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Journal: Sean O’Connell

The intimate potency of picture books and jewellery…

One of the richest qualities of jewellery is its intimate potency. When it is strongest, a treasured piece of jewellery is a small blinding spark of personal significance, a night star by which to navigate, a marker that tells us from where we have come and to where we are going. There are only two things in my life that are like that (besides people)—music and picture books—and because music is impossible to talk about, I am also going to share some of my most potent and intimate picture books in this post….

Being a maker, jewellery is potent for me not just because of what it is, but also because of how it is made. Under a torch flame, blazing red, joined by molten metals, a simple ring becomes a metaphysical proposition—it is a symbol of transformation—from the mundane to the spiritual—the whole circle, seamless, vibrating with contained energy. When a simple ring is being made, the repeated acts of hammering, filing and polishing, build potency in the shape. I believe that every time you work the metal with your hands, you lay “something more” into it. I try to do as much hand work as possible, to “make” it in a sense that is more abstract than the obvious shaping and polishing. I sometimes get carried away, with romantic ideas of blacksmiths forging under full moons, or of alchemists seeking spiritual purity through the material world, and I must say, when I am melting a piece of gold on a block of black charcoal, a blue gas flame hissing away, it all seems completely romantically true!

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Most rings are like this for me, but I do remember one commission that started out fairly normally with a pair of tantalum rings. Then one of them was inverted in its design, the tantalum on the inside. I was reading a book about inner and outer lives we lead, and it all resonated and I decided to make the pair of rings in a very simple but painstaking way. From one solid blank of tantalum metal I forged out a thick ring, and then using a fret saw, I spent several hours slowly sawing through the thickness of the wall, creating a pair of matched tantalum rings from one piece of metal, one inside, one outside. I won’t tell you how many saw blades I used!
For me, this epitomises great jewellery—simple, elegant, and worked by hand. It is not about tricky ideas or heady conceptual undercurrents, but simple potency that the wearer can engage with, and claim as their own over the years as they lay in their own marks and scratches.

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The same quality of intimate potency is a driving force behind my small collection of very particular picture books. The best picture books have an amazing capacity to carry emotion and story—they are like a piece of jewellery that has been worn for years, full to the brim with life, carrying all sorts of memories within. Certain picture books convey not only their story, but a feeling that can alter the mood of the day, make us look at our lives, and change the way we think. I am sure you have your favourites, we all do, so here are mine. How indulgent. I prefer to read these sorts of books in the morning, by a sunny winter window, with a pot of coffee and some mellow music playing, perhaps Hanne Hukkelberg or Yann Tiersen….

Little Tree by Katsumi Komagata is a sweet minimal pop-up book about the cycle of life. In clean tones and set colours on subtly textured paper, this book traces the life of a tree through the seasons. With that divine simplicity the Japanese can pull off so well, this book is soaked in intimate potency….

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The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell, illustrated by Maurice Sendak, is a lovely little book about a lonely hunter and how he found a family. It is written in a simple manner like a children’s fable, sweetly and innocently, but its story is so rich and archetypal that is just gets in deep, a real tear-jerker (the happy kind though!). The sparse illustrations by Sendak add in the subtlest of ways, setting the tone but leaving the details up to the reader. The hardcover is a nice binding…..

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The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges, with etchings by Erik Desmazières, is a rich and heady book purely for adults. Born from Borges’ love of language, the story describes a library where all things are written – everything that is, could be, or was not. The layout of the library, “composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries,” as he says, “is a sphere whose exact center is any hexagon and whose circumference is unattainable.” This is both a celebration of and a meditation upon language and knowledge. The abstractly sublime etchings of Desmazières complement it marvellously. This one is a bit rare and hard to find, but worth it….

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Flying by Kveta Pacovska is a gorgeous dreamy reverie about freedom painted out in bold old-school colours with pop-ups, cut-outs and silver paper. Who would not love a book about the secret of how to fly, whispered between two leaning towers? And flying Rhinoceroses!? Eastern Europe is a real treasure trove of illustrated books and children’s tales, and this Czech modernist artist has published some of the most wonderful of them….

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Ashes and Snow by Gregory Colbert is a stunning book that is a part of a much larger work. Superbly bound in handmade papers, this exhibitioPlaces - News eagles and leopards, with indigenous peoples from across the globe, taken in their natural environments. Just as beautiful is the full-length movie he made for the project….

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Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, illustrated by Paul Birkbeck, is the ultimate storybook—pure by-the-letters perfection. It tells of Haroun, who travels to the Sea of Stories to recover his father’s talent for story-telling. It is one of those perfect books, though more a storybook than a picture book (I would actually probably recommend the paperback without illustrations)—a must read….

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And to end, one of the best ever, my rock-solid favourite, Dr Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, which always helps me out when I am feeling lost and trapped in the complex confusion of the world or of my own convoluted brain….

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