Artist Profile – Tina Carvalho by Julia Rai

Honolulu based metal clay artist Tina Carvalho has been around the metal clay community for as long as I can remember. ‘Back in the day’ as they say, she was one of the many artists offering help and advice on the Yahoo group. Nowadays, she pops up on my Facebook newsfeed regularly, always with something colourful that she’s made. I realized that apart from her beautiful work and the fact that she lives in Hawaii, I knew very little about her, so I was thrilled when she agreed to be interviewed for Creative Fire.

Tina was born in the US Midwest. “My family migrated west to California, then kept leaning west until we ended up in Hawaii 50 years ago,” she explained. “I went to high school here, then university, and forgot to move on.

I asked Tina about her childhood and education. “As a child I did a lot of drawing and my parents bought me oil paints before I was a teenager, so I have some of those pre-teen paintings around.”

She went on, “I had always considered myself an artist, and did a lot of painting and puttered with various crafts. All through school, including high school, I managed to avoid any science classes, but my luck ran out when I was a sophomore at the University of Hawaii. Imagine my surprise when I took a physics class and loved it! Then I hated chemistry but loved biology. One look through an old, beat up microscope and I was hooked. My background in photography landed me a job in a physiology lab setting up a darkroom, and next thing I know I was studying invertebrate neurobiology. It was recommended to my major professor that someone learn electron microscopy for his projects, so I was sent to UC Berkeley in 1976 for a summer course. That turned out to be the right combination of science, photography, art, and mechanical challenge (I had been building Volkswagen engines for fun and profit), so I’ve been at it ever since.”

What an interesting route to a job she obviously loves. I asked about her about her profession. “I am a scientific research associate, and basically I run a microscope core facility at the University of Hawaii, helping researchers design experiments and acquire images on two kinds of electron microscopes plus a couple of kinds of regular light and laser scanning microscopes.” Sounds fascinating!

Tina has combined her scientific side with her artistic side in style. “For many years I had nether time nor inclination to pursue art beyond making nice electron micrographs of, say, crab neurons. Then Photoshop came along and I tried my hand at colorizing the normally-grayscale electron micrographs. My website, MicroAngela, [editor note, link to website] still exists in spite of me not touching it for over 16 years.”

I asked Tina about her home and family. “I’ve been married for more than 35 years to someone I still think of as my ‘young local surfer’,” she laughed. “We have a house back in a lush green valley on the island of Oahu where hubby has a well-equipped wood shop and metal shop, and I have a pretty decent art bench littered with three kilns. Our daughter grew up interested in art from a very early age and we indulged her and ourselves by gearing up for a number of different hobbies including beading, painting, photography, baking.”

So how did Tina come across metal clay? “Our daughter has a strong artistic nature, and so while she was growing up we explored a variety of arts and crafts,” she began. “We seemed to spend a lot of time and money at the local bead shop, and we saw demo pieces from a class on ‘Silver Clay’ by a chap named Gordon Uyehara. I was fascinated by the concept and signed us up in late August of 2005. The clay was a little harder to work with than I expected. I finally was able to roll out a bit and press little ferns into it and poke holes, so I had a pair of earrings. I refused to trim them and still have them, cracked edges and all. Never mind they are an embarrassment, I was smitten,” she laughed. “Gordon is a fascinating character and a remarkable artist, and we got along well, so I took a few classes and tried to hone my skills. It seemed like the right thing for me, requiring only a few playing cards, a roller, and an Exacto knife. Right? Right? Minimum of investment? Ha, I have shelves and boxes and drawers of materials for what became my obsession.” I can relate!

She went on, “A few years later I won a book on enamelling and so tried that on silver clay, and I was intrigued with the possibilities of using color, like back in my MicroAngela days. Now I primarily use metal clay to make settings for my enamels. I do enamel on both silver and copper clay, as well as on copper sheet.”

I asked Tina about her workshop. “My husband, who is a cabinetmaker and wood artist, built an art bench for our daughter. Once she moved out, I waited a decent interval – about a day – before moving in on it. I currently have three kilns and enough space to spread out to do both metal clay and enamelling, if I’m tidy. His surfboards hang above it and sometimes I have to move them if the kilns get too hot. In this image you can see most of my workbench, but not the other two smaller kilns to the right.”

