Can This Be Real?
Lessons Learned in a Rocket Attack
Seeing Through the Night
The monsoons in Vietnam are wet, loud, and dark. That is my memory of them. Every raindrop that fell made itself heard, thumping on a tin roof, or a jungle leaf, or the flooded landscape. Collectively the drops created a ceaseless din, and the winds howled a gale. There were heavy, thick, dark clouds covering the sun much of the time. At night it was black, the moon entirely hidden, and no star, anywhere. These were the conditions one night when I was walking through the enlisted men’s area of hardback tents in basecamp.
It might have been midnight. I can’t remember for sure, but there was no one else around. I don’t remember where I was coming from, or where I was going at that particular moment. But I clearly remember walking up a pallet sidewalk past the enlisted men’s area. I was alone. It was very dark. Then, I froze, mid-stride. In spite of the howling winds, I could hear a distinct sound. It was rocket engines. I looked toward the direction from where the sound seemed to originate, up and to my left, at ten o’clock. The night was heavy with black clouds, but through them I could see four points of light, orange flames. I turned to my right, ran to the closest bunker, and dove in.
I would have yelled, should have yelled, “INCOMING!!!”. But I doubted my senses. My mind was still assessing the moment as I made my way to the bunker. Did I really hear and see rockets? Typically you don’t know you are getting “hit” until you hear the “whumpf” that incoming ordinance makes only a fragment of a moment before the explosion. It’s the compression of air that occurs as the result of a violent blast. That’s how you know the rounds are coming at you , the “whumpf”… unless they are landing right on top of you. Then your cage is rattling to the point that no one needs to tell you the fire is directed at you. It’s obvious.
I made it into the bunker before the rockets hit. I was still wrestling with the fact that it was impossible to have heard and seen those rockets, but the deepest part of me was certain that I had. I finally yelled out a warning to the night. No one responded. The next moment the first four rockets hit. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! That got a response. Men in their underwear were pouring out of every tent, running in all directions, hither and yon, tripping over pallets, slamming into each other, diving for any bunker at hand.
I had never been an observer of an attack before that one. I was always one of the participants, one of the guys running for cover. The advance notice I had received afforded me the opportunity to know what was going to happen and then watch it. Honestly, it was amusing. I chuckled to myself as I watched the spectacle, the melee. It was a rare moment of humor, a lightness of heart, and I appreciated it.
You Don't See What I See?
Just to be clear, it simply isn’t possible to hear and see rockets coming in during a monsoon storm. That doesn’t happen on a clear day. Don’t ask me how or why I knew they were coming, how I could hear and see through the dark, storm-filled night. I don’t know. Everybody sees differently. What people “see” when they “look” is as unique to the individual as are fingerprints. I don’t think any two people ever see the same thing when they look at anything. I think we presume that we are seeing identically. In my experience, not!
The pattern of fingerprints that you are born with, that doesn’t change over time. How you see, that does change, constantly, I think. I laugh at myself when I remember my early days of artistic endeavor, the moment that I noticed that the only work that I liked was mine and stuff that looked like mine. That may be overstating it, but the point is I didn’t appreciate that which was foreign to me, or uninteresting. I dismissed things without really looking, without seeing. Fortunately life and circumstance forced me to look at that which I would have glossed over by preference. I would be asked to repair a sculpture or piece of jewelry, or I would have to create a piece that was based on a style from a tradition or culture of which I had no knowledge. The work itself required that I move past my arbitrary limits. I learned to appreciate and was inspired by works that I would never have noticed if my head had not been turned toward that tradition or culture.
Many years ago I was asked to carve several images, wearable carvings. The carvings were intended to exemplify the Shakti, the essence of female, the “feeling” of “She”. I tried to come up with designs for the project, but they fell short. I was doing too much “thinking” and not enough “feeling”. I asked my friend, Richard Stodart, if he would try his hand at a few designs. Richard is a talented painter who has a unique sensitivity to both the male and female form. He graciously agreed to it and quickly sketched up nine graceful images. They all seemed perfect!
