Smithsonian Craft Show 2019 Volume 41.1

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April is always a perfect time to visit our nation’s capital as the city shakes off the withering cold of winter and looks forward to the rest of the year; that is, if one skips over the blazing heat and humidity of a Washingtonian summer. March 20 may formally mark the first of spring, but it is April that everyone truly embraces as a year reborn. Aside from the blossoming of its magnificent cherry trees, originally a gift of three thousand specimens from Japan in 1912, and celebrated by the wildly popular National Cherry Blossom Festival, the month is filled with one wonderful event after another. Savor this small sample of intriguing museum exhibitions currently showing, like “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644-1912” at the Freer/Sackler Gallery, and “Good as Gold: Fashioning Senegalese Women” on The Mall, at the National Museum of African Art. Located steps from the White House, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery hosts “Connections: Contemporary Craft at the Renwick Gallery.” This exhibition of particular interest to those who love craft contains eighty objects from the 1930s to the present, drawn from its own craft collection, and selected by Nora Atkinson its curator.

But the month of April especially shines with that annual celebration of American craft, the Smithsonian Craft Show, at the National Building Museum, a much lauded architectural beauty and elegant setting for displaying wonders. Each year three invited jurors hone applications of approximately a thousand craft artists from across the country to those considered to have excelled in the handwork of their particular medium. The public is not only afforded the opportunity to meet and talk with the talented artists but to purchase one-of-a-kind works, selecting from twelve craft categories in basketry, ceramics, decorative fiber, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, wearable art, and wood. Many of the one hundred twenty-one artists have participated in prior shows and are well known to serious collectors who look forward to their return, but there is also the precious chance to discover new work. For this year, there are forty-five first time exhibitors like Gregory Burgard (glass), Constance Collins (wearable art), John Guertin (wood), Bill Jones (ceramics), Katherine Maloney (ceramics), Jennifer Nunnelee (jewelry), Deborah Polonoff (wearable art), Tamra Thomas-Gentry (jewelry), Kent Townsend (furniture), Genevieve Yang (jewelry), and Jean Yao (basketry). These entrants reflect the host’s determination to keep the craft world energized with vibrant creations, emphasizing that it is a powerful and lasting artform, always renewing itself. 

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The Smithsonian Women’s Committee, which has sponsored the show for thirty-seven years as a very successful fund-raiser for the Smithsonian Institution, has in recent years established the Smithsonian Visionary Artist Award. Starting in 2014, among those recognized for their achievements have been Albert Paley, Wendell Castle, Dale Chihuly, Toots Zynsky, and Faith Ringgold. For 2019 the recipient is Joyce J. Scott who holds a 2016 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship as part of many points of recognition in her career. In announcing Scott’s award, the Fellowship stated that her jewelry and sculpture “repositioned beadwork into a potent platform for commentary on social and political injustices.” By taking in the “Connections” exhibition at the Renwick during the run of the craft show, Scott’s work can be experienced among other artists who have also helped give voice to American craft as an instrumental embodiment of this country’s complex soul.

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This year sees the return of jewelry luminaries Roberta and David Williamson from Ohio whose work portrays the organic world in its most graceful and blessed. Skillfully wrought sterling silver frames, found objects and antique prints enhance the body in statement neckpieces, in some instances recalling pectorals of former eras. Their iconography is a place of enchantment where the imagery best reflects humanity and other life forces. For those who know the Williamsons or are familiar with their work, it is clear they understand how the world harbors darkness, inequality and injustice, but the couple intends to leave their mark with jewelry that respects what is good and honorable about life.

Massachusetts artist Amy Nguyen is another  award-winning participant in the show. Noted for  her textile work, she employs the art of dyeing through the practice of Japanese shibori. Her handwork is  one of deliberative and careful process driven by a prayerful attitude brought to the cloth from genesis to fruition. Nguyen sets a high bar in her garments and this has been rewarded by her recognition as among the most accomplished in wearable art.

New Yorker Mary Jaeger is a wearable artist who layers cloth for warmth and comfort but also for a certain sensuality in her unconventional arrangement of shapes and cuts through interesting patterns and various textures. Her application of color does not follow the usual path but shows an intriguing sense for the possibilities they might bring to a finished piece.

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The Smithsonian Craft Show is a panoramic example, over its four days, of the diversity of craft in America today. Technical expertise and brilliant craftsmanship reside in the meticulously carved and glazed porcelain objects, in celadon, oxblood and imperial yellow, by Cliff Lee, from Pennsylvania, whose work is on permanent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shown on the PBS series of Craft in America or honored by the Renwick through its Master of the Medium award.

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Also a ceramist, Irina Okula, from Maine, produces more unconventional pieces. With fragments unified by clay transformed into statuesque vessels, she designs forms  that consist of piecing together broken clay shards, like quilts. “I decorate each shard,” she says. “I try to make interesting and compatible surfaces that dance and complement each other, making for a blend of expected and unexpected play upon the surface.”

There is a sophisticated yet warm and personal aspect to Judith Kinghorn’s jewelry in high karat gold, silver and precious stones. A lifelong Minnesotan, Kinghorn says that her work is mainly intuitive, but she has clearly been drawn to the aesthetic of the natural world and influenced by the beauty and singular characteristics to be found in the upper Midwest. Perfectly realized golden floral forms radiate from her brooches and neckpieces, and one thinks of untamed fields of wildflowers and of bouquets ready to present to a beloved.

Woodworker Peter Petrochko works in Connecticut and has studied architecture at the University of Cincinnati, and fine arts at Silvermine College of Art. While studying design, Petrochko says, “I became enthusiastic about making objects of wood, and chose wood as my craft.” He is challenged, as are most craft artists by the many possibilities that their medium might hold, and for him that is the vessel, one that many artists find themselves drawn to, whether in wood, clay, metal, and fiber.

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From Florida, Lucrezia Bieler astonishes by the brilliance of her papercuttings. Following a tradition from Europe, they are wholly her own. Mesmerizing in totality, one is compelled to enter her personal space, drawn to what seem to be thousands of intricate cuts emerging  in black and white. She has said that “I am intrigued to  create something really beautiful from a simple sheet of  plain paper. It is like turning paper into gold.” Bieler’s  work is another example of where meticulous process, concentration and precision are paramount to the successful realization of a handmade work.

Holly Anne Mitchell works paper in an entirely different manner from Bieler. And it is a fascinating exercise to see how one artist changes the quality of a medium compared to another. Now a resident of Indiana, in 1990 while  studying metalsmithing at the University of Michigan she  began exploring newspaper as a source of expression. Her assignment was to make a piece of jewelry which did not consist of any traditional jewelry materials—so, no metal and precious stones. Such began her journey into paper as a resource, and since those Michigan days Mitchell has been increasingly sought by collectors who want to see the latest in her wry, not cynical, but thoughtful observations on the social and political nature of the modern world.

Partaking of a show like the Smithsonian is to support artist contributions to the innovations that have always been integral to this country’s cultural evolution. During changing times, like the one in which we now live, it is helpful to take some moments to remember that artists help point the way to a more ennobling worldview. It is all about building up, not tearing down, always, but most especially, during the inevitable challenges that life presents to us all.

The Smithsonian Craft Show hosts  its thirty-seventh annual event at the National Building Museum, 401 F St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001, April 25-28, 2019. Visit their website at www.smithsoniancraftshow.org.

 
 

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Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. The Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., is a destination that she looks forward to every year. From the plethora of museums in the city to the inspiring diversity of craft at the show (and of course, the company of good friends), this visit is one of her highlights. Drawn from her personal experience, this year’s article takes the reader through the show, touching upon artists from every media. Benesh also ponders the recent exhibition, “Jewelry: The Body Transformed,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Beadwork Adorns the World Volume 41.1

Clockwise left: LAKOTA “CREATION NARRATIVE” SHIRT by Thomas “Red Owl” Haukaas (Sicangu Lakota/Creole) of wool cloth, antique glass beads, 2016. Courtesy of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. Photographer unattributed. OBA’S “BARRISTER’S WIG” CORONET, Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of cotton, glass beads, 21.0 x 17.0 x 15.0 centimeters, twentieth century. Sara and David Lieberman Collection. Photograph by Craig Smith. BABY CARRIER PANEL, Kenyah peoples, Orang Ulu group, Borneo island, Indonesia/Malaysia, of cotton, glass beads, pineapple leaf fiber, 31.0 x 33.0 centimeters, mid-twentieth century. WEDDING MOCCASINS FOR BRIDE’S IN-LAWS, Lakota peoples, North or South Dakota, of tanned hide, glass beads, 26.7 centimeters, circa 1930. MUKYEEM MASK, Kuba peoples, Democratic Republic of the Congo, of hide, wood, glass beads, cowrie shells, plant fiber, 39.5 x 44.9 x 54.0 centimeters, pre-1935. Courtesy of the Field Museum. Photograph by John Weinstein.

