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#TBT: Small Fiery Suns of a Summer’s Night

There are more clouds today than yesterday, more haze to hold the heat close to earth. The haze is likely mostly a byproduct of the small wildfire being monitored to our north and the controlled burn to the southeast of here, but it gives the air a slightly otherworldly shimmer.

Fire is word that tends often to be unwelcome, especially at this season, but the fact of the matter is that fire as fellow traveler is absolutely necessary here, albeit one to be handled only with the utmost care and respect. Humanity has long since conceived itself as in control of the natural world, but that same hubris has led the dominant culture to dismiss the longstanding traditional practices of our peoples that have kept safe land and people alike. The Indigenous people of this land have long been experts when it comes to fire: harnessing its power for the safe stewardship of the land; learning how to push it back when it gains too much ground. The Pueblo has its own firefighting crew, the Snowballs, for the better part of a century now, and they are well known for lending their expertise in some of the country’s worst wildfires. Indeed, it was the Snowballs who, having traveled to southern New Mexico in 1950 to help battle the vicious Capitan Gap Fire, rescued the black bear cub who would become the nation’s iconic “Smokey the Bear.” [And to give you an idea of how thoroughly that cub fixed himself in the national consciousness, many decades ago, I won second place in my elementary school’s Fire Safety Week art contest with a drawing of Smokey shoveling out a campfire.]

But wildfires and smoke haze notwithstanding, summer is fire season in a more elemental sense: the nearness of the red orb of the sun, the immanent warmth of air and earth. Fire dances when it burns, but in the hot season, we all become fire dancers, whether whirling toward the warming fire of the summer sun to absorb the heat or spiraling away to escape it.

There are other seasonal fire dancers here, too — most notably those dragonflies known as red rock skimmers, whose bodies shimmer like pure flame in the sunlight.

Today’s featured work is the very embodiment of this breed of tiny fire dancer, and indeed, that was this work’s own name. It was one in Wings’s signature “Dancer” series, each a dragonfly pendant or necklace wrought in roughly similar fashion, each with unique stampwork on its wings and perhaps scorework on its body, along with varying gemstones (or, in one or two notable cases, silver ingot beads) chosen for its eyes. This particular series ran roughly from 2008 into 2012, if memory serves, and probably consisted of somewhere between one and two dozen individual works. This one, created as a pendant rather than a necklace, was always one of my favorites.

These pieces always began with the silver — specifically, with the sterling silver triangle wire used to create Dragonfly’s body. I’ve talked about the various kinds of silver “wire” here before, at some length. It’s a term that’s used rather loosely to apply to everything from what looks like literal wire, of about a hair’s thickness, to very heavy-gauge solid lengths of ingot several millimeters across. That latter may not sound like much, reading the description via flat pixels on a screen, but in metal and smithing terms, it’s both wide and heavy. Such “wire” is made by pouring molten ingot silver into a shaped mold, then letting it cool. When the mold is broken open, the silver has hardened into the mold’s shape: round, half-round, triangle, square, etc — even bead wire, in which the top side of it takes the shape of a length of connected round beads, or pattern wire, in which the mold is inscribed on the upper surface with a floral pattern or other design. Depending on the size of the wire, including weight and thickness, it can then be manipulated in various ways to achieve particular designs, or even form entire works. Wings often uses heavier-gauge versions of the plain forms of such wire to create the bands of cuffs; lighter-weight versions become accent overlays on other pieces.

At any rate, at some point in the middle of 2008 or so, Wings noticed that a short length of leftover triangle wire sitting atop his workbench would make a good body for a dragonfly . . . and so the series was born. This was not the first; that distinction, I believe, belonged to the one with silver ingot beads for eyes, followed by a couple of different versions made with Sleeping Beauty turquoise. This one dated to 2011, I believe, and it was also, if memory serves, the only one made with garnet.

Wings first cut the triangle wire, about two inches in overall length, to shape: straight across the top and tapered at the bottom end, the better to evoke Dragonfly’s whip-like tail. He filed both ends smooth, then turned his attention to the center. In some of the entries in this series, he left the bodies smooth, concentrating the stampwork on the wings only. In this iteration, he chose to add four sharp straight score marks, equidistant, on either side of the triangle’s apex, about two-thirds of the way down the wire. It lent the piece a feeling of segmentation of the sort seen in the body’s of its real-world counterparts, and implied abilities of motion, as well.

The basics of the body design complete, he turned his attention to the wings. Dragonflies, of course, are possessed of four wings: one one each side on the top, and a corresponding pair below. They are also very sheer, veined and translucent; indeed, it is usually the wings that make them both visible in flight and shimmery in the light. Wings created these all of a piece, one single bit of sheet silver cut to size and shape, roughly two and a half inches across and perhaps three-quarters of an inch to an inch high, straight across the top, rounded near the ends, then curving sharply inward at the sides and back out again in much smaller arcs, thence to move slightly upward at the center of the bottom side. He then filed the edges smooth, and set about turning the wings into something that would catch the light.

For each of the pieces in this series, Wings chose to use one stamp to create the wing pattern, repeating it over and over across the length of the silver. For this particular work, he chose a tiny hoop, chasing it around the length and height of the four interconnected wings via scores of strikes of a tiny jeweler’s hammer. By the time he was done, the wings bore some two hundred tiny hoops on their surface, evoking both the sense of a sun-like orb and of spiraling circular movement. Stampwork complete, he carefully soldered the body to their center, allowing the top of the triangle wire to extend a few millimeters above the wings’ upper edge. He then fashioned a bail of slender but sturdy sterling silver half-round wire, bending it gently into a loop, and soldered it into place at the top center of the triangle-wire body.

Lastly, he needed to create the eyes. As noted, he had done so previously with a whole host of different stones, and even with small bold round beads made of sterling silver ingot (I should note that these were “beads” in the descriptive sense, tiny round balls of ingot, rather than actual drilled beads that would normally have been used for stringing). For this piece, he chose a pair of small round cabochons of rich red garnet, the color of deep burgundy wine, or of the darkest of flames. These were fairly highly domed cabochons, but very small, and they needed to be held securely, so he fashioned a pair of saw-toothed bezels and soldered one to each side of the triangle’s apex, just below the bail. Once they were secure, he oxidized the joins between the wire and the bail and bezels, adding a fairly heavy layer of oxidation across the scoremarks on the body and the stampwork on the wings, then buffed the piece to a medium-high polish. All that remained was to set the stones, bless the piece, and put it into inventory.

The eyes of this dragonfly positively glowed, small fiery suns of a summer’s night. They contrasted sharply and beautifully with the shimmering effect of the wings, tiny hoops dancing through the warm air in a silvery spiral. It was one of the most beautiful of our resident summer spirits, brought to wearable life.

This morning, the first bright golden swallowtail of the season floated past the windows. Pond again dry, no dragonflies are yet in evidence. But rain is forecast for the first of the week, and perhaps the water will come again soon . . . and with it, the tiny fire dancer who is one of our most faithful messengers of the season.

~ Aji








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