A few days ago I came back from a short, but really enriching trip to Ireland. I was giving a two-day workshop at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin (subject: A workshop with found materials) and then traveled to Kilkenny, where I was invited to speak at the contemporary jewellery seminar called Material Alchemy. I must confess that this was my first workshop in an art college and I had also never spoken in front of such a big audience about my work before, so these were a few very challenging days for me. But as Zoe Robertson stated during her lecture in Kilkenny: ”Don’t fear the fear!” I am really happy that I didn’t chicken out this time, because I met so interesting and nice people and it was a valuable experience in any sense.
The seminar was initiated and planned by the National Craft Gallery in Kilkenny, which was hosting an exhibition titled Not too Precious with works of 25 international art jewellers until the end of March 2016. The show was curated by Gregory Parsons and Dr. Elizabeth Goring and was first exhibited in the Ruthin Craft Centre in Wales last year.
The exhibition and the seminar were broaching the use of ‘non-precious’ materials in contemporary jewellery. Even though art jewellers have been working with all kinds of materials for their expressive potential for half a century already, the issue is still up to date. The seminar explored the practices and ideas of some artists and also put an emphasis on the question of how to develop a career in the field. Seventy percent of the people in the audience were students from different art colleges in Ireland and I believe they obtained some really useful information and valuable insights.
I want to gather a few thoughts here, about some topics which were addressed during the seminar…
What is precious?
I would normally never refer to my work as pieces made from ‘non-precious materials’ (but I will use this phrase in this post nevertheless, as it is simpler than writing, for example ‘other materials than noble metals and gemstones’). For me all materials are equal, because they all have a potential for artistic expression.
When I made the crystal-shaped pieces from sheets of paint from a Graffiti wall, a colleague advised me to set them in gold to make them appear more valuable. He didn’t believe that I would be able to sell them as they were (and may I add that he was wrong there… ). If I chose to work with gold, then it is because of its qualities as a material or for conceptual reasons, but not to increase the value of a piece. I guess I really don’t believe in the concept of precious or non-precious materials anymore, which leads me to the question:
What is precious? Why is gold, for example, considered a precious material?
Yuval Harari writes about this subject in “A brief History of Mankind” (you can find a part of the chapter on money and gold here). Even though the old Egyptians or the Maya already developed a deep appreciation for gold for its shine and colour much earlier, it was the introduction of embossed gold and silver coins around 600 B.C., which made it a global phenomenon. Storage and transactions with gold coins were much easier than with sacks of grain and as the seals of the political authorities, the embossing guaranteed the value of the coins (counterfeiting of coins was widely punished with torture and death). This created trust between the traders even in between different countries. In the beginning of the modern age this enabled the first monetary union zone for the whole world.
Why did this work? Yuval Harari explains that creating this mutual trust “was a complex and long-term network of political, social, and economic relations.” But drastically simplified: “Why do I believe in the gold coin or dollar bill? Because my neighbors believe in them. And my neighbors believe in them because I believe in them. And we all believe in them because our king believes in them and demands them in taxes, and because our priest believes in them and demands them in tithes.”
The value and preciousness of gold is a myth we all believe in, a product of our collective phantasy, which we trust completely without ever challenging it. Theoretically any other material could become equally valuable, if only enough people would believe in its value.
Harari: ”If earth was visited by aliens who believed that onionskin are rare and precious goods, the price for onionskin on earth would probably explode.” This reminds me of the Tulipomania in the 17th century, when some tulip bulbs became ridiculously expensive (around 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman).
The problem, which still presents itself to all makers of art jewellery is that these established beliefs of what is precious trustworthy jewellery are so embedded in our brains, that it is hard for people to accept anything else.
Julie Connellan’s talk in Kilkenny was about the question of what happens, when people are presented with new ideas, in this case new ideas about jewellery. She explained that people acquire a kind of code from their environment by which they learn to value jewellery. This code compounds by elements such as
1. highly skilled production techniques
2. specific forms
3. precious metals, highly polished
4. gemstones and
5. small scale.
“Contemporary jewellery is characterised by the absence of some or sometimes all of these elements. And it is this absence which can lead to initial confusion and suspicion in relation to it.” she said. ”If we want contemporary jewellery to reach a wider audience and to be appreciated and worn by more people, than we have to make sure that people don’t feel suspicious about the work, and that they feel confident about the alternative frame of reference.”
