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#ThrowbackThursday: Rising to Meet the Light

Our skies today are blue, and yet they’re gray — not a product of the few scattered puffy white clouds linked around the heavens, but of the heavy haze of smoke that clings to the horizon on all sides. On a day as unspeakably bright as this, it’s confounding that it should also be so opaque.

What is less confounding than maddening are both what has brought us to this pass and what it means for the weeks and months to come. In a time of record drought, no rainy season in evidence despite the ubiquity of the daily afternoon thunderheads tht surround us on all sides only to pass us by, we are being forced to adapt on the fly.

There is no template for this, not one suited to contemporary life. Our only recourse is to listen to the land, and such counsel of our ancestors as is granted to us.

We have abandoned all though of our usual summer flora, of hay and crops and new flowers. We have turned all of our resources, scant as they are, toward saving what exists already: the trees, the shrubs, the few stalks of corn that survived to break through the earth’s surface. Water of the grass is incidental — what the birds and dogs splash out of the birdbath, In a land this thirsty, it has been enough to turn the blades beneath it bright green, and so Wings moved it yet again yesterday, the better to distribute the accidental “rain.”

There is no water coming down the ditches this year. Our one good rain was, thankfully, soft and steady enough to soak into the ground rather than run off in a flood, but now, once again, there is no water to be had. One aspen has dropped more than half of its leaves already; the willows are going gold two and a half months early. The heat and smoke close around us daily like a vise . . . and yet, there is still green, still life, rising to meet the light.

It put me in mind, this week, of one of Wings’s works from a decade or so ago, a work of elemental symbols and sloping angles and flowering light.

About a dozen years ago, Wings branched out from more traditional flat cuffs to a style known as anticlastic forging. It begins, as always, with an ordinary flat band, but through the use of gentle, painstaking hammerwork around a mandrel, either edge of the top side of the and is carefully nudged upward into a graceful incline, leaving a concave surface down the center of the band. He began with bracelets, but before long, had moved on to rings, as well. Both are now a standard part of his repertoire.

Today’s featured work was, if memory serves, the third such cuff he ever created, one that managed to be both simple and complex at once.

As I noted above, an anticlastic cuff begins in the same way as an ordinary cuff: with a flat rectangle of sterling silver. There’s a reason for that.

Look carefully at the stampwork that floats up and down the angled sides. They are every bit as deep, and as uniform, as those running down the flatter (although not perfectly flat) center of the band.

Such consistency an depth would be impossible on a band already shaped, at least with stampwork done freehand, as Wings does it.

And so, with such pieces, he begins with the ornamental design in mind, and summons it from the silver while it’s still flat.

He thus began with the stampwork. In this particular instance, Wings used a grand total of three separate stamps to produce the complexity of design shown in the images above. It’s been two many years for to say for sure from memory itself, but knowing how he works, it’s a safe bet that he began with the center stamp, a versatile symbol that looks a bit like a Mayan pyramid. Wide base at the top, narrow point down, it’s a thunderhead symbol, representing the rains that give life to this land — the rains that should be arriving daily now, but are not. Turned the other way up, it evokes the “kiva steps” pattern popular in Pueblo pottery. And conjoined with its counterpart via their wide, open bases, it becomes a signifier of the Sacred Directions, one that encompasses both cardinal and ordinal points.

For this work, Wings chose to pair this symbol in the latter motif, repeating the pattern down the length of the band. He made one exception to its uniformity: At the very center of the band, he turned the paired directional symbol at right angles to the others, so that the longer spokes were vertical rather than horizontal, implying a center of sorts.

Next, he chose a flowering plant symbol, one both soft and rounded and yet, via the middle stalks, standing tall and strong. These he chased down either side of the cuff, several millimeters inward from each edge. For each row, the plants were placed as though anchored at the edges, their living stalks straining toward the directional elements at the center.

Finally, he selected a third stamp and inverted its usual use: three conjoined arcs usually used to represent clouds, here serving instead as the fallow earth supporting, nurturing, the flowering plant life. This, too, he repeated down either side of the band, between the blossom symbols and the edges.

Once the design was complete, he then trimmed each end of the band. The point was to curve them gently inward so that where they were to meet at the underside of the wrist, they were narrowed slightly. He doesn’t always shape such cuffs in this way, but this was an exceptionally wide band, and with the curvature he planned to give it, it would make for a more comfortable fit.

Stampwork done and edges formed, it was time for shaping. Wings uses a particular type of mandrel to produce the anticlastic form, one whose curves permit him to adjust size, slope, and angle as needed:

The silver is placed against the mandrel at the appropriate curvature, then hammered into place with a soft mallet. It takes a firm yet gentle touch, as well as an ability to strike with consistent force. It’s a very precise skill, and one that requires practice to master.

Once he was satisfied with the cuff’s new shape, he oxidized all of the stampwork and buffed the piece to a near-mirror finish. He completed this one, if memory serves, in early spring — very likely at a time when there was indeed still snow on the ground, although I captured this image of his mandrel and mallet several years later. Whatever the season of its creation, it seems in our current circumstances to hold a lesson for us now: to focus on what is essential, to work to save what exists, because even in this drought, there is still life here, rising to meet the light.

~ Aji







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error: All content copyright Wings & Aji; all rights reserved. Copying or any other use prohibited without the express written consent of the owners.