Clockwise right:
LEOPARD HELMUT MASK, Bamileke peoples, Grasslands, Cameroon, of raffia, indigo-dyed cotton and trade cotton, glass beads, 53.0 x 79.0 centimeters, circa 1900. HORSE NECK COVER (ghughi), Kathi peoples, Saurashtra region, Gujarat state, India, of cotton, silk, glass beads, mirror, metal, 128.3 x 162.6 centimeters, circa 1930. David McLanahan Collection. OBA’S BRITISH CROWN-STYLE CORONET, Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 16.0 centimeters, mid-twentieth century. GROOM’S WEDDING BAG, Banjara peoples, Wadi, Gulbarga, Karnataka state, India, of cotton, cowrie shells, metal, 49.0 x 30.5 centimeters, circa 1986. CHINA POBLANA BLOUSE, Puebla, Mexico, of cotton, glass beads, 62.3 x 53.5 centimeters, circa 1935. COLLAR, Saraguro peoples, Ecuador, of glass beads, nylon thread, 11.7 x 37.0 centimeters, 1963. BRIDE’S APRON (ijogolo), Ndzundza Ndebele peoples, Transvaal region, South Africa, of goatskin, glass beads, 60.5 x 42.0 centimeters, circa 1970. All photographs courtesy of the Museum of International Folk Art and by Blair Clark, except where noted.

European glass beads, as author and curator Marsha C. Bol explains, are “the ultimate migrants.” In her exhibit “Beadwork Adorns the World,” which recently closed at Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art, and her accompanying book, The Art & Tradition of Beadwork, she explored how, in the nineteenth century, these trade goods not only went to the far ends of the earth, but also were transformed into an astounding array of cultural and social artifacts. In the West, beadwork became mostly decorative, more so these days in couture and formal wear. But elsewhere, beadwork endowed clothing and objects with formidable power and rich, metaphysical meanings. It became the most profound expression of ritual, of majesty, of identity, and of the spirit world.

Dr. Bol generously agreed to sit down and talk about the years-long process leading to the exhibit. The extended search for superb examples consumed many air miles and many conversations with artists, since so much knowledge has only been passed down orally, from mother to daughter or from an elder to an archaeologist or historian. Intended to dazzle and impress, the beadwork in the exhibit did all that and more.

WEDDING OUTFIT (ulu rajang), Iban peoples, Sarawak state, Borneo island, Malaysia. HEADDRESS of wood, paper, glass beads, cotton, sequins, 38.1 x 61.0 centimeters. DRESS of stone, glass and shell beads, 77.5 centimeters long, twentieth century. David McLanahan Collection.

Q.  What was your inspiration for “Beadwork Adorns the World?”

Actually, it was a book project first. Back in 2011, a tall, stately, white-haired man named Gibbs Smith walked into my office. He was a magnificent man. He wanted to do this; he thought that Lois Sherr Dubin’s book, The History of Beads: From 30,000 B.C. to the Present, had been out for quite a long time and he wanted to publish something new; not about beads, but beadwork around the world. He came to me partly because of my background—I did a Ph.D. in Native American art history with a dissertation on Lakota [western Sioux] women’s and men’s arts, and I continue to do fieldwork. And he knew, because of this museum’s holdings, that it was the right place for the project. I was the museum’s director, so it was going to take a while to get it done. Bless his heart; he died about the time the book went to press.




Q.  What types of beadwork were shown in the exhibit?

The whole exhibit included two hundred sixty beaded objects. I used a very broad definition of beads: metal, shell, ceramic—all different kinds of beads, from fifty-two countries and one hundred four known cultural traditions. There were many examples of women and men’s clothing, several crowns, jewelry, and masks. There was also a beaded pillow, boxes, a royal stool, voodoo flags, bowls, and quite a few amulets. The pieces ranged from the nineteenth century to the present day, so it was not just about the past. When you first walked in there was a “Grab Me” piece. Exhibit designers emphasize the importance of that, to pique curiosity and interest. An extraordinary piece, it’s a wedding dress from the Iban people, who live in the Malaysian part of Borneo. Fully beaded, it weighs about thirty-eight pounds, with very large carnelian beads.


HEADHUNTER’S NECKLACES, Konyak Naga peoples, Nagaland, northeast India, of brass, glass beads, goat hair, conch shell, brass heads: 29.0 x 11.5 centimeters; blue beads: 58.0 centimeters; red beads: 26.5 centimeters, pre-1940.  Harry and Tiala M. Neufeld Collection.

HEADHUNTER’S NECKLACES, Konyak Naga peoples, Nagaland, northeast India, of brass, glass beads, goat hair, conch shell, brass heads: 29.0 x 11.5 centimeters; blue beads: 58.0 centimeters; red beads: 26.5 centimeters, pre-1940. Harry and Tiala M. Neufeld Collection.

Q.  Were there any surprises for you, while you were organizing the exhibit?

I always approach a project like this with two prongs. One is obviously that you need to work with the collections that you already have. But the other prong is to think about the themes and the content. The museum has an impressive collection, and I went through every drawer and every cabinet looking for beadwork. I ran through four part-time assistants during the project. The museum’s photographer, Blair Clark, and I would spend every Friday morning shooting pictures; we ended up taking about one thousand photographs.

As I was looking at objects, I started to realize that they fell into interesting groups of themes, beginning with life passages. It made me aware of something that I’m not sure that I had consciously understood, which is that beadwork is used for these peak moments in the lives of people in almost every culture. So if you start with childhood, from the cradle, then move on to puberty and adolescence, marriage and death, every beadworking society that I know of does it for an occasion, or to identify and set apart a king, a spiritual authority or someone of high status and position.

Then I got to thinking: beadwork is not a structure, like ceramics or textiles; it’s an adornment, an embellishment. It’s not something that can be used solely on its own—it’s almost always married with something else. That also pushed me towards thinking about how the embellishment, which did not stand alone, added to the effectiveness of the piece—maybe gave it more potency. The exhibit was arranged to follow those themes, which were developed in the book.

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BABY BONNET, Lakota nation, North or South Dakota, of native-tanned hide, glass beads, 9.1 x 2.7 x 4.6 centimeters, circa 1890. Bob and Lora Sandroni Collection. Photograph by LA High Noon, Inc. CHILD’S HAT, Nuristan province, Afghanistan, of cotton, silk, glass beads, buttons, metal, embroidered applied trim, 58.0 x 12.0 centimeters, circa 1950. BOY’S HAT, Bai peoples, Dali county, Yunnan province, People’s Republic of China, of silk, cotton, metal beads and objects, feathers, yarn, embroidered appliquéd applied trim, diameter: 14.0 centimeters, twentieth century. Photographs by Addison Doty.

Q.  What was the toughest part of the show to pull together?

Trying to be international! We were missing some areas and I couldn’t travel everywhere, which was frustrating. When I did get away for work, I searched for beadwork. I went to Uzbekistan, southwest China, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. I went to the Field Museum in Chicago to look at the African collection, which is absolutely mind-boggling. I found a wonderful private collection of Lakota beadwork that is in two homes, here and in San Diego.

What is also special to me about the exhibit and the book is giving more recognition to the beadwork of Borneo. The examples we included came from a private collection in Seattle. Pieces like those are considered treasures in Borneo. Before glass beads came in through the trade network, they were getting carnelian beads from Java. Their designs are very recognizable, especially for the Orang Ulu people. Among indigenous people in Borneo there’s a hierarchy; certain designs belonged to the aristocracy and certain ones to the middle class. The beadwork on baby cradles serves a double function, to reveal social position and for protection. Babies’ souls like to wander, so the beaded panels distract evil spirits and keep them away from harming the baby.

BOY’S VEST AND PANTS, Lakota nation, North or South Dakota, of native-tanned hide, glass beads, circa 1890. Bob and Lora Sandroni Collection. Photograph by LA High Noon, Inc.

Q.  No matter where you looked, Venetian and Czech glass beads seem to have gone all around the world. How did they become so widespread?

First it was the Venetian, and then the Czech glass beads. Beads were always expensive; they had a lot of value as prestige items. In fact in some places in Africa, like among the Zulu, the king controlled the rights to the bead trade; only the king and members of his court were allowed to wear beadwork on their headdresses and clothing. There are three desirable things about glass beads. First of all, they are quite durable, and last a long time even though they are glass; secondly, they have a luster and shine that is very attractive; and thirdly they come in many different colors, which is also extremely appealing.

On the Plains, seed beads arrived around 1850. You cannot say that, among the Lakota, there was nothing before then, because there was dyed quillwork, and many of the old geometric designs carried over into beadwork. Later on, during the reservation period for the Lakota and other Sioux tribes, there was a lot of pressure from the U.S. government to abandon traditional ways, including traditional clothing. There was a big florescence of beadwork then on the reservations, part of which I believe had to do with trying to preserve the identity of the children. That’s why you saw a little boy’s vest and pants, which are very Western in style, yet they are totally Lakota because they are not made out of cloth; they are made out of hide completely covered in beadwork. This kind of outfit would be more acceptable to the Indian agent and government people, yet it let everyone in the family feel a strong sense of their culture.






Q.  So wherever you go in the world, beadwork communicates shared cultural meaning.

There’s a fascinating example of that, which is well-recorded, from Zulu beadwork in South Africa. Zulu beadwork does the talking for the women when it’s involved in courtship. Young women would make beadwork bracelets, cuffs, ankle bands, or necklaces as gifts for the young man they had their eye on.

