Ruth’s Song : The Story of a Found-Object Sculpture

I’d like to tell you the story of Ruth’s Song.Ruth's song

In the winter of 2008 I decided to study the following spring with Angela Bubash for a week at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. I was intrigued with the concept of working with found materials. I had long admired metalsmiths who can do that well (ie. Keith E. LoBue), but I had not really found success for myself using old keys and rusty parts as materials in pieces that have narrative power but are still cohesive and refined overall. Having studied at Penland School of Crafts, I had heard about Arrowmont and was also anxious to explore the offerings there.

I began the way I often begin a new thing – a little too exuberantly. I sent an email to about 68 of my closest friends and family asking them to scrounge through their junk drawers and send me their stuff. Anything goes. And, let me tell you, anything went. I received a holograph, a slide rule, skeleton keys, antique knitting needles, eyeglasses, military medals, photos, musical instrument parts, an antique typewriter, bits of hand-tied lace, old books, computer innards, wood carvings, bottle caps, feathers, vinyl albums, game pieces, belt buckles, spark plugs, and on it goes. What a thrill! Fortunately, I would be driving to Gatlinburg and therefore able to take all these finds with me. I did. My classmates thought I was obsessive at best. It’s true.

I had been studying these objects for weeks, displaying them around the studio in a grid so that one item would not be presented as more important than another. When it came time to pack them up, they filled several boxes and a vintage suitcase. I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.

An idea was forming as I drove to Tennessee. Something about music. Something about the healing power of music…. I stopped in Knoxville to visit my great aunt and uncle on my way to Arrowmont, and, having read my email, she had a box of treasures waiting for me. She gave me a photograph, circa 1910, marked “W.B. Atkins” and “Bluefield, W. Va.” In it are two ladies, posing before a studio landscape backdrop, flowers strewn about, with a guitar and a banjo.

“These are not our relatives,” my aunt told me.

“Are you sure?” I wasn’t so sure. “Look at her eyes.”

“Yes.” She was sure.

It didn’t matter. I was smitten by this image. There was something in the way they chose to present themselves. The hats. The dresses. And the obvious closeness between them. They shared an intimacy that women understand and yearn to find. And with them the instruments. I knew this image would be part of my Arrowmont work. There were other interesting images in the stack she gave to me, such as the mountain farm couple perched on the fence, each with shotgun in hand. But they would have to wait. These ladies were stirring my heart.

Soon after arriving at Arrowmont, the piece began to take shape in my sketchbook. It began as a large neckpiece, in a form that alluded to both a stringed instrument and the female form. My materials included sterling silver, an optic lens, copper, musical artifacts from my dad (guitar strings, a bone guitar peg and a worn Fender tortoise pick), and, of course, the image of my two ladies.

Delving quickly into the class, we spent the first day or two etching metal, and I decided to explore the Arrowmont library for some graphic resources. The library is wonderful. I found wallpaper designs from the same time period of my two ladies, and and transferred it to PnP Blue transfer paper (what’s this?), used nitric acid to etch it into the 18-gauge sterling sheet, and began to plan the process of building my piece.

I was told that I would not be able to etch the image itself into metal because it was a photograph, not a line image with distinct black-and-white contrast. But, I decided to experiment. I converted the image to a halftone (what’s this?) and went for it. It worked. I had already broken a rule.

Perhaps this would be a good time to give you a tour of the piece itself. First, notice that it is not jewelry after all. I decided to break the jewelry framework and let the piece unfold. (oops – broke another class rule) It became a small sculpture instead, and I built the sterling easel for it on my last day at Arrowmont. The body is 18-gauge sterling silver, which is pretty thick for a jeweler. Notice the wallpaper design etched on the surface. On the sides, I etched a linear version of the wallpaper design and pierced it through to allow light inside. In the belly of the piece is a +6.0 optic lens. The top point curls down and I prong-set a piece of the guitar pick as a sort of tortoise skylight. At the base is a bezel-set bone guitar peg. This is the simple mechanism that holds strings in place at the bridge of a guitar. When you hold the piece, this peg is the perfect place to use your fingers to twist the piece – a fun interaction.

Getting back to the ladies… through the optic lens there is a surprise inside the piece. I’ve noticed that not every live viewer can see it, even if they know what they are looking for. That’s interesting to me ….. hmmm.

The image of the two ladies, deeply etched onto copper, is mounted inside the body of the piece.

There they are, nestled together, posing with their hats, instruments and flowers. They are lovely.

I worked about 15 hours a day on this piece for days on end. This was new to me as I am – out of necessity – typically quite the multi-tasker. And by the middle of the week I was tired. I was trying to solder the entire body together, and I just couldn’t get it hot enough. I called a classmate over to light another torch and give me some more heat. It proved to be too much, and we melted part of the side wall. My initial reaction was “STOP!”, and then I just had to flee. But it didn’t take long for me to come back and figure out what to do next.

I was offered sympathy by my classmates, and advice to just trash that one and make a new sidewall. But that wasn’t an option for me. I was already too invested in that one – etching and piercing and all. That’s a day’s work – a 15-hour day’s work. I was more interested in redemption. That’s how things go, you know. Things happen to us in our lives. Bad things. And, we don’t really ever get a do-over. We can choose to quit, or we can choose to be redeemed and go on. Redeemed, we are never the same as before, but we are somehow fuller, somehow richer, and we go on. Scroll back up and look at the piece again. It was initially supposed to have a flat front profile. That dip that happens in the skinny part above the lens was not supposed to be there according to my original design. But I would say it is definitely supposed to be there. The piece is richer for it, and now I can’t imagine it otherwise. I also intended to actually mount guitar strings on the front of the piece, but it didn’t want them. They would have obstructed the view of the interior through the lens, and a design is just that. Sometimes the path changes along the way from design to finished piece, and the artist must be flexible in order to allow the truly beautiful to come. In other words, get out of the way.

By the way, that Arrowmont class was rich in many ways. The nine of us connected at a deep level, and are staying connected. We had fun with superlatives at the end of the workshop. I was voted “Most Rebellious” in light of my tendency to break rules and do things my own way. Isn’t that creativity?

PS. Why the title “Ruth’s Song”? Everyone has a song. The piece reminds me of the song I hear in the life of my daughter, Ruth.


2 Responses to “Ruth’s Song : The Story of a Found-Object Sculpture”

  1. Very nice story. Just amazing….

  2. Very inspirational! Thanks for sharing the story behind the piece, it makes it more complete that way. By the way I love it!

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