Monday, September 8, 2008

Ringing a head

[NB: This post has been edited, updated and generally told to shape up and fly right - JDK, 9 Sept 08.]

You might think from our travels so far that most of the art we saw was very old - renaissance at least - but that wasn't the case. Some of it was new - so new that when we saw it it wasn't even finished!

Ken at his bench.

One of the most interesting evenings we spent was with Ken and Colleen Vickerson in Toronto. Among both of their many talents, Ken's a metalsmith*, and their house is full of fascinating stuff. A delicious dinner evening was rounded off with a go on a Theremin. (It's that instrument that does the ooo eee ooo noises in the '50s Sci Fi movies... We were rubbish at it, but it's curiously addictive.)

Above: Ken Vickerson's self portrait.

However, Ken was brave enough to show us his workshop where he was working on a set of rings which were portraits of his family. (I'm only sorry I didn't take a photo of Ken in his workshop - but Ken kindly has sent us one to fill the gap.) The most famous version of this idea is the Profilo Continuo of Mussolini by Bertelli. See the previous blog post here for the story.

The six portraits were made by the lost wax casting method, explained here, and there's a video from the V&A here on the topic. It is a process that goes back to prehistory, and is still a common and efficient way of making castings today: that's not something you can say about many technological, heat and chemistry processes apart from, perhaps, cooking.

Above: portrait of Ken's sister, Laura.

Ken was cutting the profiles out of a special wax blank that looked like nothing more than plastic plumbers' piping. He was doing this on a jeweller's lathe, having created profiles of each person from photographs, converted (and scaled) to look like Victorian silhouettes.

Taking these silhouettes, he then cut light alloy outlines of them, which were then used to cut the wax on the lathe. (I hope I'm getting this right, Ken?)

Above: portrait of Ken's father, Donald.

After he'd cut what was a wax version of the proposed silver ring, he put it into a mould with sprue runners for the wax, and then the metal, to run out. This is done by heating the mould (also known as a flask) in a kiln to remove the wax and to bring it to casting temperature. The metal is then heated in a crucible and urged into the mould cavity with the use of centrifugal force, or in this case by vacuum pressure (not a Hoover!).

Above: portrait of Ken's mother, Victoria

After casting the flask is quenched while still hot in a bucket of water to remove the plaster (also know as investment) and the casting has the sprues removed. The spare metal can be used again, even if the mould can't; one of the advantages of the process, and then the casting is then cleaned up.

Above: portrait of Ken's sister Jill.

Although he'd not made or cast the final versions, Ken had a couple of earlier versions he was a able to show us, but was not yet happy with.

Above: portrait of Ken's brother, Sandy.

But after we'd returned to Australia, Ken very kindly sent us these photos of the final set of rings. There's something about the reflection and profile, and the inability to 'catch' a full-face view of the subject that makes these portraits rather spooky, I think.

Ken told us about the display, seen here:

"The case is lined with a plum coloured Japanese paper with birch ply backgrounds for the rings, I needed these to provide some contrast or the profiles couldn't be 'read'."

Here they all are with reflections.

Each strip of reflection looks like a repeat of the profile, again, but slightly distorted, flattened. There could also be something of the First Nations' totem pole if they were all piled up, but with ancestors looking in all directions - not a comfortable thought for the descendants! As rings, they act something like those illustrations which resolve into a clear picture once you know what it is, but are just incomprehensible before. Oh, and they are designed to fit the right fingers, too.

Ken adds: "The last ones were shot on a piece of non glare glass, which contrary to its name, does produce an interesting reflection - giving the pieces that totemic quality you alluded to when you were visiting."
More of Ken's work can be seen here on his own website, and here at the CCCA Artists website. Go on, have a look. The 'Swords into Ploughshares' series was how Ken and I originally met, and involved Herman Goering, paper birds, two-ten hour drives with a unique soundtrack, a minister and two countries as well as the largest event of its kind in the world - but that's a story for another day. Thanks to Ken for sharing this project with us.


* I called him a silversmith, but Ken corrected me on this, quite rightly: "I am more accurately referred to as a 'Metalsmith' a silversmith makes primarily: hollowware, flatware and works for the table, though I have done work of this sort I would hesitate to make the claim. My work is primarily goldsmithing (jewellery) with a smattering of silversmithing, blacksmithing and sculptural metalwork." So now you know what the differences are too.

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