I made the carvings, carefully finishing and polishing each. Then I asked another talented friend, Eleanor Seeley, if she would do some light airbrushing on them. When the pieces were completed I showed them to Richard. He looked at the nine small sculptures and laughed. He commented that they were beautiful, but they didn’t look anything like his designs.
I was incredulous. “They don’t?” I had been very careful to carve exactly what I saw. I used a micrometer during the carving process to be sure that they accurately represented Richard’s designs. Yet, I did not see what Richard drew.
So, everybody sees differently. I get that. Still, when I read the single comment on a blog article about John Paul Miller’s work which dismissed it as “unattractive and gaudy” I was, at first, offended. What?!!! Are you crazy???!!!!! Then, in the next moment I remembered the lesson that I have learned so many times. I dropped my righteous indignation. After all, I see Miller’s work through the eyes of a lover.
Attraction and Inspiration
You know how you feel when you see something that really excites you; a breaching humpback whale, a net-only shot from mid-court, maybe Elvis’s pink Cadillac or Queen Bey, herself. It’s whatever lights your bulb, gets you out of your seat. Fine handwork, especially small work, that does it for me. Even when I was a kid I was drawn to fine craftsmanship. I observed objects with astonishment. I could see the difference between the ordinary and excellence. I was attracted to and excited by work that exhibited great skill. When I began making jewelry John Paul Miller’s work was the first that I saw that lit me up. It was his use of “granulation” that caught my eye.
Rather than describing granulation you can check out the images in the article here and in the slider at the top of the article. See all those tiny balls of gold? That’s granulation. Keep in mind that all of those images are magnified. Most of the jewels that are pictured are far smaller than the image depicts. When viewed with the naked eye granulation can appear like a fine “dusting” on the surface of the piece. You can’t discern the individual forms of the gold spheres.
Granulation is thought to have originated 5,000 years ago in what is now Iraq. The goldsmiths in following civilizations developed and refined the technique until the Etruscans perfected it in the 1st millennium BCE. Artisans, through time, had developed techniques to make smaller and smaller gold spheres, but the Etruscans went micro. They set the standard for granulation. Smiths in Europe continued to use the technique, but not nearly as expansively as the Etruscans. Granulation didn’t really get “rediscovered” as a technique for surface decoration of jewelry until the 19th century. 20th century artists continued to expand and refine the use of granulation, and that’s where John Paul Miller comes in.
John Paul Miller combined gold, glass enamel, and granulation with designs taken from animal forms, primarily cephalopods and insects. He mastered granulation, and helped to foster resurgence in the use of the technique in contemporary jewelry. Modern tools and equipment have made granulation faster and more controllable, but to do it right still takes great skill. It takes the ability to focus your attention on a single, movable point and keep it there, hour after hour. A lot of handwork requires that ability. Granulation requires it on nearly a microscopic level.
Kent Raible is this type of goldsmith. Raible used to purchase his metals and supplies at Maken’s, in Sausalito. That was back in the eighties. All of the Marin county jewelers made the trip to Makens frequently. It was the place that you ran into your friends and met other metal workers. I met Raible a couple of times at Maken’s, but I heard of him before that. He was already recognized as an exceptional goldsmith. He didn’t just intend to do the best work that he could do. His intention must have been to do the best work that he could imagine. Whereas Miller used enamel to add color to his projects, Raible uses colored gemstones. The results are very different, but they both use their respective materials to great effect. Looking at his work you can see that it took a lot of honing for Raible to get that sharp. He clearly spent much time on the strop of repetition and practice to enable the manifestation of his creations.
Beethoven and Muhammad Ali were heroes of their disciplines. You may not like classical music or boxing, but you can’t deny their mastery. Likewise with John Paul Miller and Kent Raible. They are that good. Look and see for yourself. What's your take?
Photos courtesy of the artists