Process Oriented Metal Education

Art school is in some ways a difficult place to learn to be a metalsmith. Traditionally, it took industry from three to seven years of concentrated time to educate a goldsmith. This is because, as Jamie Bennett puts it, metals are “process-oriented media.” By this, he means that there are often many more ways of working and manipulating the material than in other media. Since metal is harder than other media, there are numerous tools – extensions of the metalsmith’s fingers – necessary to manipulate the material. Jewelry objects are often small, intimate and concerned with detail decisions that are made, literally, millimeter by millimeter. Few media use as many tools and deal with surface at such intimate scale.

There is a lot to learn, including a lot of control factors. Those in industry have often commented that most art school graduates are unable to work to industry standards in techniques as basic as filing, sawing, soldering and fitting. There is, however, in the art-school context, simply not enough time to teach technical skill in the traditional manner of repetition. Also, there may be philosophical problems, in that the function of an art school is to teach free thinking and alternate ways of viewing the world, as well as technical skill, though this last has, to my mind, been neglected in the last decade or so.

As average art-school students majoring in metal spend only about one-half of their time in the studio during the four years of study, with less time in the studio at the beginning of their education, there is a limited amount of studio contact time. Most art school graduates are unable to express their ideas freely in metal because of a lack of technique or the preoccupation with technical problems. I believe it is possible to increase the technical skill levels and thinking capabilities of the student faster than current art-school or industry educational systems allow, by teaching skills in a process-oriented manner. As I deal with students primarily in an art-school context, my approach is most concerned with metals education in the art-school system. However, with my experience of teaching working professionals, I believe many of the same comments also hold true for industrial education.

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The object of education in art school is for the student to be esthetically free in the medium, as soon as possible. I believe it is possible to move closer to this goal by learning in terms of working processes, (with graphic work marks as compositional elements) and by dealing with technical problems as a deep understanding of material. The deep understanding of the material and its nature was not part of my North American art-school education and, as far as I can tell from my contacts across North America, it is still relatively neglected.

My approach to teaching metalsmithing builds up an understanding of process (what actually occurs when one works the material) and procedural options (techniques to effect a given process). The approach allows students to exercise free compositional choice without technical skill limiting their options. The premise is that if the student in an art school is given the technical tools with which to exercise compositional choices, early in his education, he will learn more complex technique as his creative vocabulary expands. Traditional metals education concentrates often on static control over the material, by which, I mean the ability to shape and fit the material into predetermined volumes, sizes and shapes, to coerce it into the requirements of the design. There is nothing wrong with this approach; after all, metal is resistant to movement. The faster media like clay and glass, where decisions may be instant and feedback from the work is constant and swift, accept process marks as graphic compositional elements. In metalsmithing education, the choice of surfaces and shapes historically has been restricted to heavily worked types where little of the nature of the material showed. Metalsmiths would traditionally work to “blueprint” drawings of their piece and force the material into the shapes and forms dictated by the drawing. The beginning techniques taught in a traditional system such as sawing and soldering are often very difficult to control and master, and at times prove a source of frustration to the student. These techniques should still be taught, but alongside the use of process marks as compositional elements. By using process marks as controllable, compositional elements, students are freed to investigate the intent and concept of their work and the initial technical wall, which many of us experience for the first few years of metalsmithing, is lowered. There is more fun and freedom earlier on in the educational process.

It may be of value to first teach easily learned and controlled techniques in a metals education. I mean teaching them in terms of using process working marks as compositional elements with which they can “design” and “draw” with the material in the way that a printmaker affects a metal surface in order to create a picture plane. All the marks of working the material may be used in this approach, whether hammer-blow shapes or filed textures, as long as they are controlled in the service of the student’s intention. The student can easily learn systems of process-oriented mark-making such as gold painting, patination, anodizing, various texturing approaches and fold-forming. As the easy, less skill-dependent, techniques are mastered, then the more difficult skill-dependent techniques are learned in order to fill a need for greater control possibilities. It is important to continually teach every procedure in terms of what is happening to the material and why. A little basic metallurgy doesn’t hurt understanding.

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My approach emphasizes critical thinking and uses contrast and comparison to teach the student how to solve technical dilemmas. It is material-oriented. The more one understands the material and its characteristics, the greater is one’s freedom in esthetic and technical choice. For the teacher, the approach means constantly getting the students to brainstorm technical answers as well as giving them descriptions of process. It is important to know how and why things occur with the material one uses. One does not kill the magic of a material by understanding it; if anything, one’s respect and appreciation for it is increased.

