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#TBT: A Prayer For the Summer

The forecast changes almost by the moment: After altering the long-range forecast yet again to preclude any real chance of rain before Saturday night, now the weather experts are predicting thunderstorms for this afternoon.

You wouldn’t know it by the sky. At the moment, it’s hot and hazy, the only “clouds” the faint veil from the smoke plume attending a new wildfire west of here. There’s only the faintest breeze, the heavens bleached by the heat, and still, far too much of the green is marbled with the pale golden-brown of drought.

Still, rain or no, the water is running fast down the ditches this morning. The northernmost field is already done and reviving; the course has been changed to split between a new field and the main ditch, whence it flows into the pond. The green will be a bit brighter, the wildflowers taller and fuller.

It is, in the most real of terms, an answer to our prayers.

Today’s featured work embodies those prayers, and the green and the wildflowers, too. It harks back to the pieces from Tuesday’s post, where the focal points of the pieces manifest in shades of summery green marbled with rose and bits of translucent color and light. It’s one in Wings’s long-running signature series of eagle-feather works, this one a pendant from, if memory serves, this very season some eight years ago.

At the time, he had acquired (again, if I recall correctly) a set of four oval cabochons of an unusual green material. They were virtually identical, save for the varying inclusions the constituted their respective matrices — the main color somewhere between spring green and a slightly olive-y shade, a color that could easily have been mistaken for peridot had the stones not been opaque.

At the time, we were unsure precisely what they were. The color was that of serpentine, and each of the cabs was flecked throughout with a tiny dark speckled pattern. Serpentine manifests in a variety of shades, not always green but mostly, and while its banded form is probably the most recognizeable, the speckled variants are not uncommon.

What puzzled us, though, was the internal color of the cabs. If you held them to the light just right, you could see the tiniest hint of pastel and jewel tones, peach or pink and bits of blue and gold.

Had it been only the redder shades, we would have recognized it instantly as unakite, but the rest of the patterning was off. We finally concluded that it was serpentine with some opalized inclusions, and mostly forgot about it. Two of the cabs were nearly identical, and those he turned into earrings; the other two he set aside for a pair of pendants in the eagle series. I had remembered the first pendant and the earrings, but until last night, when I accidentally stumbled over this photo in a search for something else, I had forgotten there was a fourth cab, and a second pendant.

And looking at the photo, it became clear that we were mistaken to dismiss unakite as a possibility, because that is exactly what this stone is.

It’s all in the light, of course. I only recall ever having seen the other cabs in the shadow of Wings’s studio or in the dark interior of the gallery. There, the green and black were dominant; the only hint of the other colors came when a piece was held to the light filtering through window or door. It’s also hard to convey what that sort of light can do to human perception, especially in our old gallery in the summertime: a darkened interior, with no electricity, contrasted with the brilliance of the high-desert sun, is not merely blinding; it actually alters our ability to perceive shades and shapes. In such circumstances, the camera sometimes catches color with greater accuracy, and that was the case here. Unfortunately, I had forgotten all about this image and its subject; looking at it with new eyes last night, I realized that with these four cabs and three separate works, Wings had been working with unakite all along, albeit with some unusual patterning.

Unakite is an unusual stone anyway, a hybrid of sorts. Technically, it’s a form of jasper, one infused with feldspar and epidote, which is what create the pink and green colors, respectively. Epidote on its own, however, is naturally more blue — an intense turquoise-to-teal shade that often looks like indigo in the pure form and definition of the word. Feldspar, meanwhile, runs a fairly broad gamut of translucent shades. In this case, the pink spectrum has just enough yellow in it, and so does the epidote, to turn the blue to green and the pink to a slightly peach-y shade. Both colors tend to manifest in marbled tints — darker here, lighter there. And occasionally, heat and water and pressure and time will combine to isolate bits of mineral and color in a given sample, thus producing the blue and gold flecks that misled us in first evaluating the cabochons.

At any rate, they were remarkable stones, and they produced beautiful pieces. All three items sold fairly rapidly, which is probably why I forgot that originally, there were two pendants, not one. In comparing them, this was the one I actually most remembered from its real-world for; it was, to me, slightly bolder than the other, a bit more uniform in the shape of the saw-work, with an extra wrap of the wire overlay. And obviously, this particular design began, conceptually, with the stone.

