A Well-Rounded Cutter
Bart Curren is renowned for his superb glyptic artistry, but he has other talents and abilities too
Friends always told Bart Curren he should cut something mysterious, opaque and black just as an experiment. Something like obsidian or nephrite jade, they said.
In lighthearted response, Curren descended into his fathers back yard and hacked loose some common black basalt. He fashioned the rocks in his cutting studio, hewing the soft, curvy grooves and ridges of his signature style. He polished parts of the basalt to a gleaming luster and left others with a smooth, matte finish.
The beauty of the transformed garden rocks stunned his friends. Basalt, a volcanic rock that covers much of the earths surface, is hardly rare. But Curren transformed it into rare beauty. Serious sales ensued, Curren recalls. Time and again he assaulted his fathers garden to mine some more.
By that time, Curren had already made his name by cutting transparent gem materials, including quartz, tourmaline, garnet and others more of interest to jewelers than basalt.
He had been cutting the gems since his interest was ignited in 1979. I met a person cutting fire agate at a grocery store in Topanga Canyon, near Los Angeles. I couldnt believe how incredibly beautiful fire agate was, he says. He went on to work for gem expert Larry Gray, clipping agate rough and preparing it for cutting and learning about fashioning fire agate, perhaps one of the most challenging gems to cut. Each fire agate designs itself through its own color layers, he says. Successful cutting becomes intuitive because a cutter has to feel and know where the layers within the stone are and to know when to stop cutting. That free-form style is what got me into abstracts to begin with.
Within a few years, Curren stopped working for Gray and enrolled in a Gemological Institute of America home-study course. Upon graduation, he went to work for GIA for nearly a year, fine-tuning his gemstone knowledge. He also was busy experimenting with cutting styles.
In the late-1980s, Curren took stock of what other cutters were doing. German glyptic master artist Bernd Munsteiners abstract carvings were celebrated around the world. It showed me a whole new dimension in gem cutting, Curren says. Seeing his style influenced me greatly. It changed my ideas of where I wanted to go with gems. Other U.S. cutters including Michael Dyber, Henry Hunt and Steve Walters began to show their own brand and style of abstracts. Curren soon became a major part of that pioneering U.S. contingent.
He left GIA to work on his own as a gem cutter and immediately solidified his signature look. Whereas Munsteiners style revolved around sharp facet junctions reminiscent of what you see in traditional faceted gems, mine evolved as soft-edged and rounded. I called them cloud formations at the time.
Interest in his work skyrocketed. He formed exclusive relationships with gem dealers to promote his work. Because the work was new and different, a lot of retailers loved it, he says. But many jewelers didnt know how to set stones like these. After a few years, demand for free-style cutting like his subsided. Curren recalls those years as bleak.
During that time, he relied on other talents. He became known as one of the industrys top gemstone photographers. He developed collections of gem photographs for GIA and the International Colored Gemstone Association. ICAs collection contains thousands of his images, many of which have been reproduced in ICA, consumer and trade publications. I started gem photography with the idea of capturing fire agates iridescence on film, he says. Then I wanted to capture images of the gems I cut I knew enough about photography that I didnt have to pay someone else to do it. Macro photography itself is great because so much of it goes into the abstract. I love capturing images where the gem is not quite what it seems. I want people to look and wonder. All the gem photos accompanying this article are Currens.
Curren also temporarily returned to work with Gray, who by then was operating the Ponderosa Mine in Oregon, a source of sunstone. Curren convinced Gray he had a talent and began to cut gems again along with his sunstone mining duties.
Carving is relaxing for me. When I start, I dont have to push my mind to design things, he says. This is the area of my life where there are no hard and fast rules.
Curren uses a fixed arbor to harness the gem rough with the drilling bit also in a fixed position; this frees his hands to control the stone and let it dictate how it should best reveal its colors and attributes. I can avoid problems [like a fissure or inclusion] by working around it and making it part of the design, he says. I can control zoning in ways that could never be done with traditional cutting. I actually like working with problematic pieces.
Through cutting, Curren learned how to sell abstract gems. This form of cutting gets better yield than traditional cutting, which can hold down the otherwise high cost of carving, he says. I explain to jewelers that carvings are already complicated, so its best for the mounting to be simple, with maybe a few accent stones. The idea is to showcase the gem. Curren says hes also one of the few artists to cut small gems, which helps corral costs. Curren prides himself on keeping the art unique but affordable. I dont need to charge more, he says. My prices are competitive with well-cut normal stones.
Surprisingly, Currens full-time work is not cutting but supervising large-scale cutting production. Among other duties, Curren helps manage and run a Chinese cutting factory for Columbia Gem House of Vancouver, WA. However, he continues to carve gemstones on his own. He and his wife, Celeste, operate their own business, Glyptic Illusions.
Currens restless brain is always looking for innovations. For example, he developed a product that involves enameling colors on the backs of some of his carvings. At first I tried the enameling on basalt, but there was no oomph to the pieces, he says. When I tried it on transparent quartz, the end result was stunning. But my initial feeling was of trepidation because the colors were not stone-based. That hardly mattered. I sold out of my first lot at Tucson and have found since then the more outrageous the colors the faster they sell, he says. Hes also experimenting with photographic Gemtiles, abstract art he creates in Adobe Photoshop, an image-manipulation software program.
Curren enjoys cutting opals, rainbow obsidian, quartz, sunstone and tourmaline. But fire agate the stone that initially drew him to cutting remains his favorite and the most challenging, he says. Cutting a fire agate well leaves me with a feeling of true accomplishment, he says.
- Bart Curren, Glyptic Illusions, Vancouver WA; (360) 891-2695, www.glypticillusions.com.
by Robert Weldon, G.G.
Glyptic art and photos by Bart Curren