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cory barkman’s chinese plum tree: coming into bloom, one flower at a time.

On his facebook page, industrial artist Cory Barkman has been sharing the journey to design and create unique hand-made furniture and fittings for a contemporary Chinese tea-room. I am going to describe more about bringing the Chinese Plum Tree screen installation into bloom, as I have the slightly scary task of making the 500 chased and repousséd bronze flowers.

Chased and repousséd bronze flowers - overlaid to create the feel of the finished Chinese Plum tree branch, loaded with spring blossom. Christine Pedersen. 2017.

With so much work necessary to create all the pieces, Cory has faced a serious problem - how to find enough hours in his working life to make it all: "Sometimes jobs are bigger than ourselves, and the sheer volume of work needed is more than one person can feasibly or efficiently achieve on a good timeframe”. 

Cory and I have worked on a previous major project - the “Return” tree sculpture for Alberta Beverage Container Recycling Corporation, with Jeff de Boer, as part of his LEXM artist collective. As Cory says about LEXM: “It means that together we can finish an art work more quickly, and we get to draw from each other’s experience in solving problems - we may find a better, or more aptly suited solution”. And of course, with large complicated pieces, Cory continued “…working together also allows each of us to grow independently, our individual contributions benefit the team, and we carry forward the experience of making the piece in all of our tool-kits."

Process shot: 4 different sized flowers per sheet of die-formed bronze. Christine Pedersen. 2017.
As an artist who specializes in chasing, this is a fabulous opportunity for me to really go deep with a particular form and explore technique: every hammer blow is a choice, the weight and angle determine every nuance of the flowers’ character. It is also physically very demanding, and I make 4 complex curled flowers, or 6 open-form flowers each day. Eventually, each flower will have taken around an hour to complete.
Cory’s hand-carved walnut and aluminium screen is 12 feet long and 5 feet high, and he estimates we will need around 500 blooms for the layered and highly detailed form he has designed. As I write, I have made approximately  350 flowers.

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600 is a lot, of anything. It is tempting to think that we could make 600 flowers using a standardized or machine-led process - but how would we keep each flower unique? We opted for a head-start on the cupped flower shape by pre-forming the sheet metal using hand-turned dies and the hydraulic press, creating 4 different-sized forms at once.

Repoussé process on the rear surface; stack of formed sheets upper left corner. Christine Pedersen. 2017.


The annealed (heat-softened) and formed metal sheets are mounted top-side down onto a pitch bowl to start the process. Creating the flower outline on the back of the metal is the pushing out, or “repoussé”, stage.

Cory has given me sheets of flower drawings, and they also tell me his vocabulary of petal forms. I draw each design onto the sheet by hand, making flowers face left and right, showing blooms head-on and oblique, petals young and pointed, or flattening as they age, with curled edges… This is the stage at which each flower becomes a unique individual.

After deeply hammering the flower outline and curls, the sheet has to be taken off the pitch, the residue burned off, and it is then re-mounted onto the bowl facing the right way up.

Right side up: chasing the plum flower details. Christine Pedersen. 2017.

This reveals the bumpy repoussé line at the edge of the flower and petals. Now, I can add in all the fine flower detail with a chasing—or pushing down—phase, working over the top surface to create the petal overlaps and outline. I draw and chase the central filament and anther details (the male, pollen-producing parts of the flower), and, again, these help to reinforce the unique individual attitude of the flower. 
After another burn-off and scrub, the flowers receive a bit of post-forming with a shaped plastic hammer - pushing down the centre and tilting the petals. Finally they can be sawn (pierced) out of the bronze sheet (by another member of our LEXM team - Rheinhold Pinter). 

Repousséd and chased bronze flowers, with patina to show the details. Christine Pedersen. 2017.
And so for now, I'd better get back to hammering - those other 250 flowers won’t make themselves…

Resources - if you would like to learn more about some of the techniques we are using, the following excellent books will be useful:

“Hydraulic Die Forming For Jewelers & Metalsmiths”, by Susan Kingsley. 20-Ton Press.
“Chasing and Repoussé Methods Ancient and Modern” Nancy Megan Corwin. Brynmorgen Press.

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