Silver taleS
by Jan van Nouhuys
Date: 14 Mar 2013

Ode to Two Hands

Piece -- materials: silver, patinated brass; dimensions: h 32, 17 x 16 cm;

I would like to share some aspects and stages of my life and career. Like starting our first and very own workshop. An idyllic, run-down and affordable little place in a secluded courtyard in the centre of The Hague. We were in such a euphoric state that we forgot to put a return address on a letter to our queen.

Then there is the trepidation I felt when calling on high-street jewelers and antique dealers, offering my services to repair silverware.

There are the tears, the anger and the desperation on receiving four tax assessments at the same time – three over the previous three years and one for the coming year. I was so angry that when a policeman stopped me for a traffic violation, I almost attacked him physically, seeing him as the personification of unjust authorities. 

I recall the many ‘encounters’ with renowned silversmiths from the 17th and 18th century while restoring their work - they became my posthumous teachers. Teaching at the ‘Vakschool Schoonhoven’ was a truly wonderful experience. When you start teaching, you soon discover the extent of your own ability and knowledge, but it is the beginning of a new learning process.

Then there was the painful emotion – that’s what it felt like at that point in my career - of selling one of my treasured pieces, which I had designed and made during a period when I didn’t have much else to do.

Another memorable experience was the daring projects I launched with a group of my colleagues and other artists, under the umbrella title of ‘Zilver in Beweging’ (Silver in Motion). Our motto was: “Silver is badly in need of new conceptions and a new form of expression!”  Through organising these projects I found I had to free myself, a bit like a Baron von Münchhausen , from the stuffy and swampy atmosphere surrounding silver. This co-incided with a period in which I began to produce work based on designs of other artists, like Borek Sipek, and my fellow teacher and painter Jef Huibers. Around that time an Indian businessman invited me to set up a silver-workshop in New Delhi. With the invaluable support from Arjen Lucas and Paul de Vries this project got off the ground, giving us an opportunity to fully use our artistic and professional skills.

Our first participation in the PAN-Amsterdam was both fantastic and surreal : “Sir, what do you think you are doing here? Where does this stuff come from? And who made it anyway?” Today contemporary silver is a permanent feature of the fair.

We still feel the tremendous excitement of building our own house-cum-gallery. There was an amazing synergy with the architect, Gerard Rijnsdorp, resulting in a lovely home and a beautiful gallery.

Finally I want to recount working with Onno Maurer, curator of the Flehite Museum, while preparing an exhibition of my complete work in my native city Amersfoort. It was such a relief to be able to share and express my artistic and professional views, without running up against the often prevailing attitude in the art world, that handcraft is an obstacle to artistic expression and art. He knew everything about art, but nothing about silver. It became a wonderful exhibition.

At this point in the story my memory begins to fade and I have to dive into the archives to know what else happened. Going through the photos of the pieces I had made and reading the accompanying information and descriptions – carefully documented by my wife Anneke – I became aware of a certain distance between myself and the pictures I was looking at. It was a sensation I had experienced before, when I was making the pieces and had become aware “that my mind was observing what my hands were doing.” Similar to a writer’s pen dictating the unfolding of the story. It felt like I was in a museum, faced with a collection which revealed the evolution of the artistic development of my work. I was looking at what Eric Turner, curator of the V&A, once described as “an extremely significant and important body of work.” In the course of the years this collection of silver has ended up in private hands and has in a way become anonymous.

Hands that are performing a craft are engaged in top-class sport. They seem to possess an intellect of their own, autonomously pursuing new avenues and solutions, and when required, able to be extremely precise and accurate. These hands have developed their own rhythmic, based on years of training. They can draw on a wealth of empirical knowledge that has been built up in the course of many years. Of course it is true that I am and remain the director, but I am keen to leave ample space for the interaction between the hands and the material. If I don’t do that, and if my hands are only puppets, then the end result is just a product. Forcing my hands into the straitjacket of my own ambitious thought processes, means that I’m asking for an accident to happen. I will either hit my fingers, or the material ceases to cooperate.

If my hands could talk, what would they say? As they are already feeling the effect of arthritis, they would certainly grumble about having to work too hard – not only making silver objects, but also furniture, design concepts, a kitchen, the garden or the boat. They would complain about how their master sometimes uses them as if they were a vice. They might even reveal something about the deeper emotions of their master, about enjoying the serenity he felt and still feels when cutting his children’s hair; his love and admiration for his wife; his immense gratitude for the bonds of friendship with the buyers of his work; his inner struggles about how to find a balance between success and a life of simplicity amidst a world chasing after money and fame. About his deep wish to remain true to the essence of his own authenticity, uninhibited, like a child, and full of expectation. And about his aversion to and rejection of his designs the moment they turn out to be no  more than a gimmick.  

His hands might be a bit worried about the fighting spirit that takes hold of him when things come across his path that he feels are wrong, and his desire to do something about them with his potentially vitriolic pen.  But they would be re-assured when seeing these passionate feelings being reduced to their proper proportions and channeled in the right direction when their master was back in his workshop - in full concentration on what he was making. Building a better world thus becomes practical while ‘hammering away at silver’, and forms a stepping stone towards a life that is vulnerable but at the same time able to make a valuable contribution to society.

I count myself fortunate to have hands that I can put to work as and when required –with insight, precision, and agility. I am happy with my craft and its inherent authenticity.

JvN