Honesty of form, beauty of design

December 1, 1996 § Leave a comment

By ROGER MOSS

Audel Davis is one of a small group of coppersmiths — probably fewer than a dozen nationwide — who lovingly follow the early 20th century Arts & Crafts movement’s tenets: utility, craftsmanship, respect for materials, appreciation of proportion, attention to detail, honesty of form and beauty of design.

Audel has a long history of craftwork, dating back to his childhood. “It’s something I’ve always done,” he says. “I can’t remember when I wasn’t working with my hands on some project.”

Born and raised in northern Santa Barbara County into a family that traces its California roots back to the Gold Rush, he learned basic construction skills from his father, a building contractor. While still in junior high school, he completed the construction of a small building in the back yard of his family’s home in Santa Maria to house his model railroad.

This ability to work with his hands was of value when Audel and his wife, Lynne, bought a turn-of-the-century house on a deep lot in Berkeley. They set out to repair and expand the house for themselves and their four children. Audel completely transformed the house, working with tile and stained glass as well as the basic carpentry, masonry and cabinetwork required for a growing family home.

It was while he was working on his home that he became interested in copper. His first work was for his home and family. What follows is a discussion with Audel about his interest in hand-hammered copper.

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How did you first take an interest in hand-hammered copper?

I had a growing interest in the Arts & Crafts aesthetic and I was intrigued by hand-made copper pieces because that was something that was totally foreign to me. I never had thought about making things out of metal by hand. It was not something that I had done early on. And the mystique of being able to take hammers and heat and form an object that way was intriguing. I also wanted to have some nice metal work, and I knew I couldn’t afford to acquire all the pieces that I would like — Dirk van Erp pieces and things like that. So I felt that if I was going to have lamps and other work I probably needed to learn how to make them myself. That was a large part of the inspiration behind learning to do metal work.

When did you start working with copper, and how did you take up the craft?

In the late 1980s, before I took early retirement from my work as a probation officer, I’d already decided I was going to learn as much as I could about becoming a coppersmith. It was through [San Francisco Arts & Crafts expert and antique dealer] Isak Lindenauer, who had gone through the metal arts program at San Francisco City College, that I learned about the program and its instructor, Roger Baird. In the fall of 1989 I started the program and I went for two years. It was a good program in that you were given a great deal of freedom to pursue whatever you wanted after you learned a few basic skills. By the time I completed the program I had a foundation of skills and experience, and I put together a modest studio of my own and have been working ever since.

Your first work as a coppersmith was for your own use?

Yes. It was a while before I felt really competent to make things and put them out for people to buy. So that really didn’t happen until 1995, just last year.

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Your first public show at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery in San Francisco [in December 1995] was quite a success. What kind of pieces did you show?

I had a variety of pieces. I had two fairly conventional lamps and one that was a bit unusual, a number of pots and vases, candlesticks, bookends. I made a number of candle snuffers and a few small wall-mounted match holders to go by fireplaces — about 25 to 30 pieces in all, if you count the multiples. I made five of the candle snuffers, for example, each a bit different from the others.

And you sold essentially everything.

Almost everything sold. There were about four pieces left at the end of the show.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of working with copper?

Well, I think the end product. You make something, and you let it sit around for a while, and you look at it and think, “Yeah, that’s pretty nice.” That’s rewarding. It’s enjoyable to live with the pieces and to have them around the house.

What has been the most challenging aspect of the craft for you?

I’ve found soldering a long seam to be a very tricky aspect of metalwork. It has taken a long time to reach the point where I can competently do that without creating a lot of problems for myself.

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I hear coppersmiths talk about the difficulty of rolling rims on pots. Has that been a challenge?

Rolling rims is difficult. There is equipment you can use to achieve that fairly easily. But I don’t have the equipment, so I do it all by hand. Rolling rims can be difficult, but not in the same sense that soldering is. When you’re doing a soldering project, you have to see it through to the end. You can’t just stop in the middle. But when you’re rolling a rim you can stop and there’s no damage done.

I suppose you’re still learning aspects of patination?

Oh yes. Patination is very difficult, too, but in an entirely different way. I started out using basically one process for everything. Now I have three basic chemicals I use to achieve different kinds of patinas. They are one-chemical processes, and they are fairly reliable. When you use combinations of chemicals or chemicals combined with the application of heat, it becomes very tricky.

How have you marked your work?

When I first started all I did was take a scribe and scratch my name and the date on the bottom of the piece. This last year I have gotten a set of alphabet and number stamps, so now I’m stamping the letters of my name and the date. That’s more satisfactory. Still, it’s not like having my own stamp. I’ve been working on that, but I haven’t been able to come up with a design I’ve been satisfied with. [My wife] Lynne has been after me for a long time to get something together, but I haven’t done it yet.

I too think it would be a good idea. But in general I guess one could say that the pieces you’ve signed with the scribe are pieces made up through the period of your first public show last year?

That’s right. This year — 1996 — is the first year I started using the stamped name.

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I understand you’re working on pieces for another show at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery for this winter. What kind of work are you creating for this show? And do you think it is going to be distinguishable from the work you showed last year?

There won’t be a great deal of difference. There will be different designs, but they are the same types of pieces: lamps, pots, hopefully some bookends and some candleholders. One thing I’m going to try this year is to silver plate a few wine goblets. That will be a new aspect of metalwork for me.

Last year you made a pair of bookends incorporating tiles by Diane Winters.

Right. I hope to have some for this show too using her tiles. I also want to make a set of bookends using some Ruskin Pottery glaze chips I acquired on a recent trip to England. They are in the shape of hearts and can be set just like a stone on a piece of copper work.

Where do you see your work going in the future? What kinds of work do you look forward to doing?

As far as metal is concerned, I don’t have any grandiose plans. I’ve mentioned that I’m starting to work with silver plate over copper. Eventually I’d like to try making some small pieces in sterling silver and see how that works. Meanwhile, I have a number of projects to keep me busy. I’m working on building a wall across the back of the property where my home and workshop stand. And I want to experiment with making tile for this wall. I have a kiln which I hope will be sufficient for making tiles, but I haven’t done anything with it yet. For now my first priority is preparing for the January show.

© 1996 Roger Moss, nationally respected scholar of hand-hammered copper from the Arts & Crafts era.

MORE: “A coppersmith of skill and maturity

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