An Enduring Story Of Generosity And Passion Sprung From One Man’s Obsession With Chainmaille
A long-time contributor to the chainmaille community, Stephen is known for his prolific portfolio of shirts, bags and anodized titanium pieces as well as for warmly welcoming folks new to the craft and for his unforgettable sense of humor.
One thing that struck me during our interview—in addition to wondering if my blog could handle so many footnotes!—is how much genuine, unbridled love and passion Stephen has for his craft and the community. He’s not the first person I’ve met with such passion, but I think he’s the first person who has spent countless, endless hours making things without ever trying to earn a dollar. Instead, he purposely makes hundreds of items to give them away. I know he wants no accolades for gifting. And that’s one of the reasons I feel it is important to share his story—because folks like Stephen tend to hover under the radar. So, I invite you to take a moment to breathe, smile and simply revel in the generosity of this humble East Coast guy.
Enjoy getting to know Stephen in this edition of Blue Buddha’s Meet the Artist series:
You’ve been doing this a long time! How did you get started making maille?
About twenty years ago, I was gaming with some friends. As we did so, one of them pulled out a few spring-like coils of wire, a set of end-snippers, and a couple pairs of pliers. I watched, fascinated, as he began to add rings to a small patch of chain on the shoulder of his leather jacket.
After a couple hours of watching and asking occasional questions, it got locked in my head. I think I was in a hardware store hunting tools and wire less than 48 hours later. Once I got past the blistered palms from my first hours of inexpertly hand-coiling wire, I was hooked.
Your portfolio is very diverse. How would you describe your style, and how has it evolved over the years?
Diverse, but not tremendously original, perhaps. I am often inspired by works I see around me and tend to just turn the volume on things up “one louder” by enhancing or exaggerating one attribute. For example, I wasn’t content to make a European 4-in-1 shirt as my first; I had to go 6-in-1. Similarly, many of my other works are simply expansions on what I’ve seen before, just slightly pushing into new territory for the art.
Sometimes, the borders I push outwards are ones I set earlier myself. The “World’s Tiniest Chainmaille Pouch” project is a silly example of that, taken to an extreme. I keep making approximately the same pouch, but with smaller and smaller rings each time.
How did you get started using titanium?
About the time I started my second shirt I think. I was, as always, playing “turn it up one louder”. I wanted to make a shirt with a cool inlay, and wanted to use some exotic materials. About the same time, an amazing artist by the name of Master Knuut sent me about nine pounds of four-inch-long leftover ends of welding rods as a gift. He didn’t have an efficient use for all of it, and I was more than happy to spend hours hand-winding 4-5 ring coils out of them. I staggered out of that adventure with enough rings to form part of a fleur-de-lis inlay, but also a desire to give gifts myself.
Those that are around me may now see that my random and excessive gifting of titanium may be a tiny bit of me playing “one louder” again.
What inspires you?
Creativity, curiosity, and generosity. There have been so many ‘maillers willing to help me out with concepts, materials, and techniques over the years—each one has built my own resolve to reflect the same attitudes in my own life. I can’t say that I’m more talented than many of the other voices I hear, but I try to do what I can with what I’ve got… reckless enthusiasm and a strange sense of humor.
When I run into something that I think is cool or awesome or amazing, I’m out there waving and pointing at it. There are hundreds of artists out there that I admire and look up to, it’s really hard to list a couple specific ones.
I couldn’t agree more with how generous many folks in the chainmaille community are. It’s so amazing and humbling to be part of such a cool group of creatives!
Maille isn’t your profession, but it seems like more than a hobby: do you have a specific term you prefer to describe your relationship with maille?
*tries to come up with a bad pun involving philanthropy and snakes, fails*
Ha, ha! Hobby it is. Many people stick with a hobby for a few months or years and then move on to something else. Why do you think your relationship with chainmaille has endured?
Quite possibly my biggest connection to maille might be the massive number of metal splinters in my fingers and hands. Do we all get those?
But seriously? I dunno. It isn’t my full-time gig, for sure. I don’t sell or take commissions. It never provided financial sustenance, probably more the opposite, it’s not a cheap hobby with the tools and materials and such I tend to play with.
