Carolyn Barker: The Radish Alchemist

By bridging the wonderful worlds of root vegetables and metalsmithing, radishes have finally managed to capture my attention. I’ve always thought they looked good, but were otherwise bland—edible bulbs lacking in flavour. So, when I learnt that Carolyn Barker, a talented metalsmith, held the humble radish in high esteem (and not for its eating value), I was intrigued. In fact, radishes have become a key ingredient in her making process. I visited Carolyn on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, where she lives and works, to find out more.

Carolyn in her studio

Carolyn makes small objects, most of which can be worn—“keepsakes that remind their owners of their places, people and feelings most special.” She tells me she’s drawn to simple shapes and structures, combining them with a limited colour palette so that things can be matched together or worn separately.

Through my jewellery practice, and in particular my ‘Fallen Leaves’ collection, I’ve become interested in Niage, a traditional Japanese process for applying patina to [or colouring] Japanese alloys. To prepare pieces for this process, you have to soak them in grated radishes. So, we see a lot of radishes in our house these days!

There’s a bit of basic chemistry to this. Alloys are mixes of different metals that have been melted down and combined in specific ratios (think of the sword-making scenes in Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings), as opposed to an element in its pure form, such as 100% gold or silver. Much of Carolyn’s work uses irogane: Japanese alloys which are copper-based. She is fond of Shibuichi and Shakudo, in which she combines copper with silver or gold in varying, measured proportions to create a diverse colour palette.

This experimenting is a time-consuming affair; Niage is a ritualistic labour of love, and a poetic process, mindfully carried out by a dedicated artisan. Carolyn explains that to prepare pieces to be stewed in Rokusho (a green Japanese mixture that comes in powder form—the secret ingredient!), they are first sanded with charcoal using a horsehair brush to give them an even finish. They’re then washed before being soaked in grated radish, which reacts with the metals to prepare them for stewing. Meanwhile, Carolyn brews a solution of water, copper sulfate, and Rokusho in a copper pot.

The jewellery pieces are soaked in grated radish before being cooked up in a copper pot with rokusho.
Carolyn dipping one of her jewellery pieces into the pot of rokusho.

Carolyn transfers her jewellery pieces from the grated radish into the pot of Rokusho using wooden tongs, to keep the surface of the object uncontaminated. She’ll then boil her pieces for anywhere between 15 minutes to 9 hours to achieve the desired colour—the palette ranges from greys through to rusty reds, browns and black. And the colour should be consistent across the piece’s surface, as a result of the meticulous preparation process. There is an exception: if pure gold and silver are used for special details, their colours will not be affected by the patination process.

The process makes me feel witchy—it’s fabulous. Lots of people outside the workshop think I’m a bit mad, but the people inside the workshop think I’m insane! They’re all working on their more classical work, and I’m there in the corner grating radishes and throwing bits of copper into my bubbling pot! I really enjoy knowing it’s a traditional technique; you don’t often see those sorts of methods that are closer to nature anymore. And it’s focusing. You can’t leave the pot unattended for too long. It’s teaching me patience.

The Japanese colouring process was central to Carolyn’s gorgeous ‘Fallen Leaves’ collection of wearable leaves, replicating those from gingko trees, lillypillies, Moreton Bay figs, melaleucas, and banksias. Reflecting on her work prior to the leaves, Carolyn says landscapes were her primary inspiration—notably she lived and worked in Alice Springs for a few years, soaking up the dramatic landscapes, which inspired her Oregon collection. But she was fascinated when she realised that her earlier work was largely devoid of plant life.

I was curious about this, as it’s really important for me to have lots of green things around in life, whether it’s in my lunch or around the house and garden. The leaves were a move away from the macro to the micro; they brought my work back to the smaller details, and the plant life that we connect with in a more tactile way.

Carolyn and her partner Ben, and their two young boys, Morris and Miro, often collect leaves as they explore their local beach. The leaves become small boats, fairy houses, potpourri, and adornment. Carolyn loves that her boys help her to slow down and find joy in life’s simple things. But it was a solo mission to the beach that really catalysed Carolyn’s inspiration:

One evening, I stopped for a swim on the way home from my workshop. The beach was empty. I was greeted by a wonderful sandcastle; it was a simple mound speared with round brown leaves fluttering in the breeze. They caught the setting sunlight and glowed gold. My heart skipped a beat and the seed for these leaves was planted.

I love this—a poetic moment feeding an artist’s imagination and work. After this experience, Carolyn and her boys started collecting leaves more avidly. She’d choose her favourites, and trace their outline onto a sheet of Japanese alloy. Her pieces are an exact replica of an actual leaf, like a little memento paying homage to those brief, beautiful moments when nature moves us. The rhythmic sawing, filing and cleaning followed, before the pieces were ready for the Niage process.

Carolyn recently made up 200 ‘Fallen Leaves’ for display in the Artisan Gallery’s renowned window display on Brunswick Street in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley. I wondered whether the ‘production line’ feel of making so much so fast took the poetry out of the process for her. But she embraced the opportunity:

“It was surprisingly smooth and with two little kids you don’t really get into the zone very much. But as this project had a firm deadline, we pulled together and decided ‘Ok, we’re going to do this day and night; we’re going to make this happen!’”

Needless to say, radishes are now an essential in the family’s weekly fruit and veg delivery box. And Carolyn sings their praises. “They’re so beautiful. It’s nice to have a bit of pink in the workshop!” Clearly, I’ve underestimated these crispy orbs for too long; it’s time to rethink the radish!

‘Fallen Leaves’ are available for purchase from Woodpapersilk in Sydney, Fio Contemporary in Brisbane, and directly from Carolyn through her website. Follow Carolyn on instagram to keep updated with her creations. 

Some of Carolyn's 'Fallen Leaves' collection
Workshop details
Workshop details