Pure Silver

Stromsoe's Open Studio is a historical tour of artistic mastery

Locals know Oak Creek Road as the shortcut to the beach, and so does Randy Stromsoe. His immaculately kept, architecturally gorgeous silversmithing shop (fit with a massive indoor tree in the entry that looks like Jack’s Beanstalk) is right at the base of the road, among 27 acres of oaks, a personal vineyard, and a creek. Before he heads into a full day (and into the evening) in his Templeton studio, he often takes the road down to the beach for a surf. His wife, Lisa, a strikingly beautiful redhead, with electric blue painted toes to celebrate her and Randy’s 41-year-wedding anniversary, was picking up Bananagrams tiles from last night’s game. The couple has two grown children, Nicole Stromsoe, who studied opera in Siena and blew the town’s mind singing at the latest Whale Rock Music Festival, and Sean, a videographer who was in town one more night before flying to Ethiopia to open a skate park for an organization he co-founded.

The big log barn with a blue roof on Oak Creek is Stromsoe’s studio too — the whole bottom level a historical candy shop of hammers, blocks, anvils, files, and other fascinating, classic silversmithing tools. The studio is so well-seasoned and legitimate, it might need to be a stop on every art tour, or place where every artistic young adult in North County could be learning about traditional art. Silversmithing has been a technique that’s been around since about 301 A.D., taking a start in places like the ancient Near East and medieval Europe. Stromsoe still uses the early hand-forging techniques, starting with a large sheet of sterling silver, and he also works in gold and pewter.

“The funny thing is, what’s valuable in the silver is what people paid for it. Somebody bought it now and gave it to a child – the child’s 30-years-old – it’s going to be worth it’s weight in silver,” Stromsoe said. Much of his clientele is from the East Coast, where people tend to seek hand-made quality that they can pass down the generations.

On any given studio day, Stromsoe has been listening to KCBX radio (since he lost his ipod with all his favorite music), and he might take the start of the morning to go on a hike, play basketball, or take a little time to tree trim on his property or work out a little on an exercise bike. He is as mellow as one would think as a surfer, as brilliant as one would guess as a famous fine artist, and though his art technique is essentially slow-moving and painstakingly time consuming, his wife says he drives like he’s a lunatic to get to the ocean. But it’s only so that he can get in his surf and stay on schedule, she explained. He is a disciplined person, who wants to be in his studio all the time, with plenty of important projects on his work table. A couple times a year he goes to mainland Mexico for surf trips with a group of friends, but mostly, he works night and day in his studio.

His knowledge for silversmithing is unbelievable, hard to explain in a single meeting, and definitely underestimated. It takes anywhere from three weeks to three months to make one of his Stromsoe’s pieces. He doesn’t allow visible seams and absolutely nothing is cast. His work has been said to be similar in sensibility to the Swedish designers of the 40s and 50s – smooth, classic forms with masterful craftsmanship and stunning precision and balance. Which means for every ornate sterling silver punch bowl, silver baby spoon, or clean rounded Scandinavian-style teapot, Stromsoe had been in his studio, intensely hammering and forming, welding for days and days, in pursuit of the product that came from a single sketch, toiling incessantly over every nuance and subtlety. The quality can be felt in the palm of the hand. The weight of real precious metal versus the cheap production of today’s silver is obvious, separating the functional objects as true art pieces from a distant time.  

Stromsoe’s work has been commissioned world-wide: from the White House Collection of American Craft to honoring papal visits from Vatican. His work has been presented as gifts to heads of state including Jacques Chirac of France, King Hussein of Jordan and Pope John Paul II. One of his fruit bowls is a favorite at the White House and more than one administration has sought his work and invited him over to D.C.

One of his coffee pots was featured in Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” (which set designers hardly gave him the time his art requires) and the Smithsonian Institution has entered Stromsoe into their oral archives.

His shop at 3775 Old Creek Road in Templeton will be open both weekends October 14 and 15 and 21 and 22, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Stromsoe will have items for purchase from $150 on up, including his popular, kinetically enchanting sterling silver and carnelian bead bracelets that sound like soft rain on the wrist. He has discounted several pieces to be placed in loving homes, including a few teapots, among other jewelry works. Hundreds of people came to the open studios last year, as Stomsoe’s shop is a destination stop that draws in students, fellow metalsmiths, and the public, so the crowds came in – even during a downpour. “It was a non-stop party,” said Stromsoe, who recently received a group of curious Tibetan Monks in his shop. Meeting the community is one of his favorite parts of Open Studios. He has been enjoying teaching classes out of his shop these days, and hopes to pass on some of his invaluable experience.

At our visit he was constructing a grand-scale 24-inch rounded sterling silver bowl with two ladles and 15 toasting cups for a dedication honoring the Third Brigade, 82nd Airborne’s 50th anniversary of their service in Vietnam. He was starting with a huge wooden mold and hundreds of dollars worth of pure silver in large sheet stock, which he saws down to size and painstakingly hammers into vessel form.