We call them “love letters,” though they were not quite that. The necklaces in the exhibit dated from the late nineteenth century and were loaned from the Field Museum. Scholars disagree about this, but from the colors and designs, proverbs could be discerned. It was not like a personal message, but let a young man know her intentions. A young Zulu man could pile on beadwork from many girls, all at the same time; a piece didn’t obligate him. And of course the more he wore, the more status he had.

One of the most exciting things about doing this project was that every piece has a story to tell, because they are all deeply imbedded in the cultures that make and use them. I tried to share those stories in the label texts, though of course you’re limited in the amount of space you have. But one day I was at the museum after the show had opened and I overhead a man—a man, no less—come out of the show and say to his friends, “That show! There’s a story about every piece!” He was very excited, and I was doubly thrilled because it was a man—often we think of beadwork as women’s work—and because he understood there was a story with everything.

“LOVE” LETTERS (ubala abuyise), Zulu (Xhosa?)-speaking peoples, South Africa, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 19.8 centimeters, pre-1893. “LOVE” LETTERS (ubala abuyise), Zulu (Xhosa?)-speaking peoples, South Africa, of cotton, glass beads, diameter: 16.0-19.8 centimeters, pre-1893. Photographs by John Weinstein.

Q.  Let’s talk about Western attitudes towards beadwork as “women’s work.” There was a thought-provoking section of the exhibit and the book called “Gender in Beadwork.”

We underestimate beadwork’s importance in other cultures. The idea in the exhibit was to honor and acknowledge women’s artistry and creativity in beadwork. In traditional societies, there has always been a division of labor by gender. Women worked with materials for the home, like making pottery or baskets. The fineness and beauty of what women produced brought them respect and rank: it gave them status. Even in our culture doing beadwork was a practical skill; it demonstrated a woman’s housekeeping capabilities, how she could produce useful things. Certainly in fashion today beadwork is prized.


Q.  Some beadwork from Africa radiates drama and power and grandeur. There were examples from the Yoruba people in Nigeria, the Bamileke in Cameroon and the Kuba, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Why is that beadwork so imposing?

Those are magnificent pieces, all intended for the king. Again, the right to wear trade beads belonged exclusively to royalty. It’s very powerful, gorgeous stuff. Only a professional male beadworker can make the king’s regalia, and he actually does it at court. In hierarchical societies, the kings usually have both political and spiritual leadership. The star of that section was the great Yoruba crown. It reinforces the king’s divinity, separating him from other people; when he wears that crown, he embodies the oba, who can communicate with ancestral spirits. The long beaded veil covers his face, and he holds an elaborately beaded flywhisk to hide his mouth as he’s speaking. His feet can’t touch the ground, so they rest on beaded cushions. The faces on the crown represent the first oba, Oduduwa. When someone consults the oba, he is not asking about his future. In their belief system, you know everything that is going to happen before you emerge into this life. As you are born, you touch the tree of forgetfulness. You are asking the oba to remind you of what you used to know.

The king only wears that crown for major ceremonial occasions. He has day-to-day crowns, which resemble the British crown; Nigeria was a British colony during the nineteenth century. There are even beaded British-style wigs for court. That’s a good example of how traditional beadwork merged into modern society.

OBA ADEMUWAGUN ADESIDA II, in the courtyard of his palace, Akure, Nigeria, 1959. Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, image courtesy of the National Museum of African Art. OBA’S GREAT CROWN (adenla), Yoruba peoples, southwest Nigeria, of palm ribs armature (pako), cornstarch (eko), cotton, glass beads, thread, 114.0 x 22.9 centimeters, 1920s. Photograph courtesy of Douglas Dawson Gallery.


Q.  The world is changing so fast. Does beadwork still have a cultural role to play?

Beadwork is still essential to reaffirm identity. For instance, after the Boer War in South Africa, the Ndzundza Ndebele people were indentured out to farms all over the country, scattered far from their homeland and each other. Ndzundza Ndebele women, even under those circumstances, began again to hold puberty ceremonies for boys and girls in these faraway places, which involved beaded aprons. Ndebele women are identified by their age-stage beaded aprons: for little girls, as unmarried adolescents, and as married women, when the apron has five distinct lobes. They held onto making and wearing these beaded aprons and are known for them today.

It’s always evolving. Nellie Star Boy Menard from Rosebud on the Rosebud Indian Reservation and I were judging at an arts fair in Bismarck, North Dakota. She saw a piece of beadwork and said, “Oh, that’s not Sioux enough.” I have talked to Florentine Blue Thunder and Tom Haukaas, who make their own pow-wow outfits, and they keep to the more historic traditions, but they complain that the judges now don’t know how to tell the old styles and designs. The pow-wow and social-dance competitions help beadwork to continue. If you don’t have a market for your arts, whether internal, among tribal members, or external, among outsiders, they are not going to survive.

ZULU RICKSHAW PULLERS ON THE BEACHFRONT, Durban, South Africa, early 1980s. Photograph by Jean Morris.


Q.  How can these older cultures stay resilient and sustain their beadwork traditions?

One way is through re-invention. In South Africa, Zulu rickshaw pullers became celebrated for their outfits. In the 1890s, somebody from Durban went to Singapore and brought back rickshaws (this is before there were cars). Only Zulu men were allowed to pull them, but then someone said they needed to wear a uniform so the police could identify who they were.

The Zulu men themselves created these wild, wonderful, imaginative costumes with the enormous, amazing headdresses. The oxen horns associated the strength of the ox with the man. They were a tourist attraction, and the men would stage their own competitions for who had the best costume. In the past they were famous warriors, so it became a source of real pride for the Zulu men.

Another way is through the marketplace. A purposeful part of the exhibit was to let visitors know that beadwork is still very much a living tradition. Within various sections I included profiles of contemporary artists, or of women’s co-ops who are working today. An example was the netted-beadwork necklaces made by indigenous Saraguro women in Ecuador. They’ve joined together five local associations into one big co-op, for marketing purposes and for buying materials. They can still make part of their traditional ethnic dress and bring in income to support their families. Oftentimes they are the main breadwinners in their communities.

CHILD’S BLOUSE PANEL, northern Afghanistan, of cotton, glass beads, 38.0 x 32.7 centimeters, twentieth century. Anne and Bill Frej Collection.

I should mention here that the International Folk Art Market was a great help to me, because a lot of beadwork artists come to the market and I was able to connect with them. The world is getting smaller all the time, and more beadwork traditions are crossing into global awareness. Artists are finding ways to adapt their beadwork and introduce innovations yet keep it meaningful. As I discuss in the book, beadwork has even moved into contemporary art. At the opening, Kiowa beadwork artist Teri Greeves told me she was so grateful to be included in an international show, and not strictly a Native American show. That made it all worthwhile.


Q.  As you were considering pieces for the exhibit and writing your book, you developed criteria for quality and excellence. Did you wind up with any personal favorites?

There were so many pieces I loved for different reasons, but some were standouts for me, because of the amount of incredible beadwork on them, the skill of the artists and the aesthetics. I’m thinking of Tom “Red Owl” Haukaas’s beaded Lakota cradles; the nineteenth-century double-headed elephant stool covered in red tube beads used by the king in Cameroon; the wonderful Brulé Lakota violin case; and a Ndebele married woman’s wearing blanket.

VIOLIN CASE, Brulé Lakota, Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota, of commercial wood case, native-tanned hide, metal trim, glass beads, 81.3 x 25.4 x 11.4 centimeters, 1891. Courtesy of Stars and Stripes Foundation.

“Beadwork Adorns the World” showed April 22, 2018 - February 3, 2019, at the Museum of International Folk Art, 706 Camino Lejo, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87505. Visit their website at internationalfolkart.org. The 16th Annual International Folk Art Market takes place July 12 - 14, 2019, Milner Plaza, on Museum Hill, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Visit their website at folkartmarket.org.


SUGGESTED READING
Bol, Marsha C.
The Art & Tradition of Beadwork. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2018.
Dubin, Lois Sherr.
The History of Beads from 30,000 B.C. to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
Liu, Robert K.
Collectible Beads: A Universal Aesthetic. Vista, CA: Ornament Inc, 1995.
Roach, Mary Ellen and Joanne Bubolz Eicher.
“The Language of Personal Adornment.” In The Fabrics of Culture: The Anthropology of Clothing and Adornment. The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1979.
Sumberg, Bobbie.
Textiles: Collection of the Museum of International Folk Art. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2010.

 

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FON’S ROYAL STOOL, Bamileke peoples, Grasslands, Cameroon, of wood, raffia cloth, glass beads, 41.0 x 45.0 x 50.0 centimeters, nineteenth century. Photograph by John Weinstein. MITAKUYE OYASIN CRADLE by Thomas “Red Owl” Haukaas (Sicangu Lakota/Creole) of brain-tanned elk hide, cotton, glass beads, thread, 68.5 x 23.5 x 30.5 centimeters, 2005. Marilyn Eber Collection. MARRIED WOMAN’S BLANKET (irari), Ndzundza Ndebele peoples, Transvaal region, South Africa, of wool, glass beads, 269.2 x 381.2 centimeters, circa 1970.


