Calligraphy in Steel

ENGLISH craftsman John Creed is quite definite about one thing: ``I am not a decorator,'' he says.

His aim is ``not to produce nice decorative patterns and forms.''

Creed first exhibited his work in forged steel in 1989. The previous year seems to have been a catalytic one. His career until then had been largely in silversmithing. Indeed, he has a high reputation as a silversmith and still teaches it part time at Glasgow School of Art. During the 1960s, he had his own workshop in Yorkshire, England, and produced silverware and jewelry, but also, at times, larger metalwork. Some of this was on commission for churches. He describes himself as a ``Designer and Craftsman in Metals'' on his letterhead - allowing for freedom of operation and freedom of materials.

But 1988 was a blacksmithing year. It set him on a new path, that of the artist-blacksmith. This has changed his life and brought him a new reputation and clientele. He has moved into making things, as he puts it, that ``can't be lifted up.''

That summer he toured forges in the United States, attended a conference of the Artist Blacksmiths' Association of North America, and spent two weeks as part of the work force in the studios of artist-blacksmith Albert Paley in New York. He followed this with more work experience in the forges of two British practitioners of the craft, Alan Dawson and Denys Mitchell.

IT was while Creed was staying and working with Mitchell that something ``almost like a vision'' dawned in Creed's mind. He was struck with the scope of forged steel - ``from letter holders and great big things'' - and with the physical joy and energy of it all: ``Using an elemental material and shaping it rapidly, allowing things to grow.... You just take some metal, you put it in the fire, which is an elemental thing, you take a hammer and you work it there - it is so honest. With the simplest of tools you can produce these things, and I thought: This is absolutely for me.''

The ``things'' that he has produced in forged steel include a tall and sinuously calligraphic ``Bird Table,'' which he describes as ``wind sensitive.'' As we talked in his house in Glasgow, Scotland, I could see it out in his garden. Never have birds been treated to such true elegance and imagination. He has made gates and window grills, candle holders and bookends, plant holders and music stands, clothes horses, hat and coat stands, boot-scrapers, mirrors, stools, benches, and plant stands.

Boldly imaging the energy and exactitude of their making, Creed's works in forged steel are also objects of finesse, nuance, and even a discriminating delicacy. But they are not in the least like jewelry enlarged. They are true to the material they are made of: its large scale, its lack of preciousness, its tensions and pliancy, its final hardness and strength, its springiness, and above all the way in which it can be like drawing in three dimensions.

With steel strip, flowing and interweaving, looping and linking, varying in its thickness and width and changing subtly from square section to round section to rectangular section, Creed delineates a kind of calligraphy in space with remarkable freedom. At the same time, though, he insists that he is not one of those ironworkers who just ``allows it to express its plasticity.'' There is ``a controlled element'' to his work. ``The line is not fully relaxed, perhaps, in the sense that it is traveling a journey that is navigated. It has purpose to it. It's not just gesture.'' As he discusses particular works, the rigor of his self-criticism emerges. The smallest details may not be quite right and require change.

Drawing on paper in two dimensions frequently precedes his work. This is the planning, the working out of an idea. It helps him develop the concept behind a particular piece, the ``why'' of it. He wants something more than just practicality, that is clear. But drawing also comes from a need to ``quantify the material you are using,'' he says, something that was a crucial economic necessity in silverwork and still figures in his thinking in large-scale ironwork.

WHEN Creed comes to the forge to actually make the piece, however, there is plenty of room for discovery and spontaneity beyond the drawings. He may well make different parts of a piece a number of times before being satisfied. The character and quality of his work quite definitely bear the mark of his personal making, his tools, his working judgments. This is not work that could be fabricated by someone else.

It is in the balancing of the planned and the spontaneous - the designed and the crafted - that the character of Creed's work lies. It has the definiteness of a refined simplicity; but it also has a playfulness or whimsy, which is always kept in its place, but there nevertheless. This whimsy might be thought of as ``decorative,'' but only if, say, the tendrils of some climbing vine, the stem and branch and leaf of a tree, the thin but strong legs of an insect, could be called ``decorative.'' Nature never seems short of invention when it comes to the huge variety of linear directions, twists, turns, thicknesses and thinnesses, that it deploys. To observant humans, these varying forms and structures seem not only purposeful in a purely functional way, but also fanciful, elegant, playful, and even witty.

Creed points out that ``function'' is not only a matter of something working with smooth economy and precision (though he emphasizes the importance of this) but also has to do with visual appropriateness. A work must both be and look functional. What Creed continually demonstrates, though, is that functionality can vary in its appearance: It can be direct and geometrical, but it can also be vegetative, sinuous, spiraling, and punctuated with sudden twists, like natural things.

In this he shares something with Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Glasgow architect whose buildings were his own conception down to the last detail including fencing, fireplaces, gates, grills, lamps, and other elements made of steel. These details combine plain usefulness, decoration, and (very significantly) symbolic meaning in equipoise. But while Mackintosh invented these details of his buildings, he himself didn't make them, and although Creed admires (and has found himself influenced by) Mackintosh, he has reservations about the craftsmanship with which his ironwork was actually made.

At the start of our interview, we looked at one of Creed's music stands. The place where the music rests is made of interweaving linear elements in the shape of musical notes. These interlinked elements may seem at first sight decorative as well as functional, but they are actually conceptual and symbolic: The music stand is made of musical notes.

THIS musical analogy can be imaginatively extended throughout Creed's work. He talks of a sound being held or sustained at a certain pitch. ``But the quality of the sound can vary along that pitch.'' He points out that it is exactly the same with the variations he makes along the length of a steel strip. ``The changes along the length of a line have always appealed to me,'' he says. ``I like the way that happens very subtly, and the light changes.''

If a music stand can be made of visual music, why shouldn't a ``Bird Table'' (wind sensitive) be made of the song and flight of a bird, a candleholder epitomize the wavering of a candle flame, or even a driveway gate be characterized, to some extent, by the foliage and branches of the shrubs in the garden to which it opens?

Is Creed's work sculpture? Is it art or craft? In fact it is all of these, an unusual convincing balance of them. Brought up as a Quaker, and still one, he feels comfortable with the idea that a work of art does not simply proceed out of the artist's mind without acknowledgment of the viewer (or, in his work, the user). He takes account of the observer's experience in handling his work. He likes the idea of its domesticity and everyday use. Working in steel instead of precious metals fits in with his beliefs in equality, the spread of wealth, and ``how each of us should give something to society.

``We owe society something,'' he says. ``We all have gifts. We should be developing and offering them for others. That's all part of Quakerism. My religion is very much part of what I do, in a very simple way.

``Quakers,'' he points out, ``may have traditionally dressed simply, but the quality of the cloth was the best.'' They dressed well, ``but to pay a fashion designer - then they would have started questioning!''

The forged-steel works of John Creed are unfussed and ``simple,'' but the quality of their craftsmanship and thought is of the best. He says ``they have very few frills.'' But they are not at all without sincere delight as they describe their line journey in eloquent curves, punctuation, and rhythm.

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