Tag Archives: Alternative materials

Embrace the Unexpected

When I was rather unexpectedly laid off from the day job at the magazine at the end of August, I decided to look on the upside of things — all of a sudden I have lots of time on my hands to spend in my studio without being mentally distracted by the daily demands of a job. Sure, there is anxiety associated with being unemployed, but if you treat the job hunt part of your day like a temp job and just blitz through the finding leads, sending out and following up on stuff to efficiently get it over with, all of a sudden you have hours and hours of unencumbered time at your disposal. It’s actually really awesome. I’ve been sleeping like a rock, eating so healthy it’s scary, suddenly have lots of energy, and strangely, no more acid reflux. I haven’t left the house for weeks except to take a daily walk around my local lake, or to visit the mailbox or work in my garden.

All this positive force means I’ve been making work like a fiend, sending out class proposals, applying for residencies, shaking up some freelance work and teaching workshops, organizing my paperwork, cleaning up my digital assets, mastering some code, getting the book idea that’s been dancing in my head for about 8 months committed to a worddoc, and generally investing 100% of my creative energy into ProjectHelen instead of ProjectElsewhere. Hate to sound selfish, but ProjectHelen is so rewarding because there are actually tangible rewards when you invest in yourself. I could really get used to this…

Anyway, quick word of reassurance — I promise will still be writing about Tools and Bench Tips here on a regular basis. My last formal column will run in the November 2016 issue. For the past few weeks, I gave myself permission for an essential and very healing mental break after what went down at the magazine. I just had to allow the trauma to sink in and process itself down and out of me. I am happy to say I am cool with it now, doo-doo happens and, it was a great gig while I had it. Oh, and good luck…

So. Over, next. If you follow me on FB or Instagram, you’ll see I’ve been toying with some video, taking loads of step shots, and creating some new classes for Tucson and BeadFest, plus some other places I hope to reveal soon. Keep an eye on my class descriptions for updates. And now, I can be here more often, too.

Change, they say, is as good as a rest. Um, yep!



What I’m playing with now

Sometimes, you must give yourself permission to play. Art becomes not so fun when you have to keep doing the same thing again and again — working hard to meet some external need — like a deadline, due date, quota, etc., and you never have enough available time for free experimentation.

Here are some multi-media experiments with recycled materials I have been engaged with.

Here are some multimedia experiments with recycled materials I have been engaged with.

Every book, workshop, guideline or system for creative types will tell you that you really do need to schedule non-negotiable “play dates” for yourself, and on those dates, just make something with no agenda on it. Doing this on a regular, scheduled basis seems counter intuitive to the “creative muse sweeps in and gives me a genius idea” concept, but it isn’t. You’ll discover that practicing this routine will allow you to access your creativity with ease. Because you’ll be familiar with the sensation of slipping in and out of the creative zone as easily as a dolphin flies and swims in front of a speeding ship. Doing this will put some “creativity bucks” in your bank account and you’ll have them when you need them.
Who doesn’t want that?

In my experience, it is absolutely true that “all work and no play” makes me one unhappy camper. If I make the critical error of cutting out play due to being overburdened with “real work” I get really cranky. When I get cranky, I can’t make work, even when I have to. Even if there is time. Because I end up forcing myself to make work, but what I produce is flat, boring, soulless stuff. I hate that crap — and it makes me want to not work. But I have to. So I sit at my bench and move things around and I can’t seem to finish anything. Sound familiar? Its a vicious circle. Why? No fun. No fun = no energy. Artists are kids. We have to play to get energy. And that means cutting loose.

This is some hand-painted, hand made paper I am encasing in resin.

This is some hand-painted, handmade paper I am encasing in resin and sawing out after it has cured.

I have learned that if you take care of yourself by scheduling play, there is a payoff. Because eventually, you’ll discover that when you do need to crank out work to meet those deadlines, you won’t be so exhausted or demoralized by the endless demands of external — and you will have the energy to get that work done. Which will make you feel a sense of accomplishment, which in turn will make you feel satisfied enough to give yourself permission to play again. End of vicious circle.

On that note, I have been playing in my studio a lot lately. I know I will need energy to teach soon, so I am banking up some creativity bucks — courtesy of regular, scheduled play dates for myself. None of this stuff I am creating has anything to do with anything, except that it’s what I feel like playing with. I am flipping the proverbial bird to those external demands and doing what-I-freaking-feel-like-thank-you-very-much. There’s metal, plastic, wood, paint, fabric, fiber, stone, glass, ceramic and other crazy stuff all over the studio. I have paint under my nails, loud music on the speakers, tools everywhere, books open, piles of inspirational materials next to my rocker and bed, and a big smile on my face. What a nice feeling. And, boy, do I feel smug.

