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#TBT: A World of Water and Sky

A small late storm last night gave us an autumnal dawn: deep dark clouds over the peaks, limned along their lower edge by a nascent coral sunrise.

It was sufficiently beautiful to send me out onto the deck into the 6:45 AM chill.

It was also a sky better suited to October than to August.

Of course, that’s true of the land, also. Concerned about the three weeping willows on the west side yellowing too soon, Wings supplemented them with iron, in hopes of neutralizing some of this record drought’s starker effects. But in the last few days, the four weeping willows on the north side have begun to turn; where yesterday a significant amount of green remained visible, today, they are mostly gold.

October trees in an August earth.

Now, the clouds are moving in once again, and we are under a flash flood watch until  PM tomorrow. We know better by now than to expect much from either forecast or advisory; the last year has been nothing if not relentlessly devoid of ordinary weather, and this time of year, flood watches are astonishingly ordinary.

Or at least they were.

It’s starting to feel as though we stand at one of this world’s cosmic pivots — just as our ancestors did, the First People, who, depending on one’s culture and origin stories, emerged from the waters or from the Underworld, or were lowered from the heavens, or otherwise arrived at this plane from some other. In each instance, it was the trading of a known world, an existence that, however dark, was also familiar, for one wholly new.

Right now, we are poised at the edge of an earth ridden with drought, one constituted of scorched earth and searing light: too hot, too bright, too dry to sustain life as we know it. And so as the clouds build around the horizon, we dream of a world of water and sky, one more blue than brown, one in which the rains return and the waters too, in which the plates of our world are more the shell of Grandmother Turtle than the dry earthquakes and tectonic shifts of an overheated subsurface.

Given the week’s imagery (and the stark absence among our photographic record of Wings’s past work of any boulder or ribbon turquoise pieces as-yet-unfeatured here), another iteration of Grandmother Turtle — cool, calm, impossibly, serenely blue — seemed fitting for today’s highlighted throwback.

This piece dates back to sometime between 2008 and 2010, but my instinct is to put it halfway between — from 2009. It was one of a small informal series of such turtles that Wings created over the years surrounding that time period: a couple of bright sky blue ones, one made with White Buffalo magnesite, one with a shell formed of a massive old black-on-white pottery sherd, one in a slightly different shape centered around a large, tightly webbed turquoise cabochon in deep teal green and black. This particular work’s focal point was a spectacular cabochon of what was, if memory serves, Royal Blue turquoise, one that truly demonstrated why this gem is known colloquially as the Skystone. And in this instance, I’m confident in thinking that, while he had the turtle design already firmly in mind, he built the pendant around the stone.

Still, it all starts with the silver and the setting, and so that is where we begin. Wings has a few different turtle templates that he uses, images hand-drawn by him in varying forms and shapes and sizes. His most commonly used is this one and its variants, all drawn and cut freehand but following a basic structure; the major alterations come in the length or angle of the head, the shape and curve of the tail, the toes, the rounded width of the body. The differences are often dictated by the stone he has already chosen: For example, an oval stone of this size needs a setting rounded enough to complement it without being lost in the bezel’s edges; a more rounded stone can function well within a slimmer, more uniform profile.

This setting was created using a total of six stamps: two sunrise stamps, nearly but not quite identical; two arrowhead-like stamps, both triangles with open bases; one starburst stamp; and one plain dot, a stamp that is, in effect, simply a sharp tip. Having sketched out the general area that would be devoted to the cabochon, leaving additional minute amounts of room for the bezel and twisted silver edging, Wings began with one of the sunrise motifs.

It’s not uncommon for silversmiths who specialize in stampwork to have a number of different stamps that represent the same sort of image: sunrises, crescents, Eyes of Spirit, Four Sacred Directions symbols. Sometimes the differences are immediately clear; with others, they are so subtle that, even arrayed side by side, it’s still difficult to distinguish between them. But they all serve their artistic (and in Wings’s case, spiritual) purposes.

The first sunrise stamp consisted of a long low arc with rays in a graduated repeating pattern tracing the upper line. These “rays” were more numerous, arrayed more tightly together, and the stamp itself was slightly longer on its horizontal axis. Wings used these to edge the oval bezel setting all the way around, forming an interior row of shell “plates.” The second sunrise stamp was slightly shorter horizontally, but slightly taller vertically, with fewer rays more loosely arranged above the arc. These he used to form a second row of armor plates and scales, alternating them along the outside of the inner row so that the apex of each arc fell between the lowest points of the two adjoining inner stamps. In this fashion, he managed to evoke both the turtle’s armor-plated shell and her scales, since the outer row extended to the very edges of the setting.

Next, he took the larger of the two “arrowhead” stamps, one that in actuality more closely resembles a spear point. It’s a long, narrow triangle without a base, two angled lines tented inward to come to a long sharp point. these he used to articulate the turtle’s outer toes, first and third on each three-toed foot. The shorter “arrowhead” stamp he used to form the second toe, the one at the center of each foot.

Wings’s next step was involved use of the plain point: Using a jeweler’s hammer, he gently tapped it over and over across the surface of Grandmother Turtle’s head, neck, and curving tail. This provided texture and depth, and gave the impression of leathery reptilian skin. Finally, using the starburst stamp, which consists of a five-pointed star in relief against rays radiating outward on all sides, he created her eyes.

Once the stampwork was finished, he fashioned a scalloped bezel by hand, soldering it into place inside the stampwork edging at the center of the shell, then trimmed it with a delicate strand of twisted silver. He then fashioned a bail on the back, one in slider form, if memory serves, soldering it into place, and finished it off by oxidizing all the stampwork and buffing it to a medium-high polish.

Then it was time to set the stone. It was a spectacular specimen, too: one that my memory insists was labeled Royal Blue, a Nevada mine known for its clear sky-blue stone relatively free of matrix, although some Arizona mines used to be known for similar color clarity. The photo doesn’t quite do it justice; it looks here slightly seafoam in color, with definite hints of green undertone, but in reality, it was the color of the early morning desert sky overhead. If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see just a few faint lines of matrix, bits of pyrite edged perhaps in copper, inscribing delicate map-like traceries along the edges of its surface.

At the time that Wings created this necklace, by far most of its peers among his inventory were hung from simple sterling silver snake chain. For truly special pieces, however, he would occasionally string gemstone beads, most often turquoise backed by silver at the ends, the better to display the stone- and silverwork of the pendants. And so it was with this one, a big, bold, spirit-infused work that required an equally bold stand of jewels to set off its beauty.

He began with a string of doughnut rondels, so named for their puffy shape. Their circumferences are perfectly round when viewed from above, but they are not spheres; at top and bottom, their edges taper toward the center, giving them a doughnut-like form. This particular set of beads were probably Royston turquoise, a mix of sky blue with pale green undertones and whorled with green and brown patches of matrix. These he strung in random order, mixing up those with matrix and those without. At either end of the stand, he placed a pair of sterling silver spherical beads, each molded in melon-like lines and ringed with a single solid strand of silver. These he topped with tamped sterling silver cones; lastly, he attached the findings.

The result was an homage to Grandmother Turtle and to the world she built on her back, wrought through the Skystone itself to create an earth in miniature, a world of water and sky.

And as I type, the rain has come. It seems that we shall have a little water to cool our world after all.

~ Aji








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