . . . it goes without saying . . . but also exhibiting signs what John McDonald calls the divine madness of art.

Notions of integrity to material and process, which have prevailed at different times in the history of making objects, are subject to fashion, and may have become not merely passé but nonsensical, or perhaps have simply been exploded in a world of additive manufacturing, where three dimensional objects can be produced on demand. However, even with this new and red-hot technology, there are, along with its exhilarating potential, demands and restrictions, for, beyond the CAD development, making is fundamentally undertaken by machines, which, to date, obey their programmers and have little initiative, imagination, or aptitude for “divine madness” (though we might, at times, think otherwise).


Working with stone, I watch how it is carved by the wind and the rain; how it wears on the pavement under-foot, how it is smoothed by the touch of thousands of hands over the centuries. Stone is slow.
When we hammer or punch one side of sheet metal, it curls inwards towards the punched side, as if curling in to protect itself. Leaves curl as they dry. Working in emulation of a force of nature, but mindfully.
We work as our individually skilled nature and understanding of the material and process recommend, but passionately, courageously, knowing that there is much to uncover in the potential of both, we realize that there is more to discover.
Ever more.

>>> visit Margaret West's website


About the author

Margaret West is an artist who sometimes makes jewellery; she writes: mostly poetry essays. She has exhibited widely in Australia overseas. She lives in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia.

About this blog

Touching the thingness of words the wordness of things.