Art by Tom Swanson

The Artist Formerly Known As Mr Bad Mojo

About 4 years ago I heard stories from a couple of friends about an artist, a real character, living deep in the Oregon coast range.  One day this artist showed up at my shop with a small case padded on the inside to protect the contents.  It was full of miniature sculptures and I fell for the work immediately and purchased some.  The pieces had a bit of a magical air to them  and the materials for these sculptures included things like fossilized wooly mammoth tusk.  The prices were very reasonable, the pieces totally unlike anything I’d seen, and I got to support an artist.  What more could I want?

Daniel:  Tell us a bit about where you live – it’s a rather isolated but rich environment. Why do you choose this spot?

Alif : Well, I live in a river valley about twenty miles inland on the south central Oregon coast. It is beautiful, somewhat isolated, rural and the majority of distractions here are nature oriented. I can hike from my back yard and pick numerous types and bountiful quantities of gourmet and medicinal mushrooms here and wild craft so much it is overwhelming. The steep sided mountains in this area give a nice sense of separation and seclusion, especially when hiking up random stream beds. All in all, it is an area that inspires the mind and the senses.Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 6.52.12 PM

Daniel: What’s in a name? ‘Mr Bad Mojo’ definitely got my attention

Alif: Actually, I do not really use that name much anymore, it was “stolen” a while ago by some other commercial enterprise or perhaps it was just a random coincidence, but, it represents now another life and lifetime for me. It was the name I used when making smoking pipes for so many years. When starting out as an artist and craftsman, I found it hard to make sales; drilling some holes in things and making them usable as a pipe suddenly turned anything I made into, “dude, this is the greatest piece of art I have ever seen!” in my hometown marketplace of Eugene Oregon. I always liked pipes and still do, but only really as a metaphorical prop. To me, an unused pipe in the hand is more full of magic and potential than a smoldering one.

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Daniel:  Why super tiny, detailed art? How did you end up going small and do you do anything bigger?

Alif: My entire life I have been enchanted by masterpieces in minutiae. The building blocks of all life and existence in our vast universe are microscopic. Growing up I would make miniatures in clay simply because they were child size play things and I began crafting to make my own toys, toys my family could ill afford. When I discovered the Japanese art of Netsuke an entire world opened before me, here were incredible works of sculpture that could be cradled personally in the palm of your hand. Works of sculpture that seemed to me so much more powerful than the grandiose statues that I was accustomed to in the western world art scene. Miniature sculpture that told tales, history and mythology, that spoke of life’s moral dilemmas. I was mesmerized by the power of the personal message, the personal interaction of art on an intimate level. As a young artist it was also a very approachable art, I could make my own carving knives out of old used drill bits and sewing needles and ride my bike off to a secluded spot on the river or in the mountains and carve all day. I am still in love with miniature sculpture and I enjoy it’s freedom and it’s lack of ego that is so often seen in the grandiose behemoths of nonsense over-consumptive art. Not pointing any fingers, just noting that we have a society that celebrates consumption and many large scale art that I see is only noticed because of it’s massive scale. I guess that would be another discussion. I do make masks and instruments but really I rarely do anything that can’t be easily picked up and held.

Nephrite jade mushroom cluster

Nephrite jade mushroom cluster

Daniel:  Are all of your small pipe and hookah pieces functional? You ever try them out with the goods?

Alif: All of my miniature smoking pipes are of course functional, but, you would have to be a tiny gnome or pixie or elf or mouse to use them. They are made as art pieces, enjoyable collectibles, something for the eyes, hands and mind to caress and contemplate possibility and fantasy. For a while I made scale dollhouse miniatures of an odd nature, possibly pipes is just an extension of that. I have no interest in trying to use them, sometimes I will leave them in magical spots in the forest for mythical beings.

Daniel:  How about the materials? Fossilized wooly mammoth tusk? What materials do you generally work with, how did you settle on these and where do you source them?

Alif: I started netsuke style miniatures in tagua nut (vegetable ivory) and antler and also boxwood. The traditional netsuke of Japan were largely made in ivory and I wanted to do that art but there was no way I wanted to harm any animals. Every material has its strong points and its limitations. Tagua does not last as well and is not as durable as ivory.  Antler also has its limitations, it is grainy and also does not last as long. I discovered “fossil” ivories which are not really fossilized but are artifacts of ancient animals. The fossil wooly mammoth and mastodon tusks were often preserved in permafrost in arctic regions, sometimes in magnificent condition and with spectacular coloration and patina. The “fossil” walrus tusk and teeth are similar, thousands of years old and beautifully colored. No animals were slaughtered to obtain this material and much of it carves incredibly well and can take detail like nothing else. It is beautiful material. I would find my materials at gem shows and from a few reputable dealers.  It is used extensively by the high end knife and gun makers. In the past few years there have been an increasing number of artificially aged fake fossil ivories entering the market from China. As China grows wealthy the slaughter of elephants has multiplied to fill the desire of collectors. Almost all the material I have I had obtained twenty years ago from dealers that had obtained it long before. A trained and knowledgeable eye can tell the difference from artifact and the new fakes. Instead of trying to contend with the wiles of the market I transitioned in mediums and have switched entirely to stone and precious metal. Now I carve jade and other exquisite stone and am rapidly learning silversmithing. It is for me nirvana, stone was difficult to learn to carve at first as it required entirely different tooling and processes, but everything about it is more satisfying. Jade, for me, is a song of the earths bones and my work is to build a platform for it to showcase itself center stage and be enjoyed and admired for what it is.

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Daniel:  You make some of the tools that you use to create the art too. What’s the process and why do you make your own vs buying?

Alif: I love making tools, I love problem solving, I love restoring old tools for use again. To make a tool to create something is to intimately know the subject you are creating, it is a reverence and a prayer. I religiously believe in not wasting things, wise consumption, recycling, reuse, restoration and efficiency. Most every tool in my shop has been modified and restored from old lapidary tools that were derelict. Also, I am a starving artist and tools are expensive and many of the new tools made do not last as long as tools made with quality old steel.

Thanks, Alif.  And Thank you readers for checking the article.  Look for part two


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