Thursday, May 20, 2021

Fire, Pencils & Gold

We're doing a lot of re-organising and rethinking of the space we work in at the moment. It was subject to a massive redesign ten years ago but is starting to feel a bit stale (lockdown helped with that!) and this corner in particular has never been quite right.

We've worked with Spencer Jenkins before on projects around the studio and the house, and when we realised it was shelving that we needed - for all the reference books, novels, catalogues and such, housed for years in repurposed wooden apple crates - we asked him. He loves wood, works in steel and willow, and creates natural forms and shapes which look simple and easy, but he'll pore over a line for for days on end, perfecting it.

We'd been admirers of the work he's done in scorched larch, taking the wood and burning its surface till it reaches a deep, satisfying black. We chose chunky larch sections which were cut and planed to fit the totally asymmetrical and wobbly corners of the room (the studio is L-shaped).

Once this was done - not a fast stage, it should be said, Spence is something of a perfectionist - the larch is burnt using a blowtorch and a steady hand. You can see the really gnarly, delicate-looking surface of the larch, which truly looks as if you've turned up to a house fire hours too late. And it smells like that too, if you get your nose right in there - an oddity exciting smell, proper 'charred'.

After the charring, comes the vanishing - but sensitively done, so as not to obliterate the textures of the burning with a brutal slathering of shiny. Wet here, the varnish soaks in to 'fix' the burnt surface:

Burnt only on the underside and the sides, leaving natural larch exposed on the surface where the books would sit, from here the shelves were brought to the studio where it was over to me. We'd come up with the idea of filling any natural cracks and splits with gold. 

Inspired by the Japanese art of kintsugi, mending precious time-served items with gold and honouring their long service rather than throwing them away or trying to hide the breaks, I first photographed the shelves placed in situ and drew lines as organically as I could over the edges, many times over, till I hand line that neither told a story nor suggested any deliberate sequence, taking my cue from Spencer himself and the notion of a totally random break or split: harder than I first thought! 

In fact, it took me two weeks to arrive at a set of 'cracks' I was happy with, and even then, I changed them as I worked. 

I tested the infill of gold with the samples that Spencer had made for us, in the process of assessing how much to burn into the wood, by Dremelling the splits in and applying both gold leaf and two gold acrylics. The idea was to fill with actual gold, via melting and pouring in, or alternatively using a rod that's melted in (NOT the correct technical term) but after research this proved both financially and technically very difficult to achieve without the input of a jeweller and specialist kit, so we decided on 23ct gold leaf - the quality of leaf above which no oxidisation takes place, and suitable for outdoor use as well as indoor.

IN THE MEANTIME...the empty space where the old crate shelves were stacked was looking sad, so it was given a fresh coat of ECOS white paint, and I added a set of coloured pencils to it! I sketched them out on paper with felt tips in what felt like the right colours, squatting and holding them up against the corner, until they were right.

Feeling like a big child it was massively freeing to paint something large-scale on the wall - we haven't done that for AGES - and I added some pencils which were sharp, a snapped one, a blunt one and some sharpened with a knife - like a real pencil collection.

Once this was done it was time to gild. Gilding requires the surface to be smooth, sealed and dry, before a coat of size - a type of glue which doubles as a varnish, and remains sticky for a few hours - is applied, followed by the leaf itself. Every crack was Dremelled in, slowly and with a non-blinking steady hand, brushed clean with a stiff brush, and then sealed with a PVA solution. When dry, a layer of Stuart Semple's 'Goldest Gold' acrylic was applied, chosen for being the truest, richest gold I've ever come across.

The acrylic acts as a sealant, and ensured that should any area not be completely covered by the gold leaf, all you'll see is the convincingly-gold acrylic edge. I highly recommend his very special gold!

And then the gold leaf.

A time-consuming process (if it wasn't already!) the leaf is applied with a dry brush over size applied anywhere from an our beforehand. As long as it's still sticky, you can start gilding. A little section of VERY flaky gold leaf is picked up on a dry brush, and pushed into the crack, tamped down carefully with the same dry brush - never with fingers.

Despite a surprisingly modest spend on the 23ct gold, I ALMOST left the acrylic exposed, such was its goodness and glitter. here's the acrylic on the left, and some of the gilding on the right. There's just more...goldness to the gold leaf!

Finally, the completed shelves were fixed in place over the pencils, burnt, gold edges facing into the room, and the books have been making their way onto them this week; stylishly re-organised for the first time in years!

We're grateful to Spence for his painstaking work, carried out in a distanced, awkward masks-and-googles-on way in the middle of a lockdown, and for the opportunity for another collaboration. The next project is already underway, and we already know there'll be more after that!

You can explore more of Spencer's work on his Instagram account.


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