Art and Artistry at Walker Metalsmiths
You might envision a crafter of fine Celtic jewelry and metalwork hunched up at a workbench, mulling over whether to use rose gold or silver, maybe using a loupe and an array of tiny, pointy dentist-like tools, all the while employing an oh-so-delicate touch to create a St. Brigid’s Cross pendant, or to shape a replica of the Ardagh Chalice, or to fashion a one-of-a-kind engagement ring.
There is, certainly, a fair amount of that happening at Walker Metalsmiths Celtic Jewelry on Main Street in Andover, New York.
But there is also Steve Walker, using sturdy tongs to remove super-hot containers from a kiln, flipping the visor down on his welding mask, putting a lighter to his blowtorch, melting some metal with the flame, then turning on the centrifuge. This combination of heating, spinning, and then rapid cooling is one technique—it’s called centrifuge or centrifugal force casting—Steve uses for making jewelry. This particular method was used by a “pioneering Celtic designer in the 1950s,” he notes, adding that 1930s-era dental techniques for making molds from wax have also been applied to jewelry creation.
The first Celtic artists—folks who were creating in the early European Iron Age around 800-450 B.C.—did not have blowtorches or centrifuges, and their dentistry was probably kind of scary. Yet the world remains fascinated with what they did, and in love today with Celtic art in general and Celtic jewelry in particular—the knotwork, the spirals, the colors, the abstract animal, human, and plant designs all woven and interconnected, all unique yet instantly recognizable as “Celtic.”
Steve, who, with his wife, Sue, has been one of the Walkers in Walker Metalsmiths Celtic Jewelry since 1984, explains that, as Celtic crafters today, the tools and techniques he and his staff and apprentices use range from the primitive to the medieval to 3-D printers.
“Techniques keep coming around and being recycled, and Celtic design has gone through a lot of different revivals,” Steve says. Today’s Celtic renaissance, Steve notes, had its beginnings in the Celtic revival of the 1840s. As an art and jewelry form, it is, and always has been, an evolving style. Even the nomenclature is a work in progress. Steve mentions that he is currently working on a Celtic cross design based on an old gravestone marker. He describes it as “‘coherent geometry’—nerdy, Celtic arts stuff.”
“I’ve been doing this since I was eleven or so,” he continues. His grandfather was a Scottish immigrant; his grandmother visited Ireland in 1968 and brought him a Book of Kells souvenir book, which, along with bagpipes, piqued his interest in Celtic lore and art. The Book of Kells (along with the Book of Durrow) may be the most well-known example of what we today consider to be a masterpiece of Celtic art. Created in medieval times, it is the text, in Latin, of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—accompanied by glorious illustrations, and all hand-painted on calfskin. It is on display, most of the time, at Trinity College Library in Dublin. Steve saw it in 1977 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when it was part of the traveling Treasures of Early Irish Art exhibit.
As a student at Andover Central School, Steve’s interest and enthusiasm for Celtic art and history, and for playing the pipes, was encouraged and inspired by William “Scotty” MacCrea—the real deal from a Gaelic-speaking Scottish Canadian family—who taught art, and art with Celtic influences. He was Steve’s teacher from sixth grade until graduation.
Now eighty-six, Scotty MacCrea will be one of the presenters at the International Celtic Artists Conference in Andover June 7 to 9, a spin-off, of sorts, from the International Day of Celtic Art which is celebrated June 9—the feast day of St. Columba (Columcille in Gaelic), an Irish monk associated with the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow. Steve explains that the first IDCA, just three years ago, was proposed by a group of contemporary Celtic artists and Celtic art aficionados—many of whom he knows—who had been exchanging ideas and inspiration online for two decades. This first-ever celebration will likely be—as is its namesake—an evolving, fluid, let’s-see-what-works kind of event.
The weekend begins on Thursday with a reception at the Hann Homestead, a restored nineteenth century inn about two miles from Andover. Friday and Saturday events include lectures and presentations, with artists showing and discussing their own works and the history, techniques, and culture of Celtic art and metalwork. There will be an open house/reception at Walker Metalsmiths on June 7 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. On Saturday evening, break out the bodhran if you have one and join in the cèilidh (traditionally a Scottish or Irish social visit, but these days a kind of house party), where there will be food, live Celtic music, and maybe a few tall tales.
Sunday, Chicago-based artist Michael Carroll offers a three-hour workshop in freehand knotwork and key pattern drawing.
Other artists scheduled for the weekend hail from Scotland, Ireland, Canada, and the U.S., and include Dr. Donncha MacGabhan, who will present a talk on “A Magnificent Obsession: An Artist’s Response to the Book of Kells”; Mike King, who will present on conservation efforts to save and refurbish the Saint Patrick Cross and the Downpatrick Market Cross; Steve Walker, who will give a presentation on medieval casting techniques; and Greg Hardy, from nearby Scio, with a talk on “Modern Celtic Art: The Local Tradition.”
Artists Steven Johnson, Ed Rooney, Ruth Black, and Catherine Crowe are in the lineup as well.
Pre-registration is $100, $50 dollars for youth and students, and includes all events, receptions, lunch on Friday and Saturday, Saturday night dinner, and cèilidh. Tickets for just the Saturday dinner are $35 per person. Walk-ins and registration after June 6 are $110 and $60 respectively. Lodging is not included.