Initially training as a painter and printmaker, Castro segued into his current vocation through an apprenticeship with the Goldsmith’s Company. After three years based at the Sarabande Foundation, established by Alexander McQueen, he studied with Japanese masters under the guidance of Hiroshi Suzuki in Japan and, in 2017, was awarded the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust scholarship. Castro now makes and sells his work using an ancient 'seal engraving' technique to create contemporary pieces including bespoke commissions. His illustrative and painterly style, featuring engravings of serpents, hearts, plants and sea creatures, is inspired by his love of history, myths and biology.
Tell us a bit about your practice and the path that led you here.
Becoming an artist was a continuous process, but unplanned. I’ve always created my work inspired by the dreams I have, along with my drawings, writing work and the games I play. The first drawings that I can remember doing were of dragons and strange creatures inspired by artist and designer H. R. Giger. I love reading science fiction books, and those on nature, socio-biology and history.
How does mythology and folklore influence your work?
I’ve always loved mythological stories. My jewellery usually references all sorts of folk narratives. At the moment I’m looking into mythologies from my mother’s native country, the Philippines. I’m researching aswang creatures (shape-shifting evil spirits) that haunt the country’s folklore, such as Sarimanok, an ancient rainbow-coloured chicken that comes from the stories of Mindanao, the Filipino island my mother is from.
I think it’s hard to write or create and not be influenced by some sort of folk story, and many have similar understandings of love, loss and lessons. With my full custom pieces I create for clients I’m always referencing something – symbols of animals to represent migration; flowers for places or smells of loved ones. And the passing of time is important. All of these things can be configured for everyone’s own unique places and stories.
Why do you think others feel so connected to your pieces?
My pieces are a reflection of people’s own desires, dreams and identities. They represent personal mythologies. They are objects that are secretive, too, because they are so small – the miniature carvings are really for the beholder alone to speak about and explain.
What is the difference between drawing on paper and drawing on metal?
Drawing on paper is much freer. There is freedom in movement, and you are free for your body to move with the work. Metal is rigid, and in some ways works against you if you’re to compare it with paper. But its characteristics are unique – they are ancient and reflective. Metal works with light in a different way. Every line has its own reflection and shadow, elements of shine or dullness, as well as its own reactive qualities to oxygen, water and chemicals.
Do you have a favourite piece of work?
My favourites are pieces I’ve spent the least amount of time on and the ones that truly reflect what the customer wants. This is not in the sense of avoiding the hours of laborious work, but in the same way a Chinese master painter might express a form with the fewest brushstrokes as possible. I feel like a master might move less.
Tell us about your typical day.
I draw layouts for a few customers, then start engraving on a freshly shaped ring with sketches in talcum dust and then a metal scribe, which is shaped by my team. I pause in between things to do a little directing and teaching with my team. Then at the end of the day I head outside to photograph pieces with my phone.
How do you think mistakes benefit artists?
I think mistakes and failures create an artist. Purely by accident, my aesthetic style evolved from a mistake. I was rushing for an important deadline early in my career. I made a couple of slips with my tool and had no time to restart. So, I engraved around the whole piece with seal engravings, which people wouldn’t do traditionally, because you can’t stamp using the sides of the ring.
We have to create without fear of a mistake making us fail. Personally, I’ve never feared creative mistakes, but business and workplace mistakes are hard to deal with, and as the studio grows there is a greater challenge in working together, which is the most important thing for the studio now.
What is one thing in your work that people don’t know about?
I don’t use magnifying equipment when engraving. I think that it looks too closely at the metal and these details have different emergent qualities when you look at the carvings from hand-to-eye distance.
Do your peers or other artists inspire you?
I always take lessons from other artists. I’d much prefer to have human interaction with them. Of course, the great works are done by those who have passed, but I feel learning and lessons are with the living, and this is where we can feel and use our most important empirical senses. Sometimes these lessons are in techniques or in using colour, but my biggest lessons have been personal ones – how to be and enjoy being, and understanding failures.
How have your travels influenced you?
I’ve travelled all over with my artwork and craft. It really is a wonderful thing to momentarily connect with other makers and get to understand places. Particularly special was the year I spent in Japan where I worked and trained in traditional metal arts. I’m happy to consider some of my teachers from Japan friends, or family, for life.
All images are courtesy of the artist. Click here to see more of Castro Smith’s work.
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