A vase ringed with razor-sharp knives

Machinist-sculptor Chris Bathgate (previously) has unveiled his latest: a vase ringed with razor-sharp knives ("an object that mischievously demands that it be appreciated for more than its precarious utility").

Bathgate is one of the rare artists who can cogently and interestingly discuss his conceptual process as well as the (literal, in this case) nuts and bolts of his work (anyone who's ever waded through an "artist's statement" at a gallery show knows what I mean). In his description of the impetus for this work, he talks about how different crafts — "glasswork, woodturning, and ceramics" — were originally high-tech factory processes that became artistic, and in so doing, acquired characteristic "craft forms" that "tell the craft's particular history." He set out to think about what a craft form for machining might be.

In so doing he arrived at knife-making — a historic decorative and practical metalworking project — and contrasting a them with a canonical decorative craft form: the vase.

Even more interesting is Bathgate's description of the process of machining knives, working with harder steel that he was used to, and the special challenges this creates for people making sculpture, rather than tools.

Another process I had little experience with was heat-treating and hardening steel. While this is something that toolmakers and machine designers are quite familiar, as a sculptor, it just isn't something I had much of a need for, until now.

Heat-treating is fascinating for many reasons; chief among them is that it makes much of the metal work I do possible. At its simplest, machining is simply using a harder material, to cut a slightly softer one. When milling brass with steel, this can seem a simple mater of material selection. But when cutting one kind of steel, with a similar kind of steel, things start to get technically interesting and down right philosophical.

This is grossly oversimplified, but think of it this way, the main factor in determining steel's hardness is its carbon content, and how those carbon atoms are arranged within the metal. Heat-treating is how one arranges the atoms to create the hardness one desires. Cutters and blades only need to be slightly harder than the material they intend to cut. So it is entirely possible to take two pieces of the same alloy, heat-treat one to make it hard, and then treat the other so that it is soft. From there you can easily shape and cut one with the other, sort of like cutting warm softened butter with a harder piece of frozen butter. That's fascinating stuff.

Sculptural Knife Vase [Chris Bathgate/My Sculpture Blog]