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Leslie Clark is a freelance writer and editor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is endlessly fascinated by the variety, intricacy, technical prowess, and rich beauty of beadwork. “I kept going back to the recent exhibit ‘Beadwork Adorns the World’ just to feast my eyes and try to understand more,” she says. “Once you discover the complex meanings of beadwork in other cultures, you come away with a real sense of awe and wonder.” She has taken the Museum of International Folk Art exhibition to a more revealing level, with her Ornament interview with Marsha C. Bol, curator of the exhibit, as Bol discusses how throughout the world beadwork communicates shared cultural meaning.

Dressed with Distinction Volume 41.1

MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, Ottoman Syria, early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, tablet weaving, Ottoman Syria, nineteenth century. WOMAN’S JACKET (salteh) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century. MAN’S COAT (damir) of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, toothed tapestry technique, Bedouin peoples, Aleppo, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early to mid-twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century.

MAN’S COAT ( damir ) of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, handsewn, Bedouin peoples, Damascus, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century.  Photographs courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

MAN’S COAT (damir) of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, handsewn, Bedouin peoples, Damascus, Ottoman Syria, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. Photographs courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

How we dress tells a story that, in the case of traditional clothing, can stretch back thousands of years. The world’s culture has been built, layer upon layer, as pivotal moments of history effect changes on textiles like the rings of a tree’s trunk. For a certain country residing in the Levant, that history goes farther back than most. Currently at the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, “Dressed with Distinction: Garments from Ottoman Syria” is an awesome display of clothing predating the rise of the modern Syrian state.

One California day, cloaked in the clouds of an unseasonably wet winter, I had the chance to see the garments up close and prior to installation, courtesy of Joanna Barrkman, Senior Curator of Southeast Asian and Pacific Arts. Donated to the Fowler by Dr. David and Elizabeth Reisbord, both of whom live in Santa Monica, their collection came as something of a mystery. In the spirit of properly documenting and identifying the twenty-eight garments that were donated (twenty-three are exhibited), the museum partnered with Dr. Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood of the nonprofit Textile Research Centre in Leiden, the Netherlands, due to her expertise in Middle Eastern clothing and fabrics.

Syria’s long history and geographical position has served to enrich its textiles, lending an edge of refinement that can take one’s breath away. As the hub for multiple trading routes, Aleppo and Damascus received a bounty of raw materials and foreign influences. Two of the coats in the exhibition bear the vibrating patterns of ikat dyeing, where it is known by the Arabic term tarbit. Locally produced in both Aleppo and the city of Homs, these long, flowing clothes, with a narrow neck and a cut that tapers from a wide base to a narrowing beneath the arms, show the inclusion of lining cloth that originated from abroad. Barrkman mentions that a concurrent exhibition of Central Asian ikats at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, also based on a gift by the Reisbords, features Russian cotton prints on the interior. From Uzbekistan to Syria, global trade made its mark on local textiles.

MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) outer front and inside back, of wool, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, hand embroidery, late nineteenth to early twentieth century. MAN’S CLOAK (abaya) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, slit tapestry technique, early twentieth century. WOMAN’S SILK HEADCOVERING (hatta) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, lance, Homs, Kasrawabiye/Homsiyye style, Ottoman Syria, mid-to-early twentieth century.

 

The silk itself was a foreign introduction. Silk production eventually was cultivated in Syria, but had been originally introduced through the Silk Road and Chinese trade. One of these ikat coats, a woman’s garment known as a qumbas, is an outlier among the collection. From post-Ottoman Syria, around the 1950s, an identifiable trait is its vibrant aniline dyes, which were in widespread use in the Middle East by the end of the nineteenth century. Unlike its sister garment, the piece sports delicate crimson cordwork along the cuff. The cordwork is associated with the Jordanian town of Ma’an, but it was possibly a response to the influence of being introduced to French exports, including lace.

Standup collars were a notable adoption into Syrian fashion, brought on by Arab admiration for the stiff collars of French military uniforms. A Bedouin woman’s jacket, one of two appearing in the exhibit, coquettishly sports this cultural adoption. These jackets differ from the largely silk garments of Syrian Arabs by being woven from sheep’s wool. Their cut, while still bearing a rectangular shape, possesses short sleeves, a nod perhaps to the more rugged life of these nomadic people. Bright pink flowers nestled in sea-green leaves chase each other up and down the lapels, flanked by detailed geometric designs. By this time aniline dyes from Europe largely replaced the natural dyes that had been used for hundreds of years. Most of the clothes in the Reisbords’ collection are thus aniline dyed.

The close aesthetic kinship between the Bedouins and urban Arabs is immediately apparent when one is introduced to the mainstay of the exhibition, the glorious silk abaya. These open-faced robes with voluminous sleeves appear in repose like a flat square, cryptically remote from the items of apparel that they actually are. Their construction is not unfamiliar, with long rectangles of cloth pieced together, bearing a close resemblance to the kimono. They, like the kimono, are overgarments, meant to be worn over a blouse or shirt, and in use by both sexes.

When not being worn, abayas appear inert, like carpets or tapestries rather than items of clothing; but when draped on the human form, they transform the wearer into a canvas upon which intricate designs, shimmering surfaces and bold colors dance. One can imagine how the streets of Damascus and Aleppo must have been filled with a bright parade of fashionable men and women.

WOMAN’S COAT (  qumbas, kumbas  ) of silk, cotton, ikat, warp-faced tabby, tabby weave, Ottoman Syria, Aleppo, before 1960.

WOMAN’S COAT (qumbas, kumbas) of silk, cotton, ikat, warp-faced tabby, tabby weave, Ottoman Syria, Aleppo, before 1960.

Many of the abayas are recipients of tapestry-weave, a technique so-called due to its traditional employment in tapestries. The weave is weft-faced, with no warp threads visible, and discontinuous, having different colored threads only in the areas of the surface design. This allows for complicated imagery and geometric patterns, rather than a repeated motif that extends end to end. With its application to a piece of clothing, the results are nothing short of magical. Sweeping triangles of the most subtle shades trail off into spiderweb thin strands of the same, with stylized flowers and shafts of grain spilling bright colors across the background. This is just the tip of the legacy of textile production in Syria. Aleppo was well known as a center of textile industry since the thirteenth century, an eight-hundred-year pedigree of excellence.

Beyond its fame for masterful tapestries, Syria was also known for its tabby-weave, or hermezi, a method where weft threads go over and under each individual warp thread. Laborious and time-consuming on a scale that is difficult to comprehend, Syrian artisans made their trade weaving these superlative textiles, which were also incorporated into their clothes.

One particular piece in the exhibition, a magnificent golden abaya with silvery columns enfilading in procession down the front and back of the garment, is an example of moiré and metallic threading. The otherworldly rippling surface of moiré is caused by pressing a wooden or metal plate or roller, incised with a pattern, to two layers of fabric under heat.

WOMAN’S BODY COVERING (çarshaf) of silk, cotton, metallic thread, weft-faced weave, interlocking tapestry technique, Ottoman Syria, early twentieth century.

While these garments are different in cut, color and styling to modern wear in the twenty-first century, it is good to remember how much they inspired European dress at the turn of the twentieth century. Fascination with the Orient, that loose construct that played in one’s imagination as catchall for exoticism, led to a relaxing of the shape of European apparel. Boutiques took note of the voluminousness of Middle Eastern sleeves, a different approach to structure that no doubt had a few tailors stroking their chins thoughtfully. This shift away from tight corsets and forms that built upon and restricted the body was due at least in part to the interplay between cultures.

The message behind the exhibition is a subtle but important one; fabric weaves all of humanity together. The clothing in the collection, beyond its brilliant workmanship and sumptuous aesthetics, represents a culmination of historical trade, exchange and knowledge. Syria’s textile tradition has gone back over a thousand years, with the ancient cities of Aleppo and Damascus having survived over different incarnations. Throughout this expanse of time they built and refined an industry measured in lifetimes of skill. In this way it is rather like a tree’s rings, but in a form so beautifully abstract that it tugs the heartstrings.

This historical legacy has an impact on the present, one which Barrkman and Vogelsang-Eastwood are anxious to share. The living tradition of textile production in Syria has suffered greatly due to the civil war that has engulfed that region since 2011. These marvelous items of clothing represent a thread that may yet be severed. To the Syrian community in the United States, Barrkman hopes this exhibition provides them with a connection to their past, their memories and to their culture.

“Dressed with Distinction: Garments from Ottoman Syria,” shows at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, 308 Charles E Young Dr. N., Los Angeles, California 90024, through August 18, 2019. Visit their website at www.fowler.ucla.edu. You can read more about the Textile Research Centre at their website, www.trc-leiden.nl/trc.


SUGGESTED READING
GILLOW, JOHN. Textiles of the Islamic World.
London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2010.
SULEMAN, FAHMIDA.
Textiles of the Middle East and Central Asia: The Fabric of Life. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2017.
VOGELSANG-EASTWOOD, GILLIAN. Dressed with Distinction: Garments from Ottoman Syria. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2019.

Get Inspired!


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Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. His most recent journeys have taken him through two exhibitions, one in New York City, and the other in Los Angeles. The common thread? World history in personal adornment. At the Neue Galerie, a private museum dedicated to Austro-German art and craft, a small one-room exhibition laid out the major players and the evolution of jewelry produced by the Wiener Werkstätte. Building on the principles established by the Vienna Secession, the Wiener Werkstätte was instrumental in the development of contemporary art jewelry. A subsequent visit to the Fowler Museum at UCLA explored the influence of the Ottomans on Syrian clothing and textile production. From east to west, and west to east, he was impressed by the cross-section of human ingenuity and creativity.

