Sometimes I meet interesting strangers…
Published 10:00 pm Monday, April 11, 2016
Readers often ask me how I find the people that I interview for Landrum Wanderings. Sometimes I see a sign, or perhaps I read about someone. And when I’m lucky, I just happen to be talking with a stranger and discover they have something interesting to share. This was the case with Michael Atkins.
Michael and I happened to be in a coffee shop having a casual conversation. He mentioned that he was a silversmith, had spent much of his adult life in California, and had returned home to Campobello when the California economy was showing signs of weakening. Today I’m going to visit Michael at his workshop and learn about his life and silversmithing.
Michael has an ancestral heritage here in the Carolinas dating back to the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Little Chicago, bootlegging and pre-NASCAR racing are part of his family’s past. His father raced in a Southern 500 in Spartanburg, July 4, 1941, with Bill France, known as the father of NASCAR.
After graduating from Chapman High School, Michael was looking for adventure and headed west. California was home where he became somewhat of a “jack of all trades.”
“I did some retail on Pier 39 in San Francisco, worked as an accountant at some of the vineyards like Windsor Vine and Sebastiani, and was employed by a Coors distributor. I became a nurse and for awhile I worked for social services in Sonoma County before I returned to South Carolina,” he recounts.
“I always liked stones. My grandfather, John Fisher, was a stone mason and so I think it’s inherited,” he smiles. “I spent some time visiting the little mines around Hendersonville and Franklin. They give you a seeded bucket of dirt, that you wash and sift through to find things like local sapphires and emeralds.” That led to Michael joining a rock club in Hendersonville to learn about stone cutting.
“Next I took some classes at Tryon Arts and Crafts from Toni Touchberry and learned about working with silver and making jewelry,” he continues.
His workshop is nestled in the woods near Campobello and is filled with rocks, machinery, and tools. He shows me several stones, some dinosaur bones, petrified sponge coral, garnets found in creek beds, and some petrified fish eggs from Wyoming. Bumblebee jasper from Indonesia is especially attractive.
Michael teaches classes at his workshop. Stonecutting is taught in a three-hour class. He also teaches an eight class series once a week to learn to work with silver and copper.
“You have to build on what you learn, so you have to come each week to remember each step,” he explains.
Next he gives me a brief demonstration of stone cutting. He shows me some of the jewelry he’s made with stones and silver, some with wrapped wire. He points out silver bands with pressed patterns in the silver.
“I call it all ‘playing’” he laughs. “I like to teach and encourage, and help solve problems.” This quality has led him into the mental health field. In 2000 he studied to become a nurse in California and worked on a mental ward.
“When the state began cutting the budget for social services, I decided it was time to leave California. Presently I work at a treatment center in Spartanburg,” he says.
But Michael is always developing new interests. He mentions being in a play.
“I’m in my second play at Spartanburg Community College. The first one was called ‘A Rose for Emily,’ based on a short story by William Faulkner, and this one is ‘Blue Stockings.’”
Set in Victorian England, “Blue Stockings,” a term used to describe educated women, covers an academic year where female students fight to be acknowledged as academic scholars. The play is opening April 14 and runs through April 16.
I ask about some of his photographs that I’ve noticed at Frank’s Coffee Shop in Gramling. “I’m just playing. I enjoy new things and the musicians are interesting to photograph,” he grins.
Michael’s studio is called Red Hawk Studios. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.