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Christopher Price

Knifemaker Interview Series, a biography workshop

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Thank you for being so kind, it was enjoyable. I have chosen the next interviewee, Jim Kelso and by way of introduction I would like to show some of Jim's collaborative work.

 

KelsoMillsTanto640.jpg

 

Jim has worked with Louis Mills

 

KelsoBaldwin640.jpg

 

Phil Baldwin

 

Life_and_Death.jpg

 

and others over the years.

 

Jim is one of the most talented and sensitive artists I know. His work shares an aesthetic with the finest of the Japanese artists and yet he has maintained a clear and identifiable voice that is uniquely his own. Recognized as one of the world's leading craftsmen, Jim has been an inspiration in my life and I am honored to call him my friend.

 

I would like to ask Jim to describe your life as craftsman, how you got started and what influences and events lead you to where you are now. Where do you see yourself going in the future?

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Thanks very much for the comments Don. I feel all of that kinship as well, and have great respect for this space you've created, that draws on your character. Thanks also for this revealing and engaging series (about to drop off drastically right about now :unsure: ).

 

I love the craftsman/artist life. Ever since I was a kid I've thrived on independence. Perhaps my favorite thing is to look and observe, mostly in nature, but also art in life, books, museums, etc. This life has allowed me to do that as part of the job description! Nature especially never gets stale, except if we are.

 

There are sacrifices, particularly financially, but frankly, that never seemed like a huge sacrifice compared to the rewards. It's easy to think of craftspeople or artists as unsophisticated or dumb around business and finance, but actually to make a living in those fields you need to spend a lot of time on the business part, make good decisions and be resourceful.

 

I grew up in a small agricultural town in central Washington State. As a pre-teen and teenager I was fond of building kit models which was the beginning of my use of tools and development of precise eye-hand skills.

 

I experimented in my early twenties with many crafts including leatherwork, weaving, ceramics and woodworking. My fondness for woodworking and music merged in a five-year period of stringed instrument building, which led to a study of carving, inlaying and engraving of a variety of materials that continues to this day. This study, apart from a brief schooling in woodwork, was done independently of formal training.

 

Beginning about 1977 when I was 27, my interest in engraving was focused on firearms, custom knives and swords.

 

In 1981 Don suggested I go see the swords and Japanese art at the Smith Museum in Springfield, Massachusetts, which was a watershed experience, deeply affecting my art to the present. This was basically my first exposure to Japanese art and I felt a powerful affinity for the netsuke, sword fittings and lacquer-work at the Smith Museum. This really vastly expanded my creative horizon.

 

About that same time Don and Jimmy Fikes suggested I meet Louis Mills and maybe work together. I met Louis at Ashokan about '82 and it led to many collaborative tantos and longer swords.

 

I'm not sure if this is too much detail. I'll have to pick it up later at any rate. Have to get to the bench! :wacko:

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Welcome Jim, and thanks Don for taking the time to share with us.

 

Take care, Craig

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Thanks Craig.

 

As I mentioned, Louis MIlls and I made, I think 15 or so of the Japanese style swords.(I don't call them Japanese swords for a number of reasons). I'll post a photo of one of my favorites from 1986 or so. A little on the extravagant side perhaps, but what the heck.... David Darom took my photos of this piece and made the composite.

Marton_Tanto3.jpg

 

 

During the period ’85-’95 I began exploring other art-forms such as netsuke and jewelry as different modes of expression. I also continued a study of Japanese aesthetics in painting as well as the applied arts.

 

I have to give Phil Baldwin a lot of credit for helping me right along, starting in the early 80's with his knowledge of alloys and alloying practice. We also collaborated on a number of, to me , significant pieces outside the Japanese style format.

 

Here are two daggers from that period:

 

Kelso_Phillip_Baldwin.jpg

 

I first went to Japan in 1987 under fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council, and met with many artists, curators and collectors. These meetings with metal artists were invaluable in adding to my knowledge of soft-metal alloys, engraving and patination. I went to Japan again in 1997, under fellowship to continue my exploration of Japanese metalwork, and then again this last year(2008).

Edited by Jim Kelso

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Don didn't mention it in his intro, but the long dagger with one rough(wrought) side is his blade. That was an amazing blade.

Here are three more pieces done with Don.

He made the steel for the folder and the blades for the other two.

 

foggfolder.jpg

batdagger.jpg

Kelso_Fogg2.jpg

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Thanks for the images and discussion. Please show more of your work and continue with the story as you have time. If you get stuck, I will help with a question, but I find this really interesting. Thank you so much.

