Embarking on making a distinctive one-off piece for an exhibition always leads me on an unpredictable journey and often to the most remarkable places. The story of the Crane Dance necklace that I made several years ago was no exception.
My journey began in response to a collaboration with Somerset Arts Works and The Great Crane Project. Nothing to do with the building industry, but raising awareness of a re-establishment program to make these striking birds a sustainable breeding species in the UK. Hunted for their meat, and with the pressure of their wet-land environment being drained, the Common Crane became extinct in Britain in the 17th century.
Somerset Art Works were hosting numerous Crane-based art exhibitions, installations and events. It felt rude not to join and lend some support!
The organisers of the Great Crane Project, explained how eggs were brought over from Germany and hatched at Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire; the young cranes eventually being released into the Somerset Levels. To prevent the chicks from associating humans with being ‘Mum’ they were fed by means of a long, crane-shaped stick with a beak on the end, operated by people completely disguised in grey hooded gowns. A frightening and surreal sight, like a strange blend of Somerset Wassail meets Hot Fuzz!
The Cranes here on the Levels are extremely elusive! I only managed a fleeting glimpse of them flying overhead, which, although impressive, wasn’t enough to base any sketches on.
For a closer look, I headed to Slimbridge. It was vital to be able to see their movement, colours and general character. I decided that one of the most visually distinctive things about Cranes was their stunning and distinctive courtship ‘dance’.
My sketches were quick and in response to the character and movement of the birds. There was one particular sketch that my eye kept returning to, a snap-shot of the essence of a crane dance. The only slight concern was that it had five heads! But rather than dwelling on this unusual detail, I saw, like an animation, the direction and form of the movement of the dance. I decided to make the necklace exactly as the sketch.
It’s easy to lose the essence of a living subject matter in the technicalities of making a piece.
A vital part of the process was transferring the dynamism of that quick sketch into something that still had the same feel and energy but in 3-dimensional solid silver. As I worked, it became clear that I needed to stay very close to the original sketch, working with the subtitles of the angle, shape and length of each of the pieces that made up the body.
I made the heads flowing into long necks and ending in legs from pieces of thick square silver wire. Describing the experience of forging silver with a hammer is difficult, as it’s very much something that you sense and feel rather than intellectualise. It takes practice, but is intensely satisfying when you eventually get the knack! The metal flows in the direction you need it to – gradually stretching and thinning, taking on the shine and polish of the burnished hammer and steel block beneath.
Once all the individual shapes were ready I gave them a final polish and soldered them together to make the crane.
As it was a statement piece, I wanted a feature at the back so that there was interest all the way round. I designed the clasp in the form of two smaller cranes with interlocking wings that opened to allow the piece to be taken on and off. Their form was perfect for this, naturally making a hook that secured simply by gravity.
To represent the plumage colours of the birds I decided to use gemstone beads to link the cranes. Their colouring isn’t particularly striking, but I managed to find some beautiful baroque (irregular shaped) pearls, black onyx beads and highlighted the stands with a small shot of red in the form of tumbled beads of natural fair-trade ruby. The grey rounded beads are ‘crackled’ quartz, which has been heated to give it a glorious rough, matt, stone-like finish.
Threading a mixture of beads and pearls can be tricky. I wanted the different sizes, shapes and colours to flow together as seamlessly as possible, so rather than using traditional silk thread I chose a specialist beading wire. This is a very flexible and strong steel filament coated with a soft surface so as not to damage the beads. It is threaded through and crimped at the ends to secure it.
The finished necklace was sent off to London to be hallmarked and travelled up to the Crane Exhibition at Slimbridge. To celebrate, I returned for a day with my children to show them the art and birds. It was going well, but following a picnic, I took them for a paddle in a canoe that they will never let me forget! We didn’t see any wildlife – the screaming and crying undoubtedly scared anything wild (or domesticated) away. I might as well have had a bad tempered brass band with me. Eventually we were rescued from the reed beds but they have, unfortunately, been scarred for life!
A while later, Crane Dance was judged a finalist in the David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year Awards and was exhibited in The Mall Galleries London before finding a new owner. It was quite an experience; a real privilege to meet David and be a tiny part of his vision for conservation. Amongst all the awe-inspiring art I soaked up there, my remaining memory was of seeing some of his drawings and pencil sketches which were the foundations for the final work. To see the similar initial processes I had gone though to produce my necklace made me feel a little happier that it’s ok to end up with a five-headed Crane!