Crafting Permanence from Change

Current TAF Artist Chris Ramsay is a professor of jewelry making at OSU, where he also teaches a professional practices class and 3d design. I recently stopped by his studio on the fourth floor of the Hardesty Arts Center: AHHA to learn more about his work and see what he’s been creating this summer.

A collection of objects in Chris’ studio

A graduate of metalsmithing at the University of Michigan(BFA) and Texas Tech University (MFA), Chris has been making jewelry since he was in high school, and his interests as a maker stem from collecting objects as a child.

“I would pick things up and arrange them in my room,” he explained. “I would take one thing and set it on top of another and wanted to have them go together somehow, but I didn’t have the skills to accomplish that. So when I learned jewelry making I figured out how to forge the two together.”

Chris’ recent work incorporates a wealth of technology that he is learning in order to re-establish the foundations program at OSU to incorporate more digital processes. By familiarizing himself with new Rhino 3D Design software capable of running a laser cutter and guiding a large format CNC Milling Machine, he is using this new technology to both expand his own artistic practice and provide new techniques to be shared with his students.

As his intent is to learn the intimate workings of both the software and machinery, Chris chose a high-quality laminated baltic birch plywood to create his circular wooden sculptures, allowing him to observe any mistakes made in the process.

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“I am trying to learn, so I didn’t want the materials to be the issue. It’s me against the machine.” Pointing to a piece of severely splintered wood, he claimed, “Yep, that was me!”

Conceptually, Chris hopes to use this series to discuss aspects of climate change.  The forms that he is generating have ultimately grown out of an observable narrative that exists within tree rings. The tree stands as a witness to events occurring in the environment, and this can be seen within its spring/summer annual rings. Expanding upon that narrative, Chris is exploring ways to express climate change within the concentric natural form.

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Chris’ focus on climate change was inspired by a residency last fall at Crater Lake National Park.

“7500 years ago there was a large volcanic mountain there, and the magma chamber underneath it expanded to the point where it formed huge fissures all around the mountain, eventually collapsing the mountain into the magma chamber, forming a huge caldera. Over the past 7000 years the caldera filled with fresh water, giving Crater Lake one of the deepest sources of clean, clear water in the world. The lake holds the world record for clarity, you can see 114 feet straight down. Because of its purity, the lake refracts sunlight, so that you see an unusual pure blue color in the water. There are no tributaries to Crater Lake–all of the water comes from precipitation (rain/snow only). While I was there last fall, the same fires that were burning in Northern California were affecting Crater Lake National Park across the border in Southern Oregon.  In fact the fire at Crater Lake was the largest fire in recorded park history.  What created this scenario? Well… during the winter prior to the fire, the region received only 16 feet of snow, where the area typically gets 44 feet. The loss of precipitation was extremely detrimental to the entire area and is another example of how the changing climate is affecting the environment in a pristine “protected” National Park.”

Crater Lake National Park

Crater Lake National Park

An extremely thoughtful maker, Ramsay’s sculpture and jewelry have always been inspired by environmental issues. He is interested in the balance and interconnection of organisms within the environment, how they fit together and coexist, and how a change in the temperature of several degrees can be detrimental to that equilibrium.

Chris describes his work as a balance as well; “It’s a delicate balance of trying to speak about environmental issues that are important to me, but not be reduced to those issues. I don’t want my work to look like a science project–I also love collecting, preserving, presentation, craft and design.”

That being said, listening to the conviction in Ramsay’s voice as he spoke about Crater Lake, it struck me just how integral the environment is to his work and to his life. Conveying that passion and the severity of issues like climate change without making work that is overly negative, Chris strives to find hope.  “As I’m making work I’m trying to find ways to present the evidence of climate change. When I was walking through the burned forest in Crater Lake, even out of the carnage, there was new growth emerging from the ashes. Nature finds a way back; I find that uplifting and promising. Of course, with our demand for carbon-based energy resources we are accelerating the natural carbon cycle, creating new challenges for survival, but optimistically forcing us to pursue sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar.”

Chris' studio

Showing me around the rest of his studio space at AHHA, Chris paused and smiled, “I love my studio.”

The large window with ample natural light and the lush green garden outside provide a perfect backdrop to Chris’ work. He also finds inspiration from working so close to other artists of different disciplines, specifically Rena Dextriche, whose studio is next to Ramsay’s.

“Rena works in an ephemeral way and captures those unique, fleeting moments in nature. I love that because I see those things–dew in the grass, how it refracts the light, fog, condensation. But I don’t create work in that manner, I’m very object oriented.”

Echoing many voices in the history of metalsmithing and jewelry making, Chris went on, “As much as my work is about impermanence and change, I like to make things that can endure over time. I’ve created temporary installations and learned a great deal from them, but there is a part of me that wants my work to last. By incorporating manmade and naturally eroding objects, I’ve found that, for me, these objects are a metaphor of larger life cycles–coming from the earth, having a function, and then heading back into the earth.”