Web redirect

New work, news and Images from the shop. If you would like to know more about my art, please visit my full website @ www.chrisbathgate.com

6/30/20

Meteorite and special Woody Sculptures



I have never been very good at saving the best for last, so it is fortuitous that these special Worry-Stones were an unplanned extension of my project, as they are indeed “the best” and also, the very last of them. 


I have two different variations on my Woody project to share today (not to be confused with the larger works I am currently producing). Also, for those of you interested, there is also a chance here to maybe add one of these to your collection.



So let's start things off with the work that is by far the most unique of the bunch, the Meteorite Worry-Stone. The insert for this work is made out of a real piece of the Aletai-Armanty meteorite, which is an iron-nickel meteorite that, when etched, exhibits a fascinating crystalline structure that can be found nowhere else on earth.  



The original edition of Woody Worry-Stones were initially meant as a nod to some of the natural material combinations that knife makers most commonly utilize in their craft. I wanted to utilize those material trends for the purpose of sculpture. It was a fun concept that led to a very interesting edition of works and I learned a lot about a range of different hardwoods. But as it turns out, knife makers use such a wide spectrum of materials that by concentrating only on wood elements, I am barely even scratching the surface. 


So to round out the project and further emphasize my thesis, I decided a non-wood material that represents a more extreme example of the materials knife makers utilize was in order.


One of the requirements I set out at the beginning of this project was that the inserts be made of only natural materials, among the more exotic examples that fit that requirement were fossilized mammoth tusk and saber tooth, also slightly more common is Ancient Bog Oak (which is semi petrified wood). But the material that really stuck out was meteorites, and for more than just the sheer novelty of it.



Metal Meteorite is very distinct because it has what is called Widmanstatten pattern . For those unfamiliar, it is a pattern that is formed when alloys within the meteorite cool very slowly over millions of years. This incredibly slow cooling allows crystals of various elements within the meteorite to form over an extended period of time and grow very (very) large. Only rocks of extraterrestrial origin have this pattern and it is not possible to create them artificially. These crystal patterns can be revealed using an etching process, and are quite striking. While this pattern's existence has only been known for two centuries, there are other reasons that meteorites have been a prized material (among knife makers especially) for millennia.

Before humans had the technology to smelt iron ore into usable alloys, they were already making steel objects by finding the stuff lying around on the surface of the earth as rocks. Those rocks were almost certainly meteorites, as it was the only source of refined iron on the planet. Skilled bronze age artisans were some of the first to find ways to craft knives and many other objects with this strange and very strong material. Iron meteorite artifacts can be found as far back as the 14th century BC, most famously, a dagger found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun.


So yes, as a sculptural experiment that pivots around traditional knife making materials, this work certainly fits the bill. But step back a little further, and I think this work also embodies the bigger story I have been trying to tell about material progress and the ways that technologies always seem to trickle down into the arts. 


I have spent my entire career making art that demonstrates how industrial processes (ones that are not traditionally thought of as art mediums) can be a primary source of inspiration for the making of fine sculpture. How if we look back far enough, many of the tools and technologies we readily accept as artistic mediums actually got their start on the factory floor rather than in the art studio. And that it is only when we are able to scale these technologies for individual use that they become more accessible to artist.



That smelting iron is such a large and unwieldy process, it would almost guarantee that it's early use would not be put to artistic ends. That skilled craftsmen were finding the stuff lying around as meteorites and shaping it into ceremonial art objects long before they could even produce the material themselves is a fascinating chapter in the history of mans material progress. Finding a way to bring that story into my own work was a welcome adventure. 


Ok, with the meteorite out of the way, I also wanted to show off these very special Woody Worry-stones, which incorporate the use of a lot of different hardwoods not offered in the initial run.

The list of used materials includes Bacote, Box Elder Burl (dyed purple), Bubinga, Red Malle, Bloodwood, Rosewood, and of course, a couple of very choice pieces of Desert Iron Wood.


These were made in response to the wonderful outpouring of support I received following the release of the original Woody edition. There was an unprecedented gifting of exotic hardwoods that I just had not expected. It was exciting to get random, unsolicited packages containing blocks of material in the mail. Some came from complete strangers who just wanted to share their enthusiasm (and wood) for the project. Because of this, I just had to make a few extra pieces to show off some of my favorite hand picked pieces from my experiments with those special pieces of gifted wood.


Thank you all again for following along, and the many kind and constructive conversations along the way. 


As always, comments and questions are welcome.





6/16/20

The "BWD" machined metal and wood sculpture




Hello Everyone. Last time I communicated, the world was full of worry and strife. So much so that while I generally try to keep the swirl of headline news out of my feed and practice, the gravity and sheer weirdness of the situation found its way in. The Woody Worry-Stone edition was born as a positive and cathartic response to that weirdness.

