Helena Russell: engineering silver

Engineering silver

When Helena was a little girl, she would spend hours watching her grandfather build miniature steam engines in his garage. Fascinated by the tiny components he used to make the trains, Helena would run her fingers through the small, dog-eared cardboard boxes pulling out the miniature treasures of engines with tiny pistons, cylinders, pulleys and valves. She was captivated by the silver, copper and brass mechanisms and how they fitted together and moved around.

Those memories, and the art and form of mechanisms and mechanical drawings, have inspired the unique, beautiful functional containers Helena has become known for making today. “I have always found fascination within the operation of mechanisms, small cogs and parts that all work together,” says Helena. “Growing up with this influence [from my granddad] has helped shape the designs I create today, especially where small intricate fittings are involved.”

Helena Russell, Ring Box

“Lockdown pushed me to create designs which I never had the time to explore and that has taken me outside of my comfort zone into making smaller pieces, which have ended up leading me to making my first candlestick holder and creating my first ever jewellery collection.

Since graduating from Sheffield Hallam university with a BA Hons in Jewellery and Metalwork and an MA in Design, Helena’s practice as a silversmith has evolved to using honest mechanisms, inspired by interaction and movement, using a mix of materials. She has received numerous accolades for her work, including the Design in Silver Award 2016 from the Contemporary British Silversmiths, and started her own business, Helena Made.

“I like to combine sterling silver and base metals such as copper and brass and have started playing with a process of patination to create blue, green and purple colours on the surface of the metal, inspired by natural mosses, lichen and algae found within the depths of the woodlands. This technique has now become an integral part of my practice.”

Helena Russel, Dissimilar Container

Helena first exhibited at the Fair in 2019 (having been awarded one if its Graduate Bursaries) and displayed her silver and copper containers in the magnificent surroundings of Goldsmiths’ Hall in London. For 2020 – the first digital only Fair – Helena has chosen to exhibit work that shows how much her technique and skills have developed in the last 12 months. Alongside her containers there are silver ring boxes, a candlestick holder and her very first jewellery collection, all of which play with the function, form and beauty of mechanisms.

Helena’s new jewellery collection and her candlestick holder are wonderful examples of creative work that has evolved from a crisis. During lockdown, Helena, like many makers, was unable to access her studio (at Yorkshire Artspace, Sheffield) for several months and most of her projects were paused. Undeterred, and with lots of ‘virtual’ support from her fellow maker community, Helena set up a make-shift workbench at home and started to explore new ideas.

Helena Russel, Box Pendant

“Lockdown pushed me to create designs which I never had the time to explore and that has taken me outside of my comfort zone into making smaller pieces, which have ended up leading me to making my first candlestick holder and creating my first ever jewellery collection. These new designs have given me more ideas and concepts to explore soon and which I will hopefully be able to continue to share with visitors to Goldsmiths’ Fair.”

The process that Helena goes through to make a piece can be quite painstaking work that requires deep concentration, precision and patience: some pieces can take up to five weeks to make. “Many of my pieces involve handmade fittings that are made from tiny hand-cut segments of square wire. I have to consider how to apply these tiny pieces in the most appropriate way. This process has to be carefully thought out, from the dimensions, to how the piece will be constructed, so that when all the components come together, they fit and work as intended,” she says.

Helena Russel, Trio Container

For the silver and copper Candlestick holder on display at this year’s Fair, Helena used a combination of traditional and contemporary silversmithing techniques. She explains, “For this piece I started off with sterling silver and copper tube. It can be difficult to find the same dimensions of a tube in different materials, so I used a hammer called a packing hammer to stretch the copper tube until it was the same width as the silver tube. I then made the bezels [a ring with a cut around the inside used to hold something] for each tube out of sheet metal. I cut the bezels to the correct dimensions and hammer them around a cylindrical stake, making sure they fit tight inside the tube before soldering them in place.”

Helena Russel, Candlestick

Helena went on to use a range of other processes and techniques to create the candlestick from spinning*, to buffing the silver tubes and mechanisms to give them a matt finish before they were sent off to be hallmarked at the Goldsmiths’ Company Assay Office. For the copper tube she used patination: a technique that uses chemicals and non-chemical substances to change the surface colour of the metal.

“I applied a copper nitrate solution, with a large paintbrush, to the copper tube after it had been gently heated with a torch. The metal is left to slowly cool before the colour is sealed using wax. Once the metal cools completely, I stack all parts of the candlestick on top of each other and tie them together with a leather cord finished with a hand turned sterling silver toggle on the end.” As with all of Helena’s pieces the parts of the candlestick fit together beautifully and make a light metallic thrum when you open them and a soft, pleasing click when you close them – a precision and attention to detail you might expect in work that speaks of her memories playing with her grandfather’s miniature steam engines, all those years ago.

Helena in the workshop

As someone who is early on in her career as a silversmith, there are many skills and techniques that Helena says she would like to explore in the future. “One technique which I am eager to learn would be chasing, a process that uses different styles of punches to create textured designs on metal. From researching this technique, the process seems like it would be very satisfying to me and I believe it would give another dimension to my practice and style if I was to introduce it to my work.” We look forward to watching what Helena does next.

* Spinning is the process of shaping flat metal into a hollow item using a lathe to spin the metal sheet while shaping it over a wooden, nylon or metal former.

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