Jamie Hall interview with Theresa Nguyen

August 2011

Hand raising is a traditional and time-consuming method. What appeals to you about the technique? Since the first time I hand raised metal, I have found the process to be both dynamic and creative. Seeing the metal change shape as it grows from a flat sheet into a three dimensional form is a wonderful experience, although I must admit it is also a slow process. Hand raising is a process that demands patience but it will also richly reward you for that patience.

Are there particular sources of inspiration for your pieces? Do you produce extensive designs before you start on the metal, or do you use practical experiments to guide the work? I try and draw inspiration from both my experiences and interests whether they be from travel, nature, music, acting or history, literature and art. They all provide the necessary sparks of inspiration that are required to set alight the creative process. On a practical level, I produce sketches and create models to make an idea visible on a three dimensional scale. At other times I work directly with the metal and allow the metal to evolve, take shape and form organically.

Your grandfather was a gunsmith and your is father a lecturer in the sciences. How have these very different influences effected your approach to metalworking? It was a great surprise to discover that my grandfather was a gunsmith in Vietnam. Gunsmithing is a highly skilled trade and requires mastery of a range of different materials and tools, which in many ways is very similar to silversmithing.
My father’s love for the sciences, his eye for aesthetic precision and an enquiring mind are some of the qualities that I believe that I have inherited from him. As a child, I loved to learn how things were made. I have a deep appreciation for beautifully crafted objects and this motivates me to not only stretch the boundaries of my own creativity but also the materials that I work with to produce pieces that are innovative, technically demanding and visually exciting.

In 2006 you had a workshop placement on the continent. Does the tradition of silversmithing in the Netherlands differ to the British industry? The tools and techniques of silversmithing in the Netherlands are somewhat the same as they are in Britain since traditional skills and knowledge have been passed down from one generation to the next in both industries. However, what I found interesting was the way that Dutch silversmiths made silversmithing into a way of life. Their relaxed and often light hearted approach towards life quite naturally fed into their work. As a result, the silver objects they made were free, less constrained by function, playful and expressed great visual excitement. It was fascinating to watch Dutch artist, Jan Van Nouhuys at work. He worked in a very intuitive way marrying seamlessly the head, heart and hands in forming great pieces of work with minimal technological and mechanical intervention.

Tell us about your workshop (be as technical as you like). I work from a shared workshop in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham. This is where all the metalwork action happens and I love being a part of the lively camaraderie of other craftsmen in the silver trade. I have my own little studio workshop where I can work quietly in solitude. However, the opportunity to also be amongst other craftsmen provides a refreshing break when I can have a chat and share a laugh after solely working with metal all day long.

After spending time learning in well-equipped institutions, were there particular challenges in setting up your own workshop? Setting up a workshop can be a huge financial undertaking. When I first started out, it was a gradual process of building up my collection of essential hand tools and equipment. Self employment has taught me to be creative and resourceful. My first challenge in setting up a workshop was to build myself a ‘budget’ workbench, which I made out of an old kitchen work top and reclaimed roof timber for the legs. My post graduate training days at Bishopsland has taught me that there are bargains to be found from carboot sales to ebay – all you need is to be persistent, keep on looking and you will find.

You work in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter – does the area support all your needs as an artist, or do you rely on artisans and suppliers from other parts of the country? The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter has an incredible community of suppliers and artisans who specialise in different areas of the silver industry. I have been able to call upon a wide network of fellow industry professionals within the Jewellery Quarter, which has meant that on the whole I have been able to complete most of the required processes right here in Birmingham. However, I have also built strong relationships with highly talented craftsmen across the UK and I am able to use their specialist services when a piece of work requires their input for completion.

Would you consider taking on apprentices? Do you think that your skills could be taught in a commercial environment, or is the freedom of an academic education essential to developing your techniques? It would be great to take on apprentices; however this would be determined by how my practice grows and the ability to create meaningful space to train new apprentices in the precious metal craft industry.

In a commercial environment, the main focus is learning technical skills in the traditional procedure of repetition. Time to explore and invent new techniques would be limited by having to meet the needs of the market and the demands of getting orders out on time.

Personally, I feel my aesthetic choices and the enquiring mindset I have towards my work has been greatly influenced by my academic education. My training at university has encouraged me to experiment with materials and has fostered a sense of play and discovery in an open and creative environment, which is so necessary for developing free thinking, fresh concepts and new techniques.

As part of your residency and exhibition at Kedleston Hall, you are setting up a temporary workshop. Will you be able to make complete pieces there, or will the facilities limit you to particular tasks? So far I have been able to demonstrate decorative techniques such as hand engraving and chasing for visitors to Kedleston Hall to see. Both techniques can be produced using hand tools without the need to set up a hearth, firebricks and gas torch facilities. As part of my residency, I have been commissioned to make a silver tumbler cup inspired by Kedleston Hall. The initial forming of the tumbler cup was hand raised at my workshop where I have access to heating equipment, an acid bath and a range of steel stakes. The application of the hand chased detailing on the tumbler cup, can however be carried out at my work station at Kedleston Hall.

What are your plans for the future? What's next after the residency is over? Most of the work I do is commissioned work. I would like to continue doing this type of work in the future. I find it immensely rewarding to be able to go on a creative and collaborative journey with my clients. I find it a real joy to work with my clients and draw out their ideas and concepts, create sketches and models and finally present them with a finished piece that hopefully realises or even goes beyond their original vision.

During my residency at Kedleston Hall, I have been involved in teaching master classes, giving lectures on my work and also talks on the silver collection in the property. I have found these experiences very stimulating and enjoyable. After the residency, I would like to take further opportunities to engage in teaching, lecturing and mentoring which will allow me to share with others my skills, experience and love for silversmithing.

I also have plans to take up some research and travel, which will energise creative thoughts and allow the artistry of my work to evolve further still.

In conversation with David Beasley

July 2011

What is special about commissions and are they liberating? The excitement of a commission begins with an unexpected phone call and a proposed design brief. The commissioner has seen something in my work that has appealed to them and it is my aim to meet and exceed their expectations. The invitation to a fresh challenge is hugely motivating and the result, a unique and meaningful artefact for the commissioner. The commissioner is always at the forefront of my mind, from the original concept through to the final presentation. Significant elements in the design brief assume an importance as I bring the work to life. The real sense of satisfaction and pleasure of a commission comes when the piece is delivered and I see their response to the final object(s). Often, design briefs set by the commissioner are thought provoking and surprising. This can be very liberating as it allows my mind to meander along new pathways and forms the stimulus for the next design activity.

Which special commissions have been the highlight(s)? Every commission has been special. When working on a commission I impart something of myself. A particularly special commission was one to celebrate a silver wedding anniversary where the design brief was to listen to the opera music of Richard Strauss and to transform the emotions I felt into silver. By the end of the commission, I had lived, breathed and knew the music of Strauss off by heart. The creation of the piece has become part of a memorable experience for both me and the commissioner.

What effect do special commissions have on your work in general and are they a valuable learning experience? Every commission teaches me something new. One of the most rewarding aspects of commissioning is the relationship that one builds along the way with the commissioner. It is important that the commissioner is involved in the creative process. Giving them an insight into how a piece evolves from concept to completion can make the experience as illuminating and enjoyable both for the commissioner and myself.