Not surprisingly this trend of unsettling news has continued or even accelerated. And while it is tempting (or quite justified) to be distracted, deterred, or demoralized by current events, I am committed to making my art, sharing what I find fascinating and beautiful about my craft, and keeping this a positive and focused place to inspire others. I hope most can appreciate and respect that division of creative head-space, as it is the only way I know of to find peace and joy through my art, while also engaging in the emotional hard work that must be done in other facets of my life. 

To that end, I bring something interesting from the studio.


I am still very much in the middle of this project, but I am so happy with how it is going that I thought I would throw up a quick blog post to share my progress. This is the next chapter in the Worry-stone project. It is, well, a bit larger and colorful and I couldn’t help but share. 

The current plan is to make eight or nine of these larger format sculptures. Each one will be unique with a carefully chosen color pallet and species of wood. 

The wood chosen for this initial prototype is currently my favorite in terms of workability and range of color and figure. It is a piece of Desert Ironwood set in a blue shell with deep copper orange detail. 


While I already have some history of turning my smaller editions into larger stand-alone sculpture pieces, the decision to scale this one in particular was driven more by the circumstances of building the edition rather than tradition or habit.

For starters, when I began posting about my experiments with various types of wood, the response was so supportive and encouraging that people began spontaneously mailing and donating random pieces of exotic hardwood to my work. Completely unsolicited, the wood just started to pile up!

When it was all said and done, I ended up with a diverse selection of knife block sized pieces of various exotic hardwoods, all of it begging to become art. 


During the build itself, one of the steps to making each worry-stone, was to take theses beautiful blocks of various exotic hardwoods, and cut them down into smaller pieces so that I could make the inserts that would be the gem of each sculpture. 

To be honest, it always felt a shame to be cutting these large beautiful blocks down into smaller pieces; their figure and details were just so much more complex and striking in a larger format that I felt I wasn't doing some fo them justice to cut them up. I just had to make a bigger one to use more of each block. 

So, with a collection of exotic knife blocks in hand and a desire to preserve their texture and figure, I resolved to make a larger more sculptural work that better showcased the wood and opened the door to some incredibly fascinating engineering challenges. So I scaled my design to comfortably use a standard knife block, and then reworked it until it until I was sure that it became something truly unique.


I feel that enlarging an existing work is sometimes viewed purely as a novelty, as a way to make something new without adding any new ideas to it. I was hoping to avoid this pitfall of mindless scaling, and once I got started redrawing my original design, I quickly realized that as far as my process was going to be concerned, I was definitely in uncharted territory. 

Enlarging this particular sculpture was not going to be an exercise in making the same shapes the same way, only bigger. The geometry of this larger piece presented challenges that dramatically changed the approach and processes I would need to use to fabricate it. 

I had to re-engineer nearly every element of the build, so while the shape is quite similar, the road to that shape is very different indeed. 


Process notes: 

"Balance" became the theme for this entire project. Both physically, textural, and color wise, this is a piece that required care to balance elements in ways not present with the original Woody.

Because of the larger size of this work, the sheer weight of the material I used became much more of a constraint. What were originally pretty straight forward offset turning operations for the Woody (ones where the mass of the machine was more than sufficient to dampen any vibration caused by the imbalance of the part) ballooned into complex setups where weights and counterbalance were crucial to successfully turn the work at speed and achieve a good surface finish. 

Simply boring the saddle shape where the wood inserts seat was a vast departure from the Woody. Creating a precise and accurate semi circular profile on such a large and long piece of stock required a rather unique set up. 


My milling machine does not have the clearance to make such a deep hole in such a long piece of stock, So what might have been a simple drilling and boring operation on a mill, turned into a complex adventure of positioning the work piece on my lathe for a series of turning operations.

 Balancing the whole thing using a counterweight system became my best strategy for putting an accurate profile exactly where I wanted it on the work piece. 

The bronze colored pieces in the photo above are weights added to the assembly so the machine would not shake (or fall over!) while I bored the hole at the appropriate offset. The balance of the setup needed to remain within a narrow margin during the entire process, so I had to calculate their mass to split the difference between the starting weight and finish weight of the material I intended to machine. 


Because weight was such a critical consideration, I selected aluminum, which is much lighter than steel, as my material. This material selection also opened the door to using anodizing and color in a way that most other metals do not. 

I ran with the idea, how the high saturation color anodized aluminum might play off natural materials. Whereas the original Woody project was about highlighting the natural beauty of various hardwoods by setting it against a neutral stainless form, this larger version would be a more nuanced exercise in color theory. 

Selecting the pallet for each of the works, and matching them against a properly selected piece of wood is going to be devilishly challenging. I am looking forward to it.


So the stage is set, lets see what happens. 

Please keep following along if you use Instagram, it is going to be a fun and colorful ride. If not, I will check back in via newsletter when the works are all done. 