Uneasy Beauty Volume 41.1

 
UBIQUITOUS BONE CHAIN by Caitlin Skelcey of ABS plastic, stainless steel machine screws, 3D printing pen, implanted screws, 86.4 x 7.6 x 10.2 centimeters, 2016.

UBIQUITOUS BONE CHAIN by Caitlin Skelcey of ABS plastic, stainless steel machine screws, 3D printing pen, implanted screws, 86.4 x 7.6 x 10.2 centimeters, 2016.

 

As Beth McLaughlin, chief curator of exhibitions and collections at the Fuller Craft Museum, explained in her foreword to the catalogue for “Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment,” the forty-four artists in this remarkable show created wearables that “produce, rather than alleviate, tension.” Whether a spider brooch, a cumbersome collar, or an unsettling rosary, guest curator Suzanne Ramljak selected adornments that reflect what she calls a “no-pain-no-gain beauty ethos.”

The exhibition was divided into four parts: “Victim Fashion,” “Flesh and Blood,” “Natural Aversions,” and “On the Edge.” The work was consistently engaging, surprising—oftentimes provoking—from piece to piece and section to section.

One of the stand-outs in “Victim Fashion” was Protector Against Illness: Black Tamoxifen Bra, 1996. Mimi Smith affixed actual tamoxifen pills to an undergarment of nylon and lace, each pill surrounded by a decorative constellation of painted dots. Curator Ramljak called the piece “more breast cancer talisman than seductive lingerie.”

Daniel Jocz and Anika Smulovitz went the collar route in their exploration of the Victim Fashion theme. Jocz’s outsized shiny black-winged Crash Angel, 2007, from his Ruff series, was made of metals—aluminum, copper and chrome—painted with autobody lacquer. By contrast, Smulovitz repurposed men’s shirt collars to create the uncomfortable-looking White Collar, 2005. Apropos this piece, Ramljak reminds us that in the nineteenth century, starched collars sometimes proved “so unyielding that they actually choked wearers, earning them the nickname Vatermörder or ‘father killer.’ ”

 

HOLOCAUST NECKLACE by Joyce Scott of peyote-stitched glass beads, threads, 30.5 x 19.7 centimeters, 2013. Photograph by Emelee Van Zee. Photographs courtesy of Fuller Craft Museum.

 

“Flesh and Blood” explored the body as a good source for ornaments. Holland Houdek incorporates medical implants and prostheses into her jewelry. Asymmetrical Mammoplasty Double Breast Implant Necklace, 2005, featured silicone breast implants set within ornate patinaed copper filigree rondos accented with Swarovski crystals. To create her Botanical Fiction series, Heather White cast anatomical fragments, among them, navels, nipples and lips, and composed them into floral ornaments. Seven sets of oxidized silver lips encircled a center of pink pearls inset in eighteen karat gold in White’s Botanical Fiction: Murmuring brooch from 2015.

Phobias came to the fore in the “Natural Aversions” section. A spider brooch by Marta Mattson was part of her 2013 Wear Your Fear series. Less anxiety-inspiring were Mallory Weston’s two snake pieces, Python Hot Pants and Constrictor Choker #1, both 2016, constructed from gold-filled bronze, silver, copper, steel, leather, cotton, and thread. The simulation of serpent skin was stunning.

STUDY OF SNAPPING TURTLES by David Freda of fine silver, sterling silver, eighteen karat yellow gold, and enamel, 3. x 53.3 x 5.1 centimeters, 2000.

David Freda’s Study of Snapping Turtles necklace, 2000, made from silver, eighteen karat yellow gold and enamel, also was remarkable in its illusion. Sixteen off-white turtle eggs are arranged in a circle, with baby turtles crawling out from six of them and one snapper fully emerged. While among the most prehistoric-looking creatures, the snapper babies are somehow precious, even with their mouths open. Nonetheless, it’s a necklace, said Ramljak, which “takes gall to wear upon one’s jugular.”

The work in “On the Edge” dealt with political/social issues in a range of forceful ways. Several pieces took on violence. Jim Bassler’s Homeland Security jersey, 2015, overlaid what looks like medieval chain mail over a Boston Marathon singlet. This wool, linen and nylon vest will hardly protect one from bombings.

Child abuse in the Catholic Church was the subject of Angela Gleason’s Sins of Our Fathers necklace, 2006. From her Indulgences series, this five-foot-long “rosary” was made of small identical kneeling and praying children molded from silicone. Anchoring the necklace is a priest, also silicone. Like many pieces in the show, the point of Gleason’s necklace was quite obvious, but the takeaway is not immediate and reverberates as one considers where/why one might wear it.

The exhibition catalogue includes an essay by Valerie Steele, chief curator and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. “À la Mode, à la Mort” explored some of the historical precedents for “uneasy” —read torturous—adornments, from corsets to footbinding.

In conjunction with the show, students in the Fashion Design and Jewelry and Metalsmith departments at the Massachusetts College of Art were asked to create “uncomfortable” works. “Discomfort Zone: Fashion and Adornment from MassArt” featured objects that “hinder bodily movement, inflict corporal pain, and provoke emotional distress.” Part of Mass Fashion, a consortium of eight cultural institutions whose goal is to celebrate the Bay State’s fashion culture, the show ran October 13 - November 4, 2018.

 

LOST IN TIME BRACELET AND WATCH by Kim Lilot of eighteen karat and fourteen karat gold, Rolex watch, iron, steel, Tamahagane (Japanese metal for swordmaking), Rubellite, tourmaline, diamonds, urushi finish ,7.6 x 7.6 x 3.8 centimeters.

 

Like the artists in “Uneasy Beauty,” the students addressed personal, social and global issues in their work—and turned to a number of unconventional materials to do so: synthetic hair, nail polish, packing peanuts, insulation foam and Iranian Rial coins. “Beauty is not black and white,” writes senior/fourth year student Emma Scott in her statement, a sentiment that might serve as the rallying cry for many of the artists featured at the Fuller.

“Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment” showed at the Fuller Craft Museum, 455 Oak St., Brockton, Massachusetts 02301, October 6, 2018 – April 21, 2019. Visit their website at www.fullercraft.org.


SUGGESTED READING
RAMLJAK, SUZANNE.
Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment. Brockton, MA: Fuller Craft Museum, 2018.

 
 

BRAVE 4: BREAST PLATE by Boris Bally of gun-triggers, gun-bolts and gun-barrels (steel) and brass shells, mounted on stainless steel cord, .925 silver, 66 x 29.2 x 5.1 centimeters, 2013. Photograph by Aaron Usher III.

SNAKE BAG by Leah Aripotch of bronze, 30.5 x 15.2 x 17.8 centimeters, 2013.

 

Carl-Little_Contributor.jpg

Maine-based writer Carl Little made his second trip to the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, while on assignment for Ornament. Little marveled at the variety of work on display, from the remarkable pieces in “Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment,” reviewed in this issue to “Assembly: Recent Acquisitions,” which included one of John Bisbee’s nail sculptures, jewelry by Donna D’Aquino and that of the late Fred Woell. Little contributes reviews and profiles to Art New England and Hyperallergic. He lives and writes on Mount Desert Island. Little’s most recent book is Paintings of Portland, co-authored with his brother David. Look for his next feature in Ornament on San Francisco jeweler and designer Julia Turner.

Demitra Thomloudis Volume 40.5

HOUSTON YELLOW TAPE PROJECT: 4814 CHENEVERT STREET BROOCH of reclaimed stair spindle, nickel silver, steel, and paint, 15.9 x 3.2 x 1.0 centimeters, 2014. DEMITRA THOMLOUDIS in her studio, 2018.  Photographs by Demitra Thomloudis, except where noted.

HOUSTON YELLOW TAPE PROJECT: 4814 CHENEVERT STREET BROOCH of reclaimed stair spindle, nickel silver, steel, and paint, 15.9 x 3.2 x 1.0 centimeters, 2014. DEMITRA THOMLOUDIS in her studio, 2018. Photographs by Demitra Thomloudis, except where noted.

Demitra Thomloudis’s large workspace looks like part art studio, part construction office. Hung on the walls are posters for contemporary jewelry shows as well as photographs of building projects. Rolls of duct tape, pieces of GreenGuard insulation board, bits of plywood, cement forms, and tabbed strips of metal are abundant. It is unclear what she found or scavenged, what she bought at the hardware store, what she purchased from art suppliers, and what is adornment-in-progress. And she likes it that way. Thomloudis is excited by the aesthetics of the built environment and allows the processes and materials of construction (and sometimes demolition) to inform her jewelry.

Thomloudis, who grew up outside of Philadelphia, strongly identifies with her Greek heritage. Her father emigrated from Greece in his early thirties and her mother, an elementary school special education teacher and a Philadelphian of Italian descent, embraced his traditions. Regular summer visits to Athens, “the New York City of Greece,” helped shape her interest in urban settings. Thomloudis also identifies with her father’s passion for tinkering. He worked as an auto mechanic for much of her youth and, as “a self-proclaimed builder,” often engaged in “crazy remodels” to their house. During first grade she had to enter her house via an eight-foot-ladder when he decided to add a second floor to their home while they were living in it, and she recalls a constant series of projects restricting the use of various rooms or fixtures. The do-it-yourself quality, economic considerations and sheer creativity of this activity made a strong, and positive, impression.