Recently Jill Wagner of “Hand Crafted America” on the INSP Channel featured Stromsoe on her show. Stromsoe is extremely low-key about his accomplishments, and maintains privacy about the celebrities who have commissioned his art, but we learned after filming him at his studio, Wagner herself bought two gorgeous goblets as a wedding gift for her husband. How she left without commissioning the entire flatware set is beyond comprehension. One can eat dinner with a spoon or one can eat cuisine with a real spoon. The difference is in quality, but also a health choice. The Stromsoes pointed out research that silver wipes out germs. The use of silver in medicine goes back thousands of years, but hospitals are just learning that if they plate their door knobs in silver, bacteria has no chance of surviving.

“They knew way back when that silver was antibacterial, but now the idea of having a silver spoon for a baby, especially, is a great idea,” said Stromsoe, who has, over the years, made silver “Healing Cups” for friends suffering from Cancer and AIDS. “The kings and the pharoahs back in the old days would boil water and keep their water silver containers and the poor people would put silver coins and throw it in their buckets of water to purify their water, just to get that leaching effect, just enough to give you all kinds of benefits,” Stromsoe said.

Stromsoe just heard from a man who still uses one of his handmade baby spoons to this day, only now he used it for his coffee instead of his pureed sweet potatoes.  

Stromsoe is a rare breed, trained in traditional silversmithing by master silversmith Porter Blanchard since he was a mere 19-years old. Before he started his apprenticeship, he took a little jewelry making class at the local college.

“I did better in that class than any class I had ever taken in my life,” he reflected. Stromsoe grew up in a harsh San Fernando Valley environment, second to the oldest of four boys. It was a different time, and his parents would drop him off in Malibu beach for four days at a time with enough food to get him through. “I had some sun damage, but we got a lot of good waves,” he remembered. But there were also fights and gangs in his hometown. “Surfers got beat up all the time.” He said he felt like he just needed to make it through. “I didn’t grow up a passive person, I grew up feeling like I had to survive,” he said.

Recognizing his capacity for silver work, the teacher of that college class tried to persuade him to move to France and study with the German goldsmith she learned from in a five-year program. But Stromsoe didn’t have the means for the travel costs. So the professor took him and his classmates on a field trip to Blanchard’s shop instead. Blanchard, at the time, was in his mid-eighties and nearing retirement. Stromsoe found himself in awe. “I was just checking the place out because I was so enthralled. He had all these old tools, and he goes, ‘Hey – you wanna try that?’ and I had already picked up some metal in our class before and tried it earlier, and so I had some idea what to do, so he got excited and hired me… I just fell into something that most people wouldn’t have the chance to fall into.”

“I guess I liked design,” Stromsoe said about his early motivations to get into silversmithing. “I found that I could make mistakes. How many guys can go in and start and just screw things up and have a master fix it?” He said it was a good experience spending his growth period under Blanchard’s eye, and he appreciated the variety of pieces he was able to work on as he refined his skills.

Blanchard put him to work at his silver shop, throwing him right in there in what Stromsoe calls a “light speed” apprenticeship, learning the craft, but also being challenged with big commissions right off the bat. One of his first jobs was making 14-karat gold trophy cups for the Santa Anita Race track. But Blanchard was a generous mentor, and shared all of his knowledge in the short three years before his passing. Stromsoe became shop superintendent of Porter Blanchard Silversmith’s Inc., where he excelled in everything tableware: flatware and hollowware. By age 22 he was filling big orders for Gump’s in San Francisco and Bullock’s Wilshire Beverly Hills, Cartier, and many others.This was Stromsoe’s busiest time, when stores had departments devoted to silver and his art was in big demand with curators and collectors at galleries and museums.  

At the urging of an art patron, in 1979, Stromsoe moved from Los Angeles to Cambria to set up his own silver studio, which he ran there for almost 20 years. He has been using his age-old techniques to create custom pieces, tableware and jewelry ever since, but moved his studio to Templeton within the last decade. He and Lisa used to drive their kids from Cambria to Templeton schools back when their children were young, and he and his wife had been eyeing the prime piece of property in Templeton for a long time. “This community, my God! I have all kinds of metalsmiths come by, students who are silversmithing…” Stromsoe lights up when he talks about the people he meets. Fall is his favorite season, a time when the surf picks up, the weather becomes cooler and he finishes many pieces. He’s beginning to worry about having enough time for the Vietnam commission. So during Open Studios, if his hands wander off to that massive piece of silver, half-formed into a big punch bowl, one might guess that’s what’s on his mind.

You may contact Reporter Beth Giuffre for questions and/or feedback at [email protected]

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