Tom Burns is the kind of guy with so many interests you discover something new about him every time you talk to him. I’ve known Tom as a silversmith and a sportsman since the 1980’s, but he is also a collector and dealer in Central Asian tribal weavings, a serious flower and vegetable gardener, and plays the mountain dulcimer and African drums. During our latest conversation I discovered he has been running a maple sugaring operation for the past 50 years.
AHG: I know you have a degree in Economics from Bates College and spent a few years in the Navy attached to an Admiral, but I’d like to know what led you to become a silversmith.
Tom: I moved to Vermont in my 20’s with my wife and baby and remember it was the Woodstock era (and we were there!), and I started making jewelry when I couldn’t find a 9 – 5 job. When I was at Bates I took as many art classes as ones in economics, and I’ve always been interested in making things. I picked up a 75 cent paperback on jewelry making, bought some tools and supplies, and made a batch of hammered hoop earrings. I took them to craft show in Connecticut the following weekend and they sold out in 3 hours! Fifty years later (and three more kids) I’m still making jewelry in the same Vermont homestead.
AHG: What I love about your work is how each piece is one of a kind with a unique stone. How would you describe your attraction to stones?
Tom: I think there is an almost psychic energy in the stones, although I woudn’t go so far as to ascribe specific energies to them, but there is definitely something there. I also love the play of colors in many of the stones, particularly the opals. The fossils attract me because of their geological history and the transmutation of something that was once alive millions of years ago.
AHG: The fossils are indeed fascinating. In our current collection there is a fossilized Alaskan coral from 55 million years ago. I had never thought about how Alaska once had a sub-tropical climate. How do you decide what kind of setting to create for each stone?
Tom: Sometimes I will begin by sketching a design for a setting and then I’ll look for the perfect stone, and other times I’ll find a great stone and then sketch around it. It’s really the beauty of the natural stones that drive my work.
AHG: What are the origins of your signature spiral design?
Tom: I studied blacksmithing at the Peters Valley School of Craft in NJ many years ago and the spiral is something I used to forge in iron.
AHG: At age 76 have you ever thought of retiring?
Tom: I enjoy every day I’m in my studio making jewelry. Swinging the hammer, operating the pliers, and running the torch doesn’t feel like work to me. It’s as close to fun as any job can be.
AHG: For other kinds of fun I know you love the outdoors and spend time snowboarding, kayaking, sailing, rowing, hiking, and wind surfing, and I’m probably forgetting a few. And you just purchased a cottage in Wellfleet. You now have the best of both worlds, Vermont and Cape Cod. What attracts you to the Cape?
Tom: We always took the kids camping Summers on the Cape, often to Nickerson State Park, and I discovered the Cape was one of the best places for windsurfing, something I love to do at every opportunity, either at Hardings Beach in Chatham or on the Bay in Wellfleet. I also love the light here – it’s different and inspiring, shapes are clearer, and Nature is illuminated. I can see better when I’m here.
AHG: The Artful Hand Gallery is marking its 40th anniversary this year and you are one of the original artists we represented. After losing touch for a couple of decades it was a pleasant surprise when you walked in the door last September. We are thrilled be carrying your work again and to have you as our neighbor on the Cape.