THIS PAGE is a copy of an article I have written for a past issue of the Metal Arts Guild's MAGazine. The readers would be jewellers and metalworkers.
Why precious? And what has concrete got to do with jewellery and metalwork?
Concrete -- a mixture of portland cement, water and aggregates -- is about as far from preciousness as you can get. I wanted a material that challenged some ideas about jewellery. Using concrete in jewellery could be a metaphor for value, for what we consider precious.
In the time of "The Great Upheavals" in jewellery (the late 70's and early 80's) a lot of us worked in alternative materials, so I'm not claiming new territory. Back then I made difficult-to-sell jewellery using photocopied words and images laminated in plastic. Some of that work talked about value and preciousness. I guess I've been trying to get back to those ideas ever since; a Canada Council grant finally made it possible.
What ideas? To express it positively: real value is in the beauty, in the art or craft of what we make with our hands, our hearts and our minds. Negatively: real value is not in the preciousness or the cost of the material that we use. Most other crafts accept these ideas as given but a lot of jewellers and their customers support the view that value is based on rarity or cost. How many times have you been asked: "How much silver (gold) is in that piece?"
If I discard the idea of value based on rarity and cost, then I am left with a challenge: to take an unlikely and inexpensive material and make something beautiful, something desirable, out of it. Concrete. We take it for granted in our buildings and we walk on it every day. I've used it in house building, renovations, mortar and stucco and over the last few years in sculptural pieces and boxes.
I began by doing research into how portland cement is made. It is manufactured from calcium (usually limestone, sometimes chalk) and silicates with aluminates (clay, shale or sand). These materials are roasted at a high temperature then ground to a powder. When water is added it "hydrates," combines with the water to make a strong stone-like material which binds the aggregates (like sand or gravel) together. The hardening is similar to plaster, only it continues forever and is resistant to water.
On a jewellery scale I started by using straight portland cement and water, no aggregates. I ended up with a smooth uniform material, but it developed some problems such as shrinkage cracks. I called my local ready-mix supplier (Miller Cement, whom I had used for advice on a drinking fountain I did a few years ago --- "You're making what?") and they suggested adding latex to the mix. It toughens the cement on a small scale, and also helps waterproof it. I also added polypropylene fibers. They help prevent shrinkage cracks during the initial set. I added sand too, noting that the quality and colour of the sand was important to the look of the finished piece. Ledgerock, a local limestone quarry gave me some stone dust that comes off their diamond cutting wheels, and I have had good success with that as a fine aggregate.
I made simple brass molds to generate the forms, then wet sanded the pieces. I also added metal filings to the mix and tried white portland cement combining it with brown, grey or white sand. Bronze filings in the mix turned the white portland a pale blue. I learned that concrete connections to metal must be mechanical.
I took the simple forms developed in the jewellery and made larger objects, using metal and wood molds. I added steel mesh for strength (concrete is very weak in tension, strong in compression -- steel is strong in tension). During a summer course at Haliburton I learned about two other additives: air entrainers, essential for frost resistance, and plasticizers, which allow you to use less water, thereby increasing strength. Even with the large forms I continue to use fibers as an additive. I also developed a web site about this project to share the information I was learning, showing finished pieces of my own and other artists and jewellers. Through the internet I learned a lot about different additives, although sourcing them has proved to be difficult. I use drops and teaspoons of these additives and the manufacturers sell them in barrels. Other artists in Canada, the United States and Australia have emailed me with questions and suggestions.
The ideas and the technology have developed parallel to each other. I started with simple forms, concentrating on the honesty of the material, changing scale frequently, using precious and non-precious metals, diamonds and zircons. Some of this work will be shown at Prime Gallery in Toronto, April 1 to 24, in a show called "New Work: Precious Concrete."
CONTACT + LEGAL
Last update: January 30, 1999.
This project was originally made possible with the assistance of The Canada Council