When Chester Allen (221 Dauphine St., www.etsy.com/shop/thesilverman) talks about making jewelry, he sounds more like a shaman than a silversmith. For Allen, his art is a part of a spiritual experience that combines metallurgy, alternative medicine and the craftsman's energy to create one-of-a-kind pieces that reflect Louisiana culture.
"[Sterling silver] has a positive energy [that] people call a lunar energy," Allen says. "When you work with it, there's a certain fire, a color that it gets. ... [It's a] process [between] what it wants to do and what you have in mind. It's collaborative."
For more than 27 years, Allen has worked to master what he calls the vocabulary of his craft. Allen formerly worked as a marketing consultant, and one of his clients introduced him to the art world. In lieu of payment, the client, a goldsmith, offered to teach Allen everything he knew. Allen quickly realized that art was the perfect way to process the difficult events of his life.
"Adversity is the bloodline of creativity," Allen says.
Allen concentrates on the physical realities of metal and gemstones and on arranging them in ways that make statements about the local community. He generally works in .95 silver, a fine silver that can withstand treatments such as etching or hammering or can be worked into a fine filigree.
One of his projects is the "Neutral Ground is Higher Ground" collection, available at Ariodante Contemporary Craft Gallery. In this collection, gems like garnet, citrine and tourmaline are cut in geometric shapes and set in triads. Allen says these pieces represent the way New Orleanians separate and come together over the neutral ground to create the best of the city. Music works its way into Allen's creations, and the triads of this collection also read as harmony, where the "notes" come together to create musical synergy.
"[Allen] is like a philosopher with a ball-peen hammer," says Rachel Oerter, jewelry director at Ariodante. "It's less of a religious thing than a spiritual, metaphysical thing ... about reclamation, renewal and rebirth." She points out that all of his pieces have an accompanying story, like the Art Deco collection that began with a handful of inherited pearls, or the "We're All in the Same Boat" pendant inspired by the influx of Super Bowl visitors last spring.
When Allen isn't working out of his Irish Channel studio, he travels the country, showing art and talking to people about New Orleans and the importance of finding community wherever you are. He spoke to me from an art show in Minnesota.
"Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, where the Mississippi (River) begins, and I live at the bottom of the Mississippi," he says. "With my work that's a little bit of how I do things; seeing what brings us together."