Although 2017 is the Year of the Fire Rooster, fire is not the only element destined to influence the next 12 months. Each of the 12 Chinese zodiac years is governed by one of five elements: wood, fire, earth, water and metal, resulting in 2017 taking the element of fire. According to the Five Elements Theory, however, each of the zodiac animals is also associated with an element. For the rooster, that element is metal. A rooster year, therefore, has long been associated with the fruits of metal such as jewelry and other decorative arts.

In celebration of metal’s symbolic role in 2017, The Japan Times speaks to three metalsmiths to uncover why the material has instilled in them such enthusiasm for their craft and how they are expressing it through their art.

Passionate about metal

While the Chinese zodiac recognizes metal as beautiful on the outside, it considers it cold and hard on the inside. Ai Iijima, however, believes that view is too simplistic. Through her work as a blacksmith and metal artist, she says she has uncovered the material’s hidden qualities.

“When I am heating or melting metal, its color changes to red or gold,” Iijima says. “Words can’t describe how beautiful it is. It is warm, flexible — even organic.”

Those qualities guide Iijima in the creation of her exquisite and inventive metal work, which ranges from everyday items such as scissors to jewelry and decorative trinkets as well as ornamental typography. She also works on commissioned pieces to bring her clients’ ideas to life.

As her inspiration is nature, she aspires for each of her pieces to be unique, reflecting the reality of the natural world.

“Just like all leaves are slightly different in shape, none of my works are identical,” Iijima says.

A dragonfly by Ai Iijima
A dragonfly by Ai Iijima | COURTESY OF AI IIJIMA

With that in mind, leaves have become one of her key themes. Intricate leaf work adorns brooches, earrings and typography pieces, while feathers, water ripples and wood effects accentuate others. She has even made such realistic metal leaves that, in the dark, could be mistaken for their real counterparts. She says she enjoys working with the metal variations in her displays.

In thinking about life, however, it is perhaps natural that artists think about death. Iijima is no different. She sees beauty in the discarded objects around her and wants them to be treasured again.

“I can take pieces of junk metal and turn them into something different, giving them another life,” she says.

Considering Iijima’s passion, it is not surprising that her love affair with metal began at a young age. Since she was a small child she wanted to be a silver accessory designer and, at age 12, she decided on a career in metal work, owing to its role as “one of the oldest and most important materials in human history.”

She attended Tokyo Gakkan Technical High School (now Tokyo Gakkan Funabashi), where she studied the many facets of art and design, including ceramics, woodwork and architecture. Ultimately, though, metal continued to draw her attention. A chance encounter with the United Kingdom in one of her classes and an enjoyable trip there with her family put Iijima on course to continue her metal studies at the University of Brighton, on the southern coast of England.

“I was really into art noveau and the impact of the Industrial Revolution on art,” she says.

“Japanese traditional metalwork is highly technical but very minimal in design compared to European styles, and I wanted to learn how to do ornamental metalwork,” she says. “The atmosphere of the U.K.’s towns and historical buildings as well as the scenic countryside also had a strong impression on me and I dreamed of living there.”

While learning skills such as forging and welding in Brighton, Iijima developed an interest in blacksmithing. On graduation, she had secured a three-year apprenticeship at Glynde Forge in East Sussex, a renowned blacksmithing center that has been home to a smithy since 1801. Guided by the forge’s blacksmith, Terry Tyhurst, who had 20 years’ experience in the industry before retiring in 2016, Iijima began her work restoring local churches’ weather vanes.

Now, having shipped all her tools — including an anvil, drill and hearth — to Japan, she is excited to be setting up a workshop near her home in Chiba Prefecture. “Some of my tools are really old but I have many memories of using them at Glynde Forge, so they are very special to me,” she says.

A metal gate features leaves created by Ai Iijima.
A metal gate features leaves created by Ai Iijima. | COURTESY OF AI IIJIMA

By the end of 2017, she plans to have added installations at her workshop to expand the variety of her offerings. In the meantime, she is enjoying working with iron, silver, gold, copper and brass due to the “distinctive features” of each metal, while also forging tools to create the more unusual pieces she is commissioned to make.

Despite the tough nature of working with metal and the hand injuries she has endured, Iijima is determined to continue creating metalwork that people will cherish.

“It’s not easy at all but I will always face the hardships because my interest in metalwork will never end,” she says.

Commitment to the craft

U.K.-based silversmith Wayne Meeten is so dedicated to the improvement of his art that he was willing to go back to basics in Japan for the chance to master traditional techniques.

A metalworker since the age of 16, Meeten enrolled in the Sir John Cass School of Art (now part of London Metropolitan University) in his mid-20s, keen to build on his skills at the renowned metalwork academy.

A sculpture by silversmith Wayne Meeten
A sculpture by silversmith Wayne Meeten | COURTESY OF WAYNE MEETEN

“I was studying mokume-gane (wood-grain metal), but everything I was making was splitting and cracking,” Meeten says. “A Japanese visiting professor saw my work and advised me to get in touch with a university in Japan.”

After showing his work, Meeten became the first — and only — Westerner to be invited to study in Tokyo under the late professor Hirotoshi Itoh, a respected expert in the technique. He recalls that, at a height of 193 centimeters and speaking only survival Japanese, this experience was the hardest, but also most rewarding, of his life.

First, he had to make all his own tools, with each wooden handle carved precisely to fit his hand.