So, go play. It will do you a world of good. Meet you at the jungle gym…

Problem Solving at the Bench

Brooke's bracelet after patination in Liver of Sulfur

Brooke’s bracelet after patination in Liver of Sulfur

Recently, I got an email from Brooke Graybill, a former student who took my Flex Shafts Only! class at Bead Fest Spring. She’s been busy working on some interesting etched bracelets, and wanted to experiment with patination, but hit a wall.
Of course, she emailed me just as I was packing for Bead Fest Philly, so it has taken me some time to answer her here. Luckily, Brooke was tenacious, and hunted me down there, so we did catch up with each other, I told her what I came up with to help her (I hope) and I also hope she is moving forward on that bracelet now.

In any case, my mind has continued to work on solving her problem since the day she emailed, and as soon as I clear a half finished project from my bench, I plan to do some scientific research — to see if I can solve her problem without doubt. In the meantime, what I have here are the several suggestions I came up with. But first, here’s her email:

Hi Helen,
I recently took a Flex Shaft course from you, however, my question is about patina, I hope you can help me. I etched some copper for a bracelets. My plan was to use liver of sulfur and darken the etched copper as dark as possible and then buff off the patina on the raised areas.
The one picture I’ve included shows my problem . . . I had trouble removing the dark patina only on the raised areas . . . hence I had to remove all of it.  Is there something I could have put on the raised areas to resist the liver of sulfur?  I would appreciate any suggestions you may have. Thanks – Brooke Graybill

Brooke's bracelet after finishing.

Brooke’s bracelet after finishing.

I love the challenge of solving problems, and in doing so, I first analyze Pros and Cons of the situation. In this particular case, all the pros are about the metal Brooke chose: copper. She got a deep and clear etch, copper forms easily, and there isn’t a more patina-friendly metal. Sadly, some of the cons are also about the metal: the copper will continue to darken over time (unless it is sealed) and eventually obscure the stark contrast between the red metal raised areas and the black patinated recesses. The other con has to do with the design she etched — those raised areas are little isolated copper islands in an ocean of black. This isn’t bad design, mind you, it’s just difficult to deal with technically — as Brooke discovered.

So here’s what I came up with. To help you wrap your brain around it, I will call the raised areas of the design the “islands” and the etched out areas the “ocean”.

Option 1: The hand finishing method. If Brooke had left the bracelet flat after patination and then very carefully used a scotch stone, burnisher, triangle scraper, or a bit of steel wool or abrasive paper to very patiently remove the patina from the surfaces of the islands, she would have had more control and been able to preserve the black ocean. Then she could have very carefully formed the bracelet around the mandrel with a clean rawhide mallet while protecting the delicate surface with a piece of cloth, chamois or leather.

Option 2: The patient patinatation method. This option is also best for a flat cuff, and I would use a weak liver of sulfur liquid solution or the gel for this process. Get a fine-tipped sable watercolor brush — not a cheap, crappy, 50-cent dime store brush that flops around when its wet — and carefully paint the patina into the oceans. You can only do this with a decent brush. Since you want black, black, black, work on a paper towel and let the patina solution evaporate off the metal. Then, form as above.

Steel Wool QTip

Use a chopstick, dowel or round toothpick and some 28 ga. wire to attach the steel wool.

Either of these options requires patience and an unformed bracelet. In Brooke’s case, the bracelet is already formed. So, if it were me, I would throw it in the pickle to remove all traces of former patina, rinse and dry it, and then blacken it again. Then I would make a steel wool Q-tip (photo at left) and very patiently burnish that patina off the islands. After I have what I want, I’d seal that copper with wax, matte varnish or Krylon immediately! Because copper is so patina-friendly, it will turn chocolate brown on you almost immediately, especially here on the uber-humid eastern seaboard.

So, Good Luck Brooke! I hope these suggestions help, and I will do some experimenting myself soon to see if I can  come up with another solution.