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Jim, thanks for the pictures, and Don, thanks for interviewing Jim! Wow... Jim, your art has always fascinated me, mostly because of the mastery of materials you display. It all looks to have simply grown in place rather than having been made by a human... :blink: Which is one of the highest compliments I can think of at the moment.

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Thanks very much Alan! Actually I get a fair bit o' help from the wee folk. :rolleyes:

I'm going to try to pick up the narrative tomorrow. Things a little hectic today.

In the meantime, here are a kozuka style knife that I made from Phil Baldwin steel, a contemporary tanto koshirae on a Yoshindo Yoshihara tanto and a composite showing a tanto koshirae and kozuka for blades by Kiyoshi Kato.

 

All from the early and mid '90s.

 

jk41w.jpg

Kelso_Yoshindo__Grey_.jpg

Kelso_Kato__grey_.jpg

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So continuing with Don's question......

 

From about 1995 to the present I started focusing on objects other than knives, many combining wood and metal, that offer artistic freedom, such as boxes and screens (kenbyo). These objects offer more empty space, an element of increasing importance to me. I know how passionate everyone here is about knives and swords, and honestly, I feel maybe a little out-of-step with that because always the object, to me, is less important than what the object evokes. Sometimes the power contained in a sword harmonizes with what I'm wanting and sometimes it doesn't.

 

A sword can be a very powerful mix of sheer physical potential and more ethereal, symbolism. Don has eloquently spoken about this earlier. Sometimes this mix can enter the realm of paradox as, for example, when the handle motif might be about something very peaceful such as flowers, change of season, etc. I am generally comfortable with, and even enjoy paradox and often it would be interesting showing someone a sword of this type who maybe had never held a real sword. Holding an object like this with a blade by Louis, Don or Philip, it's impossible not to feel that power; and combined with other beautiful work, can provoke a complex spectrum of human feelings. It's easy to understand why historical work of this kind has been valued.

 

However, sometimes I felt an increasing pull to focus more on the uncomplicated, simple motive of sparking a feeling of connection with nature with my work, without the overlayment of edged power. More to follow.....

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So, anyway, about 15 years ago I started making pieces not related to knives. This was both liberating in a way, but also very challenging as I had to invent a form with every piece and incorporate a theme that worked with that form. This is essentially what I'm still doing today and every piece is some kind of dance between the form and the theme. I dislike the words decoration or ornamentation as they imply that the surface work is an add-on or separate element from the form which is not what I'm aiming for.

 

Sometimes I start with the theme and sometimes I start with the form. I keep an ongoing file of themes and forms which swirl around in the skull, sometimes for years until something sparks and comes together. Also in the mix can be a technique, color or visual effect that I want to use. I do believe that technique should always be the servant of artistry, but sometimes a technique yields a particular visual effect that cries to be used.

Here are some pieces from 10-15 years ago.

JKELSO_R1_E031.jpg

JKELSO_R1_E032.jpg

JKELSO_R1_E035.jpg

JKELSO_R1_E036.jpg

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I am really enjoying the visuals and hope that you will continue sharing your work up to the present. One question that has troubled me in my work, was it difficult to let go of the functional form and begin creating work whose sole purpose is artistic? I guess it is the transition from craft to art, did you experience any difficulty with that transition?

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Hmmm....OK, Don, just when I thought things were going so smoothly....Just kidding. :rolleyes:

 

There are so many respectable cultures around that either don't have a word for "art" or don't make a distinction between art and craft. I think this is an issue that academics attached themselves to in order to have some job security. I don't mean to make light of your question as I have grappled with it as well, but I've recovered and feel much better!

 

Someone once said that I was taking perfectly useable blades and making them useless by dressing them up. I guess it depends on how you define utility. There is a time for practical utility and there is a time for some type of utility that is harder to pin down.

 

I went to see a show of the lacquer work of Shibata Zeshin, one of my very favorite artists, at the Japan Society Gallery in New York last year. I got invited to the opening night party and got there early, and while people were trickling in and moving toward the food downstairs, I was upstairs waiting at the gallery door. I was the first one in and essentially had the whole show to myself. It was organized in several rooms with a separate entrance and exit. It took 15 minutes for anyone else to come in and I was moving into the next room by then. The light was low to protect the work, and I felt transported by this work, as though a spell was cast. Most of the pieces were "functional", mostly containers of various types, and the rest were paintings or screens, but I honestly don't remember giving any thought to that as every one of them was amazing. For me, there is something extraordinary when amazing art(for lack of a better word) is wrapped into a three dimensional object, be it useful, in the conventional sense, or not. Another reality is created, and it either transports you or it doesn't.