CrossPASS, SITE #8 BROOCH of steel, brass, cement, resin, pigment, and fibers, by Demitra Thomloudis and Motoko Furuhashi, 8.9 x 7.0 x 1.0 centimeters, 2016.  Photograph by Motoko Furuhashi.

CrossPASS, SITE #8 BROOCH of steel, brass, cement, resin, pigment, and fibers, by Demitra Thomloudis and Motoko Furuhashi, 8.9 x 7.0 x 1.0 centimeters, 2016. Photograph by Motoko Furuhashi.

She loved to draw growing up and, combining that with her interest in the human body—inspired in part by the popular “Body Worlds” exhibitions—decided to study medical illustration in college. Thomloudis attended Ohio’s Cleveland Institute of Art, one of the only schools at the time that offered a degree in medical (rather than scientific) illustration. She tells stories of class periods spent drawing cadavers at nearby Case Western University, sometimes with appendages strung to the ceiling to create the desired poses. “It was so wild! I never want to do that ever again, but I’m really glad that I had that opportunity.” While taking life drawing and painting courses at Cleveland, and pre-med courses at Case, she, on a whim, added an elective in jewelry and immediately realized, “this is exactly what I was looking for.” With jewelry she could work with the body, investigate an array of materials, and have greater opportunity for self-expression—“I didn’t want to follow anyone’s rules.”

Continuing her education at San Diego State University, Thomloudis earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in 2013 with an emphasis on jewelry and metalwork. Living so close to the United States’ southern border soon affected how she thought about her work. She took inspiration from the scenes she viewed in Mexico of neighborhoods created out of necessity, of architecture in flux, of materials combined in unexpected ways. She also studied the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and encountered Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture (1964), finding it a key guide when considering vernacular, indigenous and anonymous forms of building and how untrained architects can upend traditional uses of materials and conventional rules of architecture. One of the works she created in California, Reconstructed: Framed, a brooch composed of open rectilinear forms of cement, silver and steel with bits of duct tape and thread (combining elements influenced by both sides of the border fence), appeared in the exhibition “La Frontera” organized in 2013 by Lorena Lazard and Velvet da Vinci Gallery. It was also in the revised version of the exhibition (“La Frontera: Encounters Along the Border”) earlier this year at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

HOUSTON YELLOW TAPE PROJECT: 4910 JACKSON STREET BROOCH of reclaimed upholstery, nickel silver and steel, 7.6 x 8.9 x 3.8 centimeters, 2014.

In the Houston Yellow Tape Project, Thomloudis collected materials—decorative wood trim, colorful foam from a couch, door knobs—from ten residential demolition sites within a two-block radius of her home and used this debris to make ten pieces of jewelry that ‘physically embodied a singular, discarded moment during the sprawling trajectory of the city.’
Thomloudis_Demolition.jpg

Thomloudis next spent a year in Houston as the Artist-in-Residence at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. That “sprawling, overwhelming urban environment,” where new buildings appeared seemingly overnight, drew her attention to “the guts of buildings” and to “how things go up.” In Houston she observed more steel and more corrugated metal, and reflected those contemporary regional choices in her work. While there she participated in an exhibition on sprawl, creating jewelry out of cement, steel and distressed wood, and explained to Houston Public Media, “With my work I’m trying to extract those things we take for granted, like cracks in the sidewalk or some of the materials buildings are made out of, and kind of freeze those moments and preserve them as artifacts.” 

RECONSTRUCTED: FRAMED BROOCH of cement, sterling silver, resin, steel, pigment, thread, duct tape, powder coat, wood, and nickel silver, 10.2 x 7.6 x 5.1 centimeters, 2013. Photograph by Seth Papac.

Along with the omnipresent construction in Houston, there was constant destruction. In her Houston Yellow Tape Project, Thomloudis collected materials—decorative wood trim, colorful foam from a couch, door knobs—from ten residential demolition sites within a two-block radius of her home and used this debris to make ten pieces of jewelry that “physically embodied a singular, discarded moment during the sprawling trajectory of the city.” She presented them in an installation that mapped the locations of the former homes, and she intended the jewelry to “ignite conversations between wearer and viewer regarding connections to material, time and place.”

Then Thomloudis returned to the border region, this time moving to El Paso where she was a visiting assistant professor of Metals and Jewelry at the University of Texas at El Paso. From the parking lot she used every day, she could see a neighborhood called Anapra in Ciudad Juárez comprising a group of houses with stucco facades, some painted in bright colors, that encrusted the otherwise barren hillside like gemstones. Though realizing that the makeshift quality of construction that appealed to her was in part the result of the neighborhood’s poverty, she primarily responded to the sensory experiences of seeing the glistening colors and shifting light reflected from the sun. She explains, “I didn’t want to forget that. I felt like I needed to respond to that place,” so she created Over the Fence, a series of more than ninety cement brooches (with brass, steel and acrylic paint), squarish in shape like the squat homes, that make permanent the view’s ephemeral quality. She acknowledges that this collection documents her individual experience of a specific place, but believes that such work can spur related memories in other people of other places—“I think that jewelry can allow us to keep those memories.”

OVER THE FENCE BROOCHES of cement, brass, pigment, and resin, sizes vary, approximately 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 to
7.6 x 7.6 x 15.2 centimeters each, 2016-2017.

OVER THE FENCE BROOCH.

OVER THE FENCE BROOCH.

Over the Fence was part of a collaborative work with Motoko Furuhashi, who teaches Metalsmithing & Jewelry at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, titled CrossPASS. As they explained in an interview for Art Jewelry Forum, they were “colleagues in this very isolated location,” who wanted to foster a sense of community between their university programs and their cities, so they focused their “common fascination with the surrounding landscape” on the forty-six miles of Interstate 10 that connected them. Together they traveled back and forth along this frequently—and speedily—traveled route and created jewelry (individually and collaboratively), video, audio, and a website based on specific locations. For one site, they drove a couple of miles from the highway to walk barefoot up a sand-covered mountain. They made a video of a mound of shifting sand against a blue sky that eventually reveals a hand—playing with the viewer’s sense of scale and heightening the viewer’s tactile awareness. They also created a brooch with the rich beige sand on a rectangular block (shaped like the local farmlands) with steel, silver, shards of clear acrylic with a few light green lines suggesting the area’s dry grasses, and a rusty mesh to evoke the tumbleweeds.

Much of Thomloudis’s work is large and she knows that some people assume it is meant to be sculpture rather than jewelry, but wearability is a constant consideration of hers. “In my studio, my process is that I am always trying things on. I consider things when they are halfway done: ‘How is this sitting? How is this fitting? How is this framing me? Is this heavy? Is this going to bother me? Could I wear this out?’ ” And while she emphasizes that she is not making small sculptures, “one hundred percent not,” she is interested in how her jewelry exists when it is not being worn. In gallery settings, she sometimes presents work in groups, for example allowing the large number of brooches in Over the Fence to convey the immensity of the view she experienced, and she likes the idea of a cluster of small brooches in a personal collection sitting out as a sculpture when off the body. She adds, “I really don’t want my things to be hidden in drawers. I want them to be out. I want them just to be part of life, whether it’s on the body or off the body—like architecture is part of our everyday lives.”

SUBDIVIDED AND JOINED (HT) NECKPIECE of cement, nickel silver, resin, pigment, and silver, 45.7 x 25.4 x 1.9 centimeters, 2014.

Sometimes she uses standard construction techniques, but on a smaller scale, and sometimes she has to reinvent those techniques in order to make works that are light enough to wear. She often uses cement, either adding a thin layer of it to hollow or lightweight structures to produce an “essence of mass” without the heft, or mixing it with resin—which results in a lighter mixture than mixing it with water—and casting it in silicon molds. Her Subdivided and Joined (HT) neckpiece appears to be made of massive chunks of cement with blocks of yellow recalling caution tape or construction equipment, but she formed the rectangular shape with the arched opening out of thin layers of concrete over metal mesh boxes, rubbing away the surface in small patches to reveal the interior structure. 

The geometry, colors, construction, and materials in Thomloudis’s work all reflect her experience of architecture, but she stresses that the references are not direct—she is using the visual vocabulary of architecture, but not trying to make miniature versions of what she sees. She states, “I’m really interested in the framework of architecture and how our bodies are perpetually in the landscape of architecture and this environment, and I’m interested in reversing that. What does it mean when those things are then on the body? Can we find these smaller moments that otherwise are overwhelming or forgotten in some ways?” Through constructing palm-sized reflections of what can be monumental in scale, she raises questions about the relationship of the body to the buildings that surround it.

TILTFRAME BROOCH of brass, steel, powder coat, Sharpie marker, graphite pencil, paint, and clear coat, 12.7 x 10.1 x 5.1 centimeters, 2017.