As always, thoughts and comments are welcome.

4/26/20

Making the "Woody"


Just thought I would add this Process video to the blog. 

I share process images and snips of video regularly, but I rarely get to string the whole sequence together in such a complete way. Time to do so is always at a premium. On occasion, people have said I shouldn't share such things as it ruins the "magic" of the art.

Luckily, I don't believe in magic (as it is popularly conceived anyway) and feel that we do a disservice when we attribute human achievement to mysticism or mythical genius. The real beauty in everyday objects (as well as art) is the confluence of ingenuity and technology (be it high or low tech) that made them possible. 

As a person who has spent their life immersed in the arts as well as the technical fields, I can say that building a process that consistently yields an interesting, finely crafted object is an achievement on par with any inspired piece of art. It can be deceptively difficult, but if done it correctly, will look easy in the end. Please enjoy.  

3/31/20

The "Woody" Worry-Stone




Introducing my "Woody" Worry-Stones.

As work on The DoT edition winds down, I had been gearing up to start some larger projects. But a lot has changed in the world over the last few weeks (an understatement for sure) and all of a sudden, long term plans seem fraught, so instead I have changed gears and decided to tackle something much simpler and fun.

With all the worry going around, I felt a new pocket art (worry-stone) project would have a more immediate, positive, and diverting (for me anyway) effect. So I whipped up something with a twist that connects it to the current arc in my work by incorporating natural materials.


I really feel there is just something iconic about the way knife makers blend the use of metal and wood. There is a visual balance to their work that really speaks to the language that all tools seem to possess. I wanted to embody that in my own way, through the use of natural materials, composition, and proportion, if not necessarily through pointy-ness or function. 

The aesthetics of this piece will likely feel familiar to those who have been following along for the last few years, and while this work looks nothing at all like a knife, it is in fact, another small tribute to the craft of knife making.

These worry-stones look and feel great in the hand and the nature of wood means that each one will truly be a one of a kind piece. 


The materials for these early prototypes are as follows. The first four (bottom row) are all ironwood and really shows off the variety of grain and colors one can get with such a material. I especially like the two-tone one on the far right with a bit of sapwood showing. The remaining three (top row from left to right) are Redwood Burl, a striking piece of Boxelder (green dyed), and finally Black Palm.

Much like various metal alloys, each of these different materials has its own properties and challenges. I am very much enjoying the opportunity to experiment and learn more about each of these exotic hardwoods as I go.

A few people have also offered to mail me different species to further expand this experiment.


Of the different varieties, ironwood is the most fun to turn on my machines hands down, it is very hard (for wood) and it has a dense grain that does not easily tear-out when performing an offset turning operation.

The Black Palm on the other hand is very fibrous and splintery, it is much more prone to tear-out and even splitting. It took me a few tries to get that one right.

Likewise, the redwood Burl is almost chalky or powder like. It behaves more like a mineral in turning and is prone to chipping rather than tear-out. I have had poor luck mitigating this so far, but have some other things I’d like to try.

Regardless, the redwood and Black palm inserts have needed considerably more handwork to clean them up, but there is no denying how great they look. 


While the news everywhere is currently full of troubling stories and predictions of doom, the early response to this work has been extremely positive.

So in my own small way, I am thrilled to be able to put forward a project that is resonating with so many of you. There is just no better time to be making art. If anything, just to create a sense of normalcy and put something positive out into the world.

However I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little uncomfortable trying to overtly sell art in this moment of global crisis. 


Because of this, I have been dithering on how to proceed with this work, I almost didn't post it at all.

 There are people out there doing incredible things to help each other and I must admit to moments where my work feels a little trivial in comparison. Also, blatant commerce in the face of human suffering just feels discordant. I know everyone has to make a living, but I am also human, so if I am being honest, I was hesitant about whether to put up a pre-order for this new experiment.

But after giving it a lot of thought, I realize opportunities to do good are everywhere and this work is no exception. Everyone must use the tools available to them to make a difference, these are mine.


With dire predictions about the impending economic fallout from this pandemic, I want to do my part to help support the arts here in Baltimore. I know there will be quite a lot of need very soon, and I want to ensure that the artists of my place and time can weather the storm that is coming. 

So, I will be posting a pre-order for this work later this week. And with this release, I will be setting aside a portion of each sale and donating it to help the arts here in Baltimore. What shape that support takes has yet to be determined, I think the landscape is still shifting as galleries, museums, and non profits cancel events for the foreseeable future. There will likely be a number of nonprofits who will have urgent need very shortly, and there will likely also be more direct ways I can lend assistance as well.

Strategically it makes sense to wait to see where these dollars can be most effectively applied. But I am committed to do my bit. A full accounting of all my donations will be released once I get that part sorted out. 


For now, lets get a date on the calendar for the pre-order sign up, say
April 2nd at 12:30 PM EST.

