Interview with Andy Cooperman: A Master Maker

Interview with Andy Cooperman: A Master Maker
Over a couple cups of coffee, one regular one decaf, I had the pleasure of sitting down to talk with Andy Cooperman. Andy is a metalsmith, writer, teacher and friend who lives in Seattle, WA. His art is stunning both in its design and in its craft. He is a down to earth, extremely intelligent, very approachable person. A little background on some of his professional achievements will help explain why I am so excited to share part of our talk with you. Andy’s work has been featured in galleries nationwide, including Patina Gallery in Santa Fe, deNovo in Palo Alto and Velvet daVinci Gallery in San Francisco.

He is a past recipient of a WESTAF/NEA Fellowship, taught in the metals program at the University of Washington and teaches seminars and workshops all over the country. In addition to his one of a kind jewelry pieces, Andy also works with clients as a custom jeweler and commissioned metalsmith. His work has been featured in private and public collections, including the permanent collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, Central College, Pella Iowa, The Tacoma Art Museum and recently in the exhibitions The Art of Gold, Metalisms, Chess and The Ring Show, “Esoterica: Through the Looking Glass,” a solo exhibition at the National Ornamental Metals Museum in Memphis, Tenn., and in the group exhibition, “Radical Alchemy,” in the Courthouse Galleries in Portsmouth, Va. Andy is also one third of the Professional Development Planning Seminar program planning committee which is part of the annual SNAG conference. Publications with his work include the books: Art Jewelry Today, 1000 Rings, 500 Brooches, The Craft of Silversmithing, The Penland Book of Jewelry, Fundamentals of Metalsmithing and, most recently, the book Humor in Craft for which he also wrote an essay.
Andy, so how did you did you go from an English major in New York State to making the jump to metalsmith?
Looking back I’m a little shocked that I ended up a jeweler or as I prefer metalsmith. I’ve always been drawn to the intimate scale of jewelry and small objects. I found jewelry as a college student in the Art building, walking past the Jewelry and Metals classroom on my way to Painting. I have always been a maker, always drawn to small scale things. It was just a natural progression for me. I’m not a traditional jeweler at all, which is why I prefer the term metalsmith. I just don’t think in absolutes. I still write, I am even working on a book of tricks! I suppose that means I have come nearly full circle.
You’re describing yourself as a maker. What exactly is a maker?
Well, I’m really happiest when I’m making something. I write quite a bit and I consider that making also. I use the term pretty loosely, but it describes me the best. I work in all sorts of materials. I make all sorts of things so jeweler or even metalsmith is limiting. Much of my work is driven by the act of making something from an idea.
What types of ideas inspire you?
Anything and everything inspires me. I take whatever comes along and apply it to my work. I might look at a picture in Rome or a crack in the pavement. I am a “zengineer”. As a boy I became fascinated when I opened a scientific magazine and was introduced to this entire world of minutia. The notion that an entire universe could exist, literally at my fingertips, well it changed the way that I looked at everything. Even now much of my work is grounded in science. And it’s from this perspective, through the lens of curiosity and examination, that I most enjoy peering. It is my aim, through my work, to offer a compelling reason for others to enter into the investigative process. Every time you pick up a piece of my work you should see something different.
“Zengineer”?
“Zengineering” is a term that I coined. Here is how I have described it before: “One of the things that we have in common as artists and craftspeople is that we are, to a large degree, problem solvers. “Zengineering is that place in the studio —that sweet state– where all of our energies and resources are perfectly focused on solving a design, mechanical or even conceptual problem.”
What are your favorite metals to work with?
That´s a bit of a difficult question for me right now. I´m always looking around for fresh materials. These days, bronze, gold, especially high karat like 18, I love the color. Sterling, oxidized, I am not interested in pristine silver. Whatever material I become interested in must have a vital quality, must pass muster: Each one is vetted against my own standard of stability, durability and suitability for its intended use. Do you get more excited about design or the technical aspects of jewelry art? I get most excited when I am making something. When that project is really working for me, my heart literally beats faster. Sometimes I can get that feeling performing the simplest of technical tasks especially well. At some point, design and execution become one thing.
