A little introdution might be at place here before you start to read the interview. Won’t tackle his whole story but it’s definitely worth to mention that Ford is actually the only full time traditionally trained tosogu-shi even in Japan.
Earlier this year he was awarded a gold prize for his ” Under pines, beneath the moon” tsuba (picture on top) in the NBSK shinsaku competition. He is the first foreigner ever who received that honor.
1. Usually i do ask a bit about the how , why and when but since you have explained that in depth here in your ‘brief’ biography i don’t think there’s any reason to let you tell the same story over again. I was just wondering why you did fall in love with Japanese fittings. Was it just about the techniques & craftsmanship that were being used to produce these nice pieces of art or was it really about the fittings itself , the Japanese sword as a whole and or the culture around it ?
When I first started training as a goldsmith, actually initially as a jewellery student at Art School, I wasn’t particularly aware of Japanese Art. Cape Town in the early ‘80’s wasn’t a great cultural ‘hot spot’. It was only when I started my apprenticeship as a goldsmith that I first saw a real tsuba. I don’t think I’d even seen a photo of one before. There was a small display of fittings, amour and a few blades in the Cultural History Museum near to my workplace and many a lunch break were spent gazing lovingly at the workmanship and imagining the times and people that had produced those pieces. Those memories still inspire me, nearly 30 years later.
I tend to be quite intense about things that capture my interest and with Japanese swords and the craft surrounding them it rapidly became the center of my existence and the thing that guided and informed my pursuit of mastery in my craft. I’d be making wedding rings, 8 or 9 a day (from scratch) and as I was so carefully filing them as accurately as I could I’d be telling myself; “one day you’ll be making fittings for real Samurai swords” This particular memory often pops into my mind when making the basic forms of fuchi and kashira.
I fell in love with the delicate precision, the subtlety, but most of all the way metal was used in such an almost organic way. The texture and colours seemed then to me to be pure alchemy. Now it’s the language I use everyday.
2. How important is it to know the history, schools and certain styles of Bladesmiths and Tosogu in order to know what kind of tsuba to make or recreate a copy of an antique piece (certainly if you don’t have the real authentic piece in your hand) ?
I think a good basic overview of blade evolution is always helpful, along with an appreciation of how blades from different periods express different feelings.
We can see this in terms of blade shape, hamon forms and so on. In conjunction with the blades appearance we see an even wider range of styles and artistic expression in the mountings, especially the tsuba, so I think it’s very important to be conscious of the stylistic and aesthetic characteristics of the various periods of the sword’s history.
3. If you’re not doing a commission job where the client most likely has certain requirements, where do you get your inspiration and or on what base you will decide which material to use, which style, design, etc to follow/use.
Inspiration, or the urge to do something in particular can come from anywhere. Each idea, as it’s being worked through, gives rise to a multitude of further ideas. The trick is choosing those ideas that will best allow me to express something that touches, or connects with others, my audience If you like.
Sometimes it will be an old piece, a tsuba, or even other Japanese art works. I’m drawn to textures and colour tones so I often ‘translate’ designs or compositions from one medium to metal. By the time I’ve finished, though, something completely new has been born. I think this is what most artists do, we absorb everything, things gestate and are then slowly given new form though our own sensibilities and abilities. It helps to have a good visual memory and an ability to synthesize. Becoming fluent in the aesthetic language you’re working with, in my case the Japanese tradition, is vital if you hope to be able to express yourself authentically. It has to come from inside and be ‘for real’
I’m also continually inspired by fine old examples by the great masters. At the moment I’m really getting into subtle shallow relief carving in steel. No inlay, just working directly in the metal and ‘painting’ a composition with my chisel, my ironbrush. A few of the Otsuki School masters and a couple of others are my ‘teachers’ in this at the moment. I can just get lost in examining images of their work. My eyes are searching out clues to how they went about their carving. And when I’m in Japan, as I was recently, I take every opportunity to get my hands and eyes on great work. This always provides me with loads of material to work with and I try every day to grasp something of that, more confidently.
4. In your video ‘Utsushi – in search of Katsuhira’s tiger’ we’re seeing you scraping the tsuba in order to make it perfectly flat. Why are you not using any ‘modern’ tools to make it yourself more comfortable or can you just don’t get the same end result ? I mean, even lot of the Japanese smiths these days are using an hydraulic hammer to give the blade it’s rough shape.
Ah, yes! The ‘power tool/ labour saving’ dilemma. I think that there is sometimes a misapprehension about my apparent rejection of power tools. Where I choose to do things by hand it’s not for philosophical or ideological reasons at all. I know that for many people seeing me do all that work totally by hand was inspiring and even a confirmation that their own desire to ‘do things the old way’ was right. But the truth is I’m a craftsman (ignoring the art aspect for a moment) in exactly the same way my predecessors were.
Any tool, whether a simple chisel, an electric drill press or the very latest CAD driven model growing machine, is assessed on it’s merits and in terms of what it can do for me. My drill press is used without a second thought and if I need to make some forming dies in steel you can bet I’ll be using my trusty angle grinder. I won’t be bothering to get CAD program though!
