Charles Lewton-Brain: Maker, Innovator, Teacher

by Robyn Hawk on November 16, 2007

Charles Lewton-Brain studied and worked in Europe and North America. He lectures and publishes in a number of countries on his research into rapid methods of manipulating metal and it's surface for artistic and manufacturing reasons. He has taught at the Alberta College of Art and Design since 1986 as well as writing, exhibiting and working in his studio. He is known internationally for inventing Fold-Forming, an original system of working sheet metal using simple tools that is a new way of working metal. He and his partner Dee Fontans opened The Lewton-Brain/Fontans Centre for Jewellery Studies in 1991 in Calgary where they teach jewellery making, exhibit innovative work from elsewhere in Canada and offer information on contemporary art jewellery. In 1994 he founded Brain Press to publish 'Cheap Thrills in the Tool Shop', a book of inexpensive tool options and bench tricks for goldsmiths. Other books include 'Small Scale Photography' and 'Hinges and Hinge-Based Catches for Jewellers and Goldsmiths'. 1996 brought the collaboration with Dr. E. Aspler and The Ganoksin Project.

Brain Press publishes the results of Charles Lewton-Brain's research, on metalworking and goldsmithing, workshop safety and jewelry photography; specialized, professional information for metalsmithing and jewelry making. His commitment "is to make quality information available for self education and the development of our field."
http://www.brainpress.com/ or at his Lulu storefront at: http://www.lulu.com/brainnet

Over 500 pages of his writing on jewelry techniques can be found free of charge in the Tips from the Jeweler's Bench section at:
http://www.userblogs.ganoksin.com/



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This interview is a slight departure from my previous posts as it was written as a result of conversation and the multitude of articles published by this charming and inspirational man...Thank You Charles!

On a vacation to Taos, New Mexico with his girlfriend, Charles remembers watching a Native American gentleman grinding Turquoise and fabricating silver jewelry. His skills and willingness to share them with the young artist left a strong impression on the 17 year old working toward a career in the Graphic Arts.

From his start as a Graphics student at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design the artist, the maker talks about spending “...my time in metals finding ways of drawing with the material, of working fast and with a commitment to the mark or decision that echoes my early love of drawing in pen and ink. So work with patinas, compositional approaches to applying gold to metals, fold-forming and my recent electroforming work all have to do with drawing.”

This man didn’t “find his passion” and then hide out in a studio working on masterpieces, hoping to be discovered. He mentored artists everywhere by example, by teaching them, introducing new techniques and publishing information so they could do it to!

Through a commitment to practice, exhibition and publishing he has become one of the most inspirational artists of our time. He is widely published and has an international following in topics ranging from techniques in metal, PR methods and studio safety to research papers on historical and technical subjects.

As an artist or in Charles’ terms – “a maker” – he invented fold-forming, a large system of working sheet metals that was completely new to the world. The technique uses simple hand tools to produce complex three dimensional and relief forms and structures rapidly. With numerous shapes and possibilities this technique and its results are widely used for sculpture, decorative blacksmithing and jewelry. The British Museum research lab (Metals Head, Paul Craddock) and the Rolex Awards for Enterprise confirmed this as a new, original approach to working metals in 1990.

His contemporary work has been in the area of “Wearable art” – challenging audience and wearer. This new work has been shown in numerous venues, magazines and the internet. His focus, since 1997, has been his “Cage” series with applications from Body Art to Jewelry, concentrating on the later. “Cage” jewelry is made by welding Stainless Steel wire with an Orthodontic Fusion Welder, the wire is then electroformed and literally grown in a copper-acid bath, finally it gets a heavy gold electroplating. Metalsmiths in jewelry programs worldwide have been taught techniques and work esthetics he developed and found ways to work them into their portfolios, crediting his teachings for their success as artists.

As an educator Charles has influenced many students, and directly taught his ideas about position, philosophy, learning and technique to several thousand people through workshops and lectures. He taught at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design from 1982-84, and in Calgary since 1986 at the Alberta College of Art and Design, where he has been jewellery/metals program head for over ten years. He has given over two hundred workshops and lectures internationally. Several years ago he reached a pivotal moment... “a student of mine was born the year I graduated college. I’ve now been at this for 34 years, and revel in one of the true joys of the metals world: you will never know it all, never run out of new things to learn, never stop making mistakes and discovering accidental insights in the material, the making, the wonder.”

You can see his complete professional history at:
http://www.brainpress.com/LewtonBrain.html#prohist




So –you now know a little about the man, the “maker”, the teacher...now I want to share snippets of his words on different subjects...

On The Jewelry/Metal Community

“When I was twenty-one I was lucky enough to go on a trip round the world on a boat for 4 months. Every place we landed I went and sought out jewelers and metal workers, dressed politely, taking my chasing hammer, some punches and pieces I’d made. Everywhere I was taken in, fed, housed, treated as family. When you make jewelry, no matter how you make it you are in a club, and all of you are in that global club.”