It does supply emotional sustenance though. I find it tremendously satisfying to put things in order, line them up, reduce entropy a tiny bit. Going from a giant pile of disordered rings to an elegant and finished item is pretty satisfying. And there’s the runner’s high, too. Grinding for hours on anything produces physical stress that causes our body to dump endorphins in response. Associating that endorphin dump with the audible sound of a good ring closure happening, and the fall of metal across my hands… well, I’ve kinda built a bit of a Pavlovian response to it. Even watching other people make stuff, or seeing their completed works also kicks the endorphin button in my head now.
What are your favorite piece (or pieces) of chainmaille that you’ve created?
Of course, there’s the aforementioned “World’s Tiniest Chainmaille Pouch” project, that started as a joke, but the idea of making actual functional maille out of the tiniest rings I can perceive has been incredibly fun and challenging. Right now, the smallest uses rings that are 28g (0.012 inch) 3/64 stainless steel, but I’ve got some 0.008 inch titanium staring at me from across the room, so I don’t know how long it’ll hold the title …
… and there’s “snek”Ϛ, the ridiculous result of one of the Twitch streams that ran a bit too long. He’s pretty much my unofficial/official mascot on my Twitch channel, people seem to love his slightly-off-kilter snoot…
Ϛ = OOOOoooo, it’s a snek!
… but my absolute favorite? It’s not a single piece, actually. It’s the 250+ Aura pendants I did to give away to people as registration tokens at a local SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) event. The design is one of Corvus’s, so not original to me, but making hundreds of them in slight variations for people to walk off with, that was crazy fun. People apparently really liked them and every time I go to an event anywhere, I spot a few people still wearing them. The things that I give away, like these, are the ones I value most. Be it a bunch of tiny things or a single large one, the value of the thing is in the joy of the recipient(s).
Besides those pieces, what else are particularly proud of accomplishing?
Well, I’ve stumbled across a few weaves here and there, but I think the thing I’m most proud of is enabling ‘maillers. I mean, I could (and will) talk about the things I’ve done all day, but it’s the other folks out there that I directly or indirectly contribute to that make me proudest. Whether it’s sending someone rings or tools or a sample of a weave, or a kit… those moments where I take what I’ve got and share are extremely motivational. The process of giving gifts is pretty cool.
One of the things I’ve given away with greater and greater frequency is titanium. It started half as a joke about a year ago, I was anodizing rings for the crazy isotropic shirt while streaming online, and towards the end, I brought out a titanium spork, rainbow’ed it real quick, and then gifted it to one of the people watching. The pseudo-joke was that when people run out of spoons, I wanted them to have an really awesome Spork in reserve.
Well, people liked that. A LOT. So I did it again. And again. And then started adding other things, like pill containers, chopsticks, whole cutlery sets, even titanium chainmaille pouches. Nowadays I’m anodizing JUST stuff to give away more often than I do rings or ball bearings or whatever. It’s almost self-sustaining, despite the fact that I’ve never sold anything, because people keep donating and sending me things to anodize, it’s been really fun to be a conduit for all that random cool stuff that ends up in, at this point, probably hundreds of people’s hands. As long as I have the free time to spend 6-8 hours afterwards packing things up, I’ll keep doing it.
Since you mentioned that crazy isotropic shirt, let’s talk about it!
I put the rough hours expended at over 600, over a three year period, including time to make the rings, anodize them, weaving, taking parts of it apart, weaving, taking parts apart AGAIN (the collar!!! SIX TIMES!!!). The shirt is slightly over 112,000 rings, with exactly 1000 90-ring diamonds of steel held together with approximately 22,000 blue titanium rings. Oh, and there are three half-diamonds hiding in the collar area. The hardest part, easily, was sticking with it. The tailoring was tough, but I felt once I had finally assembled enough diamonds of maille, it was still just accelerating downhill. In the midst of it, I did discover some pretty cool things, like how to actually seam things together in a new way where the odd angles met up, or that I could cheat a bit and make five- and seven-pointed elements for expansion and contraction, but again, the hardest part was just the grind. For about two years, I’d rip out a few diamonds of maille between projects, but I barely did 10% of the work in that first linear time period. What really kicked me off into high gear was the whole Twitch streaming thing. I saw other people streaming art and such online, remembered I had a couple webcams sitting around, and then took a swing at it. I needed SOMETHING to do, so I just started grinding out diamonds of maille, over and over.