Over the years, we’ve featured a number of Wings’s eagle-feather works in this space: necklaces and pendants, cuff bracelets, earrings, even a barrette or two. The basic design is simple, yet requires precision in the execution — a combination of cutwork, stampwork, and overlay. And with these, although it may seem counterintuitive, the stampwork comes first in the process.

It’s for good reason: Wings meticulously creates each individual barb (i.e., the separate silken strands that, together, form the feather itself). But to be convincing, the barbs need to extend the full width of the feather on either side of the shaft. That’s impossible to ensure if you cut the feather out first; with scores, even hundreds of chisel strikes, some will inevitably fall short of the mark. So Wings sketches out the outline in rough form on the silver first, delineating the boundaries where he will eventually cut the feather out of the sheet. In this case, it’s a stylized shape, a bit like an elongated teardrop some two to three inches in overall length, with a slightly rounded point at one end and a slender neck extending upward into an oval at the other. In this way, feather and stone setting are all of a piece, and there’s no worry about soldering or subsequent breakage over long wear.

Once he had sketched out the outlines of the piece, he set to work on the stamped patterns. First, he gauged the approximate center of the feather’s vertical axis; this would become the shaft, and would eventually be covered with the wire overlay. He then chose a stamp with a chisel-like blade end, wide and thin and straight, and began to score lines, angled slightly downward, on either side of the center, extending past the outline. In this instance, the lines were exceptionally fine, precision detail work made of up of likely hundreds of individual strikes of the jeweler’s hammer.

Once this was complete, Wings selected a stamp in the shape of a small round hoop. This motif he scattered randomly on either side of the center to upper half, four per side. These would stand in for the mottled spots present on the feather of an actual bald eagle. Then he set to work cutting out the entire piece, feather and setting as one. Once the outline was removed from the surrounding sheet silver, he then set to finer saw-work, a technique known as ajouré, excising small triangles from the sides here and there in random fashion, three to a side. If you’ve ever seen a real eagle feather, you’ll know that over time, it loses barbs, or the barbs become stuck together over long periods of use, creating what appear to be gaps in the feather. This added a bit of realism, and also evoked its purpose as prayer feather.

Once the cutwork was complete, Wings filed the edges smooth, then set to work on the overlay. First, he measured and cut a length of exceptionally fine sterling silver half-round wire, a very thin, lightweight gauge. He then began at the point of the feather, soldering one end of the wire to it at the very center, then continuing up the shaft’s entire length to the top of the feather portion of the pendant, until it was soldered securely. Then he set it out on his anvil and, returning to the hoop-pattern stamp, chased the tiny image down the entire length of the wire overlay that now formed the feather’s three-dimensional shaft.

At this point, a significant portion of the wire remained loose near the “neck” of the pendant. He extended it outward, then wrapped it tightly around the neck, repeatedly, until all the space between the top of the feather and the base of the oval that would form the bezel were covered — in this instance, five separate wraps of the wire. He then clipped the end and soldered it into place, turned the piece over, and fashioned a simple bail on the underside of the oval. Turning it right side up once more, he created a simple saw-toothed bezel to hold the stone. He then poured chose a silver ingot bead and hammered it, repoussé-fashion, into a tiny specialized anvil to create a miniature concha in the shape of a three-dimensional blossom. This he placed at the very tip of the feather, an overlay upon the wire-shaft overlay, and soldered it into to place, as well. He then oxidized the entire piece, paying particular attention to the wire, the concha, and the stamp- and scorework, and buffed it all to a medium-high polish — enough to shine, not so much as to erase the definition of the barbs and mottles on the feather.

Lastly, he set the stone. These were beautifully cabbed ovals, relatively highly-domed, and, if memory serves,  not calibrated, which means that they were cabbed individually, rather than being produced commercially en masse to template-specific shapes and sizes. This gave the stone a slightly free-form appearance, one that suited its naturally textured surface. Once complete, it became, in very real form, a prayer for the summer, for the green grass and wildflowers, for the water and the light.

In other words, a bit like our prayers for today.

~ Aji








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