Article by Ornamentvm

O
n the following pages, Ornamentvm converses with Canadian silversmith Ross Morrow, whose work combines meticulous traditional techniques of metalsmithing with innovative and whimsical design. Classically trained in Ireland, he has won several awards, including “Best Hollowware” (2002) and “Best Design” (2000) from the Metal Arts Guild. Ross teaches silversmithing at George Brown College.


WHY DID YOU CHOOSE SILVER AS YOUR MATERIAL / MEDIUM? WERE THERE SPECIFIC INFLUENCES AT THE BEGINNING? ARE THERE OTHER INFLUENCES NOW?
It took me a long time to choose silver as a medium. The idea of making things had intrigued me from a very young age. The first memory that had a profound effect on me was a visit to an art college open house in the fall of 1974. I felt a connection to the studio environment and it stuck with me. A few years after this my parents met the Scottish silversmith John Prince. To meet a working silversmith was intriguing; we were all fascinated by his work.

My education followed a fairly normal route, high school, a B.A. from Trent, then work with a major accounting firm. But still in the background was this desire to make things. Having an interest in silver I began collecting and being handy I started to fix up some of my purchases. I was encouraged by an antique dealer, Richard Holder, who became my first client in the repair business. Because I wanted more I read as much as I could and tried a night school course. In 1996 I found an ad in Metalsmith magazine for silversmithing workshops at The Old School House in Ballinaclash, County Wicklow in Ireland. It sounded like poetry and I was hooked. The only problem was I was married with three children under the age of five, a big mortgage and car payments. To travel to Ireland to take silversmithing courses seemed an impossibility. But my wife just picked up the phone and called Ireland. It was a call that changed my life. When I arrived and walked into that studio I felt I was home. I learned more in those first two weeks than I had on my own over six years. I went back five more times, the last time not as a student but to help my friend and mentor Brian with an important commission.

In the early years I was influenced by historical silverware. I wanted to know how these pieces were made. More recently I have been influenced by architecture as can been seen in the series of tea and coffee pots I made in the shape of Canadian lighthouses. As I grew in the understanding of silver as a medium my work has taken on a much freer and more unique form. I have also included other materials such as stone in my work.

COULD YOU DESCRIBE FOR US, AS AN EXAMPLE, THE PROCESS OF MAKING A SIMPLE OBJECT, FROM ITS CONCEPTION TO THE FINISHED PRODUCT?
The process of making a piece begins with an idea either of my own or from a client. Sometimes I see these ideas fully formed in my mind. Other times I begin to draw shapes on paper until something clicks. I don’t begin to work on a piece until I have finalized the design. Once I have the design I break the piece down into components, the body, lids, feet, spout, etc. I always start to work on the largest part of the finished object. I rarely make things that are the same so there are always some technical problems to work out. As a traditional silversmith most of my pieces begin with a flat sheet of sterling silver in the shape of a disk. The piece takes shape through a process called raising. The metal is compressed over forms called stakes. This work is done using a variety of hammers. I have approximately 200 hammers and they are all different. As the metal is worked it becomes hard and must be softened through a process called annealing. This is done by heating the piece to about a thousand degrees Fahrenheit. Slowly the form takes shape. The silver is a bluish gray at this point. It does not take on its lustrous sheen until the polishing stage. Most of my work has a bright mirror finish. This means that I spend hours planishing the piece to a very fine hammered finish. Then through a series of emery cloths and polishing on the polishing wheel, the silver’s natural beauty is revealed. This process can take days. Many silversmiths avoid this laborious and tiresome work by giving their pieces a matt or textured surface.

IN YOUR VIEW HOW IMPORTANT IS THE ROLE OF FUNCTION IN CREATING THE OBJECTS THAT GIVE YOU THE GREATEST PLEASURE AS A SILVERSMITH?
For me function is extremely important. I often refer to my work as interactive sculpture. The function
gives the user a reason for interacting with the piece, forging a connection between them. I think this
creates a stronger bond with the object than just looking at it.

WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR AND APPRECIATE MOST
IN THE WORK OF FELLOW SILVERSMITHS AND OTHER
ARTISTS WHO WORK WITH METAL?
The thing that I appreciate most and look for in other
silversmiths’ work is excellence in technique. When I
look at the work of my contemporaries I look at technique
and then design. We are the guardians of a centuries old
tradition of excellence. The other thing that impresses
me is that we can still come up with original ideas.

DO YOU HAVE ANY PREFERRED CATEGORIES OR GENERIC
TYPES OF OBJECT THAT YOU LIKE TO MAKE?
I like to make larger objects often referred to as hollowware.
I enjoy the challenge of making larger pieces
partly because raising silver by hand is a slow and
difficult process. In our world of instant communication
and everything on demand fewer and fewer artists are
drawn to creating large objects in silver. The last piece
I made took over 200 hours to make. I find that many
people are so far removed from making things by hand
that it is difficult for them to understand the work that
goes into creating one of my pieces. I take it as a
compliment that many people don’t believe at first
that the pieces are made entirely by hand.

DO YOU HAVE ANY COMMENTS ABOUT THE ROLE OF
SURFACE DECORATION OR EFFECT IN RELATION TO
FORM AS PART OF THE SILVERSMITH’S ARSENAL?
Surface treatment or decoration can take on many
forms and styles. From a simple wire brushed surface
to a highly complex design applied through chasing and
repoussé. Like many aspects of silversmithing, chasing
and repoussé was a specialized trade. The chaser was
a different person from the silversmith who may have
raised the object. Nowadays studio silversmiths take on
the functions that would have been carried out by
many workers in the production of a piece.

TELL US A BIT ABOUT THE PIECES ILLUSTRATED
IN THIS ARTICLE.
The candelabra are called Ponticelli di Luce (bridges
of light). They were commissioned by a private
collector who gave me carte blanche regarding the
design. I had been thinking about a design for
candelabra based on bridge arches for some time.

On one of my trips to Ireland I was inspired by the
flying buttresses of Christ Church Cathedral in
Dublin. Hence the design for the base. I had been
using stone core samples from northern Ontario
mines in some of my work but they were too small
in diameter, so I went to a local monument company.
I wanted a dark green granite to contrast nicely with
the silver. The stone cutter took me into the dusty
storage area, licked his thumb, gave a slab a wipe
and said, “there’s your green granite.” The piece
probably weighed three hundred pounds. He lopped
off the top to level it out and then bored the two
columns right out of the solid piece.

The style of the Swirly Pot dates to the early
eighteenth century, but I have added my own interpretation
in the design of the foot, the spout and
of course the use of plexiglass as the material for the
handle. The technique is very laborious as it involves
filling the body with pitch so the swirls can be
hammered in. I think for this reason pieces like
this are no longer being made.

Radio Active is an award-winning piece that
I made for the Metal Arts Guild show “Turn up the
volume” in 2002. It is now in a private collection. For
me the radio teapot captured two elements, volume
as in a vessel and also volume as in sound. My son
came up with the name “Radio Active.” I was really
pleased to be able to use three different colours of
plastic in this piece which I think add to the
authenticity of a Deco era radio.

Image: Ponticelli di Luce, 2005
29 x 32 cm, Silver and granite.
Photograph: Waddington’s Studio W