The point I would make is that not all power tools can be judged in the same way. A smith using a power hammer is not actually changing how the hammer works the metal nor the speed at which the process evolves. He is still totally in control and able to follow exactly what’s happening under the hammer.
This is not the case when using electric micro-grinders or power ‘hand-engravers’ . When I’m carving or doing ultra fine inlay I need to know that every minute tap of my hammer is completely under my control. And when carving something so that it evokes feelings you need to be able to, very sensitively, work your way to that goal. Speed really isn’t everything.
5. A perfect follow up question would be, did the tools & techniques evolved (got modernized ?) throughout the history ?
Certainly techniques evolved but the basic tools have remained the same for a good few hundred years. The big mystery is the piercing saw. It’s most likely early metal workers used a bow saw with a wire ‘blade’ and some form of abrasive grit. Italian Pietra Dura artisans (stone mosaic) still use this method today, as did Ancient Chinese Jade carvers. At some point, probably in the early Edo period, metal saw blades were developed. We have no literary or archeological evidence though so this is just speculation for now.
By the start of the Edo period all of the fundamental techniques were already in use and what the followed was a fairly exciting evolution and refinement over the following 260 years. Things are still evolving. I might even claim to have developed a few techniques and ‘tricks’ of my own.
6. What exactly is the function of the seki-gane at the top & bottom of the nakago ana ? You can find lot’s of them without those…
Seki-gane are fitted in iron or steel tsuba so that the nakago’s patina is not damaged by contact with the tsuba as well as where a nakago is too small to fit tightly in the opening in the tsuba. They are there to ensure a proper and safe fit.
7. When planning to make a new tsuba, i assume you have a clear picture of the final result in your head ? How do you decide which materials & techniques (choice of steel, copper, mix, patina,etc) to use in order to get as close to the picture you have in mind and is it the actual result always matching with what you had in mind ?
I generally have a pretty clear impression of where I want to go, yes, but sometimes things take on a life of their own and suggest better alternatives. I try to keep attentive to those hints. If I was rushing along with power tools might miss those possibilities.
8. I know that you don’t only make tsuba and tosogu but other small art objects too. How much of what you make is your own ideas and how much is commissions? Are your clients mainly collectors or is much of the tosogu being used in dojos and can you give us an idea what does custom work of the sort you offer cost?
Yes, although at the moment most of my work is centred on the sword I do occasionally make small sculptural pieces and netsuke (kagamibuta). I do actually want to do more abstract sculptural work sometime soon.
I’d say that even with commissions most of what I do is directed by myself to some extent. Even where a client has some pretty clear ideas in mind it’s my job as the professional to make sure the result is much more than they could have expected. I have a very broad range of tastes and aesthetics to draw from so I try to work closely with the client and intuit what they are looking for. Then I can use my experience to offer them something even more satisfying than they first imagined. I see this as an important part of my job and the service I offer as a craftsman/artist.
I’m also quite fortunate in that often I’m asked to make something along the lines of a style I’ve worked in before. The person obviously enjoyed that particular aesthetic so it’s then a matter of taking that concept a little further. The results are generally well received and satisfying to both of us in that way. I try to avoid taking on work that is just a matter of copying an old piece or outside of the aesthetic interests I work with. This way I am able to keep true to what I do.
As to the cost of the work, it depends on quite a few factors. I refuse to put out cheap work so everything, no matter how simple, will be very carefully made and finished. The most simple set of fuchi/kashira, for example, I can produce for around $700. A top end art tsuba, at the other extreme, will cost in excess of $7000 while a relatively simple, abstract type, tsuba may be around $1200. A typical set of f/k, tsuba and menuki for dojo use starts around $6000.
9. Perhaps I’ve missed it but i didn’t found any blades with Horimono from your hand. Something that doesn’t capture your interest or too different from the work you’re doing now ?
No, I’ve not done any horimono yet. I’m not sure the format really excites me all that much. Perhaps on non-traditional blades I’d find a bit more freedom. I do have a few ideas floating around in my head, maybe at some point in the future a collaboration with a Western bladesmith might be fruitful.
10. I’ve read that you’re planning to set up a learning center for classical Japanese metalwork techniques, can you tell a bit more about that 🙂
I feel I’ve reached a point in my own career where I need to seriously consider passing on what I’ve managed to learn. There is clearly a great deal of interest in the tradition so I think it makes sense to try and establish a school dedicated to this work. In addition, my teacher, Izumi Koshiro Sensei, has officially named me as his successor and given me permission to call what I teach Izumi Ryu. This is important as, perhaps for the first time in over 100 years, it means we can present a complete curriculum of technique and processes. A lot has had to have been redeveloped and researched, my work in restoration was tremendously helpful in that respect, but we can now boast a pretty complete knowledge base. There’s always more to learn and discover, of course, but each week brings new insights so the sooner I get to passing the material on the better.
We’re hoping to be able to return to England next year and then look into setting up a little academy of sorts. It would be nice to be able to offer week long courses, month long intensives and perhaps even take on some long term apprentices. I could do with the help.
Ford is active on a lot of platforms 🙂 but these are the most popular :