 

Here are some jewelry pieces from around the turn of the millennium (sounds cool to say that!)

Te rabbit & waves design was adapted from a Zeshin design.

 

JKELSO_R1_E003.jpg

JKELSO_R1_E006.jpg

JKELSO_R1_E007.jpg

JKELSO_R1_E010.jpg

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The orchid and "just-starting-to-rain" rain drops are stunning Jim.

 

How you felt about Shibata Zeshin is ho I often feel about your work, I don't so much look at it as "what could I use that for?" so much as just soaking in that separate-yet-real universe you create with each piece.

Edited by Sam Salvati

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Oops, didn't mean to go into art/craft thing. I guess I was looking at my struggles with letting go of function and you seem to have done it effortlessly.

 

I am glad you posted the sheephorn pin, you made such wonderful use of that material. How did you go about learning the skills have acquired? Were you motivated by the material, other master's work, new tools, or did you study under someone?

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Thanks very much Sam!

 

Sorry Don, I didn't mean to rant. I guess the art/craft thing is a touchy one for me.

 

Our culture is so detached from using handmade things that it seems very difficult, concerning functionality, to establish a philosophical place to stand. I used to think about it, but it's kind of like trying to get a foothold in quicksand. Sometimes I despair, but better to float.

 

In Kyoto I love that in almost any neighborhood you can still stumble across shops making handmade things that are still used daily. Cutlery, tools, incense, paper, pottery, cloth, clothing, dying, brushes, baskets, buckets, metal-wares, wood-wares, flutes, umbrellas not to mention so many handmade foods.

 

I'm going to have to gather myself before going on.

Edited by Jim Kelso

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How did you go about learning the skills have acquired? Were you motivated by the material, other master's work, new tools, or did you study under someone?

 

Don, I decided after working a few years carrying the mail that I wanted to make my living using my hands. I'm not sure where this came from or what gave me the confidence to think that I would be any good at it. I always was making stuff as a kid so I guess that helped in confidence. This was around 1972. Back then, seeing the Whole Earth Catalogue made a huge impression on me. Having access to all those different resources for learning and materials was very inspiring. I briefly studied woodwork at Seattle Community College. I stayed there just long enough to realize I had a knack for tool use and could study on my own in whatever direction I wanted to go.

 

I had a stint in building stringed musical instruments. I learned by studying instruments and there were some good books on guitar building. Through building banjos, I got interested in metal engraving and woodcarving. Banjos can be pretty tricked-out. A banjo buddy showed me James Meek's book on gun engraving and that was that. I dove into that book which can get you out of the gate in engraving. I was never shy about calling people up if I wanted to learn something. I visited many engravers in those early years including John Rohner, Alvin White, Robert Swartley and Winston Churchill. Actually, I was painfully shy in those days but the passion to learn got me past that.

 

It's hard to define what it is about engraving that I find so interesting. Definitely I love the precise detail and the effect that detail adds in a textural way to a 3D surface. It makes the object more interesting from 3 feet away, and if it's really well done, knocks you out the closer you look.

 

I'll try to find images of some guns and maybe a banjo.

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Yes, Jim, please show some of your banjo work. I've made a couple art-mountain banjos but I'm heading off and building a nice turn of the century style openback with heavy carving & inlay.

 

P.S. Guns and knives and banjos, Oh My! We need some moonshine. ;)

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P.S. Guns and knives and banjos, Oh My! We need some moonshine. ;)

 

plus an old dog on the floor

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Jim,

 

First, I've alway been a great admirer of your work.

 

I'm interested to hear more about your feelings regarding the apparent polarity between the aesthetic and the utilitarian. Your departure from knives seems to comment, in some way, upon this distinction.

 

I apologize if I'm bringing the discussion back to a touchy subject, but I'm particularly interested in this area as it relates to our . . . art? craft? You see my point.

 

One of the things I studied in school was aesthetic theory. A basic principle of many Western aesthetic systems is that utilitarian objects are, by definition not art and that art is, by definition, not utilitarian. So, a quilt on a bed isn't art, but a quilt hanging on the wall is. The distinction is so powerful that "objects of use" could be made into aesthetic objects simply by taking it out of everyday use and placing it within the context of art (famous example, Marcel Duchamp took a urinal out of demolition and submitted it as a sculpture called "Fountain.")