On Jewelry
“Adornment, making decorative objects for the body, is one of the most ancient of human activities. Jewelry is in fact the oldest evidence of human activity. Ten years ago the oldest worked objects found showing signs of consciousness were dated to 45,000 years, three years ago it was pushed to 70,000 and last year to 100,000 years. And the oldest items found are beads. That’s how long we’ve been making jewelry. That is so long ago that I suspect it is hardwired into us, almost biology rather than culture.

Archeologists theorize that rather than merely being evidence of consciousness the act of self adornment, and working materials for self adornment may have actually driven the development of consciousness in early humans. That self adornment is what helped make us into thinking humans.”

On Ganoksin
With Dr. Hanuman Aspler, I co-founded the Ganoksin Project in 1996. This idealistic site has grown to be the largest source on the net for jewelry related information. We have over 4 million unique visitors a year who stay for an average of 17 pages. We have more than 600,000 pages of information, 700 pages of it my writing which is what started the site. The Orchid list is our email news list with over 6,500 members worldwide, and it takes our colleague Ton eight hours to prepare the 50 edited emails emitted daily, and archived on the site. We have partnership deals to republish content with 12 magazines including Jewelry Artist, Art Jewelry, Colored stone, MJSA journal, Metalsmith magazine and European Jeweller (GZ) magazine. If you like what we do please donate, as the whole thing runs on spit and the goodwill of its users. Together we co-founded the Clasp conference with the Bell group, SNAG, MJSA and Brad and Debby Simon’s bench media. This is a cross disciplinary project designed to break through the information silos of art jewelry, industry and bench jewelry sideways, sharing information and cross fertilizing to mutual benefit.

On Putting Your Goals On Paper
“You too can take control over your life and guide it towards what you want. Here is an opportunity for you to take charge of your life and construct it to what you want out of it. This means considering three and five year goals, writing it down, experimenting with potential paths just as you compose with your materials in art making. A written outline does not nail you down, instead it provides a skeleton to build on or change. And it is a funny thing, but merely writing it down seems to make it happen, seems to somehow guide innumerable small decisions and opportunities towards your goals.”

On Changing the Culture
“Every time you show your work, get published, get in an exhibition, sell a piece you are adding a small brick to the whole, adding to and creating a deeper, richer, more exciting place to be. It is the thousands of layers of decisions that make ancient cities and cultures interesting, and when you act as a maker, particularly if you spread your ideas using the media you are contributing to creating a better world.”

On Design
“There are a number of approaches to design. One is formal design where you are dealing with issues of composition, symmetry, asymmetry, visual weight. Another is to begin with content, meaning, emotion, and design a piece that tells a story, illustrates part of a sentence, a tale. This places the object in a larger context.
Whichever approaches turn you on it takes study and practice. And failure. I figure most of the pieces I make are ‘bad pieces’, and sometimes (more in recent times) I get lucky and the work is good. And the piece that is my ‘bad piece’ someone else will love. Where I worked in Germany, if every goldsmith in the shop agreed that a piece was an absolute dog you knew it was going to be a best seller. Who am I to tell others what to love? If something brings joy to someone why should I deny that to them? Anyway, you can practice design, get books on design principles, and draw and use collage because it is faster and less expensive in working out a design. In this way you will get through those ‘bad paintings’ faster. Choose a meaning to your work, make it part of a story, and designing will come easier as well as providing the public a bridge to your work, a way in to share, and appreciate what you are doing.”

On the Internet
"The internet dissolves geography, and Ebooks lets someone in Australia, or Africa, or the United States have immediate access to information, to create a book or paper right at their desk."


On his “Cage” series
“...in recent years I have been working with grids, as metaphors for human culture and the limits we place on ourselves. The series is called Cage work, and is made with an electronics fusion welder. I weld stainless steel wire, then electro-formed on it in copper, a blending of 20th and 19th century technologies, then have it electroformed in 24k gold on top.”


On Materials & Practice
“The material you use is just that, a material. It comes with characteristics, ways of working, and unconventional approaches to its use. It is how it is used, or accepted by audience that matters. Creating good work takes ideas, skill and practice...lots of practice. It has been said that 1500 hours of doing anything, flying a plane, making jewelry, carpentry make one an expert.

A teacher of mine had a teacher of his tell him that “...every painter has so many bad paintings in them, and all you can do is keep painting until most of the bad ones are gone”. I tell my students that to learn something technical it takes three times to begin to understand it, five times to do it right and thirty times to be competent. Practice makes perfect.”

On Writing It Down
“Generate content. Tell stories about your life, your ideas, your work.

Document everything.

