The work of Mitch Yates caught my eye when I started to see his engraved representations of animals and designs on silver that were unmistakably true to the style and feel of the 18th Century and earlier. He has also created some wonderful flintlock firearms that show the restrained yet detailed hand of an artist dedicated to precision and form. So, I asked him a few questions about himself and his work:
How did you get started down this path?
As far back as I can remember I’ve had an interest in history and hand-work. At a very young age I accompanied my father on a trip to Grey Owl Trading (A company that dealt in Native American Craft Supplies) and he purchased a loom for me to try my hand at beadwork. At 14 I saw the movie Jeramiah Johnson and received a Thompson Center Hawken as a Christmas present which was my entry in muzzleloading. At 17 I entered the construction trades, and after working on an historical restoration of the last standing blacksmith shop in my hometown, I took up blacksmithing. I gradually moved from construction work to opening my own custom cabinet/furniture shop catering to the wealthy of “The Hamptons” (an affluent seaside community located in Long Island, New York). A chance to go elk hunting in Colorado prompted me to combine wood and metal working and build my first gun. Full-time gunmaking and silversmithing followed.
Did anyone in particular influence or teach you?
When I was 19 I stared working for a man named Al Kahkonen. He was a bit of a renaissance man who was skilled in many different kinds of hand-work and had a deep interest in the 18th Century. Al not only enjoyed making items from the 18th Century...his passion was using proper 18th Century tools and methods. His attitude was that with a little God given talent in your hands, a thirst for knowledge and lots of perseverance, there isn’t anything you can’t make or accomplish. That attitude has served me well in life.
I studied Gun Building at the NMLRA Gunsmithing School in Lexington Kentucky. While there I studied under the likes of Wallace Gusler, Gary Brumfield, Jim Chambers and Hershal House, probably one of the best experiences in my life. Lately Mark Thomas has been a huge help as I’ve started to work more and more with silver. Mark is another of those craftsmen who work in many different mediums and materials and does incredible work. These are just a few, I’ve left many out as there are just too many to mention here. One of the great things about this community that we are a part of is a willingness to help and share knowledge. I can do what I can because someone took the time to share their knowledge with me. For this I am grateful.
When did you first start engraving?
I first started engraving about ten years ago. After fumbling around on my own for a while I took an engraving class with Wallace Gusler. It helped me improve some but I never really felt good about what I was doing. A couple of years ago at my lovely wife’s urging I stared making trade silver. I viewed it as a way to improve and get more comfortable with engraving. It’s worked out well, not only allowing me to practice weekly but it has become a big part of my business. I’m finally starting to see my engraving improve to a level that I’m happy with.
Do you teach or instruct at all?
I try to share what I know to anyone who is interested. I’ve taught some woodworking and blacksmithing in the past, and I’ve been doing some seminars at Dixon’s Gunmaker Fair and will continue to do so. I know what I know because someone shared with me, so I feel an obligation to pass on what I know.
What is your process when you set out to make a piece?
Most of my work is heavily based on original 18th century examples. My basic philosophy when making something is that when it’s done it should look like I trained in the 18th Century shop where it was originally made. Even if it’s not an exact copy, my “master” could be identified by studying my work. To that end I spend a lot of time studying tool marks and how carving/engraving was cut. This also means that 18th Century tools and techniques are used whenever possible. I begin by studying/researching the details of the original piece, make whatever patterns and tools that are necessary, and then I make the piece.
What is your favorite material to work with?
I would say my favorite is whatever I’m working on at the moment. I have found the key to keep from getting bored in my work is to kind of jump from one thing to another, trying to be make each one more difficult than the last. I maintain photos/files of things that I want to try to make that will challenge my skills and interest my clients.
When you create a gun, do you make any of the components from scratch? Does that change the creative process in any way?
For the most part, with the exception of the lock and barrel, I make as many of the parts as I can or the customers budget will allow. I regularly make my own patchboxes, ramrod pipes, sideplates, inlays, and forge my own iron mounts. With the exception of forging a barrel( which is on my bucket list) I’ve made all the other parts of a rifle at one time or another. Making your own parts greatly expands the creative process as it broadens your artistic possibilities is the best way to avoid the “cookie cutter” look in your work.
The borders, overall designs and other elements of your engraving work in particular shows you have an instinct and innate skill for composition and layout. Does much of the original work you've seen and studied show this same level of composition?
Almost all the “art” on my work is either taken directly from original work or is inspired by it. In the period, work showed wide variations in complexity. European work was of a much higher quality than American work for the most part. The long established guild system in Europe meant artists were very well trained and their skills were honed from a young age. Their work showed a much higher level of composition and execution. I try and match the level of my work to the original piece I am trying to recreate. I often joke that one reason my engraving looks right for most American 18th century work is that I’m not a great engraver, and neither were the original workers that I mimic. There were certainly master engravers in the period, but most of the American work (as opposed to European) that interests or inspires me would be considered “folk art”. I find that sometimes the little imperfections are what’s interesting about a piece. It’s one of the reasons I stick with a hand hammer and graver rather than a powered graver. My personal goal is to be as good as I can be with a hammer and chisel.
How much of your own sensibilities are incorporated into your work and how much of your work is faithful copies of originals?
