Graham Short is an astonishing human being. In our modern world of hyperboles, Short's talent really does stand out as extraordinary. He is a calm, softly-spoken man, an engraver from Birmingham who likes to swim. As night falls, he spends hours pursuing his hobby - working with a microscope, Graham Short engraves literary passages onto the tiniest items imaginable - the end of a paperclip, or a 2mm wide pin. Any passing traffic could cause a vibration that renders his work ruined. Short sits with a stethoscope taped to his chest, so that he can engrave a stroke of a letter between heart beats. His love of swimming has been taken to the extreme and in order to achieve a resting pulse rate of 30 beats per minute, he swims 10,000 metres a day. I was honoured to talk to Graham Short about his work in miniature engraving.
Your talent is unique - can you give us a little background into your work?
I'm trying to push the limits of micro-engraving to levels never seen before. Forty years ago I started to engrave The Lord's Prayer on the head of a 2mm wide pin.
I didn't work continually on it but ran it alongside my copper-plate work. It's always been a tradition among engravers to carve this prayer as small as possible so for many years I was fixated by the idea of engraving on the smallest surface, to go beyond what anyone else had ever achieved. I initially used steel dress pins. These were very brittle to work on so in recent years I started using gold pins, The metal is softer and doesn't corrode. The Lord's Prayer Engraved on a Pin Head was finished three years ago. When I'd finished it I couldn't stop looking at it - I was thrilled.
The latest piece, which was finished recently was the first chapter of the Qur'an engraved in Arabic on a platinum pin. That was a real challenge, purely because the Islamic lettering was new to me. The satisfaction I felt when it was completed was indescribable!
You've mentioned that The Lord's Prayer was a tradition amongst engravers, where does your inspiration come from to engrave other passages onto items?
I am obsessed with the written word, letters and typography have been central to my life as this is what I mostly engraved, the fascination for me has been how words can change nations, move people to tears and yet they are just made up of little letters that I painstakingly engrave. And so I guess I've been increasingly inspired by quotes and phrases that have powerful intent and the more people are getting to know what I am doing - they send me the quotes and phrases that inspire them. I'm often inundated with emails with ideas and I especially like words aimed at traditional family values, particularly involving children. A favourite of mine is: "If you want your children to improve, let them hear the nice things you say about them to others." This was engraved on a small gold pin.
You recently exhibited in Mayfair, do you have any upcoming exhibitions planned?
Artists the world over would give anything to have a solo exhibition in Mayfair. It was my proudest moment so far. We've since had enquiries from the US which are coming to fruition.
In a few month's time we are hoping to have a piece in the White House Museum, Washington at the start of an American tour. The collection will feature quotes spoken by prominent American presidents, industrialists, pioneers and celebrities.
I've just been sent a Civil War bullet which has recently been dug out of the ground in Virginia, having been buried since 1865. The Abraham Lincoln quote on this, is simply, "The ballot is stronger than the bullet."
You are, by your own admission, obsessed with miniature engravings - do you have any particular engraving ambitions you wish to fulfil?
Just one pretty basic ambition. I want people to appreciate the skill involved. That's why I use as a canvas, items that are known the world over, such as the tip of a pen nib, the sharp edge of a razor blade, the end of a hand from a pocket watch etc. I will always be driven to go smaller - I want to hold that record. That is my title and it took over forty years to get it!
It's a passion that takes up many hours of your time, what's your typical working day like? Do your family and friends support you?
My working day starts with a swimming session. I'm fortunate in that I train alongside a world champion swimmer and several top-class triathletes. We push each other to exhaustion! My working day starts at 10pm with breathing and relaxation exercises. Then, when I am relaxed enough to give me a low resting pulse rate, I start work at midnight. I work until 5am purely to avoid the vibration caused by passing traffic. Everywhere is silent at this time of night, and extremely peaceful. I work under a 400 magnification microscope and use a stethoscope to monitor my heart beat. When I am absolutely still, I attempt to make a controlled cut into the metal - between heart beats.
Every three months I have Botox injections around my eyes. This helps keep the nerves and muscles absolutely rigid. Occasionally they pump in too much and I can't blink for a while. I have to keep pulling my eyelids down by hand to lubricate my eyes. This wears off after about four days though.
I'm lucky that family and friends support me in what I am doing. The hours are anti-social, to say the least. I get very tired and can only manage four or five consecutive nights at a time before I need to have two or three 'normal' days when I live like everyone else!
You swim thousands of metres a day - do you also have to be careful as to what you eat? Can you drink coffee?
I'm currently covering 10,000 metres a day in the pool. I still need to avoid cakes and chocolate, which is my biggest weakness. I avoid caffeine too. I also take vitamins; potassium, magnesium and sometimes beta-blockers. I know I'm going to extremes at times to keep my pulse rate low. It has become a real obsession.
What are you currently working on?
I'm working solely on pieces to make up the Hall of Fame collection for the States. The one I have in front of me now is a Muhammad Ali quote: "I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world." That's a thoughtful quote from a thoughtful man. I like it.