The sign up period will be an entire week, as this is intended to help raise charity funds. I will post the link to the sign up form here on this blog, on my Instagram account, and in a newsletter that will go out when the sign up period begins.

Material choices will be laid out broadly as each work will be unique due to the character and availability of the wood itself. I want to give you all some personal choice between a narrow range of works, so when you sign up, you will be able to specify your preferences, and then I will contact you individually as work progresses to allow you a final say in what specific work you claim as your own. 

I hope this all makes sense, and of course, pricing and more details will be available on the sign up form when it posts.
(I do not post pricing on publicly facing media)

This is going to be an enjoyable project, and I am glad I can bend it to do something publicly beneficial as well.

As always, thoughts and comments are welcome.


3/9/20

Sharps #2



Welcome to the second installment in what I am calling the “Sharps” series. Like the name implies, this work (titled Sharps #2) has seven razor sharp sculptural blade forms around its circumference. It also incorporates a number of elements directly inspired by the knife making community. 

In an earlier post, I detailed the origins of my exploration into the fringes of knife making, how I am curious what might be learned from a craft with a rich history of blending old and new technology, so I will refer there for more background. 

On the left is Sharps #2, On the right is the Sculptural Knife Vase (now called Sharps #1)

It is hard to talk about this piece apart from the Sculptural Knife Vase that came before it. This sculpture is intended as a sort of contrast to the vase as it shares many of the same elements, yet eschews it's utility in favor of being an object free of context clues or function. 

The thesis for the vase piece was as a conceptual bridge between my vocation as a machinist and some of the other industrial craft traditions I look to for inspiration. This second, more sculptural piece, represents one potential destination that metaphorical bridge was meant to reach.


Aesthetically, “Sharps #2” departs from the Vase in a number of significant ways. For starters, rather than being free standing, this work was intended to hang vertically from either a ceiling or some other surface above the viewer. This gives it a very different feel and helps distinguish it from the compact nature of a vessel or some other utilitarian object. That it hangs from above also helps to pull it back, if only a little, from being immediately interpreted as a weapon or some other kind of striking object. While I don’t mind the comparison (as it is apt) I wanted to present this work as a traditional art object in a way that one might recognize. I try to avoid using the “art on a stick” motif as much as I can, but I recognize that it is a sculptural format that people will unknowingly accept, so it has been strategically employed here. 

Another point of difference is the wood elements that are the jewels of this sculpture. The wooden forms, intermittently placed between the cold sharp steel blades, are soft and warm and contrast beautifully. They really make this piece a step forward rather than just an iteration on its predecessor.

 Using natural materials has always hung in the back of my mind, and in the context of knife making, it is a very logical step to take. It is something which I feel I can easily carry forward and find new creative ground.


Even with all of the differences I pointed out above, I think it is clear that the two works (the vase and this sculpture) are reasonably similar objects overall. That they share the exact same blade design and arrangement should make it clear that they came from the same drafting table. So then one may ask, why make one a functional object that may be taken for an instance of craft, and the other a non-functional piece that may be taken for an instance of fine art. And why wrap the whole thing in an experiment on knife making?


For starters, why not? 

But also, because while I am generally accepting of varying interpretations of the things that I make, the question of “is my work fine art or craft?” is one that arises with a fair amount of regularity. And while I try to remain as open minded as possible, I feel that this distinction between craft and art keeps many makers on the fence when it comes to experimenting with more freeform types of creating.

Most conversations I have had about “what is art” tend to center on artistic intent and the context in which the work is placed. These are things that can be very difficult to know and are often outside of an artist’s control anyway. You don't always get to choose your audience (or where the work is seen) and can hardly control what the viewer knows about you or your intent. So that these are some of the main criteria for “what is art” is highly problematic, and it makes the whole “craft versus fine art” conversation a strangely stubborn one to put to rest. 



This is a simplification of course, but as a theme, I think there is room to be intellectually playful with the idea that there should be any distinction at all between craft, fine art, and other types of design. To put it another way, these distinctions may be useful to collectors, curators, and art lovers (the audience), but they just aren't that useful to people who actually make stuff.

Strangely this dynamic also plays out in the world of knife making, where utilitarian knife design (think useful knives) stand alongside what are called “fantasy” or “art” knives (think less useful knives). From what I understand, there is lively discussion about the merits and value of each of these as well. 


Trying to place various types of art, craft, and design in neat little boxes is a phenomenon that I see in many disciplines as people seek to distinguish their work or collections from one another. As an artist, it can be both a fascinating and harmful lens with which to view one's own work. Addressing it directly through this project is a way to understand, and maybe push back a little, on a quirk of the creative arts. 

Calling out some of the art worlds academic biases and demystifying the process of making sculpture is the best way I see to encourage craftspeople and makers of all stripes to jump in and try and make weird and beautiful sculptures of their own. 

