Making Beautiful Things

This blog entry was generously submitted by Karen McLaughlin, one of my first students in my Workingsilver Naniamo Teaching Studio several years ago.   Thank you Karen for your friendship and support.  I look forward to creating with you, side by side over the coming years, in my New Westminster Workingsilver Studio. 

It is early June, 2008: exams, grad, and retirement are almost here.  Thirty-two years of teaching are soon coming to an end.   I am standing in the front office, visiting briefly with Bonnie and Moira, two of our secretaries before class begins. “Are you excited?” Moira asks.  “What will you do with your time?”

I’d like to take a course in jewellery design”, I tell her.  “I want to make beautiful things.  After all those years of teaching, I want to stand at the end of the day and hold something in my hand that didn’t exist in the morning, something tangible.  I want to feel the weight of it, I want to look at it and say, ‘I did that.  There it is’.  I want to hold something real in my hand, something I can see.”

Two years later, I have been beading for a while, now, designing and assembling pieces from components purchased at craft stores and elsewhere, but I’m frustrated.  Higher quality components are expensive and difficult to find.  Then one afternoon, while I am walking back to my car, a poster on a notice board stops me in my tracks.  Workingsilver, it says.  Owner, Kathy Brandon is offering a two-day introductory silversmithing course in three weeks.  I jot down her contact information and send off an email as soon as I get home: “Is there still room?”

“There is.”

“Great! Then sign me up!”

I can scarcely contain my excitement.  I am going to make beautiful things.

I share the class with half a dozen other students, each of us at our own station. “So far as I know, this is the only teaching studio on Vancouver Island,” Kathy tells us. “And once you finish the basic course, you are welcome to come in on Tuesday afternoons and evenings and work on projects of your own.”

“You each have a piece of copper to practice on.” she continues, “and enough silver to make two rings.”

I open the zip-lock bag and pull them out.  The unpolished silver lays, like the promise of light, in my hand.  At the end of the day, I hold up my first ring, in sterling with a bezel set stone.  I see its flaws, but for all that, it is a beautiful thing.

And so, every Tuesday, I come to climb the stairs above Gallery 223, and set to work.  My sketchbook fills, and an ever growing, ever more challenging queue of projects, (I know they are going to be wonderful) wait to be done.

I am not the only one.  Ellen is assembling a bracelet fashioned from the handles of two antique sterling spoons.  There are several of us in  he studio; we are all instantly smitten.  Where, we all want to know, can we find solid silver spoons? or forks? or knives? This, we are told, was made from her grandmother’s tea service. (Her mother is horrified: “Not your Nana’s silver!” Ellen is so delighted with the phrase, she takes it as the name for her jewellery company.)

Marlene is finishing a pair of earrings in hammered silver.  “I love those earrings!” I tell her.  “So simple, but so elegant! Oh, I am definitely stealing that design!”

“That’s okay,” she responds. “It’s not mine. I already did! They’re a Christmas present for a friend of mine.”

“Nice!  Who wouldn’t want a friend who makes you hand-made presents in sterling silver?”

Meanwhile, Sheila has been working quietly away on a design based on a forest of evergreens.

“Have you seen Sheila’s pendant?” someone whispers.  “It’s amazing!”

I put my project aside and walk over. “I’m lurking behind your back,” I tell her. “Do you mind if I peek?”

“No, not at all!” she says.  “I’m not sure if I’m crazy for trying this or not.” She bends over her jeweller’s bench, too intent to look up.  She is painstakingly cutting away the silver to reveal the branches of the trees.

“Wow!” I say. “That is going to be gorgeous! How on earth did you get your saw around all those corners?”

“I just go very, very slowly,” she tells me, “and use a ton of patience…….Darn! (The blade snaps.) I’ve also gone through a ton of blades in the process.”

This is what happens in the studio; we often find ourselves pausing to admire each others’ work.  Between sessions, we stare shamelessly into jewellery shop windows and at pieces around other women’s necks.

Sadly, like so many good things, our time together does not last nearly long enough.  Kathy announces one day that she is selling the studio and moving back to New Westminster to have more time with her husband, who has returned to work there.  (“Really, what is up with that,” I ask one of the other women, half  jokingly, “when she could stay here and spend her time with us?”)

These days, in my own studio, my day at the bench is not nearly the same as those Tuesdays used to be.  I have missed having friends working by my side, so I am delighted when Kathy’s new studio opens in New Westminster, even it if is a long and expensive ferry ride away.  I might not be able to make it to her weekly Open Studio, but I can do classes, at least.  (Yay!)  Almost immediately, I sign up for a class: Surface Techniques, taught by guest instructor, Kelly Allanson.

A few weeks later, half a dozen of us, including Kathy, sit at our benches as Kelly introduces herself.  “We’re going to start with fusing,” she tells us. “If you’d like to step over here to the soldering bench, I’ll show you.”

I set my tools down and join the others, exactly where, back when I stood talking with our two secretaries, I dreamed I would be: here, in the company of friends.  We are going to make beautiful things.