After a year in El Paso, Thomloudis spent a year in Ohio as the assistant professor and head of the Jewelry/Metals/Enameling Program at Kent State University before settling in Athens, Georgia, where she is an assistant professor in Jewelry and Metalwork at the University of Georgia. Her most recent series of work, to be shown at JOYA Barcelona Art Jewellery & Objects, is tentatively titled Tiltframe and reflects her continued investigation of buildings and industrial materials. These works feature pops of neon colors and an increased amount of drawing. Currently, she is intrigued by the systems of marks made by construction and city workers as they note the locations (or future locations) of walls, cuts, water pipes, and gas or electric lines, using carpenter pencils, fluorescent spray paint and markers. She observes them with a designer’s eye, transforming them from functional notations within a building site or streetscape to decorative elements of personal adornment. “I’m fascinated with the markings; what they all mean, how they become an ornament within the landscape; and then transpose that into wearable objects.” The brooches and necklaces of Tiltframe are collections of open brass and steel rectangles, powder coated in white with layers of lines and arrows in pencil and Sharpie. Her husband, a building inspector, offers practical support by interpreting the symbols, and she plans to start making works with marks themed to specific individual utilities such as gas, electricity and water.

Thomloudis particularly is proud to be associated with Athens Jewelry Week in Greece, a new international celebration of contemporary jewelry. The organizers invited her to speak at the first event in 2016, and she has enjoyed developing personal connections with Greek jewelers. Next summer she will participate in a new jewelry artist residency program at the Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum, next to the Acropolis. She relishes the opportunity to develop a more immediate connection to Greece in her work, creating “jewelry inspired by the physical and cultural geography of Athens.” She believes that “relating to the aesthetics of architecture/landscape/place” through jewelry, has “the potential to connect us closer to the world we are surrounded by,” and next summer will use this approach to explore her own cultural heritage.

SUGGESTED READING
“5 Questions, Demitra Thomloudis,” Mother Makers Blog, November 8, 2017, mothermakersblog.wordpress.com/2017/11/08/demitra-thomloudis. 
Callahan, Ashley, Annelies Mondi and Mary Hallam Pearse. Crafting History: Textiles, Metals, and Ceramics at the University of Georgia. Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, 2017.
Malev, Daniela. To the Point: Pin Mechanisms and Brooch Back Design. Leipzig: Edition Winterwork, 2017. 
Thomloudis, Demitra and Motoko Furuhashi. CrossPASS. San Francisco: Blurb Publishing Company, 2017. 
Townsend, Jen and Renée Zettle-Sterling. Cast: Art and Objects Made Using Humanity’s Most Transformational Process. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2017.

 
VIENTO BLOCK 1 & 2 BROOCHES of steel, powder coat, cement, paint, sterling silver, nickel silver, and resin, 8.9 x 7.6 x 5.1 centimeters (left), 10.1 x 8.9 x 5.1 centimeters (right), 2015.

VIENTO BLOCK 1 & 2 BROOCHES of steel, powder coat, cement, paint, sterling silver, nickel silver, and resin, 8.9 x 7.6 x 5.1 centimeters (left), 10.1 x 8.9 x 5.1 centimeters (right), 2015.

 
 

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Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts. She recently co-authored, with Annelies Mondi and Mary Hallam Pearse, Crafting History: Textiles, Metals, and Ceramics at the University of Georgia, which included work by Demitra Thomloudis and benefited from her assistance with photography. She appreciated Thomloudis’s enthusiasm, optimism and articulateness in their discussion of jewelry, construction and children. Since visiting the artist’s studio, Callahan has enjoyed a heightened awareness of the textures of the sidewalks, walls and parking decks and of the bright pink and orange markings left by city workers on the edges of the streets.

Saul Bell Design Award Volume 40.5

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BEST OF SHOW. Sophia Hu, USA, Origami—Window with a View Collection of oxidized sterling silver and twenty-three karat gold. Photographs courtesy of Rio Grande.

 

The Saul Bell Design Award has been driving jewelers to innovate and excel for eighteen years, giving a platform where craft and fine jewelry can intersect and cover new ground. From alternative materials to silver, platinum and gold, the high rigor of the jurying process, together with Rio Grande’s professional recognition, bring a breath of fresh air to the industry.

This year’s award winners include several jewelry artists who also traverse the craft show circuit. Sophia Hu, who won the Best of Show award with her Origami—Window with a View collection, has previously been inducted into the Saul Bell Hall of Fame. In 2017, she was awarded Second Place in the Alternative Materials category, but due to a twist of timing, her husband was unable to attend the ceremony, a regret which compelled her to test her skills once again in this year’s competition. An intriguing concept and a consistently developed theme led to this collection. Hu’s fascination with the nature of folding, of flat planes given dimensionality and depth, is inspired by Japanese paper art, and perhaps, too, her fifteen years background in architectural design.

FIRST PLACE GOLD/PLATINUM.   Garen Garibian, USA, Mata Hari brooch of eighteen karat yellow, pink and white gold, druzy onyx, white brilliant-cut diamonds, and red spinel.

FIRST PLACE GOLD/PLATINUM. Garen Garibian, USA, Mata Hari brooch of eighteen karat yellow, pink and white gold, druzy onyx, white brilliant-cut diamonds, and red spinel.

Her foray into jewelrymaking all came about due to a lack of choice: Hu’s taste in jewelry is particular and the commercial world had nothing to offer that matched her personal aesthetic. The solution was to make her own jewelry, and she dove into it with her husband’s full support. The result is lightweight geometry, blooming like flowers in the night, with surface textures and keum-bo to impart contrast and color.

Coming with a very different approach is Garen Garibian’s Mata Hari brooch, a classical design that manages to combine the elegance of the fine jewelry of the twentieth century with a playful touch. Named after the famous, or rather infamous spy from World War I, Garibian’s piece is like a miniature sculpture, with one blood red ruby drop betraying Mata Hari’s untimely demise. A necklace of diamonds contrasts with a silky black dress of onyx, spiraling down like a twister, bare golden arms tempting the onlooker to come hither.

Garibian came to the United States from Armenia to pursue a career as a plastic surgeon. His life changed course after arriving in America when he took on a friend’s job doing jewelry repair work. A certain sense of irony in the universe perhaps gave him this similar line of work to his old career, where he focused on face recovery. Garibian had graduated from art school back in Armenia, so the shift to making jewelry was a natural fit.

FIRST PLACE JEWELRY COLLECTION COUTURE/FINE. Wolfgang Vaatz, USA, Rocky Mountains Memories bracelet of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, eighteen karat rose gold, fourteen karat yellow gold, fourteen karat rose gold, unrefined gold nuggets, diamonds, and platinum.

FIRST PLACE JEWELRY COLLECTION COUTURE/FINE. Wolfgang Vaatz, USA, Rocky Mountains Memories bracelet of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, eighteen karat rose gold, fourteen karat yellow gold, fourteen karat rose gold, unrefined gold nuggets, diamonds, and platinum.

As a regular winner in the competition, Wolfgang Vaatz is a consummate jeweler, with a love of surface design and rich textures. He turns bracelets and pendants into canvases where nature unfolds like a landscape painting, although his work goes beyond the representational. This year, he applied for the new Jewelry Collection categories, where he was awarded First Place in Jewelry Collection Couture/Fine.

The inspiration for this collection was the Rocky Mountains, which Vaatz has visited in the past. His capture of the serenity and stark beauty of that stretch of wilderness imbues each piece. An artist who works in a variety of media, including painting, Vaatz employed a variation of the sgraffito technique, where a surface layer is scratched away to reveal the substrate underneath. In one bracelet, a glorious sunburst emanates from a single diamond, placed in the center above the rolling hills. Etching away the gold, then oxidizing the silver produces thin black lines, like the caress of a pencil upon thick paper, that pulses outward. Shrubs, towering, spindly trees, and deep shadows make this subtle scene come alive.

FIRST PLACE ENAMEL.   Carina Wong, Hong Kong, Leaping Tree Frog ring of  champlevé  enamel, eighteen karat gold, white diamonds, orange sapphires.

FIRST PLACE ENAMEL. Carina Wong, Hong Kong, Leaping Tree Frog ring of champlevé enamel, eighteen karat gold, white diamonds, orange sapphires.

Sometimes it is the denizens of nature that make an appearance in the contest. Carina Wong’s First Place in Enamel, Leaping Tree Frog, is a delicate and attractive rendition of the famous amphibian that dwells in the Amazonian rain forests. Orange sapphires are used to recreate the creature’s webbed feet, while the brilliant enamel brings to life the poisonous animal’s vibrant patterning. A resident of Hong Kong, Wong is one of the contest’s international applicants, and an example of jewelry as a universal artform. Another member of the animal kingdom is represented by Sinork Agdere’s The Dragonfly, the Second Place winner in the Enamel category. From Los Angeles, California, Agdere’s take demonstrates how many ways the same subject can be interpreted, where artistic license and abstraction leads to an almost clockwork creation. The two award winners also utilized different enameling techniques, with Wong employing champlevé to produce the silken texture of the frog’s skin, while Agdere used plique-à-jour to infuse her insect’s wings with their characteristic shimmer.

The Alternative Metals/Materials category is an interesting exercise in making a piece of jewelry that appears luxurious without using the materials most associated with luxury. The requirement is that the predominant material must be a metal or material not included in the other categories, and in previous years has featured such unusual mediums as recycled rubber and Nespresso coffee capsules. Gabri Schumacher, from Schoonhoven in the Netherlands, won this year’s First Place prize with her titanium ring, Head in the Clouds.