But that is just one layer in this project, and I can't wait to dig deeper. So stay tuned. 


Process notes:

The blades for this piece were made at the same time as the blades for the Sculptural Knife Vase. The tip profile is slightly different, but there is not a whole lot new to report process wise. If you read the post about the Sculptural Knife Vase, you know the trials and tribulations I faced. If you didn't, here is that link again (seriously its a good read I promise


That said, there was some grumbling after I posted the vase piece that I did not include the obligatory proof that the knives were indeed sharp, so please see the video above. The edges on both the vase and this sculpture are plenty sharp, enough to shave with. I shot a video of me doing so (shaving some arm hair!!!), but it is just not a pleasant thing to see, so I went with a paper slicing demo instead.

The blades are a bit thick compared to standard knife blades, so they don't quite sail straight through the paper. This is simply because the paper needs to bend to get around the 3/16” thickness of the cheek on each blade. The T slot at the Spine is a full ¼” so the cut curves to the side, toward the path of less resistance purely because the back end of the knife is so wedge shaped. That is neat physics in itself, but this should give an idea of how absolutely sharp this sculpture really is.


The wood elements: knife making has a long tradition of incorporating natural materials of all kinds, bone, horns, and wood to name just a few. I had always avoided bringing wood into my work (for too many reasons to list), however this was the next logical element to bring into an exploration of knife making. Now that I have, I find myself wondering why I waited so long. 

While these may first seem like they are inlays, the wood forms actually stand proud of the body of the sculpture. This is a small distinction I know, but I wanted them to have mass and presence like any other element in my work, and the wood grain makes each one unique in a way that metal parts never could 
(I know, Damascus! I am being dramatic).


For the wood itself, I selected Amboyna burl, it is a wonderfully figured wood and it is quite hard. Amboyna has excellent dimensional stability, which is important to a machinist who is accustomed to keeping tolerances. Most woods have a tendency to change size (and shape) depending on the temperature and humidity, something that would drive a person like me crazy, but I actually found it rather pleasing to work with and cut. 

Like most burl wood (or wood in general), Amboyna burls can contain small voids or gaps in the grain that can interrupt an otherwise smooth surface. I suspect a younger me would have hated this, but embracing natural materials also means inviting the wabi-sabi they embody into your work. Some knife makers will go to great pains to repair or fill small voids in the wood they choose for knife handles, I felt no need to do so, and have quite intentionally decided to leave them for this piece.
 


Turning wood instead of metal was something I hadn't researched very well, and that had its own special considerations. For starters, I had no clue what an appropriate feed rate and spindle speed for turning hardwood might be, especially from a cnc machining stand point. 

I reasoned that wood turners generally do their work by hand and just feel their way through it, so I presumed it would be much more forgiving than metal. So I guessed at a faster than usual spindle speed, and went with a slower than usual feed rate, and it all worked just fine. This time anyway. 

I still have quite a lot to learn about working with natural materials, but learning by doing is where all of my best ideas come from. It is anyones guess where this will take me next, but I am glad I get the chance to share this work and the rest of my journey with all of you.

As always, comments and questions are welcome.

2/11/20

The DoT Pocket Sculpture


Introducing The DoT Pocket Sculpture.


After my last post, which was admittedly a bit dense, I thought maybe a piece with a more off the cuff concept was in order.

The catalyst for this piece is a simple one, and it came just a few short weeks ago while at the opening for my exhibit at the National Museum of Industrial History. I found myself talking to a group of fellow machinists when one of them mentioned offhandedly that they thought that I primarily used only metal lathes in my work. 


Presumably they said this because of the predominance of turned features one can see throughout the show, but a further inspection would reveal that this comment couldn’t be true. Indeed milled and drilled features are to be found everywhere in my work and I use milling machines and metal lathes equally. I kindly corrected the gentleman and continued our pleasant conversation.


As I was driving home that evening, the comment about “only doing lathe work” popped back in my head and stuck with me in the days and weeks that followed. The idea of constraining myself to just one machine, one type of process (turning) reminded me of my early days discovering the ins and outs of machine work.


Early in my career as a machinist sculptor, I would build entire concepts around some of the most basic of machining principles. Out of sheer necessity, I was operating in an environment of constrained rudimentary techniques, but it proved to be a wellspring of inspiration for my work.

Despite my inexperience, I was able to make interesting works with quite a limited pallet of tools and processes at my disposal. The gentleman's comment gave me nostalgia for that somewhat simpler time in my evolution.


So I decided to use my encounter as an excuse to celebrate my beginnings and challenge myself to a highly constrained design. The rules were simple, I could only use turning operations to create the parts for the piece, and I would perform all of the work on one machine.


