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Interview with Silversmith Wesley Harris


MAGC: WHAT LED YOU DOWN THIS CAREER PATH?  

  As a student at a small high school in Erin, Ontario, I had an amazing art teacher.  His name was arthur Brecken.  He included many craft mediums in the art program, and when we came to jewellery-making, I was hooked.  I loved working with precious metals -- I loved the precision, the polish, the possibility of setting stones, and the process of soldered construction.  Mr. Brecken practically adopted me and I spent many hours doing silver work at his studio.  He encouraged me to enter competitions.  One of my early perfume bottle was accepted in a show judged by Lois Betteridge.  He then encouraged me to take a smithing workshop with Lois.  I eventually went on to earn my MFA in metalsmithing at Cranbrook Academy of Art with the same instructor that Lois had studied under at Cranbrook in the 1950s.  Upon graduation in 1981, I worked as a silver designer with Lunt Silversmiths in Massachusetts.  In 1986 I met my wife, moved back to Canada, and have been a free-lance silversmith in Newfoundland ever since.

YOU ARE BUSY WORKING ON PIECES FOR AN UPCOMING SHOW.  HOW DID YOU START THE PROCESS FOR THIS?  DID YOU HAVE A THEME OR TECHNIQUE THAT YOU WISHED TO EXPLORE?  

For years I have wanted to prepare a show of sterling silver hollowware.  Indeed, concepts for some of the pieces now finished came to mind while I was at Cranbrook (but few of us could work in sterling at that time because the price of silver was up to $50. an ounce!).  Also, around 1980 while I was a student, the technique of mokume gane was being revitalized out of near obscurity.  Ever since hearing about this, I have wanted to try make mokume gane and smith it on a hollowware scale.  The two mokume bowls now ready for the show are a realization of this dream.  The title -- Rare Reflections -- is the theme.  The surfaces of these pieces reflect light differently, from patterned mokume, to planished pure silver, to both polished and satin finishes on sterling.  And I think a few of the pieces themselves can be describes as rare.  For example, I am presently constructing a large sterling water pitcher entirely out of vertical strands of 8 guage round wire, each strand shaped and soldered side by side.  The fluted texture of the resulting surface is delightful and truly creates a rare reflection.



This is one of two mokume gane bowls that I recently completed (2010).  The Bonsai Bowl was "resurrected from the ashes" after an earlier failed attempt at smithing mokume on a large scale.  I was able to use only certain solid scraps and therefore was forced to go-with-the-flow.  The result is an unusually free and organic piece for me.  It is 9" high X 10" across.  The materials are as follows:  Mokume gane (18 k. green gold, sterling, copper, brass, shakudo, shibuichi), sterling silver, 14 k. yellow gold, coral branches, black opal.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR CREATIVE STYLE?  DO YOU CAREFULLY PLAN YOUR SUBJECT MATTER & COMPOSITION BEFORE YOU BEGIN MAKING?

I suppose my creative style could be described as conservative.  I like to strive for clarity and simplicity.  But I also try to create something more than the sum of the parts.  This can be the result of a 3-D interest that invites exploration and draws the viewer in.  It can also be due to an inherent logic.  For example, one of my favorite creations is a water pitcher with a horizontal handle into which are set seven moss agates that look like "pools", and three of these pools terrace down into the pitcher with sterling "waterfalls" between them.  The inherent logic is the implication of fresh water flowing into a vessel that is meant to contain and pour fresh water.  The feeling of synergy or something more than the sum of the parts can also happen with a calculated coincidence of elements.  For example, in a wedge-shaped ring that tapered from a wide band below the finger to tall narrow band above the finger, I set a facetted stone such that the gradation of thickness and taper terminated in points on either side of the stone exactly where they needed to serve as prongs -- form    and function fused.  So, yes, I usually have a clear idea of what I am striving for before I begin making.  But as the work unfolds, I continually let the intuitive re-evaluate the blueprint.

 



This is a bowl smithed directly from a 100 oz. ingot of pure silver (looked like a brick when it began).  On one hand, the pure silver was difficult to control, on the other hand it allowed me to work the metal quite thick.  I have always wanted to smith a piece sufficiently thick so as to leave an edge wide enough to receive an inlay of some gem material.  I was able to do this in this piece.  The edge is inlayed all the way around with abalone shell.  The effect is exactly as I had hoped, as if the metal contained an iridescent core that was visible only at the edge.  The dimensions are 11" long X 3 1/2" high.  It was finished in 2009.
DOES LIVING IN A FAIRLY REMOTE PART OF THE COUNTRY DICTATE YOUR CHOICE OF MATERIALS OR FABRICATION TECHNIQUES?

No, being in Newfoundland does not limit me (although, once it took UPS nine days to deliver some solder!).  The NL government has an excellent funding program for the craft industry which helps immensely with travel, promotion and marketing costs.  The Craft Council of NL is tremendously supportive (my solo show opens at their main gallery in St. John's on March 20, 2011).    There are wonderful stones native to Newfoundland and Labrador.  I have cut and set a lot of lovely labradorite, and a bit of virginite which is unique to the island.  Western Newfoundland where I live is a very beautiful part of the world.  Our house is literally between a mountain and the ocean.  My studio overlooks the bay and I often look up to see an osprey or eagle fly by.  In the spring I keep an eye open for whales, and in the fall the dolphins always come through.  As one who draws endless inspiration from beauty in nature, this province is a paradise!  
WHAT COMMISSIONS DO YOU LIKE THE BEST?  WHAT WOULD BE YOUR DREAM PROJECT?  

I enjoy orders that leave me free to create.  I also love working in gold.  Its great when commissions come along for pieces in gold, especially now that it is so expensive.  What would be my dream project? -- an order with an open-ended budget to smith a sterling silver tea service.

This piece, like the Blue wave Bowl, was smithed directly from a pure silver ingot, 20 oz. in this case.  It was a neat challenge to "unfurl" it from the heavy wafer and forge it into a letter opener.  The stone is a gorgeous barrel-cut amethyst (some of the older MAG members might be interested in knowing that the amethyst was facetted by Edgar Hasselfeldt who actually designed and built his own faceting machine!  Ed, who passed away in 1992, was a multi-talented artist/craftsperson).  The dimensions are 13" long X 1" high, and was made in 2010.


WHAT IS THE ONE THING YOU WOULD TELL YOUR YOUNGER SELF?  

When I look back, I realize that I should have entered a lot more competitions and shows.  I would tell my younger self to build up an impressive resume.  I remember my teacher, Mr. Brecken, saying "if your designs are good, your work will sell".  And he was right -- it has sold.  But as I now try to embrace the gallery scene, I realize that having good work alone is not enough.

Wesley Harris' show opens on March 20th, 2011 at the NL Craft Council gallery in St. John's NL.

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