You teach a lot, what´s that like for you?
Teaching is great, it is something that I truly enjoy and I think is in my DNA. I am very big on learning one thing at a time and then generalizing from it, levering that one idea as widely as possible and then applying it to any number of situations. My goal in teaching is to broaden horizons and open doors as wide as I can: it´s all about balance. On the one hand we have “do no harm” and on the other we have “what´s the worst that can happen?” My way of working is to find the sweet spot between those two poles (it can be a moving target) and that´s what I try to teach. I also teach a lot of short cuts – I guess I´m lazy! Finding the most efficient way to get a task accomplished without compromising the quality or integrity of what I make.
You’re pretty fearless aren’t you? How does that affect your teaching and your work?
masonic(Laughs) Yes I am pretty fearless. It´s like when I am working with metals, especially precious metals, I feel that I am free to experiment. The “what´s the worst that can happen” is that I will melt a week´s worth of work into a puddle. But that puddle is often where things begin. I melt that hot little puddle in a clay crucible and pour it into fresh ingots, which I run through my rolling mill into sheets, draw into wire or forge. I really like that too, the recycling. It takes some of the fear and caution away, since I can always start again. So the worst that can happen isn´t really all that bad…. So you find the process of experimentation inspiring? Yes, when I can allow myself to play and suspend the possible consequence of guilt generated by not having something “done” at the end of the day.
You do so much work with torch and flame and I know that you teach soldering in your classes. Can you explain what your term “ninja soldering” means?
Ninja soldering: get in, do the job and get out. Linger too long and you do serious damage. The torch giveth and the torch taketh away. Of course when we use the term soldering in jewelry we are really speaking of brazing! For me soldering is just an intuitive thing to do, it’s just in my nature. So many people are terrified of soldering. On a good day I can solder wings on a fly, at least that´s what I tell my students, on a bad day I can solder myself to my chair. It´s when you overcome that fear you can do so much. You control the character of the flame by adjusting, balancing the mix of propane and oxygen. It´s a bit like fiddling with the hot and cold valves in the shower. A big bushy flame is gentle and heats big things evenly; a hissy, pointy little flame is hot enough to spot heat and weld. The Ninja technique gets you in and out fast. Protect delicate things with wet paper shields or your own heat reflectors. “Ninja soldering” is just another term that I came up with based on the tricks and techniques used at the repair bench. Learning jewelry repair is the best education out there in some ways and good repair jewelers are the unsung aces.
What would be your top words of advice for students be then?
in thought Well…
•Follow through with your projects and do something if you’ve said that you will. Make a commitment to the craft.
•Get over yourself and lose the attitude!
• Just try it! So often students say “Can this be done? Will this work? Can I….?” rather than just trying something out themselves. So many other things happen during the trying, sometimes the best lessons come about when you are fearless, just take the chance and try it. Learn to live with the fear of failure and don’t let it get in the way. Sometimes you will fail; learn from it and then put it behind you. That was the most useful piece of knowledge I got from my teacher.
• Build up your equipment.
• Practice, practice, practice.
• Education is just one of your tools. Find your particular voice and once you have, generate a cohesive, recognizable body of work. This is what will set you apart from the pack.
• School itself is not going to get you by. Go to where people make a living at it (art), get to know them.
Will you tell us more about the themes that run through your jewelry?
I focus on the tendency of things to age, decay and eventually fail. The idea that there is value and beauty in flaws and imperfection. But and, perhaps most important, I see my work as an invitation for people to look more closely at and give credence to the smaller things that surround us.
Andy, Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with me. Our talk was truly informative and will be extremely interesting to our readers. Your experience and knowledge of this field is very impressive, as is your ability to share it with us.
Thanks, Leah!
Find out more about Andy Cooperman at his website, http://www.andycooperman.com/ <http://www.andycooperman.com/>
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