Julie stated further: ”The old ‘code’ used to understand traditional jewellery could be used as a tool to explain contemporary jewellery and its alternative value system where emotional and intellectual content are highly prized. Contemporary jewellery does not exist in an intellectual or cultural vacuum. On the contrary, it lives alongside, and in opposition to traditional jewellery and its codes.”.
The durability of art jewellery from ‘non-precious’ materials
One important quality of jewellery from (non-corrosive) metals and gems is that most pieces are very durable. We have all seen the pieces in the museum like the gold of the Scythians for example. Some of these pieces are thousands of years old, pieces dug out of the ground after many centuries and still in great condition. Durability therefore is something many connect strongly with in terms of jewellery and certainly is an important part of their idea of preciousness. So one question that was raised during the panel talk was if makers of art jewellery who work with ‘non-precious’ materials consider the durability of their pieces?
The answer to that can be very different from artist to artist. I know for a fact of a few art jewellers who refuse to ponder about what their pieces will look like in a couple of years. It is really not important for them. In other cases the process of decomposing is part of the concept and the beauty of the work. I am thinking of Naama Bergman’s stunning brooches, necklaces and vessels from steel and salt. The salt is reacting with the steel and so the colour of the pieces change slowly from white to brown. Naama said that this process will continue until the steel will be completely eaten away and the pieces crumble. She doesn’t know how long it will take, but it is the definite outcome.
At the seminar Julie Connellan pointed out that for art jewellery standards to preserve the work like for paintings, for example, do not yet exist . If you put a painting in the ground, it would also not last very long and museums and collectors are very much aware of the conditions paintings need to be preserved for as long as possible.
Personally I distinguish for my work between durability and wearability. If durability was one of my major concerns, I could not work with glue for instance. Who really knows how long even the best glue will do its job properly? And a painter once asked me, if I have knowledge about the lightfastness of the graffiti paint I am using, but the paint comes from a Graffiti wall, so how could I possibly receive knowledge on which paints exactly were used for these hundreds of layers? There is absolutely no way of finding out (Have you ever wondered what happened to the flags on the moon? They are still standing, but they are probably all bleached white…).
So no, I am not aiming to make jewellery that will last for centuries. I do however, want my pieces to be strong and long lasting enough to be worn as much as the owners want to wear them. I want them to be as much jewellery as they are art.
Many pieces of art jewellery are far less sensitive than they appear and it is important to communicate this to the audience. Angela O’Kelly was wearing a neck piece of hers on the day of the seminar, which is made from paper, a material, which is considered to be very fragile and ephemeral. She said that she is wearing this piece almost every day for years and it still looks like when she made it…
Can you make a living from being a maker of art jewellery?
In autumn 2015 I visited Barcelona, because I was taking part in an exhibition during Joya. The one question Spanish students and graduates asked me many times during these days, was if I could live from the selling of my work. If one considers the ever growing amount of makers, but very limited number of galleries for contemporary jewellery, this is a very understandable concern. I must say that I ignored this question totally during my studies, probably because I was not ready to face it. Well, I have to face it now…
For me selling my work since graduation has been a bumpy street with ups and downs. To have some kind of basic income I am working for the goldsmith Christa Lühtje once a week and I also teach classes for technical jewellery making in Augsburg and Munich at the VHS (adult education center). I like these jobs, but I would prefer to not have to rely on them.
Selling art jewellery from ‘non-precious materials’ is still hard work for the reasons mentioned before. What I heard from students and makers a few times during these days in Dublin and Kilkenny was that Ireland doesn’t have enough facilities and opportunities for makers to sell their work. This is not a specific problem of Ireland though. Germany definitely has more galleries and collectors than Ireland, but also art jewellers from Germany all have to work on an international level (until now I surely didn’t sell 5 pieces to Germans) and we all have to strive for creating more possibilities for art jewellery to be shown and sold.
But is it really possible to live from making art jewellery? I know from some older colleagues that it can work, that they do live only from the sales of their work, but I also know that worldwide there are not too many of them. Most artists in the field found additional jobs to provide for themselves.