Looks pretty organized and tidy to me. Tina explained, “it degenerates into chaos when I’m trying to work on a bunch of pieces against a deadline, but it cleans up pretty fast. It ebbs and flows. There have been times when I’ve spent at least a little time each day at it for months on end, but lately it’s been only a few days a month. I work better with deadlines, I guess!” she laughed.

Tina’s work always looks well designed and with a scientific background, I’d expect a high degree of planning and preparation. I asked her about her creative process. “I plan only in my head!” she laughed. “I don’t make drawings at all, and I have to try to make the effort to document the steps I took to make a piece in a notebook I try to keep. It is the exact opposite of my daily life in the laboratory.”

Living in such a beautiful part of the world, I assumed Tina’s influences would include nature. But she’s taken this a step further than the rest of us. “My main influences are details in nature,” she explained. “Once I started looking at the world through a microscope I realized my little-kid paintings focused on details, like tree bark. Now I have a couple million dollars’ worth of microscopes to see the tiniest things.”

“An example of where I go with this idea is my virus bracelet. I was invited to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) as one of a select group trained to recognize weaponized viruses (long story there). In anticipation I made a bracelet composed of enamels on silver clay of six different viruses as they would look in the technique we were going to be using (except that electron microscope images are grayscale and I used colored enamel). I was happy that various experts at the CDC could recognize the viruses I had depicted, as they were close to anatomically correct! Yes, this is my idea of a good time.”

One of the main features of Tina’s work that I really love is the colour she uses. “I’m smitten with cloisonné enamel these days,” she told me. “Even though I’ve had some training in traditional metalworking techniques, I find it more fun, if more challenging, to make as much as possible from metal clay. The challenge is what I love and what distracts me from ‘real life’!” When I asked Tina what she does to relax she answered, “Enamel on silver clay!!!”

With a full time job, I wondered if Tina has time to sell her jewellery or teach metal clay or enamelling. “My main interest is in creating jewelry or other functional pieces for friends for Christmas. I dislike Christmas shopping and need an excuse to sit at my bench and create.” I can certainly relate to that!

She went on, “most of my pieces are specific to the recipient, so my friend/boss gets pieces depicting Hawaiian monk seals, my pal who works on snails/seashells gets snail pieces, my microscope mentor who documents dozens of nudibranchs gets nudibranchs, and so on.”

She also doesn’t teach. “I currently do not do any formal teaching. Once in a while I spend a day or two with a friend or two, but these days I consider jewelry-making to be my solitary task, a way to avoid interactions with others. That may change when I retire!” she laughed.

I asked Tina if there was a particular piece of her work that means more to her than any other. “I give away a lot of what I make, but my favorite pieces that I’ve kept for myself include the Reef Fish pendant, and the Butterfly Fish pendant, which belongs to my daughter, both of which have settings evocative of the textures on a coral reef.”

Both of these remind me of the adventures I used to have scuba diving on the Big Island of Hawaii years ago. I wear the Ulu (Breadfruit) one a lot. Other adventures on the Big Island included long hikes over old lava beds to pick Ohelo berries to make a special jam for Christmas and crazy interactions with hot lava, not yet immortalized in silver clay.”

Like most of us, Tina has pieces waiting for more work to be done on them. “I have half a dozen enamel pieces from the past two years waiting for settings,” she told me.

I asked her where she sees her metal clay work going in the next few years. “I would like to be able to continue working with metal clay as a way to express my creativity in a way that pleases my friends and family, the main recipients of my work. Ideally, I can parlay it into at least a little bit of money-making should I ever give up my workaholic ways and retire from the university! I still love manipulating the clay, pushing to see what I can make it do, or see what it makes me do. Communicating with others on social media, particularly Facebook, has been fun, educational, and rewarding. I look forward to catching up with metal clay artists every day.”

It was great to find out more about Tina. To see some of her electron microscopy, visit her MicroAngela website, you won’t be disappointed.

See more of Tina’s work on Facebook and Flickr.

Facebook: Tina Carvalho

Julia Rai is an award winning artist, teacher and writer well known in the international metal clay community. Her work has featured in a wide range of publications and she writes regularly for print magazines and online. She teaches in her home studio in Cornwall and travels to teach by invitation.