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jewelry

Sarah-Thompson-protraitAfter 18 is an ongoing series about what four graduates from the class of 2013 are doing this year. This week’s dispatch is from Sara Thompson, who writes from Portland, Oregon, where she is attending the Oregon College of Art and Craft.

Hello again,

Art and science, this is what I like. At the end of last semester, I wanted to combine my love of science and metalwork. My final project for my metals class had to incorporate at least three techniques aside from soldering that we had learned, and involve the idea of connectivity. Usually I do jewelry work, so for this project I thought I’d branch out and try to make a sculptural piece.

Immediately, I knew what I wanted to create. I want my work to engage viewers while incorporating educational scientific realms; essentially having viewers learn about science by experiencing art through multiple senses. I envisioned creating an atom of an element of metal out of that metal. I want to show that even though atoms are tiny, they still exist and they’re all around us. We’re even made out of them! Yet, most of us don’t even realize that we’re all made out of atoms — nevertheless that they are the building blocks of everything around us. Anything in the universe, aside from energy, is made out of matter. Matter, elements in particular, can be broken down into smaller and smaller bits until you reach the atomic structure, since atoms are the basic building blocks of matter. The atom is a collection of protons, neutrons, and electrons that make up the smallest form of matter of a particular element. In the center of the atom is the atomic nucleus which is made out of protons and neutrons. The number of protons identify what element the atom is. The electrons whip around the nucleus, encasing it in a sphere of constant movement. I was determined to make an atomic structure that viewers could see and touch.

Silver is my go-to metal. However, given that this project was going to be a sculpture and the atom was going to be roughly seven inches in diameter, silver was going to be way over my budget. I pondered: what metals did I have access to and which atomic structure was I able to create. Gold, oh no; copper, I’m not too crazy about copper, especially since I was using silver solder; brass, I had access to but it isn’t an element. That left me with nickel. Nickel is darker than silver and I had easy access to it. I bought two sheets of nickel at 20 and 22 gauge and wire at 12 and 22 gauge. (The higher the gauge, the thinner the metal.)

I was going to take the 20 gauge nickel and cut two circles out of the same size. Each circle was going to be hammered into a hemisphere and then the hemispheres were going to be soldered together to create a sphere. I took the thinner piece of metal and used a disk cutter to punch out small circles 12 millimeters in diameter. I placed each circle in a steel “dapping” block that has different size hemispheres carved out. These are used to hammer the circle into, resulting in a hemisphere shape. These smaller hemispheres were going to be used to create the nucleus. Since the nucleus of nickel is a collective 59 spheres (28 protons and 31 neutrons), I was going to solder 59 hemispheres to the large sphere to create the illusion of this ball of spheres condensed together. It was terrifying to solder 59 things one after another, close together because sometimes soldering closed pieces without a way for the air to escape from the inside creates issues with air pressure — possible explosions — if the piece is big enough and it’s heated more than once. Luckily, my work was small enough, so in the end, I had little fear, although it was my first time soldering closed forms. After successfully soldering all hemispheres to the sphere, I had to clean up my excess solder.

"I decided to make 28 handmade beads to represent the electrons."
“I decided to make 28 handmade beads to represent the electrons.”

My next hurdle was to figure out how to make the electrons. The electrons fly around the nucleus like a cloud. However, there are electron orbitals that limit how many electrons can be in each orbital. Think of them like vehicles. Certain vehicles only have a certain amount of seats. The first orbital or automobile, has 2, then 8, 16, etc… So nickel has 28 electrons and 4 orbitals. I decided to make 28 handmade beads to represent the electrons. Using the same technique for hemispheres, I made even smaller hemispheres and soldered them together. I drilled holes to fit the 12 gauge wire. To make the orbitals, I beaded the beads onto the wire and soldered the wire closed and the beads proportionally apart for the four orbitals. The orbitals gradually increased in size so that one could fit inside another and orbit around the nucleus.

Now, how the hell to make this thing be mechanical and move, at 11 o’clock at night the night before it’s due? I sat at my bench, nickel dust all over my face, and stared at my contraption. Then, I just went for it, no sketching, no planning. I could see exactly what I needed to do in my mind. I started to make handmade chain with the 22 gauge wire. I soldered a half loop to the nucleus to create two firm attachments and then continued to individually solder each loop, alternating small and large ones. To attach the orbitals, I would create a loop and slip the orbitals into the large loop and solder the loop closed, but I made sure not to have the orbitals touching. Since the orbitals weren’t touching the loops, they could move freely and spin around the nucleus mimicking actual electrons. After attaching the orbitals, I made even large loops to hand make four feet of chain to suspend the atom from the ceiling.

"I was determined to make an atomic structure that viewers could see and touch."
“I was determined to make an atomic structure that viewers could see and touch.”

