Interview: Stephen Blades
by Chelsea Lewis
1 1/4” x 1” x 3/16”
Stephen Blades, sculpture senior, LSU, is a craftsman and metal-worker concerned about the decline of hand-made, personalized “every day” objects. Pulling from fantasy culture and historical imagery, Stephen creates jewelry and objects that are beautiful and humorous, hard yet delicately detailed.
Manchac Magazine: Where are you from and what brings you to LSU?
Stephen Blades: Baton Rouge. This is just where I ended up. I already knew that I was going be in the art department. I had originally planned to do the metalsmithing program here, but the semester I transferred they stopped taking applications. So, I got thrown into the sculpture program.
MM: Why metalsmithing?
SB: When I was in high school I had an apprenticeship with Tom Lorio – he’s a local metalsmith – basically just working with him and making some, you know, really bad beginning work and learning tools and process. So, even before I got to LSU, I already had projects going. So, I learned and started from him [Lorio], and I went to BRCC for two or three semesters and transferred here. Now I’m here and finally graduating.
MM: Let’s talk about your most current work…
SB: All the imagery has a lot to do with fantasy and history. I’m interested in reclaiming history, reclaiming lost culture and lost heritage because the barely-remembered traditions that we have today came from somewhere, along with all of our folklore and modern fantasy. I also have an interest in the history of Europe, warrior culture, the Norse gods, and all those kind of things. That’s what I think about whenever I’m making things.
8” x 7” x 2”
MM: What about the kiwis, are they a metaphor for something?
SB: The kiwis are kind of…I guess it’s my power animal. That’s probably not the best way to describe it. I find animals really interesting, and they’re [kiwis] just one of the weirdest animals. I really like playing around with how they’re shaped and stylizing their form or adding arms to make them look more human or putting them in armor. I like that they’re kind of an awkward bird, and they’re going extinct. These birds are going away just like a lot the people in my profession. People who do metalworking of all forms are still around and still practicing, but for a large part, we’re either having to rediscover things or it’s being lost.
MM: What’s up with the armored kiwi?
SB: I like the absurdity of it. I like animals a lot. I think they have really nice forms. After I made it, I came across this jeweler whose MFA show was all cat and mouse armor. Everything was just beautifully made. It’s not really supposed to have animals in it. It’s supposed to be a little joke.
13” x 6” x 6 1/2”
MM: What do you parents think that you do?
SB: They know I make stuff, but I’m not saying the understand it. My mom understands it from one point of view, my dad another. Both of them are really supportive, My mom comes from a very arts and crafts point of view, so she looks at my work and goes, ‘oh, that’s really cool,’ and just doesn’t get the rest of it. But, I feel like my parents are supportive.
MM: So, you’ve done a lot of jewelry, what do you enjoy about it?
SB: That’s actually what I did my apprenticeship in with Tom [Lorio]. That’s what I was interested in making at that time, and that’s my background. I like doing it, but I also like doing other types of work. I like the personal aspect of jewelry. People put so much energy or love into their jewelry, it’s part of their routine, like if they don’t have their ring on it throws their stride off. People put a lot of energy into jewelry of all kinds, especially when it’s inherited or specially made for them. That’s why I like making objects far more than sculpture because it has that personal connection. Objects kind of change people’s realities.
3/4” x 3/4” x 1/4”
MM: Do you like to use mediums other than metal?
SB: About four years ago, I got really intensely involved in ceramics. I really enjoy slipcasting because you can get the same object over and over again and just go insane with how you address the surface. My background is about addressing the surface of things.
MM: What’s your favorite medium?
SB: I like steel a lot more, but metal in general. Vessel making is a lot of fun. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while.
MM: What about techniques or processes?
SB: Repousse and sandcasting. One of the things I really enjoy is inlay work. It’s a technique I learned about a year and a half ago. If you look at historical objects, there are a lot of inlay objects throughout Western civilization, but it went from inlaying wire and sheets to using super thin foil. In Japan, they still do it today, but they had a strong tradition up until the 1800s of using chisels to carve channels and then setting wire or plates. I really enjoy the process because it’s really controlled, and you can do such a range of materials together. It’s a lot of fun and a lot of time.
1 5/8” x 1 1/4” x 1”
MM: You seem to like precision…
SB: Precision and intention. I try to have intention in everything that I do even if it’s an experiment. I want things to look clean and purposeful.
MM: Any favorite artists or craftsmen?
SB: David Huang, he’s a metalsmith in Michigan, and he does a lot of intensely patina-ed, textured small vessels. His use of textures and colors and gold leaf, and his figurative vessels, too, are just amazing. It’s very inspirational. Tom Lorio’s another one. He does amazing things with textures, and all of his work is just really precise. Patrick Thaden, he was a professional armorer for a couple of years. In my lineage of craftsmen, he’s like my grandfather.
MM: What images inspires you in general?
SB: Armor and, recently, historical architecture. Historical objects, lots of fantasy writing. Tolkien – lots of Tolkien. It depends, but for the most part, those things.
MM: Do you have a favorite historical era?
SB: 14th century England, when full plate harnesses were just starting out. Then, right before the Vikings started coming over pillaging and killing everybody, and also feudal Japan – the warrior mindset of the samurai.
Skull Vessel, detail
1 5/8” x 1 1/4” x 1”
MM: I get the impression that you’re trying to bridge the past and the present…
SB: There are things that I make for reenactment, and then there are things that I make for myself, like a body of work. I try to fuse those two because I think that if we rediscover part of our culture in the past and bring it together with the present, we’d do better overall. I try to recapture those things that are lost. My work is more process-focused, and it has to do with looking back at culture and making artifacts. I consider myself more a craftsman than I do an artist. A lot of artists don’t think this way, and they don’t make things this way. I like making objects. It’s relevant. I’m not going to say it’s fine art, but it’s still important. Craft is its own thing; it has its own value. I’m trying to bring a little beauty into people’s lives, trying to connect handmade objects with people. I’m not trying to view my work in terms of art even though I’m in art school.
MM: For you, what’s the difference between art and craft?
SB: It’s intent and execution. For example, academic jewelers make jewelry that is not really meant to be worn every day. It’s meant to interact with the body, but it’s more meant to be looked at. When I make things, they’re handmade, but they’re meant to be worn every day. When I make other things like ceramics, they’re meant to be beautiful, to invite people to touch them and hold them and want them in their homes. I guess that’s the difference.
MM: What do you have planned?
SB: This is my last semester, but I have a book full of junk to work on – stuff that takes way more time than I have now. I have a couple ideas for these elongated, forged figures really and a lot more jewelry.