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Silver teaching that is wild and wily

by Lou Christine

San Miguel has been long known for its eccentrics, and Billy King substantiates this central Mexico mountain towns reputation for attracting the brilliant, the artistic, and the crazy characters normally associated with fiction novels.
Zany Billy King operates a silversmith school in San Miguel named Sterling Quest. The second-floor school, located in sleepy neighborhood called Colonia Guadalupe, on the north end of San Miguel, has been Kings stomping ground for several years.
To know Billy King is to love him. Well, that is what his students say about the kooky Canadian who teaches his craft in an unorthodox manner.
Do it like I f---ing told you, asshole! begins to sound like the norm for Kings battle-hardened yet enthusiastic and ferociously loyal students. One might ask why gentle gals and people of culture would attend a school where the instructor is as irreverent as rogues who unload trucks or lug around freight on docks. Why, because when it comes to learning the craft of silver making, few can hold a blow torch to the man.
Seventeen hundred and fifty six!, King spouts proudly, for no apparent reason. Thats the number of students who have have attended his classes over the past years.
Michelle Whey, 36, a professional New York artist who has resided in San Miguel for almost 10 years, has been with King for at least five. His bark is much worse than his bite, Whey says. But no one, and I mean no one, has helped me to be a better and more imaginative artist than Billy. The sentiment is repeated by his students over and over again.
King oscillates within the seven-room school, sharing a lifetime worth of advice and knowledge. Numerous posters cover the walls, some giving step-by-step instructions, while some dictate, in no nonsense language, the rules of his unique establishment. Still others perhaps define the enigmatic professor: Yo, s--t for brains, when the entire class arrives more than 30 minutes late, the class is cancelled! Or: Office Hours: Open most days about 8 or 9, but some days as late as 12 or 1. We close about 5-6, but some days or afternoons we are not here at all. As of lately Im here just about all the time, except when I happen to be someplace else.
Students work mostly independent of each other as the Rolling Stones pump out of a cassette player. Billy butterflies from work table to work table, prodding and pushing, encouraging and criticizing.
The King studio almost is comical, and anything but boring. At times the master acts like some Vince Lombardi, berating students to no end. Then he changes demeanour and mother-hens, encouraging and praising. While in the middle of a jewellery teaching dissertation he might go kinetic, his body contorts, and he plays the workbench like a bongo, hands pounding. With no shame he belts out, You cant always get what you want! Then almost instantly he focuses back to his students, addressing their concerns as they meticulously etch out a precise pattern with a jewelry-cutting saw.
Ayako Sugimoto, 22, of Tokyo, is studying in San Miguel. She appears quiet and shy, a reserved Oriental girl, perhaps a bit myopic. With keen concentration she labors over the work bench. Struggling with the torch while trying to orchestrate an intricate assembly, she seems perplexed. King snatches the torch from her, showing her how to twist her wrist so as to approach the object from a different angle. Spellbound, she studies her teacher in awe. When finished, King addresses the girl, who speaks and understands only Japanese and some Spanish, You f---ing got it now, baby? Sugimoto, with open mouth, just peers at him in bewilderment. But then as if overcome with gratification, a smile forms across her seamless face. Perhaps the poor girl did not fully understand the obscenity, but she had the move of the torch down pat now, and probably for all time.
Regardless of the foolishness, the jive, and the constant din of chatter, King is as serious as a heart attack when it comes to working in silver. Students arrive from north of the border year round from institutions like the Rhode Island School of Design and Marylands Institute College of Art. King has been sanctioned by those prestigious schools as a master of masters, and school administrations desire their prized students be taught by the rambunctious King.
Normally donned in a tank top, jeans and lumberjack boots, King is tireless, ghoulishly cheerful, yet extraordinarily helpful to all. Black humor reigns supreme. His studio showcases a myriad of art objects, from a Maxwell Parrish scene on one wall to something Oriental, to art poking fun at the industrial war machines that threaten to rule the world. His studio is high-tech, well equipped with an assortment of machines for producing sturdy, well-designed, quality jewellery.
Reared in a rural area of Ontario, Canada, King springs from blue-collar, rough-neck stock. Hes an honest man who seems to be mandated as one who must reveal more. I am one of five boys, and each of us was tougher than the other, he quips.
For nine years King served as the director of silver-making at San Miguels renowned Instituto Allende before branching out on his own three years ago. He charges $220 US a month for 36 hours of instruction to foreigners, and $185 a month to Mexicans.
During a quieter moment, within the confines of his messy office, King, with lunch stretched out atop a crumpled paper bag, gets serious: Sure, I curse at my students. Know why? Cause I f---in care, thats why. If I didnt, I just wouldnt give a f---. He continues, I bet nobody teaches my way... except I hear theres this woman somewhere in Italy whos considered pretty good. Only thing, she curses at her students in five languages, so I guess she has a leg up on me. With that, King lifts the cold turkey drumstick, takes a mighty bite and smiles.
More about Sterling Quest can be found at www.sterlingquestmx O

Canadian silversmith Billy King's unorthodox teaching style might not be for everyone, but his students clainm he's the best of the best. Photo: Eloisa Nisimura.