Some of the speakers of the seminar in Kilkenny have teaching positions at art and design colleges. These jobs are rare, sought-after and surely great, but they are also very demanding and time-consuming. When Zoe Robertson (course director for BA Jewellery Design and Related Products at the School of Jewellery, Birmingham City University) was asked how she manages to find enough time for her own projects besides her responsibilities as a teacher she said that she will always make time for it, because this is what she loves doing.
Eoin M Lyons is working full time as a goldsmith for a jewellery company and then works for 2 or 3 hours every day on his own work. This is certainly a very tight working schedule, but Eoin stated that it adds a rhythm into his practice, which allows him to get a lot more out of his time.
One question that was raised during the panel talk was if it was an option for the attendants to create a more traditional jewellery line parallel to the art jewellery for (easier) selling. I know a few colleagues who are doing this. I could not imagine it for myself (at this moment), because for me the two worlds are clashing.
What I am trying now with the earrings of the Karma Chroma- series, is to create smaller, faster and cheaper pieces and put them in a few galleries (so called multiples or artists editions). I know that some colleagues are also strictly refusing this. There is always the risk that the smaller pieces are worse versions of the one of a kind pieces and weaken the whole body of work. But if the ‘product’ is good, why not…
Consequently it can be agreed, that there is no ideal royal road, only individual choices to individual paths and many possibilities.
Jaki Coffey only finished last year her MFA in Design, Jewellery and Metal in NCAD, Dublin, but already is very successful with her work. When she was asked what advice she would give to young makers, she said: “I think it’s important for emerging artists to enter every competition and to apply for every award and bursary you can see. You might feel that you don’t have a chance but it’s a great opportunity to get your work assessed by international panels and established makers. If you are lucky to get your work accepted or recognized, it can have a domino effect with further exhibition offers and contacts being made.” She stated further: “Promote yourself! Unfortunately no one is going to do it for us. But, even if it feels uncomfortable, it is a huge part of what we do. So get a great website, high quality photos and get savvy with the social media.”
And Zoe Robertson advised this: “Be open to opportunities. If you are passionate about what you are doing, you will find a way to make it work!”
If I was to give one single piece of advice to young artists, it would be this: Take the time you need to create a strong body of work before you get your pieces out there. Do not pressure yourself too fast with obligations regarding galleries, exhibitions etc., but only focus on your work. Because once you have entered the cycle of making, showing and selling work, you might not find this freedom anymore to try whatever you want, because you will have to deliver. It is a bit like making music: For the first CD a musician can take all the time in the world, but then the second CD has to follow only one or two years after…
International guest speakers: Felieke van der Leest (The Netherlands / Norway), Zoe Robertson (UK) and Carina Shoshtary (Germany), kindly supported by the Goethe Institut, Dublin.
Irish based speakers: Jaki Coffey, Julie Connellan, Eimear Conyard, Eoin M Lyons, Sonja Landweer. Angela O’Kelly.
1 Results of the students who took part in the workshop A workshop with found materials in March 2016 at NCAD; Photo: Carina Shoshtary
2 Felieke van der Leest: Crazy Horse, brooch, 2010; Textile, gold, oxidized silver, plastic animal, glass beads, topaz; 15,5 x 9,5 x 4,5 cm; Photo: Eddo Hartmann
3 Carina Shoshtary: Medulla 1, brooch, 2014; Cactus, graffiti, silver, stainless steel; 11,2 x 5,6 x 3,0 cm; Photo: Mirei Takeuchi
4 Julie Connellan: Untitled, necklace, 2011; Turf, iron, silver, gold; Photo: Sean and Yvette Photography
5 Zoe Robertson: Piece of FlockOmania; Photo: Christian Kipp; Dance Artist: Amy Voris
6 Eoin M Lyons: Self-Organised Capacitors, brooch, 2013; Iron Wire, 18ct gold wire, mild steel, sterling silver, stainless steel; Photo: Stephen Mynhardt
7 Jaki Coffey: Inflatable neckpiece from Lust at Sea, 2015; Waterproof nylon, latex, reflective tape, pinch clamp, wadding, nylon strap, wire; 24,0 x 55,0 x 2,5 cm, Photo: Damien Maddock
8 From left: Felieke van der Leest, Carina Shoshtary and Zoe Robertson in front of Kilkenny castle after the seminar, Photo: Nice lady
Text edit: Hayley Grafflin