With the atom suspended, the atom hangs roughly lower than eye level. My sculpture behaves like a mobile: once it has a little bit of energy to rotate, it rotates in one direction, then back in another, and back again until it slows down eventually, looking like it’s still until more energy comes to set it in motion again. Viewers can see the electrons hovering around in their orbitals but never touching the nucleus. The orbitals can be adjusted at different angles to highlight how the position of an electron is ever changing. The nucleus ridges of the protons and neutrons can be touched and rubbed over.

It’s an atom of nickel made out of nickel.

Sara Thompson and (inset) her creation "Foam Flame." — courtesy Sara Thompson

Hello there,

I’m Sara Thompson and I graduated from MVRHS in May 2013. Though that’s a simple sentence, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. I graduated from the high school when I was 16 and moved across the country a few days after I turned 17, to a place where I didn’t have friends or family, to pursue my passion for metalsmithing.

Yes — hammering, forging, soldering, melting, and manipulating metal to craft pieces of wearable art, jewelry, and small sculptures. That’s what I do and have been doing on my Friday nights. It’s what I want to study and do for the rest of my life — crafting metal — learning the way metal behaves.

My affinity for metal started when I was 11. I had recently moved from Connecticut to Oak Bluffs and received an apprenticeship with a silversmith, Amy Kirkpatrick, that lasted five years. I learned how to handcraft settings; drill and set pieces (primarily sea glass); polish metal to a high shine; and solder, while observing how Amy ran her own business. After that, I went on to apprentice for a metalsmith, Kenneth Pillsworth, where I worked with an array of metals in his home studio.

Meanwhile during my sophomore year, I was exploring the realms of a glass on metal technique called enameling. After a short lowdown on how to do this from Brendan Coogan, the crafts teacher at the high school, I gave it a try. There were hundreds of packets of powdered glass — enamel — labeled with different numbers. I took a torch in my left hand, and a steel rod in my right, as if it was a paint brush, and heated up the glass enamel on top of small pieces of copper, from the underside, until it was molten. While the glass was molten, I manipulated the glass with the steel rod as if it were paint. As I repeated this process over and over again, I began to decode the packets. It was captivating, seeing and manipulating variables of the glass, layers of glass, different metals and gauges, duration, placement, and different gasses of the torch. I began to understand how these different variables would affect the piece and how I’d be able to use them to create what I envisioned.

Combining the glass and metal resonated for me. When we first see glass, it’s a solid, but flows like a liquid with the influence of gravity while molten. Being a science geek, I wanted to know what are these molecules doing? What is going on this level? I wanted to learn.

I started painting with molten enamel on copper. As I explored, I created abstract glass paintings on copper and combined it with my metalsmithing knowledge. I treated the enameled pieces as if they were stones and set the into handmade settings for rings, cuffs, and pendants. Then I started my jewelry business while toying with the idea of graduating high school a year early to pursue a career in metalsmithing. I wanted to learn more and that meant getting off the giant pile of sand.

I spent that summer looking at colleges, working and apprenticing full time, and working on my business and online shop. Though I had one thing up my sleeve — I knew I wanted to do metalsmithing and I was going to do metalsmithing. I believe 50 or so colleges offer metals/jewelry as a major, so that was a big help.

The next year in my junior/senior (take your pick) year, I tried to apply to college without a GPA, rank, or an SAT score. (Honestly, it’s art school where SAT scores tend to be optional.) I only wanted to apply to two schools. One of them was California College of Art, where  hopefully I could double major in metalsmithing and glass blowing (I hoped to have the opportunity to try three dimensional glass work and continue to learn how glass behaves) if the money panned out. And I applied to Oregon College of Art and Craft, which does not have glass blowing, but does have a small — roughly 150 people — and incredible community of talented artists dedicated to not just art, but craft — the skill of making. From the first time I wandered onto their website, I felt that this is where I would feel at home and be able to explore my deeper connection to the artistic expression and hone my craft.

This is my new home, in Portland.

A place of cozy drizzly days in the studios and in cafes reading about science.

Really, you can go to a coffee shop (grocery stores included) and not know anyone.

Where being a vegan is a norm,

where the science sections in book stores get cases upon cases of every branch,

where the post office is open past five,

where pumping your own gas is actually illegal,

and where escalators still make me feel uncomfortable.

Where now, I do art all day, throughout the day, one studio to the next, to another one, to the house (OCAC doesn’t have stereotypical dorms; we have houses) to do art for homework, and pushing myself into areas I would not have gone otherwise. I get wrapped up in the quietness of my mind for hours in the studio wandering the depths and length of mastering new techniques and understandings with the occasional fix of a science related jigsaw puzzle, books, and weekly science magazines.

See a video of Sara making jewelry here.