Flint metalsmith solders nature into unique wearable art

FLINT, Michigan — Epiphanies are a rarity in life. Robert McAdow has experienced two. One when he met the woman who would become his wife. The other, when he stumbled into the world of making jewelry.

McAdow, a westside Flint resident and the founder of the Flint Trading Company, initially pursued a career in psychology. After graduating from Columbia University in New York, he found himself in Michigan running a program for patients with traumatic brain injuries and then lost both his parents within a two-months of each other. And, McAdow was jarred into the realization that he needed to take care of himself, not only others.

“I needed an outlet, a creative outlet. I felt like I was working with people and it was oftentimes one step forward and two steps backward. It was hard to see the fruit of my labor,” he says.

McAdow began taking jewelry-making classes at a local store in Birmingham and immediately fell in love with the process. He knew he had found what he had been searching for when the evening would quietly, and seemingly instantly, turn to dawn.

“I knew that I loved it because when I worked, I lost time. My concept of time was gone.”

In the early 1990s McAdow and his brother started a small company creating bead work and interactive performance art pieces. Drawing from the traditions of the Lakota and Sioux, McAdow utilized traditional methodologies and materials to create his pieces. Sealing a singular piece of sinew with beeswax, he would create intricate bead designs. This process helped build the foundation he carries into his current work.

“They’re very particular about process. It’s a very spiritual process for them… It takes focus and attention to process, which is really the foundation for what drives me in my metalsmithing,” he says.

As a child, McAdow recalls visiting California with his family, where he was taught to pan for gold in an old mine on the family property. He would spend his time sloshing water and sediment in a large pan over a small creek. To this day, he still has the small bits of gold covered with dirt, sealed in a jar in his studio. It comes as no surprise that he is drawn to working with stones and precious metals.

McAdow went on to complete an apprenticeship with  Jiro J. Masuda, a metalsmith and Cranbrook graduate. After three years, he applied to Wayne State University for the master’s program in metalsmithing.

McAdow makes all of his pieces by hand. Instead of creating a wax carving and having his pieces cast, he bends, burnishes, files, solders and forges his pieces. 

Much of his work is inspired by nature. 

“There’s nothing accidental in nature. There’s nothing chaotic in the whole thing. It’s all this long chain of existence,” he says. “The mountains look like this great, big, happy accident, but it’s not.”

McAdow tries to infuse the elaborate construction of the world around us into his pieces. It is reflected in his work, methodology and choice of materials. (All of his metals are recycled and he sources as many stones as he can from the United States to ensure they are mined ethically.) 

“When I’m really humming, I actually dream a piece. I wake up and I do my best to draw it. That’s when I’m really, really in my groove,” he says.

In addition to inspiration, his pieces need function. He considers function to be a defining factor for his work. The function of the piece helps him define the parameters. For example, a ring fabricated out of white gold, yellow gold and sterling silver with a diamond. 

“It was an engagement ring for someone and I wanted it to be about the building of a relationship process. It really effectively tells a story.”

The yellow gold representing the bride, displayed as rivets to hold the ring together and the bezel for the stone. The white gold representing the groom, a sheet going all the way around the piece. And silver, representing them both, covers the outside, protecting the piece.

“I think there’s something more spiritual and mythical about working directly in the metal. One of the things I love most about working with jewelry, I feel like it becomes a part of who you are and you become a part of it.”

McAdow has been hard at work, not only on his jewelry but working towards opening the Flint Trading Company. For the past three months, he has been located above the Flint T-Shirt Company, curating pieces and creating the space for its grand opening. He’s also had some help.

“It would be impossible without her,” says McAdow, talking about his wife. “This really is our thing together. We sat here and visualized this together. She has been instrumental in putting the whole thing together.”

The two epiphanies in Robert McAdow’s life have come crashing together, it seems. Perhaps a “happy accident.” Or perhaps, a long chain of purposeful events amid what appears to be the chaos of existence. 

Read more articles by Tim Galloway.

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