Like most craft professionals, I got my start at small local shows. My first booth consisted of a floor lamp, a card table and a piece of cloth on which to display the jewelry. My eye was always on the prize though, getting accepted into the American Craft Council shows. In 1986 after 5 years of unsuccessfully applying, I was finally accepted into the American Craft Council’s flagship show in Baltimore. It was very exciting to get that fat envelope in the mail full of exhibitor information! Since that time I have shown my work in Baltimore at the end of February every year except the year I was 9 months pregnant. This year’s show will be year 32!
Getting ready for Baltimore has dominated my winters for a long time now. The preparation begins right after the holiday rush. Because the show is open for both wholesale and retail sales, it is a good time to introduce new work to buyers from galleries, museum shops and stores that feature handcrafted work.
Early January is my favorite part of the process. During this time I review found objects, (mostly rocks), sketches that I have been making throughout the year, and photos of rock walls and escarpments taken from my travels in Ireland, Italy, the Adirondacks, the coast of Maine, or wherever a good rock makes it’s acquaintance with me. It is a time to dream and aspire, a time to play with color and design without giving a thought to salability… which is very freeing. I draw on large index cards so that I can lay out all of my ideas across my desk. I move the cards around according to my daily assessments/ratings of the designs that I am working on. Eventually I narrow it down to 10 or 12 design ideas, more than I will ever actually have time to make. During week two, I make my final selections and work on refining and scaling the drawings. Construction begins toward the end of week two and continues through week three and four. One by one the designs are transferred to tracing paper and glued to a thin sheet of sterling silver.
Long hours are spent each day sawing out the tiny compartments that will eventually contain the enamel and filing them to smoothness. Depending on the complexity of the design, this step takes between 8 and 25 hours to complete. The next step is to put many tiny paillons, (chips) of solder on the back of the cut out design. One has to be careful not to put on too much solder, the excess could flood the design and fill in small areas. At the same time, one must apply enough paillons to secure the pierced piece to the base with no gaps. The solder is applied over a coating of flux and I gently heat the piece just until the solder flows across the design.
Next I clean the piece and place it right side up on a textured base sheet of silver. I heat the two layers from underneath until the solder flows. Sometimes it takes a few repetitions of this step to get everything into place, particularly if there are multiple sections to attach. After the piece is cleaned in a mild acid called “pickle”, the next step is to cut out any interior windows and also around the outside edge. If I am working on one of a kind work, at this point I move on to the enameling process. When I am working on edition work, the new design is now a completed model. Initially, a rubber or silicon mold is made from the model. Into this mold, hot wax is injected. The wax version of the piece is then surrounded by a pour of plaster which hardens to make yet another mold. The plaster encased wax model is heated in a kiln to melt out the wax and eventually molten silver is injected into the cavity. Casting enables me to duplicate the design and keep prices affordable! I don’t own casting equipment, so I send the models to a professional caster. A week or two later, I receive 6 or so castings of each new design which now need to be prepared for enameling. The sprue, which is the channel through which the molten silver flowed into the plaster mold, is not a part of the finished design and must be ground away. Also, because I am enameling on sterling which is an alloy containing fine silver and copper, I must heat up the cast pieces in the kiln and quench them in acid. This, for some reason unknown to this non-chemist, brings a layer of fine silver to the surface which is necessary for enameling. During weeks 4, 5 and 6, I enamel all of the new designs and also stock up on my older designs of which there are more than 100. During week 4, cabin fever comes knocking on my door. We get out every day for a nice walk or an afternoon of cross country skiing or skating, but the schedule is non stop. My husband Paul works on preparing castings for enameling. I do all of the designing, enameling and soldering, but when that is complete, he goes to back to work. He first grinds off excess enamel and polishes each piece. After that he oxidizes the pieces in liver of sulfur and burnishes them on a spinning steel brush wheel followed by rubbing them with powdered pumice. The last step is to acid etch the glossy enamel to a matte finish. (He also makes dinner most nights, in fact right now he is making chocolate cream pie!) His help makes it all possible!
Wait, what week is it? …oh no, the show is only a few days away and I still have to photograph the rest of my new work, edit in gradient backgrounds and post everything to my website. (Here is where my two sons, both computer science experts, have been an invaluable help. They are grown up now, but still respond to emergency “help me I’m stuck” calls). Price lists, postcards and business cards are printed and ready to go…I fill my spare time with posting on Instagram and Facebook, eating dark chocolate covered almonds and writing this blog… but now I really have to stop and pack up my show clothes, buy dog food and have a glass of wine.
All for now, hope to see you in Baltimore!