…and people showed up to WATCH that. It kinda blew my mind, really. Here I was, doing the same exact thing night after night, and this crazy creative community adopted me, hung out, even threw donations at me for better equipment and upgrades. I was (and still am) somewhat baffled that people are keen on watching me work, but once they started, I was committed to actually showing them something interesting, or educational, or fun. I now alternate between half a dozen different projects a month, pushing myself to stretch the boundaries of art and show people every step, including the failures. ESPECIALLY the failures. The community suffered with me as I ripped that collar apart and rebuilt it half a dozen times and the celebration amongst them when I finally finished was pretty (NAUGHTY WORD) awesome.
Right now, it sits atop a bookshelf on a mannequin in my dining room, along with half a dozen other shirts amidst the clutter of a ton of tabletop gaming gear. It’s sorta on display for the indeterminate future. Eventually I expect I’ll give it away, maybe to my son, maybe to someone that needs an awesome shirt, who knows. I won’t be selling it unless a) I get a ridiculously crazy offer or b) something has gone terribly wrong and I need money. Never say never, but I haven’t sold anything YET in twenty years, it could happen, but I doubt it.
Also, staring at that picture, it reminds me that I stuck an ounce of niobium wire on the neck of that mannequin about six months ago. I should get around to coiling, cutting, and anodizing that for something…
You do quite a bit of anodizing. How did you get into that? Care to share any tips?
Heh, it didn’t start particularly crazy, but the kit has expanded a bit beyond what I originally picked up from TheRingLord.com. I’ve added in an assortment of other gear since then, but let me lay the groundwork first.
Several years back (and still now), I had a ton of titanium in my garage that I had accumulated. I wanted to make a titanium shirt at some point out of some of it, but didn’t have a specific target/goal/inspiration for a long time. What finally kicked me over was one of my friends, Kevin. He’s an awesome guy, and he had an SCA event he was going to run with a Japanese theme in the coming year. I decided to make the shirt for him.2
I took inventory, decided I’d use a bunch of 12g and 16 titanium, and I wanted to do it in colors matching the heraldry of his SCA persona, green and silver. To do that, I needed an anodizer. So after a few experiments with 9v batteries3 to get the basic understanding of how it worked, I bought one. Around twenty hours of making and hundreds of hours of tumbling later, I started anodizing the 12g rings green.
Did I mention green is just an illusion of sorts? There’s no dye in titanium anodizing, it’s just an oxidation process that adds a layer of clear prism-like titanium oxides to the surface of the metal. Those prisms over the surface of the metal create interference patterns where multiple sets of… (*watches eyes glaze over*)… uh… thickness of layer makes different pretty colors? Green is very thick.4
So. Green thick. Takes a high voltage to accumulate. 1 amp anodizer not very powerful. I had to do each ring individually, one at a time, over the period of about 10-15 seconds, watching VERY carefully through the solution to make sure I got the right color. It was a bit of a nightmare, but I learned a heck of a lot in that first run. I learned that I really needed better safety materials… nowadays I wear at least one ASTM-certified massively protective glove to prevent a potentially deadly arc of electricty across my chest through my arms. I probably should wear both, though. Uh. Distraction factory. I’m trying to answer these questions and suddenly I’m picking out rings for another shirt. How did that happen?
Back on track. Japanese shirt. I finished it, had one of the “villagers” present him with a chest with the shirt hidden inside, complete surprise, much happy.
And then I needed to make another (at least partially) titanium shirt. And another. And another. Popping online to do the ones for the isotropic one and the sporks and foons(🥄) and other randomness has had me expand the kit to include anodic brushes for “painting”, tape and stencils for masking out designs and abstract patterns, sponges, yarn, a potato5 … 5½
For more detail, it’s probably easier just to stop in and ask me online, there’s a LOT of options, and I anodize stuff quite frequently. I’ll be doing it at least twice during my winter break.-4⅜
2 I didn’t tell him I was making a shirt. I actually cheated and kept hugging him a lot and remembered where I grabbed my own arms to get measurements.
