2017 Gold/Platinum - Second Place
Henry Spencer will walk away with two Saul Bell Design Awards this year. He is the only person to achieve this distinction; and when you look at his pieces, you can see how they are exemplary of contemporary metalsmithing, jewelry design and extraordinary craftsmanship. Henry is different from many in the jewelry world. He doesn’t intentionally shun tools and gadgets. Instead, he lives in rural New Hampshire, only uses electricity for his lighting in his studio, and makes many of his own tools. But his simple lifestyle in no way interferes with his attention to the smallest details in his work. In this case truly “less is more.”
The Winning Pieces:
Materials and processes used.
The most important aspect of any piece I make is the final reflective quality; its "skin." Establishing the reflective patina requires multiple layering of textures. I prefer to work only in silver as it can be oxidized, bringing out the finest of surface details and finishes. Gold is difficult because its shine can only be diminished through the application of some rather strong finishes on my tool heads.
The combination of repoussé and chasing grants the artist amazing fluidity in metal. My work runs about 10% repoussé and 90% chasing, which is the opposite of my earlier work.
"Sinuous Line" bracelet is 22K gold with a fine silver sleeve. Both 22K and fine silver are soft and offer insufficient strength for a bracelet. Bezzeling the silver sleeve’s edges over the gold adds tremendous strength. It looks good, too.
The "Nuthatch" is sterling and constructed from three pieces soldered together. For any artist, there are those pieces that exceed expectations, representing a new standard for the artist. This box could be one of the 10 best things I have ever made. Every silver piece I do is held against it in internal comparison.
The "Sinuous Line" design evolved from earlier work. Running a curving line through the center of a piece first showed up as a minor design element in the box. I liked the way the line divided the space, as it does in the bracelet.
The "Nuthatch": Boxes are my favorite medium. The bottom of a box needs not be related to the side or top. This allows me to offer a surprise to the viewer when they turn the box over and find a wholly independent design. Boxes have historically been one of the benchmarks of excellence in Western chasing. Smaller boxes are the perfect amount of space to work in, allowing the artist to expend the time required to do superlative work but not so much space that the finished piece needs much time to complete. Time is the chaser’s only real enemy. The subject matter is derived from my love of birds.
Many artists develop certain motifs in their work. I return to certain design forms. Birds and fish, five-petal flowers, geometric/tantric forms and abstract curved sinuous lines. I trace the growth of my abilities through the execution of these preferred forms.
As a chaser gets better at their art, the time required to meet personal standards increases. I use to spend three hours per square inch. Today I require as much as seven hours per square inch. A bracelet can be four square inches and take forty-five hours to complete the chasing and another four or five hours to construct. A box can be as much as twelve square inches.
I seldom spend much time with a pencil prior to starting a piece. An idea or design element in one piece can evolve into the primary focus in another. It is evolution. I see my work as a continuation of a single body of work.
"Sinuous Line": about 60 hours. The "Nuthatch": 60 hours or a little bit more.
What did you learn from the pieces?
"Sinuous Line": Beauty can come from a simple line. A tour de force need only be as close to perfect as the artist can achieve. I also learned, I can repair a piece like this. It was badly damaged in a shipping incident. It took thirty hours to repair after completely de-constructing it, repairing the damage then re-constructing it.
The "Nuthatch": This piece is a standard of personal excellence. Can I make what I am working on now better than the nuthatch box? “As good as” can be reached but “better than” is a rare feeling.
Are you going to sell them?
It might be better to ask will someone buy these pieces? I certainly hope so. I make work to sell.
Do you think these piece will influence your work going forward?
Yes. They already have. Using gold is a major step. And the box will deeply influence my work.
Did you try on the bracelet?
A few people tried it on. With the boxes, they have rounded bottoms, which nestle in your hand when picked up. I want to see your fingers curl around it.
Where do you live?
Northern rural New Hampshire.
Did you study jewelry?
No. I was a hippy metalsmith making sterling wire jewelry in 1968. It was seductive and lucrative. I then started making jewelry for real, became a metal artist and stopped making money. In 1986 I met Louis Feron, a French-trained master chaser in his late 80s. When he deemed I had put in enough time practicing, he let me watch him work. I never used a tool in his presence. Then I would go home, put in 60 to 80 hours and come back to show him what I had done. If he was satisfied, I would again be allowed to watch him work.
Do any of your other passions influence your work?
Meditation and spiritual philosophy influence not only my life but my art. Metalsmithing is a culmination of my spiritual life.
When are you most creative?
At the very beginning and the end of a piece. The opening stages of a piece are a moment of creative faith and the ending perfection stages are a creative culmination. All the work in between is just that, work.
Do you have a jewelry design business?
You could say that. I sit in my studio and make stuff I designed. Haptic Gallery which is Greek for “from the hand.”
What is your artist statement/design philosophy?
Balance and beauty!
How do you market your work?
Thomas O’Donovan’s Harbor Square Gallery, Rockland, Maine, is currently the only successful representative of my work. Applying to the Saul Bell awards is my first attempt at wider recognition.
Saul Bell Design Award:
What did you feel when you found out you were a winner?
Extraordinarily happy. Winning in the jewelry section was a surprise. I don’t consider myself a jeweler, I am a chaser who needs a function for my work. It was sweet to have simple beauty recognized and appreciated.
What made you decide to enter the competition?
I saw the ad in the Rio catalog and thought, "Why not?”
Studio and Surroundings:
What is the one thing you most love about your studio?
It is my favorite place in the world. It is there! It exists!
What is your favorite tool?
My hammer; without it, I would need to use either my hand or a rock to hit the tools. The only electricity in my studio is for my light. I have a hardware store torch. And my chasing tools are nothing more than fancy nails I make. A hammer, pitch bowl and collection of small metal punches is all I need. That’s it.
Do you listen to ANYTHING when you work?
Sometimes books on tape.
What one word of advice would you give beginning designers?
Meet someone famous and influential. You are either going to stick it out or not. Success with ability requires good fortune. Keep an eye out for good luck.
What jeweler would you most like to see?
Louis Feron. I would give anything to show him what I have done. I met him when he was 87. I thank him for what he gave me almost every day.
You can see more of Henry's work at www.henryvspencer.com.
Interview by Marlene Richey