Documentation gives people the ‘cultural handles’ they can use to make money on you, then you get to go along for the ride busily making whatever it is you want to and earning a living from the people in the art business who are making money on you and your cultural image. Give the people who are disposed to making money the tools to do it with you.”




On “That Business Thing”
“The point is to survive and prosper as an artist. This means that one has to deal with the basics of running a small business, independent contracting, contracts and marketing. It is the marketing that feeds one as no amount of wonderful art work will pay the rent and purchase materials unless it has a market. It is important that you possess the tools not merely to survive but to prosper as artists and individuals. This includes a good understanding of grants, PR methods, materials and sources, computer use, photography, basic digital image handling, marketing, presentation, oral and written justification of work, basic business and tax approaches etc. You have to be a better, smarter business person than most business people. And living off grants while you make your art work is a business choice.”

On Being a “Professional Artist”
“It is important that the role of artist in our culture not be a marginalized one. The stigma attached to actually earning a decent living from making art is a false one no doubt propagated by galleries, non-artist writers and certain academics who couldn't survive a week on the street if they tried. There is no need to have negative compromise be part of ones experience as a successful artist. You can have what you want without giving up anything of what you want to do.

I had an interesting conversation several years ago with an artist. She was feeling that she had somehow failed or opted out because she had a part time job for three days a week so as to have two days a week in the studio. I pointed out to her that a professional artist, who does it full time, probably gets about two days a week in the studio, the rest of that work week being taken up with paperwork, running around, doing non-art things. We are not counting the evening and weekend hours that one puts in anyway. There was, then, little qualitative difference in her experience from that of a full time artist. And she had benefits and no roller coaster worries about the rent. I came to the conclusion that either path was valid, since each offered a very similar art making experience.”

On Identity
“As a maker, identity, and the ability to express and communicate entertaining and intriguing aspects of it are what pays the rent, buys the bread. It is in fact a part of being a professional.

We do not make toasters. We make objects that grow from our lives, our minds, our materials and process. Not to mention our experience. There is an old story of someone questioning the price of a mug and asking how long it took to make. Then potter responds with “30 years and 15 minutes”.

You are buying the maker’s juice when you buy that mug. If it were just to hold a liquid Styrofoam works just as well. The buyer uses the maker as a metaphor for their own identity, their own inclinations and beliefs. The more stories and elements visible for the client to connect with the more likely it is that they will do so. Identity as a maker is vital in the relationship with audience.”

On Creating Your Identity
“You have to do it for yourself. Jeweler Thomas Mann once had a piece of his on the cover of American Craft, and various people whined about him sleazing the editors, getting on the cover. He hadn’t done anything, so he called the editors and asked “Why did you put my piece on the cover?’, and they said “you were the only one who sent a picture”. You would not believe how often one hears that refrain. Being a successful artist means keeping current press kits and photographic documentation. It means acting professionally and carrying out most of what you begin.

If you don’t engage with the culture nothing will happen. Simply having PR tools available allows things to happen. If you give your gallery all the digital images in all the dpi resolutions for print or web, and statements etc who do you think they will use when they need something? If you have them ready to email on an instant the likelihood of you being used is higher.”

...and Finally
Here are some guidelines to use when practicing as a maker.

Strive to have:

An attitude of thinking and questioning.

An attitude of conscious choice.

A knowledge of intent and how to realize it in personal terms.

Technical skill sufficient to fully realize personal artistic vision.

An understanding of choice in the finishing and resolution of their work.

Self Confidence to continue as an artist with a personally comfortable level of commitment.

Skills, research and resource finding abilities to allow you to prosper as artists and individuals.

An open minded, accepting view of the world without prejudice or unconsidered bias.

A knowledge and understanding that personal choice and a conscious life is available to you as artists and individuals.

An appreciation for hard work and persistence.

A professional attitude to work, behavior and professional commitments.




Top Ten List
This is Charles Lewton Brain’s list of References for the “Maker”


Theory and Practice of Goldsmithing
by Erhard Brepohl - http://tinyurl.com/2mwbsq
(while this book is available in the original German – I have linked you to the English version)

Metal Techniques for Craftsmen by Oppi Untracht - http://tinyurl.com/3bqmvs

The Ganoksin Website - http://www.userblogs.ganoksin.com/

The Complete Metalsmith by Tim McCreight, actually, anything by Tim McCreight - http://tinyurl.com/39aksj

Professional Goldsmithing by Alan Revere - http://tinyurl.com/36snch

Design and Creation of Jewelry by Robert Von Neuman - http://tinyurl.com/2prglu

Contemporary Jewelry by Philip Morton - http://tinyurl.com/36p2xl

Any setting video by Blaine Lewis - http://www.newapproachschool.com/html/video.html

Metalwork and Enameling by Herbert Maryon - http://tinyurl.com/39bpfq

Any Santa Fe Symposium book - http://tinyurl.com/2vltlh

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