Featured Member

Each month a new Featured Member is chosen from the completed member profiles on our website. Their interview and work is highlighted on our blog and social media. Visit our archive of past Featured Members.

December 2019



Brian Meek

Websites: knewconcepts.com; alberic.net 

Tell us a little about yourself.

That’s opening a very deep rabbit hole.  I’ve been a metalsmith in one form or another since I was 14 or 15.  Started out wanting to make swords and armor, which led to college for a BFA in jewelry design/metalsmithing.  A year in London at City of London Polytechnic (The Cass) and then an MFA in metals from Cranbrook Academy of Art, outside Detroit.  The Cass made me a serious technician, and Cranbrook’s introduction to Detroit’s machinist culture taught me the machinist mindset, and how to deal with serious tools.  Big, multi-ton tools that I now can’t live without. After that, I banged around the country for a while chasing a teaching gig, doing the adjunct tango. I lucked into a position teaching Adult-ed jewelry in Santa Barbara, where I taught for 12 years, in one of the best programs in the country.  I have very happy memories of that program, and those people. The end of that was when I got married and moved up to the Bay Area to be with my wife. At that point I reunited with an old friend, Lee Marshall, whom I knew from Bonny-Doon press days. He was puttering around with these little red saws that he’d invented.  So I told him I’d help out with the machining for a few weeks while I was job hunting.

Now it’s 10 years later, Lee’s passed away, and I’m running the company, continuing the journey we started in a garage not far from the sea.  There’s a lot more to that story, of course, but that’s the cliff notes version. Lee and I discovered that we made one hell of a team, and we built Knew Concepts from a couple of guys in a garage into a world renowned company with distributors from one end of the planet to the other.  The saws are innovative enough that one of my designs was recently written up in a study of the origins of creative design by a researcher at Cambridge University.

What is your favorite tool and why?

The brain.  Everything else flows from there.  That’s a pretty glib answer, but it’s true.  Everything else is just an accessory, like hands.  Or a saw. Or a hammer, or a 12,000 pound CNC milling machine.  None of them does a thing without the brain to figure it all out first, and tell the parts what to do.  In terms of tools I couldn’t live without, I’ll always have a metal cutting lathe, and a vertical milling machine.  They’re the ‘mother’ machines. Either of them can build the parts to make all the rest, or even more of themselves, if they have to.  With those two, I can make anything else I need.

Which materials do you create with most and what is your attraction to using them?

I’m an interesting case: there are really two of me.  There’s Brian the artist, who doesn’t get out much these days, and then Brian the tool designer, who’s the one most people see.  Brian the artist likes titanium and niobium for their colors, and their potential to do some truly wild things in the hands of someone who has the tools to bend them to his will.  (See picture of “Niobium Tango” goblet, or Titanium birdcage saw design.)
Brian the tool designer likes aluminum mostly because it’s cheap, easy to work with, and fast.  It’s frequently the best answer to getting a new tool into people’s hands, in the best way possible.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Frustration, and an overwhelming need to keep my people’s rent paid.  Some of my best designs came from getting totally frustrated with something, and then giving up on the ‘right’ way of doing it, in favor of whatever’d get the job done.  That’s where the titanium birdcage saw came from. In terms of art, I’ve always looked to art nouveau, and the early arts and crafts movement. Not that you can always see that in my designs, but *I* can.  I once spent almost an hour hand tweaking the CNC code that makes the curve at the bottom of the clamps on our coping saws, just to give it the ‘right’ nouveau-ish curve. Possibly not the best use of my time, but strangely satisfying when it was done.  Now there are thousands of them out there in the world, with clamps that look ‘right’.

How long have you been working in metals and what brought you into this field?

Since I was 14 or 15.  I loved the challenge. Still do.  I’ve been doing this a good chunk of a lifetime now, and haven’t run out of things to discover, or new ways to challenge myself.  For most of human history, metalsmithing was the height of our high-tech. Our best and brightest were the metalworkers. That’s an intimidating legacy to be entrusted with carrying on.

What piece of advice would you give to someone just starting out in metals?

If you want to make a living, my advice is twofold: first, take a good bookkeeping/general biz management class or 50.

Second, make sure you always have a fallback way to make a living.  It’s amazingly difficult to make good, innovative art if you’re worried about where next month’s rent is coming from.  Worry is antithetical to the focus required for good work. Which is no use at all to someone who’s already in the soup, because they know that more clearly than anybody.  The trick is to realize that *before* you find yourself in trouble, and take steps to backstop yourself such that you don’t have to worry about it as much. In the world that exists today, that’s not an easy task, or even always possible, but it’s the kind of thing that makes for peace of mind. Which clears the mental space for good work to grow.

I paid my rent by doing graphic design for many years when the jewelry thing wasn’t paying all that well.  Even recently, there have been situations where I was worried about having to go find another job. Rendered much less stressful because I knew I had a whole raft of skills and experience that I could fall back on.  The next gig might not have been exactly what I would have wanted, but I knew that I had enough valuable skills that there would *be* a next gig. That took a lot of stress out of the situation, and allowed me to maneuver to a successful conclusion that might not have been possible if I’d been more worried about ‘what next???”   To boil that all down, I’d say ‘grab every bit of experience or education you can. You never know what little tidbit is going to save your tail, and it all adds up in the end.’

What has been the biggest challenge for you as a metal artist and have you overcome it, or how are you working to overcome it?

Interesting question. I’m not sure how to answer it.  There have been times (like Niobium Tango) where I came up with designs that were so technically demanding that I had to wait for technology to catch up with what I needed (at a sane price point).  So I waited.  

I think the overriding quest has always been to figure out some way of taking my love of metalworking and making a living with it.  Same as all of us, really.  

I also try to pay back the effort of the guys who took pity on a gawky kid and trained me.  We metalsmiths really are the custodians of a thousand generations of tradition. Each of us owes a debt to the people who went before to make sure that the next generation is as well trained, and gets the best start we can give them.

Favorite resource/vendor or website

My own, of course:  www.alberic.net, and www.knewconcepts.com

Seriously?  The Orchid (ganoksin) archives are a wonderful resource.  That’d be the first thing I’d look over, if I knew nothing else. 

( https://orchid.ganoksin.com/c/jewelry-discussion )

 I’ll always look askance at Youtube.  Way too many self proclaimed “grand masters”.  That said, there’s this wonderfully insane Aussie called Chris who’s doing a hand made reproduction of the Antikythera mechanism (A mechanical astronomical computer.  From 200 BC) He’s starting by making his own files and drills. By hand. That kind of crazy. His channel is called ‘Clickspring’.  

( https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCworsKCR-Sx6R6-BnIjS2MA )

Well worth checking out.  His technique is immaculate.  Every time he comes out with a new video, I spend a good half hour giggling at just how far over the top he’s gone this time.