Friday, 19 June 2015

The Quest for Imperfection, or In Search of Wabi-Sabi

My background is in software, specifically web development. I used to do both front and back end stuff, as well as sysadmin things. I worked with graphic designers a lot, some amazingly skilled people from whom I learned the importance of getting things exactly right, visually. Exactly right. Every pixel has to be perfect, every aspect of a design thought through carefully and then polished to perfection. I'm eternally grateful for the things I learned from those people. Programming and systems admin adds a different dimension to the art of "Doing Stuff Right", that of every case being accounted for and every exception or problem caught before it happens. Beauty takes many forms, both in terms of visual design and in software too.

This focus on detail, on perfection, has carried over into my current work in the physical realm. Making stuff that is machine-perfect isn't so hard. Especially when using machines (although I don't have as many machines as I'd like, and where is that 3D printer I want?). Near-perfect radiused curves or dead-square edges are do-able by hand, and ultra-high mirror finishes leave exactly nowhere to hide on the finishing front. A single tiny scratch will show up on a mirrored ring like a beacon, a slightly mis-soldered joint will be visible from metres away. That's fine, and I'm getting much better at it. I like that I don't consider something finished until it's as perfect as I can make it.

What I find hard, perhaps ironically, is wonkiness. Imperfection. It's partly due to my background via commercial design, partly due to my experience in programming - and I'm sure it's partly due to me just being rather uptight about getting things "right" (I don't see this as being too terrible a character flaw, if I'm honest..) I'm not saying everything I make is perfect, not at all - but it's what I aim for a lot of the time - everything smooth and square and tidy and "right."

Japan has the idea of wabi-sabi, the concept of beauty in imperfection. It's a very hard concept to translate into words, yet strangely it's very obvious when you see it. "wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect."[1]

So I'm trying to be more wonky. This is the kind of thing I mean.




This was formed by hand from modelling clay, then cast in pure silver. At first glance I'm not 100% happy with some of the textures on the surface, nor with the not-mirror-smooth interior, but making myself uncomfortable is part of the point of this. Without stepping outside where I'm comfortable, how will I ever progress?

But then, it turns out that the more I see it, the more I touch it's soft organic curves and see how the light reflects and scatters off it's slightly orange-peel-like surface, the more I like it. It's human, relaxing: it has a gentle, quiet serenity.

"if an object or expression can bring about, within us, a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing, then that object could be said to be wabi-sabi." [2]

It looks a bit lumpy and perhaps a bit sharp and pointy in bits but it's polished to feel soft and gentle. It's comfortable to wear, it's everything that machine-perfect is not - not that machine-perfect is bad, but there's more ways to beauty than perfect accuracy.

Another aspect to wonkiness that I'm trying to explore is that of lack of control. Making things the outcome of which is determined by factors other than me. With the clay-to-silver ring it's my fingers forming the clay, me (consciously or otherwise) guiding the shape. So I tried to find a way to take some of that control away.

Obviously just throwing a load of precious metal into a vice or a crucible or whatever isn't going to work, so I tried to set up a system where I could allow randomness to be present, but still having someone attractive come out the other side. With some heavy copper wire wrapped at intervals in fine silver wire, I let the blowtorch do the work, let the silver flow where it would. Obviously I still have some control over the output - I can choose where to apply heat or where not to, but it's a start at least.

With this technique, I made some bangles, seeing as I have a new bangle-mandrel (hey, I still need some machined help, right?). Here's how they came out:


Again, like the ring before - the result is soft, unique, unpredictable. No two bangles are identical and never can be even if I wanted them to be, yet they all share common features. Just like nature, like trees or waves, clouds or even people.

I've noticed that I keep using the word soft. Metal isn't soft. Even polished metal isn't soft. It's solid, hard stuff. Why, then, do I keep going back to that word? It's because of the feeling these pieces evoke - machines are hard, people are soft. Emotionally, hard things are bad things, but soft things are nice. Nobody ever said "I can't wait to curl up in my lovely hard bed", and that's the kind of softness I think of when I look at these things.

Have I found wabi-sabi? Do I even understand it to be able to know if I have? I don't know. I do know I've made some beautiful things using techniques and styles I haven't used before, and I've learned some things along the way, and for now at least, I think that's enough to be going on with.

Yeah, I guess this was a bit of a pretentious post. But I make jewellery. Some people even call it art (not me, but I am flattered when people say that about my work). I can be pretentious occasionally, surely?

Find imperfect stuff to buy on my Etsy store, or get in touch for a personal piece - no extra charge for custom work, as ever.

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