Back when I lived in London, I did a few short courses at Morley College, an amazing adult education institution which offers a range of part-time courses in everything from flamenco dancing to anatomy. What started as a way to creatively fill my days off work, ended up resetting my trajectory and kick-started my jewellery adventure. I initially enrolled in a week long bronze casting course, because I had thoroughly enjoyed working in the foundry as a sculpture student in Cork. The bronze casting course at Morley was being taught by Terry Jones, a talented tutor and artist/maker who clearly loved what he was doing. He had recently retired from the Slade School of Fine Art and was assisted by Alex Harley, herself a successful sculptor, so we knew we were in safe hands. Morley always seems to have top notch tutors.
We were told that due to space constraints in the kiln we would have to make a small wax model, no bigger than our fist. I hadn’t really intended to make jewellery. I had been thinking of casting a long piece of tree bark I’d found, but the space constraint in the kiln made me reconsider my idea. The wax, which was kept molten in a large pot, was surrounded by oiled, smooth marble slabs. We were encouraged to ladle the wax onto the slabs and experiment with it. We used small metal bars on the slab to create a frame, into which we could pour the molten wax. This resulted in flat wax sheets which could be cut into and formed or carved into various shapes. I noticed as I was ladling the wax onto the slab that little blobs of wax created interesting shapes as they fell and cooled on the slab. I abandoned the nice flat sheets and decided to make something out of the errant blobs instead. Before I knew it I had created some wax cuffs, whose combined size roughly equated to the circumference of my fist. We were shown how to make moulds for our wax creations and once ready they were popped in the kiln to burn out the wax, leaving a void for the molten bronze to fill.
When we were ejected from the studio for our lunch break, I headed for a greasy spoon café with my new septuagenarian friend Don. He was an energetic man with a head of neat, snow-white hair and a broad smile. As a retired widower, who loved making things by hand, Morley College was his place to be. We got massive plates of hot food and mugs of builders tea at The Corner Café for less than a fiver each. Don told me how he’d always wanted to learn how to do these things when he was younger, but had a job and a family and rarely had the time to pursue his creative interests. He was trying to cram in as many classes at Morley as possible, now that he had nothing else to occupy his time. I found his enthusiasm remarkable. I don’t know if I could be so upbeat having postponed a passion for making things for so long. But his positivity was contagious and by the end of lunch he had almost talked me into signing up for a woodcarving workshop!
My favourite part of the week was watching the molten bronze being poured into our moulds. I was filled with trepidation, because it is obviously quite dangerous, but also because it might result in failure. An air bubble or stray fragment of plaster could mean you end up with nothing to show for all your hard work. But there is something so thrilling about watching molten metal pouring from the crucible into your mould, that you almost forget about the possible end result. Its lava-like quality always holds me transfixed. The ancient Romans worshipped Vulcan, the god of fire and patron of art and crafts, including jewellery. He was believed to live and work under Mount Etna, a suitably seismic environment in which to forge thunderbolts for Jupiter. While we’ve long ago figured out that metalworking is more about science than supreme deities, the whole process maintains an element of magic for me.
Once the molten metal was poured, we let the moulds cool overnight and the next day all of us took great pleasure in smashing off the surrounding plaster moulds with mallets to reveal the bronze creations within. My wax cuffs had been replaced by blackened metal, and despite all the residual plaster dust, I could see that I had achieved a pretty successful result. I started to clean away the black oxidation revealing the shiny bronze beneath, and the cuffs began to look like proper pieces of jewellery. They felt a bit heavy though, and I wondered what a jewellery maker might have done differently. Terry and Alex were very positive about the result of my wax blob experiments and encouraged me to revisit the Morley College prospectus to enrol for some of the jewellery courses on offer. I decided I would give it a go and signed up for more courses specifically geared towards jewellery making. I learned how to solder, cut, and file metal and the more I learned the more I wanted to learn. All of my tutors at Morley were so patient and encouraging, and I came to enjoy that jewellery studio so much that I knew I had to pursue jewellery making in a serious way. Looking back on my bronze cuffs now, I know what I would have done differently to achieve a lighter and more refined end product!
What started as a pleasant pastime reignited my art school passion for making things with my hands. The stray blobs of wax, and that space constraint in the kiln, led me to make my first, almost accidental, pieces of jewellery. It feels like serendipity has landed me where I am supposed to be, and with a final push I will complete my studies and hopefully set up my own studio. I had planned to be back in Florence by now, but I have grown more accepting of delays and redirections. Our countdown may have been extended, but we will be back there soon enough when our funds are finalised. ‘What’s for you, won’t pass you by’ is a common saying in Ireland, and one which increasingly strikes a chord with me. If Don could wait most of his adult life to do what he loves, I think I can handle this!