A vessel by silversmith Wayne Meeten
A vessel by silversmith Wayne Meeten | COURTESY OF WAYNE MEETEN

“The Japanese way is about being completely grounded. You learn each step in the process completely before moving on to the next one. You become self-sufficient,” he says, pointing out that in the U.K. silversmiths tend to specialize in only one technique and, consequently, rely on a chain of colleagues to complete their works.

After completing the academic year, Meeten spent one month making mokume-gane with Norio Tamagawa, who was designated a Living National Treasure in 2010 for his skill in this technique. He worked with shakudo (gold-copper alloy) for the first time and saw British techniques with fresh eyes.

“In Britain, we listen to the anvil and knock the metal away from us but in Japan, they look at the anvil and knock the metal toward them,” he says.

On returning to his workshop in Devon, Meeten began using his newly gained techniques to breathe life into his silverwork, blooming as an artist. As a result, he was referred to other experts in Japan who taught him skills such as fluting and the raising of a vessel from a single sheet of silver.

Over the past 18 years, his work, which includes vessels, sculpture and jewelry, has been exhibited in London, Istanbul and Tokyo. Featuring incredibly warm and delicate flowing patterns, items have also caught the eye of enthusiasts and can be found in some of the finest private collections worldwide. The Goldsmiths’ Co. in London, which received a royal charter in 1327, is one notable example. And, in August 2016, one of his pieces was featured on the cover of a catalog for Christie’s Auction House, the world’s leading authority on art.

A sculpture by silversmith Wayne Meeten
A sculpture by silversmith Wayne Meeten | COURTESY OF WAYNE MEETEN

Meeten attributes his success to his strong work ethic and the faultless way in which his professors in the U.K. and Japan have taught him their skills. He is continuing to aim higher.

“Makers are starting to be highly influenced by my style, so it’s time to move on and take it to another level,” he says.

Meeten is now undertaking his most ambitious project to date: a four-year plan to travel to and from Japan for tuition — through the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust — to create a vase inspired by the northern lights.

“Four years ago, my wife and I went to see the northern lights in Sweden and it was absolutely breathtaking. These lines are my take on them,” he says, pointing out the vase’s intricate fluting. He is currently completing the stars, having inlayed 2,500 so far. In the summer, he slept in a tent in his garden to critique his work in comparison to the night sky.

“My wife said my stars were too evenly spaced,” he explains. “She was right: When you are on a mountain, you can’t see the mountain. Now I make the stars at random intervals, with some big and some small, using chisels of 0.7 millimeters and 0.5 millimeters.”

Meeten is numbering each star in the hope of passing on his inlaying skills.

“It’s important to show how Britain can start making work of this caliber and move contemporary silver in a new way,” he says.

Silversmith Wayne Meeten (right) uses traditional Japanese techniques in producing his metalwork.
Silversmith Wayne Meeten (right) uses traditional Japanese techniques in producing his metalwork. | COURTESY OF WAYNE MEETEN

He admits that his design of this latest work, which is scheduled for completion in autumn 2017, is considered neither British nor Japanese, but a fusion of both, making it an item of interest and curiosity to silversmiths in both countries.

Taking time out from his commissions to study in Japan is a challenge, but Meeten hopes to continue the practice, even after his scholarship is finished.

“In Britain, there is a renaissance of contemporary silver,” he says. “And the best place to learn the skills for it is in Japan.”

An injection of fun

In November 2016, iconic toolmaker Suwada celebrated 90 years since its establishment in Sanjo, a town renowned for blacksmithery in the heart of Niigata Prefecture. At a special event in the factory, workers unveiled a giant lion they had made entirely from scrap metal.

The piece of art is the fifth to be created in Sanjo following a metalsmith’s plea for the company’s waste to give life to the open factory, which welcomes about 30,000 domestic and international visitors each year.

Toolmaker Suwada produces metal objects from the company
Toolmaker Suwada produces metal objects from the company’s waste. | COURTESY OF SUWADA

“Any scrap we create as a result of our manufacturing is collected by another company to be used again but staff wanted to create and exhibit metalwork,” says Tatsuki Mizunuma, of Suwada’s sales section. “Our visitors from abroad are increasing year on year, so we want to make their trip to our factory, in particular, as enjoyable as possible.”

Thanks to Suwada’s ardor for perfection, materials for the scrap art are never in short supply. In their production work, staff use rods of high-carbon stainless steel to create nail nippers and bonsai cutters, which enjoy a prestigious reputation for their quality, both at home and abroad. After the rod is heated and forged, only the center, which is the strongest part, is used to make the tools. The other 70 percent becomes the waste that metalworkers use to bring out their creativity.

“Discussions about what to create next happen organically,” says Mizunuma, adding that inspiration thus far has led staff to create a lion, bonsai, person and a duo comprising a sheep and lamb. “From the design stage to the finished piece, our metalworkers enjoy making it little by little during their quiet periods.”

Complete with lighting effects and life-like additions such as foliage and wool, the art has made quite an impression on visitors and locals alike.

“Most people don’t realize at first that the pieces are made from our waste until they are told,” Mizunuma says. “They are often surprised and then ask to have a photo taken with them.”

As well as being on permanent display in the factory, the art is used to give back to the local community. To date, some have been loaned to nearby facilities such as the train station or hospital for short periods. They have brightened up the environment and sparked an interest in art.

Last year’s popular lion — considered a worthy choice for the company’s special anniversary — may be a hard act to follow but, even days into the new year, the metalsmiths are hard at work around the design table. The intelligence so far, however, suggests that the rooster of 2017 is not one of the options currently under consideration.

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