Somehow, I thought it would take me awhile to come up with a design, but history has a way of repeating itself. My mind seems to crave constraint. The ideas flooded in and I had a mature workable design within a week. The process was fast and loose and it all felt very much like a sketch. I was cutting metal only a day after conceiving the initial concept, which is a sharp contrast to some of my works, which can take years to flesh out and build.


I am calling this work The DoT. It is a double-offset turned piece, meaning that the work is turned along two distinct axis in order to create its form. And while this work manages to squeeze a lot of complexity and nuance out of a relatively simple premise, what I think is even more interesting is the contrast this draws with current trends within the machining community. 


Nowadays on social media, I find myself surrounded by examples of 5 and even 6 axis machining centers (incredible state of the art machines) being used to create what are often comparably simpler parts. I think it is fascinating that this work, as a piece of sculpture, can stand as an example of how detailed understanding of process can be coupled with creative design choices to make something quite complex, using merely 2 axis of machine motion. (compare 2 axis machining with 5 or 6 axis of motion that is). That is fascinating regardless of whether you think it is good art.


This work fits perfectly into my series of small pocket sized sculptures and feels rather wonderful in the hand. While it is a little larger than a typical worry-stone, it makes great sense as a tactile pocket sized piece of art. There are no mechanics in this work however, I want this piece to be exactly what it is, a great excuse to carry around a little piece of sculpture. It is a piece with gobs of implied functionality and purpose, so it need not actually have any.


I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.


Since this piece is relatively straight forward in terms of its process steps, I took the time to fully document the machining process and also give some commentary and machining notes along the way. I think pulling back the curtain on my process is the only way to help you appreciate my process in the same way I do, so this is likely going to become more common going forward. 


After showing around some advanced images of this piece, the consensus seems to be that if I didn’t do a release of these small pieces, there might be a small revolt among my more ambitious collectors. Luckily there is no reason for concern, because I feel the same way, that a small edition of DoT’s is more than appropriate.


So to the details of the impending pre-order. 

I will open a signup on Thursday February 13th. It will be an open sign up with first come first serve rules in play. While I have not set a maximum quantity for the release, I will close the sign up if I feel that demand is outstripping my ability to make these in a reasonable time frame (I try to keep most projects within a three month window to leave room for new work and ideas). Otherwise, I will leave the sign up open through the weekend and close pre-order on Monday morning (Feb 17th) at 8AM.


I will send out a newsletter (for those on my email list) as well as put up a new post here at the beginning of the pre-order. Both will contain the link to the sign up form. 

Additional details and pricing will be contained within the sign up form (I do not post prices on publicly facing media).

Thank you all again for following along and, as always, comments and questions are welcome.


1/28/20

Sculptural Knife Vase

Sculptural Knife Vase

The Sculptural Knife Vase


I have been teasing for many months that I have been working on a knife project.... What kind of knife project?... Why, a flower vase of course! A machined metal flower vase with fifteen razor-sharp hardened steel blades that encircle its precious blooming cargo.
(Actually dried flowers in this case, it is winter after all)

This may seem like an odd combination, maybe even a tad tongue in cheek, however this piece has been in development for several years and embodies many of the themes I have been laying out over the last few projects. It connects a number of conceptual threads in my work, and does so in ways that were unexpected even to me.

So please tuck in for a long read (if you are inclined) and I will do my best to explain.


Preface

I have spent a lot of time thinking about traditional craft-forms within various studio art movements. Practices such as glasswork, woodturning, and ceramics are all crafts that got their start on a factory floor a lot like machine-work. However these crafts differ from machining in a few important ways.

Unlike machining, each of the above craft movements represents a process that has largely fallen out of industrial use. They have since been picked up by artisans and have been turned towards more creative ends. Likewise, these crafts have signature shapes and forms that are common within their trade (Vases, bowls, urns etc). They are shapes that tell that crafts particular history. Most of these forms are used to learn their respective practices and have become inseparable from that crafts visual language.

Knifemaking, Art knives, Knife, Flower

These craft-forms are of interest to me because while machining is a craft that shares a similar industrial past, there are few signature forms one can point to that uniquely representative it as a medium. The machinist landscape seems to lack ubiquitous forms that fall neatly into the same paradigm of craft and craft-form. One likely reason is that machine-work is a sprawling discipline full of specialized skills. The range of tools and processes at play are so varied it is nearly impossible to find projects that are analogous to what one finds in a woodturning class or glass blowing studio.

Because of this absence of unique craft-forms within the world of machined metal, I have spent considerable time exploring what a “machined craft-form” might be. Should machining eventually find better standing as a sculptural medium, what forms might come to define it?

Knife, Vase, Flower Vase, CNC, Craft

I undertook a wide variety of projects to explore this, including hand-held kinetic art projects, a machined vessel series, and even a few collaborations with other makers and machinists. These projects drew inspiration from many of the industrial crafts listed above, as well as trends within the contemporary machinist community, and even ancient craft-forms such as Japanese Netsuke and Chinese snuff bottles.

