Words and Photos by Gaige Davila
The Port Isabel Lighthouse, though built in 1852, is not the oldest piece of history in Port Isabel’s Market Square.
Down the hill of the lighthouse sits Alchemaille Exploratorium, the workspace and store of Michael DeVeny, Port Isabel’s only chainmaille artist.
“I saw a chainmaille shirt sitting over a chair that caught my eye, stared at it a few moments, saw the patterns, structure the rings made and said ‘alright, I can do that.,” DeVeny said, describing the experience from a renaissance festival he attended in 1992 while living in Ohio.
DeVeny, who was working as a pipefitter at the time, used filler rod and welding wire to create coils, teaching himself the craft.
Ten years ago, DeVeny was working in renaissance festivals crafting chainmail until a mutual friend introduced him to restaurateur Scott Friedman, who was looking for artists to occupy Lighthouse Square. DeVeny moved down in June 2009 and decided to stay, opening Alchemaille Exploratorium in 2013.
The name, Alchemaille, alludes to alchemy, the medieval precursor to chemistry, and chainmaille.
“I took one ancient craft and transformed it into something completely different,” DeVeny said, referring to alchemy’s study of the transformation of matter.
Chainmaille, in its most basic form, uses metal rings to create fabric, likely invented by the Celts between 300 and 500 A.D. This “fabric” was fashioned as cut-resistant armor, shaped to parts on the body. The ways to create chainmaille have developed since its inception, still being used today for cut-resistant gloves. But for DeVeny, it’s chainmaille’s artistic capability that made him delve deeper into the craft.
“I’ve done a dozen shirts, dozens of headpieces, I’ve done a lot of bikinis and dresses and jackets and vests,” DeVeny said. “I just knew there was more structure, more dimensionality: I didn’t want it to always be something you had to wear.
“Why not create structure, create art.”
Chainmaille starts as wires, formed into coils and clipped at the bends. The rings can then be made into bracelets, shirts, gloves or polyhedral geometric shapes, as DeVeny has done several times. His work is displayed across his shop, with each piece with a metal tag detailing how many hours DeVeny spent crafting them. Most of his pieces have taken hundreds of hours to build.
“I just like to see what else is possible,” DeVeny said. “Superficially, it’s simple: you’re just hooking circles together. The specifics of that circle, the ratios of the wire diameter to the inside diameter, is what will allow you to do different weaves, different densities, and have the different dynamics.”
DeVeny channels the dexterity of his hands to the pliers themselves, effortlessly unwinding and looping the rings of metal as his cats, “Caesar” and “Turtle,” snooze nearby.
People who come into the shop mostly do so out of curiosity, DeVeny said, with some recognizing the craft while others are “dumbfounded,” he says, of the works. Even those who come to Alchemaille Exploratorium familiar with the concept of chainmaille haven’t seen it made like DeVeny’s.
“It’s like Legos on steroids,” DeVeny said of chainmaille. Movies and renaissance festivals have kept chainmaille’s craft alive, leaving room for artistic exploration, DeVeny said.
“For me, it’s just the math: because you get lost in the possibilities,” DeVeny said. “You’re taking very few aspects and then you can create almost infinite possibilities.”
Find DeVeny and his works at 419 E Maxan St. in the Lighthouse Square from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.