I can't talk about this project without partially re-stating the impetus for embarking on this project. It has been helpful revisiting my thesis with each installment, as it has allowed me to chew on my original assumptions and reframe them in light of new developments. So for those who like my longer posts, this is one of them.
On reflection, I've come to realize this project isn’t really about knife making–it isn’t about vases, bowls, or urns either–it is about the state of craft as we find it. It is an appreciation of the idea that craft isn’t a rest-home for idiosyncratic or cast off processes, or where practitioners of defunct trades go to retire–it is a natural step in the material progress of our species.
I talk a lot on this blog about how using modern machine tools to make art is a relatively new phenomenon, but I don’t think I have accurately portrayed what I mean by that. Indeed artists have been employing machine tools to produce various kinds of artwork for decades–a century or more even–so I should clarify what I mean when I say that machining–as a vocation–is becoming a new art form.
While the tools I use have been employed in the production of fine art – through various fabrication shops, organizational structures, and outsourced expertise–it is only just now beginning to exist as a studio craft movement in the same vein as other more established craft traditions–one who's practice is directly engaged with the medium rather than just being a means to an end.
However, the structure of this outfit was as a design house and factory. It was run by teams of artisans and designers working to produce decorative and utilitarian pieces. There were plenty of successful attempts at art, but by and large it was a commercial affair that catered to a decorative class of collectors. The work was constrained by the socio economic guardrails of what a “collectable” glass object could be. In order to sustain the factory, the vast majority of its output was stained glass, lighting, vases, and the like.
Contrast this with the birth of the studio glass movement.
In 1962, on the heels of a boom in interest in the studio ceramics movement, Artist Harvey Littleton and research scientist Dominick Labine developed a design for a small and affordable furnace that could melt glass. This small advent removed the need for teams of operators as well as greatly reduced financial and physical infrastructure needs. It singlehandedly created the conditions for solo artists to bring the production of glass art directly into their studios. In the same manner as a painter might paint, artist were able to work freely with glass, away from outside eyes and commercial influence. This meant glass art could be practiced by one artist in one studio.
Glass art's popularity began to grow and this era saw an explosion in the creative output of artists using glass. The guard rails were suddenly gone and a piece of glass art could be literally anything (or nothing at all). Experimentation was rampant and this gave rise to the fine art landscape we see in glass today. Many of the examples of glass sculpture we see in museums were born out of this era.
The story of glass art resonates with me because very similarly, and until very recently, artists looking to leverage machine tools and modern digital fabrication technology for the creation of art would likely have needed to rely on design firms, tech schools, and fabrication studios with teams of specialists who could assist in programing, running, and maintaining the machines that were beyond their experience and financial reach.
Some additional thoughts: I want to close this out by saying that I try to be careful about subscribing to various dogmas. I have enumerated a very particular way of thinking about the evolution of craft. One that simplifies and ignores differences in geography and time (that is, people used tools and materials differently, in different places, at different times throughout history). In doing so I have no doubt implied that there is some greater value or purpose in creating “fine art” as it is understood in western culture. But this is not quite right.
Technical Notes: In building this piece, I. was able to incorporate many of the techniques and processes I have been honing over the years. Most recent of those being the dyeing and stabilization of hardwoods.
Which brings me to the blades themselves. I have tried to rationalize my use of razor sharp blades in various ways. Now that I am at the end of my journey, I think they need little justification. Their aesthetic contribution to the work is very evident in this piece. That they add a conceptual layer to the work is only a further bonus.
Above is a process video that illustrates this turning operation for the blades (approximately the 13:25 mark). I tried to capture the bulk of the steps that brought this piece of art into being, but life in the shop gets hectic and I did miss a few steps. Some other video clips were lost due to technical issues. But all in all, it is still a great ride.