A big portion of my work is copies of originals. I get a kick out of seeing something and then figuring out how to make it. My gun work will sometimes be copies, but most of it is “inspired by”, as if I was working in a particular maker's shop. Sometimes I will copy a gun at the customer’s request which is always a bit more challenging than just working “in the school”.
My silver work currently is most often copies of mass produced period work. It’s very important to a lot of my reenactor clients to be able to tie a piece to a particular time and place for their persona. I’ve found that the more I’ve expanded “my artistic vocabulary", as Wallace Gusler challenged me to do, the more comfortable I am with doing my own thing rather than just copying original work, and still have it look like it belongs in the period.
The animal designs you've been making are very compelling. Where do the concepts for these come from?
The animals on my trade silver for the most part are based and many times copied from original 18th Century work. I find them fascinating, with most being very “folky” and open to different interpretations. It’s been speculated that many were engraved by artists that had never seen the animals they were engraving, but were working from other's sketches. Faithfully recreating them is an important part of making believable and marketable reproductions of original silver work. I have a few customers that I do my own original art work for.
Can you talk a little about exactly what a "peace medal" is? Who made these originally and what was their purpose?
A peace medal is a medal, usually worn around the neck that was a token of friendship and peace that was gifted to the Native Americans first by the leaders of Europe and later by the Presidents of the United States. It is the American ones that I find interesting and reproduce. They were often gifted at the signing of treaties and other interactions between the Native governments and the United States governments. They were a means of recognizing the Native leaders and were viewed as status symbols by those who received them.
Do any other contemporary makers influence your work?
I am influenced by too many contemporary makers to list. There are many different artists whose level of mastery that I aspire to reach. While I will never live long enough to reach their level of work (and they keep getting better!), it gives me goals to shoot for in my own work. As long as I continue to see improvement in what I’m doing I’m pleased, but never too pleased, as it sets a goal I can never quite reach.
What is your favorite type of work to do? Is there any particular tool or material you feel absolutely comfortable and enjoy working with?
I really enjoy anything that continues to challenge me. Woodwork and wood finishing are probably what I feel most comfortable with as I’ve done it the longest, but I’m really pleased with the improvements in my metal work and engraving as of late.
Do you apply the same approach to making all your work, or do you need to change your thinking when making say a gun versus a gorget?
I approach it all pretty much the same. I break gun building into many smaller jobs so I don’t get overwhelmed. Sometimes when working on a gun for a long time you can get frustrated by what seems like a lack of progress, so viewing it as a series of smaller tasks helps to avoid this.
Can you tell us a little about the relationship between Colonial-era America and silver?
Silver was very important to Colonial America. Not only was it a symbol of wealth it also allowed you to travel with your wealth, using utilitarian objects like utensils, plates ,tea pots and candlesticks. Even if the object was damaged you still had the value of the silver.
Trade silver was also hugely important. The desire to obtain it was key in commerce with the Native Americans. It was an important gift item and item of trade. Huge quantities were traded to the Natives for furs, first deer skins and later beaver skins in particular. It was a very important form of currency.
One of the more interesting pieces you've made is the "kissing otters". Where did the concept for this come from?
The otters are based on an original Hudson Bay piece and are most likely 19th Century.
From studying original pieces, have you noticed any particular evolution and differences in style from one time and piece to another?
There is definably an evolution especially with the guns. You can trace the art all the way back to the European masters with most of the art starting in the pattern books of the royal French gunmakers then traveling to Germany then here to the United States. Studying the details in the artwork of longrifles is one of the best ways to trace where they were made and follow the makers and their apprentices as they moved west.
Do you see any modern expressions of the designs, sensibilities, imagery etc. that have their roots in the original work you've studied? Which are subtle and which are obvious? Are any of them surprising?
I find that most of what I do and find interesting has it’s roots in the old masters. Really nothing is new. If you search hard enough you will find it’s been done before.
As a fellow Long Islander, I've always noticed how few makers there are from there, as well as how Long Island's pre-20th century history is often overlooked. Does the history, culture, and environment of colonial-era Long Island have any influence on your work?
The town I grew up in was settled very early (1639), and has a deep sense of history which certainly was an influence on me. Because it is an affluent area, many original homes have been preserved and restored, and a lot of the original history has been researched and documented. Several of the town's original windmills are still in existence. The next town over, Sag Harbor was an important whaling port and home of the first Customs House. The ships captains' mansions are still there and restored, with most featuring grand trim work and architectural detail done by ships' carpenters of the period. My early construction career was spent restoring many of these early structures. To do this requires a lot of handwork. A large part of my business at the time was spent recreating original architectural elements, which required 18th Century tools and techniques in order to look correct. It also taught me to study things like tool marks in order to rediscover how things are done.
What are you working on now?
I have a couple of neat early rifles to do this summer; one is a Berks County and one is a Christian Springs gun. I want to do a really folksy New England fowler for myself if I can find the time. As for the silver work, I have a couple of neat 18th century silver boxes that I want to try and make. One is a copy of an English nutmeg grater and several really cool tobacco boxes. There’s even an 18th Century horn and silver cucumber slicer in the works!
Interview by Eric Ewing.