Machined, Metal, flower Vase, CNC Art

Over that time, I have become captured by the idea of borrowing forms from older crafts and reworking them into highly engineered machined craft-forms of my very own. And while it may seem counterintuitive to use a contemporary and technologically advanced process to revisit forms from bygone industrial eras, it is important to remember that every craft, no matter how old, was cutting edge technology at some point in time.

The impulse to formally explore technology transcends vintage and it has become a lively and fruitful line of thinking for my work. This new project is the next step along that journey and takes the idea of borrowing, reimagining, and remixing traditional craft-forms to new places.

Knife making, Art knife, Vase

The Sharp Arts

Now with all of that said, there is one particular craft tradition that up until now, I had been avoiding. I am of course referring to the world of contemporary knife making (both decorative and utilitarian).

Knife making is a discipline that perfectly captures the dichotomy between historical and contemporary industrial processes. Much in the way that I am exploring older traditions with machine tools, it is a field that mixes historic and modern methods rather elegantly. Knife making is a rare craft, in that it maintains working first hand knowledge of nearly every technological step of its long history. Its roots go all the way back to the Stone Age, and it has evolved and changed with each technological epoch along the way.

Machined Flower Vase

The history of the knife is the history of mans material progress. Like machine-work, it embodies a wide spectrum of metalworking processes. One can find countless practitioners still putting hammer to anvil in a way that is thousands of years old. And while its historical traditions are alive and well, the world of knife making has also been completely transformed by the adoption of modern machine tools and new technology.

Knife making’s influence on the creative culture of machine-work is undeniable. It has a long decorative arts tradition that has only grown with the adoption of digital fabrication technology. As a metal sculptor who is involved in the ways process can inform the aesthetic elements of a craft, knife making is beyond fascinating to me.

While I have resisted taking up knife making directly, preferring instead to keep my attention firmly on sculpture, I am drawn to it as a source of inspiration.

Knife, Knives, Metal Flower Vase

The Sculpture Connection

While various knife makers have inspired my work, I found it difficult to approach the craft directly through my work. My process typically involves stripping away the utility from various design or craft concepts to better reveal what is aesthetically interesting about them. I felt that it might be impossible to strip the utility from a knife and still have an object that is both interesting and spoke meaningfully to the craft.

It finally occurred to me that it isn’t necessary to fully strip the utility from a knife to appreciate its inherent aesthetic qualities; one can simply put those qualities into a unique context. My previous projects involving historical craft-forms have (oddly enough) provided me a conceptual bridge of sorts. They have supplied me with the necessary framework tell a story about material progress and blade making at the same time.

Metal Art, Flower Vase

The project

Creating this rather distinct (if impractical) flower vase might seem an odd way to explore knife making, but I felt the best approach was to use the blades as sculptural elements in a way that created an unexpected context for them. Rather than stand alone objects, I felt it more interesting to contrast the blades with some of the other craft-forms I have already been exploring. I wanted to use my foray into blade making to further tell the story of how various industrial crafts come to be appropriated for the purpose of making art. 

So while it may seem counter productive to make a flower vase out of machined knives, that is strangely enough, exactly what I have done, and not without reason.

This work is a good example of combining two relatively simple ideas (making a vase and making a knife) to create a situation that impedes the usefulness of both. What remains is an object that mischievously demands that it be appreciated for more than its precarious utility.

CNC art, Digital Fabrication, design

Now there may be some of you out there who are put off by the idea of exploring weapons of any kind as art, but I think this piece easily demonstrates that knives can be many things besides that. I myself am not entirely sure what all the implications of using blades as sculptural elements might be. But to those who would be critical, I ask that you maintain an open mind, and acknowledge that more often than not, knives are tools like any other.

There is beauty (and humor) to be found in even the most tactical aesthetics within the creative industrial arts, so while it is easy to judge, it is far more interesting to explore, and it is my intention to do the latter.



Technical Notes:

Since I was keeping this work kind of a secret, I was not able to share process photos in real time like I have become accustom, so below is breakdown of some of the challenges I faced as well as some of the documentation I made along the way.  Again, a bit of a read, but for those interested in the nuts and bolts of the project, it should be interesting.

While my preference is to introduce new techniques one at a time, tackling knife making made that approach quite impossible. I was in over my head in too many ways to count, which was refreshing and disorienting at the same time. I had never made a knife blade before (not on purpose anyway), so there is rather a lot to touch on here.


Machining the blades:

There are several common ways to make knife blades, some are forged (think hammer and anvil), some start with pre-made bar stock and go straight to the grinder to create the shape, and still others machine the majority of the geometry and then go to finishing operations. In my case, I obviously wanted to machine the blades, but this is not as straightforward as it first seems.