3 = CRAY CRAY
4 = for a more detailed explanation of the science behind the apparent colors, you can read up here : http://mrtitanium.com/interference.html
5 = Yes, I used a potato. Once.
5½ = Ok, technically, it was two potatoes.
-4⅜ = Next Anodizing Stream: Dec 21st, 4PM EST. Giveaways! Gifts! Sporks! Foons! Chopsticks! TITANIUM! … AND TWO titanium Flasks! … AND a titanium micromaille pouch!
You are an active member of the chain maille community. What groups/forums are you a part of, and what do you like about being a part of this community?
Mostly nowadays I hang out on Facebook’s various maille groups, and on Twitch.tv, but I do random drivethrus on Reddit’s r/maille forum, mailleartisans, instagram, deviantart, TRL’s forums, and occasionally even meet people in person. Speaking of which: hey, are you going to the Chain Link Up 2019 thing, Rebeca?
Asking the interviewer a question? Yep, that seems like you. 😂 I’m hoping to make it out there; it’s going to depend on my spring show schedule and also if I can get a good price on a flight. (Now is one of the rare times I miss living in the Midwest!)
Flipping things back to you: what is one tool that you cannot live without?
What is your current goal?
Not getting arrested for having a bunch of severed hands* in my freezer.
But seriously? I’m making another 250 pendants, assorted random designs, to leave laying around abandoned with a card on them that says something like “Yes, Take me!” at a huge, 12,000-person event called Pennsic I’ll probably put contact info on the card so people can find me there. Maybe I’ll make a few new friends. Probably. I’ll report back after it happens.
* = yes, they’re fake. I assume you figured that out.
Two very specific question from the audience:
1 – How many shirts have you made? How many dice bags?
Um. About a dozen shirts that I can remember, and a few halves floating around in various stages of completion. As for pouches, I’ve really lost track. Dozens in about fliftybillion designs. Or six or seven unique designs. Something like that. Did I mention the first thing I made was a pouchŗ?
ŗ = I probably did, I tend to repeat things.
ŗ = I probably did, I tend to repeat things.
ŗ = I probably did, I tend to repeat things.
2 – How exactly does Stephen feel about mannequins? 😂
It’s just the one. It’s terrifying.
OK, Onto the quick questions that I ask all participating artists:
Yes. I listen to a wide variety of music, and when I’m not on camera myself, I’m usually watching someone else make something while I work. I’m watching a Twitch.tv stream😜 right now, as a matter of fact!
😜 = HI PHARE!!!
What are your favorite artists (chainmaille or otherwise)?
Aside from the one or two random callouts inline of active ‘maillers, it’s tough to just list a few, so I’ll just mention Escher. I’m a huge Escher fan.
What do you do when you’re not making chainmaille?
Have delightful panic attacks because I’m not making chainmaille. Uh. Gaming. D&D, sometimes online with my friends.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t do that, you’ll hurt yourself.
What would your superpower be and why?
Wait, I get to pick?
What’s one thing Blue Buddha readers might be surprised to know about you?
My initials are SMH. For years, I wondered why people kept using my initials in things they were saying until someone explained it to me.
Anything else you want to add?
(🥄) = A spork is a forkspoon on one end. A foon is a spoon on one end, and a fork on the other. Nobody else uses the term Foon, everyone else calls both of them Sporks.
Before we let you go, please tell us where we can find your work!
Cinnibar on M.A.I.L. – http://www.mailleartisans.org/members/memberdisplay.php?key=58
(two digit member id FTW)
Isotropic Shirt – https://imgur.com/gallery/tW4F1
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us, Stephen! I think you almost broke my blog’s ability to handle footnotes. 😂
Also, thank you so much for my spork!
And thank you, readers and fans of this series. While you’re here, be sure to check out the previous “Meet an Artist” posts: http://www.bluebuddhaboutique.com/blog/category/ask-an-artist-series/ and let me know if there’s anyone you want to see interviewed and any questions you have for them. ‘Til next time, happy crafting!