Note: This interview originally appeared in Benchpeg, a free weekly PDF newsletter for the UK jewellery trade. You can subscribe at http://benchpeg.com. It should have appeared on the blog not long after, but got lost in the draft folder last year!
For over twenty years, Victoria has worked with metal, focusing on archaic methods like repoussé, filligree and granulation. Although her interest in traditional techniques goes back to her childhood fascination with ancient Egyptian art, the jewellery she produces is very modern in its design. Based in Atlanta in the USA, Victoria’s work has won awards and been exhibited across America. She teaches regular courses, and has published books and DVDs about the techniques she uses. You can visit her website at www.victorialansford.com
Filigree and raising are two very different techniques. What are the difficulties of mastering multiple methods of manufacturing?
Mastering different techniques is like speaking different languages. Both techniques require conversations with the metal in which I do as much active listening as I do talking. Fine manipulation of the pliers and tweezers are a big part of what makes good Russian filigree. Getting consistent curves and knowing which areas to fill come with practice, and having complete control over the tools definitely speeds up the process. I have to feel how those tiny filler wires are sitting when tension fitted into the frame.
With raising and repoussé, it’s all about learning to see a dimensional object puff up out of a flat sheet. The steps aren’t very difficult, but being able to visualize what’s possible while learning is the challenge. It’s vital to ‘listen’ to the metal to know how much more height a piece can take before it needs annealing or is stretched as far it will go without splitting.
Confession time: I don’t have the patience to work in only one technique! Mastering different techniques seem somewhat intuitive to me. Switching between soldering delicate open work and pieces with more mass seems to keep me on my toes, plus the variation in motor skills keeps me from having repeat motion hand problems.
You were taught to use these ancient techniques by Gia Gogishvilli, a Georgian artisan. What kind of experience was that? Without meeting him, how would you have developed the necessary skills?
Studying with Gia was truly a case of being in the right place at the right time. It was both inspirational and humbling! Here was this master, who was only a year older than me. I kept thinking I had better work at lightning speed to ever become as accomplished.
I’ve often wondered what I would have done if he hadn’t been an artist-in-residence at Georgia State University while I was a student. My previous work was very geometric, nearly unrecognisable from what I do now. I wanted so desperately to learn techniques from antiquity, and there were almost no resources available at the time (and no internet!) I might have found a way eventually, but it would have taken me years longer, and I don’t think I would have been able to do much of the work that I have accomplished.
What can be done to encourage the use and development of these techniques in the modern jewellery and metalworking industries?
Probably making the technology more available. The more artists there are working in these techniques, the more people will be exposed to their possibilities and hopefully value them more.
You sell your own tools for repoussé. Are these to your own design or a traditional set? What makes them different from other such tools?
I make them because so many people want to do repoussé but don’t necessarily enjoy tool making. They are replicated from the tools I made while studying with Gia and are traditional. Their unique shapes make them the only kind of repoussé tools that will work for Eastern repoussé and the only tools that will produce such high relief.
I employ different shaped tools for hitting from the back than for hitting from the front. They have tapered necks that give greater control. Most other types of line tools aren’t refined enough, and the chunky stock with barely rounded tips that is used in most other sets won’t fit into or around complex relief. The best thing about the way mine are used in the process is that they’re really all you need. No one has to stop and make a tool for every new type of design.
Do you use any high-tech equipment, or are all your tools traditional?
To create ancient style work, yet connect it to a larger world, I work in extreme eras of technology. Besides my Mac and iPad, the most advanced piece of equipment in my studio is my flex shaft. Compared to most smiths, my metalworking set up is primitive. I tend to work on a smaller scale and don’t do multiples so I don’t need much high-tech equipment.
In the US, are traditional skills and tools given the recognition that they deserve?
Within the art and fine craft community, yes, there is recognition and appreciation. In the US in generally…no, hardly at all. People tend to think everything is cast and mass produced. We’ve lost our awareness for what I call “Slow Craft” – artwork that is as much about the process as it is about the finished product.
Do you feel a responsibility to pass your skills on to another generation of jewellers?
Yes, absolutely! My biggest goal as been to make what I’ve learned and pushed further available for generations to come. Given how fortunate I was in studying with Gia, I feel a tremendous responsibility to the kids out there who are looking at Tutankhamun’s gold mask like I did and wondering how it was done and how they could do it too.
I run workshops that are a combination of techniques and projects. It’s extremely important to me that people gain a working knowledge of the techniques I’m teaching, but I also understand the sense of accomplishment that comes from leaving with a finished piece or two. One of the best feelings in the world is seeing what other people do with what I teach and knowing that I had a part in helping make that happen.
What are your plans for the future?
To keep challenging myself to find new ways to use my favorite techniques and to create new and exciting artwork. The more I work in metal, the more I integrate my techniques. For the past few years with Russian filigree I’ve focused on making it as dimensional as my Eastern repousse work. Techniques and materials can really feed each other.
For the past 5 years I’ve been immersing myself in completely different art processes and forms with an eye on integrating them with metalwork. When not at the bench I’ve been doing lots of collage, book making, and calligraphy. I’ve always been influenced by letterforms, particularly classical Arabic, which has is been the inspiration for many of the shapes in my work. More recently I’ve been studying copperplate, Spencerian, fraktur, and Roman scripts and scheming ways to do them in metal for jewelry, boxes, and artist books. Conversely, I’ve been using blown up prints of my mokume gane and repousse as images in my collages. On the publishing side I’ve been considering producing streaming video tutorials, and I’m working on an iPad version of the iMakeJewelry app.
Tell us about your workshop.
Some people need a space away from home to work, but I’ve always kept such crazy hours that I need to have work integrated with the rest of my life. The room itself is at the back of my house and has windows on three sides. (I need lots of light to work.) Each area of my work has its own zone. My bench is made of two long tables set on bookcases to form a large L shape that takes up about half the room and is accessible from all sides so I can maximize the horizontal space. I don’t like to get up to solder, so my torch station is near the corner of the L.
I have a bookshelf with a smaller desktop behind my bench where I photograph my artwork. Along the wall with the most windows is about nine feet of drawing table space that, though I strive to keep clear, is always covered with lots of sketches for metalwork, ephemera and hand printed papers for collage, and a few large pieces of in progress calligraphy. My desk is in the corner (it’s never clear either) and next to it is a window seat where I like to read and jot down ideas. What wall space is left is covered with bookshelves and my 2-d artwork.
I painted the walls and ceiling a light sky blue so that I wouldn’t feel trapped inside working on pretty days. Just outside the studio are my grandmother’s porch swing and a giant water oak tree that serve as steady reminders of age and timelessness in the midst of chaos and deadlines. Despite the clutter of this space, people tend to gravitate to this room. It’s like a treasure chest of possibilities.