Pssst: It might possibly be entertaining and interesting in the very near future for you readers and subscribers to start following my Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds soon … Just sayin’

Twitter: @fabricationista
Instagram: HDriggs_Fabricationista
Facebook: Helen Driggs

Life’s good when you get to run it

Bob Ebendorf, Fred Gall, CoMA Conference 2014 Salida, Colorado

Sculptor Ted Gall (left) and Bob Ebendorf share a quiet moment at the podium.

I truly love metalsmithing and I’m reminded of that pure and simple fact every time I get away from the daily grind and into a group of like-minded friends. Despite what it may appear to be, very often a job can be a job, and once you discover its the things you make time and space to do on your own clock that feed your mind and your heart, life becomes so much more rewarding.

Such is the case for me now, and I have gotten to a place where I truly understand how the “important stuff” happens when you get to run it. This year, I made a pact with artist Helen to go to the annual CoMA Conference on my own time and my own dime. If you love metalsmithing and you’ve never been, I heartily recommend it — so, mark your calendar now for the third weekend of July and join.

The last time I attended CoMA was a few years ago, and I was distracted by exterior unpleasantries, the job and the duties — and as a result I was unable to experience it on my own terms as artist Helen. This time, I had to run it, because I needed this one like a desert needs rain. When you are running on empty, you’ve just got to add fuel to the tank. And even with my excellent planning, I wound up being in recovery during the conference from a somewhat unexpected major surgery, and just a bit worried about being far from home. However, courage is essential when you decide to run it, so I trusted Doc, packed my meds and braved the pain and the flight. It was so, so worth it.

pinswap, helen driggs jewelry, CoMA conference 2014, fibula

Here are my 20 pin swap pins ready to trade. Wire fibulas were about all I could produce while laying on the couch drugged and in pain as I recovered from surgery.

Headliners this year were Andy Cooperman, Barbara Heinrich, Ford + Forlano, Ted Gall, and one of my “jewelry heroes” the incredible educator/artist Bob Ebendorf. Every presenter demonstrated a signature technique, and there were additional demos, including using Delft Clay by Alex Boyd, images and videos galore, the pin swap, lunches with friends, dinners with more friends, the silent auction (I scored a sweet strand of chunky, awesome stone beads for a song), the Arkansas River kayakers, “S” Mountain, Big blue sky, Culture Clash Gallery, cold adult beverages, a fantastic and like-minded roommate, glorious sunsets, tales of rocks and cutting rough, the vendor room, and a sweet, singing canary in the breakfast room of my hotel. I also took a two-day workshop with Bob Ebendorf after the conference which totally blew off my doors.

I came home energized and excited about making work again, which is a feeling I haven’t experienced in a while because my gauge was on empty. I have been very busy and life’s been full, but I have been making and doing lots of stuff for the job, plus curriculum pieces and demos for teaching. Important, yes. But, I remembered that its also  important to make space and time for the pure and simple work you make just for the love of making it. It is essential to do that to remain whole, and CoMA helped me remember. I was also very lucky to have an excellent drive featuring a very good mentor/student exchange with Bob Ebendorf all the way to the airport. Having an exchange with someone like Bob is a blessing. Wisdom is everything. And I know now it is critical to keep my sanity by establishing crystal clear boundaries between my own personal time and artwork and the time I have sold to others.

Bob Ebendorf necklace, CoMA 2014 Post Conference Workshop

Bob Ebendorf has used every imaginable material in his work. I have never seen such an inventive use of tabs and cold connections. He is an amazing educator and I have tremendous respect for him.

The more I spend time doing what I love on my own time and dime, the more I remember how important it is to me and how much I love metalsmithing. It makes me strong to have those boundaries in play because they protect artist Helen from the big time and energy drains that can suck the life from you.

The takeaway is this: here are five things I am going to try this summer as a result of what I observed at CoMA. These were my “Ah Ha” moments and I’ll do a show and tell later on as I progress. And, I am still working on the movie in a blog thing, guys/gals, so don’t give up on me yet. I am just busy, but I will deliver, I promise. So anyway, check this:

1. Weld sterling to sterling with sterling wire, instead of using solder — courtesy of Andy Cooperman

2.  Roll print my dried oak leaf hydrangea blossoms between 2 sheets of annealed gold — Courtesy of Barbara Heinrich

3. Make a hand fabricated chain out of iron tie wire or recycled coat hangers — Courtesy of Bob Ebendorf

4. Cast something using Delft Clay — Courtesy of Alex Boyd

5. Revisit polymer clay as a jewelry medium, but wearing a ‘barrier film’ on my hands to prevent a recurrence of serious allergic dermatitis — Courtesy of Steven Ford of Ford + Forlano.

