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Raw materials: Kim Christiansen interview excerpts
 
Here are two extended excerpts from my interviews with Christiansen. In the first, he talks about how he came up with the idea for Braille jewelry; in the second, he talks about one of his other artistic endeavors: doing manhole cover rubbings.  

How did you come up with idea of Braille jewelry? 

I was driving home from an appointment. I used to be in the insurance business, and I always liked to do things with my hands. I had done some coin earrings for my daughters and my wife out of Japanese coins -- and I thought of doing something different for her birthday. So I was driving along and I thought, okay, sheet silver would be good, simple shapes, shiny. I thought it would be interesting to have some kind of textural quality to them, and I thought I'd like to have a message somehow. It'd be nice to say I love you on a set of earrings. And all of a sudden, a voice said "How about Braille?" And I just thought, Wow. I don't think it had ever been done. I'd never seen it. 

I had no blind acquaintances whatsoever. But the next day I went down to the local Braille Institute -- I lived in Santa Barbara -- and I told them what I was gonna do, and asked. "How do you say 'I love you' in Braille?"

They showed me, and I had a month to figure out how to make 'em. I went through all kinds of experiments, but the night before her birthday I finished them. 

Everybody just flipped out when she opened them up. Nobody had ever seen anything like it! And she was working in a designer dress section in a department store, and she wore them all the time. I was kind of dumbfounded. I told her, "I really appreciate this, but are you doing it just for me?" And she said, "I just love 'em, and everybody always asks about them." 

So I started making other pairs for neighbors, for gifts, and everybody came back saying the same thing. So I just kept doing it. 

These were all sighted people. In fact, I sell about as many pieces to sighted people as to the blind. 

 

How did you first reach the "blind market"? 

The people at the Braille Institute. Each time I did a piece I'd go down and have them check it. And they were really taken by what I was doing. There was a group in California called the Califrornia Transcribers and Educators of the Visually Handicapped  -- CTEVH. And they meet once a year, and the people at the Institute said "You've really got to show your work." The first time they asked me, I didn't feel ready. But the following year, I said okay. 

So I built some inventory -- more than I had ever made before.  And we went down to the conference, and it was sensational. As I was beginning to set my table up, people would come up and say, "Oh my god! I've never seen anything like this!" And people who were blind would pick them up and go, "Oh, these are cool!" They'd say, "You know, for the first time, you've brought Braille to us as a thing of beauty, rather than just a functional tool." 

And we sat there with tears in our eyes. It was just amazing.  And people would buy pieces, go off to a workshop, and come back with seven other people who wanted to buy. Pretty soon, everywhere you looked, you saw people wearing my stuff. And I sold out my stock. 

So I made plans to attend more conferences, and had to make more jewelry. And it was the same thing wherever I went. 

I created quite a buzz in the community. After I'd been doing this for a few years, the American Printing House for the Blind created the "most creative use of Braille award" on my behalf and presented me with the award. 

 

Do you get some pretty emotional reactions from customers?  

I do. That's the most wonderful part about the whole deal. 

One time I was at a conference, and met this woman who was the head of the Lutheran Braille Workers who translate text into Braille. I had done a cross that reading vertically says "Love" and horizontally says "God." And she'd had hers for a long time, and she'd bought others for gifts. She had ordered a gold-plated one -- I do gold plate over sterling silver. And I saw her wearing hers, and it was really quite thrashed -- someone had really worked it, you know. The plating was really rubbed off, and I said, "Let me replace that for you." 

She said, "No. This is very special to me. I gave this as a gift to a woman who was dying of cancer. She loved crosses. And she was in the hospital, and had received a number of crosses as gifts. She was dying, and she had my cross in her hands, and she would rub it every day, and she had it in her hand every day. That's why the cross is so worked, you know." 

I get stuff like that a lot, it's really touching. 

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Christiansen is constantly experimenting with materials and media -- preferably things that no one has thought of before, such as Braille jewelry. Another example: manhole cover rubbings. You may have heard of gravestone rubbings; this is the same thing in a different location. 

 

How did you get started doing manhole cover rubbings?

I was in England. I'm no longer married to the wife I was talking about; I'm with a woman in England now. I was over there about four years ago, we were sitting in the backyard with some friends. And I said, "If I stayed here for an extended period, what could I do?" I didn't have a visa, so I couldn't do regular work. Somebody said they knew someone who had come over from the States and done brass rubbings in churches, and taken them back to sell in the States. It didn't resonate with me. 

But the next day, Chrissy and I were out walking in Dedham, and I started noticing the designs on the manhole covers. I became entranced by them. I said, "I'm gonna do manhole cover rubbings." 

That night we were all sitting around, the same crew, and I stood up, raised my glass, and said "Folks, I have a declaration to make. I said, people have done tombstone rubbings, temple rubbings and brass rubbings. I'm gonna do manhole cover rubbings." And they all laughed. 

I came back to the states, and the next week I had a Braille literacy conference in Chicago. And there was an art store down the street. I got some materials, and then at night, I went out to look for manhole covers. 

 

Are manhole covers that variable?

That's the most common reaction I get. They see my work, and they say "I never noticed, and I always thought they were the same. Now that I've seen your work, I'll never not notice again." 

 

When you're out doing rubbings, you cut a rather striking figure. You have your materials in a giant tube, about five to six feet long. Have you had any odd encounters when you're out on a street or down an alley with this big tube? 

The first time was in Houston, and this was the summer after 9-11. Here I am in downtown Houston with this tube, and taped to the tube was a smaller tube that I had the rolls of paper in. So what I had visually was a rocket launcher with a sight on it! 

A policeman drove up and asked me to step aside; he said they had gotten calls from more than one concerned citizen. I opened up all my tubes and stuff, showed him all of it, explained what I was doing. 

He called all the troops, and told them this is what's going on, he'd checked me out, I was all right, and he let me go. 

A woman officer in Chicago drove alongside and said "What are you doing?" It was kind of a busy road. And we got into a conversation about her mother, who used to do rubbings of antique books. She offered to park alongside me, just to protect me while I finished. 

 

How long does it take to do a rubbing? 

It can take from an hour, to three and a half or four hours. 

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