Some background thoughts to process – oriented teaching:

Fundamentally, the key to this approach is to realize the difference between process and procedure. Process is what really goes on, what actually happens when one affects changes in the surface or form of the metal. A procedure is a way of performing a process; it is a recipe, a technique. If one thinks in terms of recipes and procedures, one can be stopped by a technical problem. If, on the other hand, one looks to the process and analyzes what is occurring on the material level, one can then solve any technical problem relatively easily. Engineers, doctors and scientists are taught in terms of process so as to be able to solve technical problems, but our educational system for metal seems to be full of procedures that are taught as the “right way” to obtain a form or surface rather than as being part of a spectrum of technical approaches that lead to an end result.

We know there is no right way to do things, merely variations of more or less appropriateness to the technical problem at hand. By determining the process, then reviewing technical options for creating the conditions required by the process, new and different solutions to technical problems can be found. At some point, even the apparently ridiculous answers thought of in a brainstorming session may prove to be the correct solution under a different set of conditions. An example of this might be that heat is required for melting metal. How that heat is obtained is immaterial. The metal could be bonded to thermite to be melted or heated by other chemical reactions, struck by lasers, heated by electricity friction, flames, radiation, etc. All the possibilities are run through mentally, even the ones that seem improbable. In a classroom situation, this is accomplished by free-associating techniques to perform a process. If one is working by oneself then it is more difficult to do this and some reading in basic materials technology may be of help.

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An example of how this approach can be applied in a classroom might be the way a jeweler’s saw frame is introduced. At first, the difference between process and procedure is discussed and then the concept of separating sheet and solid material is introduced. Every possible way of doing this is evoked from the class, from using lasers to gnawing through with one’s teeth (the later is not particularly efficient). Then, the options are evaluated in the light of the varying functional requirements of the piece and the material strength and hardness of the metal used for it. Finally, the nature of the sawblade as a chip-forming tool like a chisel or a file is examined. In fact, a sawblade and a file are the identical tool; it is just that a blade is a thin slice of a file. Still other comparisons and examples of chip-forming tools, blades and wedges are described and drawn from the class. In this way, by using contrast and comparison, an understanding of process is built up, and, whenever possible, all techniques are discussed in the light of this. By looking at things from a number of different angles, a deeper understanding of them is achieved. I think that in this way people are not trapped by technique or problems with lack of skill.

In order to be able to work in freedom, we must continually reexamine our knowledge process. I do not mean that one should throw out all habits but merely evaluate them. This is part of the critical thinking necessary to this approach of teaching.

Another prejudice of some importance to metalsmiths is preciousness. We tie ourselves up in the cost of the materials and in the time involved in making the piece – its “value.” I notice that when working in copper, I work freely and surely, yet when trying to be free in silver and gold, I find myself somewhat hampered, a condition which is usually reflected in a reduced scale of the piece. Therefore, copper and other nonprecious metals are exceptionally useful for working out artistic ideas that may then be translated back into precious metals. This approach also encourages serendipity.

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Almost every metalsmith can identify with the situation of having an accident change one’s piece unexpectedly. For instance, a piece that has been labored over untold hours is taken to the rouge buff one last time and caroms about the inside of the polishing machine. This has happened to everyone at least once. Presented with a gouge across the top surface, one realizes that an attempted repair would be extremely difficult. Usually, one then looks at it again, says, “nice gouge,” and proceeds to gouge up the surrounding surface to match. By making the accidental moment intentional, by choosing it and altering the piece to match the accident, we bring the work into some kind of balance again. This unwillingness to scrap a piece is influenced by the precious aspect of the materials. This is to our advantage – preciousness forces us to choose serendipity and serendipity is,

I believe the driving force behind most innovations in the arts, science and every field of human endeavor. Being open to observe what is happening, comparing and contrasting it to other apparently related phenomena, will help one to be more likely to use these moments. By working with the process and using process marks as compositional elements, the student is naturally more open to serendipity.

Note

There are a number of teachers in North America using similar approaches to teaching including John Cogswell, Tim McCreight and David LaPlantz.

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Charles Lewton-Brain, a jeweler-metalsmith, teaches at Alberta College of Art, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

By Charles Lewton-Brain
Metalsmith Magazine - 1991 Winter
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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