So, that’s all folks. I have a busy remainder of the summer to go, and I’ll see you at BeadFest Philadelphia if you are there.  There are some spots open in some of my classes, so check out my Teaching Dates above if you are free.

Ciao! And, enjoy the rest of the photos…


Bob Ebendorf is free and open with his demo and sample pieces. He encouraged us to shoot as many photos as we needed to take notes. He is truly an educator at heart.

bob ebendorf teaching at CoMA 2014

This is the best part of the workshop experience. I always learn best by watching a master at work. Bob Ebendorf is a wealth of information and a truly fun teacher.

Jewelrymaking on a deserted (almost) island

Yes, it is possible to make jewelry on a Pacific island. I just found a goldsmith here on Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, and plan to speak to her in depth later in the week. Especially about how she keeps her beautiful rolling mill pristine and rust free during the rainy season, when I can’t do that without lots and lots of work — in the temperate zone!
More to come soon. Keep your fingers crossed everybody — maybe I can get my boss interested in a story about the trials and tribulations of metalsmithing in paradise. Hmmm…

Micro-torch Fired Enamels on Copper?

I was lucky yesterday. I had an open space to play for a while in the studio without a crushing deadline, so I decided to experiment with some torch fired enamels, using a new torch system I recently reviewed for Lapidary Journal Jewelry Artist. I was blown away by the heat that little torch — The Mini Flam — could throw out after I soldered with it for a while, and I have a project due in a few issues that has to feature enamel in some way. So, in my normal hyper-efficient approach to life, I figured why not try the new torch on the enamel tests I have to create anyway before I can start the project? Makes sense to me.

These are the preliminary tests for hard clear Thompson’s enamel on 26g copper; some roll printed. I used Garnier liquid hairspray as a flux.

Normally, I torch fire using a city gas and oxygen fuel combo, which is about as hot as it gets — like surface of planet Venus hot. Plus, city gas is clean, which matters with enamel. So, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the propane/butane fuel mix of the Mini Flam. Well, so far, so good. I got four nice little hemispheres, and the enamel behaved somewhat predictably. I love the way copper oxides leach into the glass during regular torch firing with city gas, so I was happy to see little tinges of green and chocolate develop as it cooled, after using the micro torch. It got the metal very hot, very fast — a great thing with torch firing, because the sooner the glass gets past the orange peel stage, the better. And, I was able to hold the copper at angry orange for a minute or two, which is essential to melt and spread the enamel grains and give the richest color.
I am going to try the bench torch version of the Mini Flam torch now, to see what the oxygen boost and tiny torch tip will do. And some silver, too. And thicker metal and larger forms. This is kind of exciting, because the owner of the company told me he hadn’t heard of anyone trying to use it with enamels before. I love being a pioneer. As I get some more samples, I’ll post them here, so stay tuned!

Todays tip: When you are sifting enamel onto a piece, keep at least 4 inches between the work and the mesh sifter. That will allow the grains of enamel to spread apart as they fall on to the piece. You will get a much more even surface that way.

If it’s cool and interesting I’ll use it!

Some people think I have little regions of snobbery in my artistic processes. It’s just not true. I can easily explain my thinking behind what I put with what — glass and plastics with base metals, stone and non-manufactured natural materials with silver — it is pure and simple science. I have a very scientific mind and I classify, analyze, sort and process everything into a sort of taxonomic heirarchy of materials. Some things deserve to be put with other things because of their fundamental or elemental way of being.

Here are some resin and brass “stones” I created with vintage kimono silk for a mixed-media bracelet.

I have used everything from plastic to diamonds in my work. I have beads, stones, buttons, fabric, fiber, art supplies, paper, plastic, ceramic, metal and wood in my studio at all times. I just put those things together according to my own sort of Darwinian system of organization. I am a materialsmith, and I love to investigate everything with an eye for creating assemblages of things that have a reason to be together. My mind sets a problem, I create a reason for solving it in a specific way, and then I let those materials tell me why they belong together. If the things I choose look good — and solve the problem I set for myself — I’ll use anything. Sometimes I am sucessful in making a satisfying object that speaks on several levels, both to me and others. That is the job of art.

Todays tip: Don’t mix resin with a wooden stir stick because wood tends to create an excess of air bubbles you’ll have to pop once they rise to the surface of your piece.