For starters, I had never machined high performance knife steels before. Knife steels are much harder than the alloys I typically select. They are unforgiving to machine, so set-ups and machining parameters need to be much more carefully applied. Choosing an appropriate alloy was daunting, but after a lot of research, I settled on a steel called AEBL. Like all knife steels, it has pros and cons for use as knife steel.

The pro: AEBL is used in a lot of kitchen cutlery, so it is pretty common and easy to source. It has great corrosion resistance and is known to be relatively easy to harden and sharpen. It is also reasonably inexpensive, which is important for an experiment with so many blades in it. Exotic knife steels can get extremely pricy, and there was no need to be unnecessarily spendy when good options abound.

The con: Surprisingly, there was not a lot of information on machining AEBL. I had a hard time getting recommendations on cutting parameters. I came to learn this is because AEBL is primarily used in making large quantity commercial blades. It is more commonly cut with abrasives processes like water jet cutters or lasers, and then ground to final shape. That didn’t mean it was un-machine-able, it just meant that that it wasn’t common, so information was scarce. I did eventually get some useful guidance from a fellow knife maker to use as a starting point.

Overall: Once work got underway, I found that AEBL wasn’t horrible to machine, even on the modest tools that I have, the finish was actually pretty good. But, while the machines handled it well enough, I had to take my time and not push things. I found that AEBL has some abrasive properties to it that wore the end mills faster than anticipated.

Since I had to make 15 blades (plus some spares) for the project, I burned through more $25 cutters than I care to admit. Some of this premature wear could have been mitigated with a more rigid and balanced tooling set up, but I soldiered through, took my time, and ended up with pretty great results.

Below is also a video showing some of the fixture-ing and the warping issues I also encountered.


Heat-treating and Hardening steel:

Another process I had little experience with was heat-treating and hardening steel. While this is something that toolmakers and machine designers are quite familiar, as a sculptor, it just isn’t something I had much of a need for, until now.

Heat-treating is fascinating for many reasons; chief among them is that it makes much of the metal work I do possible. At its simplest, machining is simply using a harder material, to cut a slightly softer one. When milling brass with steel, this can seem a simple mater of material selection. But when cutting one kind of steel, with a similar kind of steel, things start to get technically interesting and down right philosophical.

This is grossly oversimplified, but think of it this way, the main factor in determining steel’s hardness is its carbon content, and how those carbon atoms are arranged within the metal. Heat-treating is how one arranges the atoms to create the hardness one desires. Cutters and blades only need to be slightly harder than the material they intend to cut. So it is entirely possible to take two pieces of the same alloy, heat-treat one to make it hard, and then treat the other so that it is soft. From there you can easily shape and cut one with the other, sort of like cutting warm softened butter with a harder piece of frozen butter. That’s fascinating stuff.

So long story short, in order to harden my knife blades so they would take a nice edge, I had to invest in a special kiln to heat-treat them. From there I was able to crash coarse my way through this fascinating process and achieved good results. Having a way to harden metal also opens a lot of doors for interesting future projects.


Sharpening steel:

While I have been shaping metal for decades, I had never intentionally drawn a razor sharp edge onto a piece of metal for the purposes of making art. I have sharpened cutlery in a utilitarian context, but never in a way that was careful of the geometry and polish of the steel. Sharpening blades with precision was another skill I would have to hone (get it).

There are seasoned knife makers who have perfected their sharpening technique over many years, and over thousands of knives. Some can draw an edge onto a blade standing at a manual grinder in just a few minutes using some hard earned muscle memory. I however, do not have this skill (yet!) so despite my long career in metalworking; I had to compensate for inexperience with the use of a sharpening fixture.


I settled for hand sharpening each blade on a relatively slow, but tried and true, knife sharpening jig. It produced great results, but was time consuming. It is something that will likely change but slow and steady was the way to go here.

Assembly and composition:

The overall design of the Vase is an area with which I was much more comfortable.


All of my sculptures are built around some novel assembly method or engineering concept that I can express in a visually interesting way, and this work is no exception.


Each blade has a T shaped spine that engages with a comparable slot along the length of the vessel body. The blades are secured by a couple of tiny setscrews that engage the spine and provide a clamping force for the blades in each slot.



The screws are accessed from the opposite side of the vessel, by reaching through the work from the decorative pin holes exactly opposite the lock screw. From there, the rest of the assembly was pretty straight forward, I used the decorative pin holes as additional locking set screws for the stainless steel liner of the vase.

I made a short video to demonstrate the concept.  (below)


As you can see in the video, I also made some fun devices for moving the work without having to touch the blades, something that needed quite a bit of extra consideration. Getting this thing into place without hurting yourself or others is actually pretty tricky. 

Anyhow, thanks for reading. 

As always, questions and comments are quite welcome.