 

It seems to me that bladesmithing has always flirted with the boundaries of this distinction between the aesthetic and the utilitarian, and perhaps even transcended it.

 

So, I guess my question (sorry for the rambling preamble) is this: Do you see any validity in the distinction between artist and craftsman, or is that distinction just--as you mention earlier--a way for academics to give themselves job security. If it is just a bogus distinction that is merely a remnant of elitist culture, should we not have "art knife" categories at shows?

 

Again, if this is too sticky a subject or one that causes personal heartburn, please feel to ignore the question.

 

Cheers,

 

Dave Stephens

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So, I guess my question (sorry for the rambling preamble) is this: Do you see any validity in the distinction between artist and craftsman, or is that distinction just--as you mention earlier--a way for academics to give themselves job security. If it is just a bogus distinction that is merely a remnant of elitist culture, should we not have "art knife" categories at shows?

 

 

Dave Stephens

 

Thanks Dave.

 

Whew Dave, I thought I snuck through and was in the clear!

 

First off, my departure from knives, as you say, was not a departure, really, but rather a foray into trying other formats

,and in any event was not motivated by any craft vs art consideration, neither was it final as departure implies. I have ideas for knife work still.

 

The art/craft discussion is one where everyone will have an opinion, which is fine, but may be beyond the scope of this interview and more appropriate for another thread. I have a view, which I'll try to sum up as clearly as I can. Often the discussion comes up in the context of crafts people trying to be accepted in the art world. To me, this is counterproductive and only reinforces the perception that craft is the poor cousin of art

 

In my opinion, the perception that somehow art (however it's defined) is superior to craft (however it's defined) is a useless and disruptive conceit (in the sense of fanciful notion) that has been bought by a lot of people. If we assume, for the sake of discussion that art (as defined by urban museum and gallery culture) is superior to craft, it would mean that the latest, trendy or frivolous splash of paint in any gallery is somehow inherently superior to an anonymous 17th century tea-bowl that may have, coincidentally, been designated a tangible cultural asset in Japan. This seems patently absurd to me.

 

I do think to a large degree that this perceived distinction between art and craft is a reflection of reductionist thinking: our need to reduce things to quantifiable units in order to understand and gain power over them. I actually think this Cartesian way of viewing the world as a segmented construction of parts is one of the primary reasons we are in such a morass today. The only people I know who spend much time talking or writing about art/craft are academics, critics and writers.

 

Where I've come to in all of this is that when I look at art or craft (and believe me, I love some painting as much as anything) I seek primarily to see if it moves me. Apart from this, all other considerations are secondary. Certainly craftsmanship, design, choice of materials etc. count very highly. I can't think of seeing something with shoddy workmanship that has moved me, except perhaps some so-called "outsider art", which is maybe the exception proving the rule.

 

So, in a word, to answer your question; no, mostly I don't see much need for a distinction. If someone is happy calling their work art or craft, who am I, or anyone else, to argue?

 

I think one reason we dwell on these questions is that we, as a culture, are so separate from the handmade. Perhaps handmade is something we're going to start treasuring more, as the folly of our failure at the art of living becomes harshly apparent. Just for fun, wherever you are right now, look around and count how many handmade things (other than those you've made) you can see. Huge change from a mere 150 years ago.

 

Thanks again,

 

Jim

Edited by Jim Kelso

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I spent time on sunday with Tom Herman discussing Jim's work. We decided that master of materials (thanks Alan, perfect call on that term) to the extent he shows in his work is something someone just might have to be born with. Thats not to detract at all from the considerable work it takes to acheive , but I fear that the eye it takes to see where your headed is more then just learned or taught.

 

My personal feeling on the art/craft argument is that at a certain level of mastery it becomes completely moot. My feelings have always been that art that is poorly executed is crap, no different then poorly made craft.

 

I'm going to spend a weekend enameling with Tom in a month or so, I'd sure we expound upon our feelings about Jim's work!

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Thanks very much Kerry. Any time spent with Tom will be very well spent.

Please convey my regards.

To see some emotionally charged art wrapped in impeccable workmanship you can go

 

HERE

 

Jim

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I'll be spending a weekend with him working under Valeri Timofeev. Tom made this happen for me. I'm deeply in his debit (again!).

