Welcome to the second installment in what I am calling the “Sharps” series. Like the name implies, this work (titled Sharps #2) has seven razor sharp sculptural blade forms around its circumference. It also incorporates a number of elements directly inspired by the knife making community.
In an earlier post, I detailed the origins of my exploration into the fringes of knife making, how I am curious what might be learned from a craft with a rich history of blending old and new technology, so I will refer there for more background.
On the left is Sharps #2, On the right is the Sculptural Knife Vase (now called Sharps #1)
It is hard to talk about this piece apart from the Sculptural Knife Vase that came before it. This sculpture is intended as a sort of contrast to the vase as it shares many of the same elements, yet eschews it’s utility in favor of being an object free of context clues or function.
The thesis for the vase piece was as a conceptual bridge between my vocation as a machinist and some of the other industrial craft traditions I look to for inspiration. This second, more sculptural piece, represents one potential destination that metaphorical bridge was meant to reach.
Aesthetically, “Sharps #2” departs from the Vase in a number of significant ways. For starters, rather than being free standing, this work was intended to hang vertically from either a ceiling or some other surface above the viewer. This gives it a very different feel and helps distinguish it from the compact nature of a vessel or some other utilitarian object. That it hangs from above also helps to pull it back, if only a little, from being immediately interpreted as a weapon or some other kind of striking object. While I don’t mind the comparison (as it is apt) I wanted to present this work as a traditional art object in a way that one might recognize. I try to avoid using the “art on a stick” motif as much as I can, but I recognize that it is a sculptural format that people will unknowingly accept, so it has been strategically employed here.
Another point of difference is the wood elements that are the jewels of this sculpture. The wooden forms, intermittently placed between the cold sharp steel blades, are soft and warm and contrast beautifully. They really make this piece a step forward rather than just an iteration on its predecessor.
Using natural materials has always hung in the back of my mind, and in the context of knife making, it is a very logical step to take. It is something which I feel I can easily carry forward and find new creative ground.
Even with all of the differences I pointed out above, I think it is clear that the two works (the vase and this sculpture) are reasonably similar objects overall. That they share the exact same blade design and arrangement should make it clear that they came from the same drafting table. So then one may ask, why make one a functional object that may be taken for an instance of craft, and the other a non-functional piece that may be taken for an instance of fine art. And why wrap the whole thing in an experiment on knife making?
For starters, why not?
But also, because while I am generally accepting of varying interpretations of the things that I make, the question of “is my work fine art or craft?” is one that arises with a fair amount of regularity. And while I try to remain as open minded as possible, I feel that this distinction between craft and art keeps many makers on the fence when it comes to experimenting with more freeform types of creating.
Most conversations I have had about “what is art” tend to center on artistic intent and the context in which the work is placed. These are things that can be very difficult to know and are often outside of an artist’s control anyway. You don’t always get to choose your audience (or where the work is seen) and can hardly control what the viewer knows about you or your intent. So that these are some of the main criteria for “what is art” is highly problematic, and it makes the whole “craft versus fine art” conversation a strangely stubborn one to put to rest.
This is a simplification of course, but as a theme, I think there is room to be intellectually playful with the idea that there should be any distinction at all between craft, fine art, and other types of design. To put it another way, these distinctions may be useful to collectors, curators, and art lovers (the audience), but they just aren’t that useful to people who actually make stuff.
Strangely this dynamic also plays out in the world of knife making, where utilitarian knife design (think useful knives) stand alongside what are called “fantasy” or “art” knives (think less useful knives). From what I understand, there is lively discussion about the merits and value of each of these as well.
Trying to place various types of art, craft, and design in neat little boxes is a phenomenon that I see in many disciplines as people seek to distinguish their work or collections from one another. As an artist, it can be both a fascinating and harmful lens with which to view one’s own work. Addressing it directly through this project is a way to understand, and maybe push back a little, on a quirk of the creative arts.
Calling out some of the art worlds academic biases and demystifying the process of making sculpture is the best way I see to encourage craftspeople and makers of all stripes to jump in and try and make weird and beautiful sculptures of their own.
But that is just one layer in this project, and I can’t wait to dig deeper. So stay tuned.
That said, there was some grumbling after I posted the vase piece that I did not include the obligatory proof that the knives were indeed sharp, so please see the video above. The edges on both the vase and this sculpture are plenty sharp, enough to shave with. I shot a video of me doing so (shaving some arm hair!!!), but it is just not a pleasant thing to see, so I went with a paper slicing demo instead.
The blades are a bit thick compared to standard knife blades, so they don’t quite sail straight through the paper. This is simply because the paper needs to bend to get around the 3/16” thickness of the cheek on each blade. The T slot at the Spine is a full ¼” so the cut curves to the side, toward the path of less resistance purely because the back end of the knife is so wedge shaped. That is neat physics in itself, but this should give an idea of how absolutely sharp this sculpture really is.
The wood elements: knife making has a long tradition of incorporating natural materials of all kinds, bone, horns, and wood to name just a few. I had always avoided bringing wood into my work (for too many reasons to list), however this was the next logical element to bring into an exploration of knife making. Now that I have, I find myself wondering why I waited so long.
While these may first seem like they are inlays, the wood forms actually stand proud of the body of the sculpture. This is a small distinction I know, but I wanted them to have mass and presence like any other element in my work, and the wood grain makes each one unique in a way that metal parts never could
(I know, Damascus! I am being dramatic).
For the wood itself, I selected Amboyna burl, it is a wonderfully figured wood and it is quite hard. Amboyna has excellent dimensional stability, which is important to a machinist who is accustomed to keeping tolerances. Most woods have a tendency to change size (and shape) depending on the temperature and humidity, something that would drive a person like me crazy, but I actually found it rather pleasing to work with and cut.
Like most burl wood (or wood in general), Amboyna burls can contain small voids or gaps in the grain that can interrupt an otherwise smooth surface. I suspect a younger me would have hated this, but embracing natural materials also means inviting the wabi-sabi they embody into your work. Some knife makers will go to great pains to repair or fill small voids in the wood they choose for knife handles, I felt no need to do so, and have quite intentionally decided to leave them for this piece.
Turning wood instead of metal was something I hadn’t researched very well, and that had its own special considerations. For starters, I had no clue what an appropriate feed rate and spindle speed for turning hardwood might be, especially from a cnc machining stand point.
I reasoned that wood turners generally do their work by hand and just feel their way through it, so I presumed it would be much more forgiving than metal. So I guessed at a faster than usual spindle speed, and went with a slower than usual feed rate, and it all worked just fine. This time anyway.
I still have quite a lot to learn about working with natural materials, but learning by doing is where all of my best ideas come from. It is anyones guess where this will take me next, but I am glad I get the chance to share this work and the rest of my journey with all of you.
As always, comments and questions are welcome.