 

I'm really interested in who or what inspires you Jim. What thing do you see that makes you stop in your tracks?

 

Do you have a complete vision of your finished product when you begin a new work?

 

Thanks very much Kerry. Any time spent with Tom will be very well spent.

Please convey my regards.

To see some emotionally charged art wrapped in impeccable workmanship you can go

 

HERE

 

Jim

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I'll be spending a weekend with him working under Valeri Timofeev. Tom made this happen for me. I'm deeply in his debit (again!).

 

I'm really interested in who or what inspires you Jim. What thing do you see that makes you stop in your tracks?

 

Do you have a complete vision of your finished product when you begin a new work?

 

Yow!! Tom & Valeri in the same shop. I would love to be a fly on that wall.

 

Concerning what inspires me, earlier on it was largely the work of mostly Japanese artists and before that, Art Nouveau. I still find inspiration in these works, of course, but increasingly I depend on direct immersion in Nature, and observation of the wild. I wrote a few words about this which I'll paste below:

 

"We are such complex creatures that it is difficult to focus on one type of influence and quantify it. It’s perhaps helpful to look at technical and aesthetic influence separately.

 

The most significant Japanese influence on me personally has been an awakening, or rather deepening, of the awareness of Numinous Nature as the one and only teacher. It does seem that, with exceptions, there is a refined Japanese aesthetic, relative to nature, not generally found, to such a degree, in other cultures. Japanese art seems able to embrace the totality of Nature including, ephemerality, decay, homeliness and simplicity, along with the more conventional ideals of beauty, harmony and balance.

 

Early in my exposure to Japanese art I was content to fairly literally incorporate elements of “Japanesque” design into my work. This is, I think, a valid learning aid and in fact quite widely practiced in Asia, and elsewhere. In the last ten years or so, I have sought to delve deeper into my imagination and the natural world in order to draw more directly from the inspiration beyond cultural and geographic bounds."

 

Here are three of my favorite tsuba. Two are brass(shinchu) and copper(suaka) by Okawa Teikan. The other is iron with various inlays by Kano Natsuo showing a Reishi fungus. All from the MFA Boston. All three masterfully express a deep feeling for nature and it's mystery.

 

TeikanbrassCarp.jpgTeikanCopperChysan.jpg

NatsuoReishiTsubaMFA_copy.jpg

Edited by Jim Kelso

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In the last ten years or so I've been hugely impressed with the work of Shoami Katsuyoshi (1832-1908). His career spanned the end of the Edo period and well into the Meiji Period. His sword fittings were extraordinary but he was also one of the most artistic Meiji metal artists and found a very expressive lyrical voice in his non-sword pieces.

 

Shoami came from a culture steeped in its indigenous Shinto roots with its abiding respect for nature, it's beauty and cycles. I have come to feel a powerful, ethereal connection with him, his vision of nature, and his ability to impart that vision into his work. Increasingly as I've studied the work of past masters (mostly Japanese, but not exclusively). it's dawned on me that in order to produce the most expressive and nuanced pieces, the artists must have had an extraordinary sensitivity to the natural world. These days this has perhaps been reduced to a cliché, but I think the truth and depth of it really is almost beyond modern comprehension.

 

What brings me to this conclusion is the amount of time I have had to immerse myself in nature to bring even a modicum of inspiration to what I do. Rather than words, it's perhaps easier for me to express the depth of connection, and shared nature intoxication I feel with Shoami through my work. I find much inspiration from this connection. I attempt in my own work to convey the enjoyment and sense of mystery, derived from nature, that I am certain he felt.

 

In Shoami I sense a charming, almost child-like enchantment in some of his pieces, as though he were viewing nature through the eyes of a young adventurous boy. His insect pieces strike me this way, such as the gourd vase with a lady-bug. This open, ecstatic quality is one I strive for in my work and hope in turn to spark in the viewer. In fact, I feel the primary motivation for me is, through my work, to contribute to a reconnection to the natural world.

 

Here are some photos (courtesy Kagedo Gallery-Seattle) of work of Shoami Katsuyoshi:

 

1) A kogo (incense container) in dark shibuichi with inlaid snow heron in silver, shakudo and gold.

 

2) An iron vase in the shape of a gourd with vine, leaves and ladybug. This vase form was hammer-raised iron, not cast.

 

KatsuyoshiHeronKogo.jpg

vase.jpg

ShoamiLadybugsmall.jpg

Edited by Jim Kelso

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