 
FIRST PLACE   ALTERNATIVE METALS/MATERIALS. Gabri Schumacher, The Netherlands, Head In The Clouds ring of titanium, gold and diamonds.

FIRST PLACE ALTERNATIVE METALS/MATERIALS. Gabri Schumacher, The Netherlands, Head In The Clouds ring of titanium, gold and diamonds.

 

Schumacher’s piece is self-commentary, not only on herself, but also other artists and designers who are constantly thinking about what they will make next. To those who experience the drive to create, the process is a continuous flow of observation, inspiration and imagination, a sort of day-dreaming which manifests in the crafted object. Despite the mercurial picture that she depicts, Schumacher went through a laborious and detail-oriented procedure to arrive at this ring. She first made paper cutouts as a three-dimensional model of sorts, to arrive at the basic design. Once that transpired, a 3D computer program was used to  produce the prototype. The ring had to be perfectly designed from the beginning, as any mistakes in the dimensions would make it impossible for all the pieces of titanium to fit together. The end result is abstract, quixotic and mysterious.

FIRST PLACE EMERGING JEWELRY ARTIST 18 YEARS OF AGE OR YOUNGER.   Peyton Rogers, USA, Waterfall necklace of nickel silver and synthetic beads.

FIRST PLACE EMERGING JEWELRY ARTIST 18 YEARS OF AGE OR YOUNGER. Peyton Rogers, USA, Waterfall necklace of nickel silver and synthetic beads.

The competition also encourages the next generation of jewelers to participate in making their mark with the Emerging Jewelry Artist 18/22 Years of Age or Younger categories. This year, Hoi Yi Lai of Toronto, Canada, and Peyton Rogers of Fort Worth, Texas, were the first place winners, each coming from different places but showing ingenuity and imaginative thought in both their designs. Rogers is fifteen years old and constructed her necklace entirely by assembly and handsawing nickel silver; a few salvaged synthetic beads added color to the piece. She is a world traveler, and the inspiration for her necklace comes from the waterfalls she has witnessed in Ireland and Switzerland. Wearability was an important factor in the design, and she made sure that it would properly flow down the neckline, like roiling water.

Courage is the name of Lai’s ring, and her interest in philosophy and religion leads her to pick words that have meaning and then render them as a piece of jewelry. Entirely hand-fabricated from wire and silver sheet, the piece looks both diaphanous, and a bit intimidating, like brass knuckles that were formed for a particularly erudite gangster. The first jewelry she ever made was “a brooch that I pierced out of brass. It was a drawing of an alien with cat ears,” she says.

FIRST PLACE EMERGING JEWELRY ARTIST 22 YEARS OF AGE OR YOUNGER.   Hoi Yi Lai, Canada, Courage ring of sterling silver and tourmalines.

FIRST PLACE EMERGING JEWELRY ARTIST 22 YEARS OF AGE OR YOUNGER. Hoi Yi Lai, Canada, Courage ring of sterling silver and tourmalines.

The Saul Bell Design Award shows that the stories behind fine jewelry are more nuanced than one might imagine. As a cross-section of skilled craftspeople from across the globe, the competition has given individuals the ability to define what jewelry is and will become. The results, as we can see, are fascinating.

Next year’s winners will be announced at the Saul Bell Design Award ceremony on May 19, 2019. Read more on present and past award recipients on their website www.saulbellaward.com.

 

Click Images for Captions

 

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Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. A recent trip to Michigan for a friend’s wedding led inevitably to work on the side. A visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts, preceded by a very pleasurable excursion to the Scarab Club, gave him the opportunity to see “Star Wars™ and the Power of Costume” in person. As a science-fiction geek, it was hard to resist. From the original trilogy to the most recent reprise of the series, Benesh-Liu appreciated costumes past and present, and found out how poorly the lightsaber props were constructed. He did not miss the chance for a photograph with famous alien sage Yoda either. He also presents the winners of the Saul Bell Design Award, a competition organized by Rio Grande where stellar artisans from across the world test their ability, and ingenuity, in the pursuit of fine jewelry.

Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show 2018 Volume 40.5

 
MARINA TERAUDS

MARINA TERAUDS

 

The five jurors for the 42nd annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show had their work cut out for them, selecting 195 artists from a total of 876 applications. Per tradition, the show has a number of special add-ons, including the guest artist program, which this year features a cohort of twenty-six craft artists from Germany. As the show gets under way at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, a bounty of beauty and technical expertise awaits those who pass through its doors.

Once again the PMA Craft Show shines a light on some of the best and brightest in American art and craft in a dozen different categories. Fine art etcher Marina Terauds’s paper pieces stand out for their exquisite detail and precise lines, whether it’s a custom-made ex libris or a drawing of Queen Anne’s lace.

A Latvian by birth, Terauds studied graphic art at the Art Academy of Latvia and art pedagogy at the University of Latvia. After completing her studies she taught art and art history and worked as an artist-animator at the RIJA film studio in Riga. She currently lives in North Branch, Michigan.

LINDSAY LOCATELLI

Terauds uses original hand-cut copperplate intaglio prints and handmade paper as a basis for her three-dimensional compositions. She is a fantasist, a maker of inventive assemblages that sometimes bring to mind the work of Joseph Cornell. In one recent piece, a dress form is decorated with all manner of evocative imagery: a vintage clock, a mirror-holding bird-woman, an iguana, mushrooms, and butterflies.

Another newcomer is Lindsay Locatelli from Denver, one of fourteen “emerging” artists selected for the 2018 edition. The Philadelphia show has been at the top of her list for a while and she is excited to be going to the big dance to exhibit her contemporary art jewelry.

Locatelli works primarily in handcarved polymer clay and fabricated silver. She is drawn to creating organic and “intuitive textures” and applying bright colors, as witness a pair of spiky hoop earrings of polymer clay accented with eighteen karat lemon gold leaf. She loves the clay because she can sculpt it while it’s soft and carve it once it has hardened. She also likes the fact that it takes paint and other finishes well, “allowing,” in her words, “for the medium to mimic lots of other textures and materials.”

Diane Harty, a fiber artist from Frisco, Colorado, will be making her second trip to Philly, with some of her straw hats in various shapes and sizes ready for display, as well as chenille and felt headwear for colder weather. She employs about a dozen different kinds of braid in her hats, each one lending itself to a certain hat style. Harty recently obtained a few rolls of buntal, a fine white fiber produced in the Philippines from the leaves of the talipot palm. She has used the fiber to create cocktail hats. 

DIANE HARTY

Harty likes to approach each piece as sculpture; “I think it is a proper description,” she explains, “because I do not use any form or blocks to make the hats.” Instead, she shapes each hat as she is stitching it from the strand of braid. However, calling her pieces “sewn straw braid hats” is not quite accurate, she notes, although it suffices to describe functional work that “always has a touch of fun and interest.”

Another fiber artist, Deborah Cross from Freedom, California, has been to the Philadelphia show off and on over the past twenty years. She always looks forward to the enthusiastic reception given the artists and the high level of appreciation shown by the people who visit her booth. 

To achieve her complex designs Cross hand dyes and overlays pieces and appliqués silk fabrics. Her husband and partner, Gordon Heinel, helps with weaving and dyeing. The pair won the Ornament Magazine Prize for Excellence in Art to Wear at the 2013 show. 

This year Cross will be showing her newest limited edition wearables. She loves working in silk and wool, with houndstooth among her favorite fabrics. Indeed, she considers black and white to be “the most flattering fabric to wear.” On each of her new pieces she has airbrushed a gradation of black to striking effect. Some of the pieces also feature a stenciled discharge paste design. 

DEBORAH CROSS

Another couple in artistic cahoots, Nancy McCormick and Paul Monfredo have made around seven trips to Philadelphia over the years, bearing with them the fruits of their studio on Mount Desert Island on the coast of Maine. McCormick looks forward to seeing the work of fellow artists and admires the way the museum’s Women’s Committee organizes the show.

McCormick and Monfredo have been collaborating on decorative mirrors going on thirty years, inspired by images from the natural world, illuminated books, art history, and architecture. Their joint practice entails many steps, from building the frame to applying tempera paint. Monfredo handcrafts the panels from basswood, poplar and other woods, then applies several layers of hand-mixed clay, called “bole,” which he sands and polishes before applying gold leaf. McCormick creates the ornamental designs and paints them using tiny brushes. Elegant trees and stylized fish appear in several new pieces.   

Ani Kasten, a ceramist from Shafer, Minnesota, has been a prize-winner in previous PMA Craft Shows, including Best in Contemporary Clay in 2009 and Best in Show in 2016. Using wheel-throwing and hand-building techniques, she creates one-of-a-kind and small gatherings of sculptural vessels that, in her words, “explore the meeting point between natural and man-made worlds.”

PAUL MONFREDO & NANCY MCCORMICK

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ANI KASTEN

Kasten’s pieces often have a weathered look as if they had been discovered at an archaeological site. This appearance of what she calls “organic deterioration” evokes “the cycle of life, death, decay.” She embraces a minimal aesthetic she first encountered as a student of British ceramist Rupert Spira in 2000. The Nantucket-born artist has never lost her sense of the inherent earthiness of her medium, from her years in Nepal developing a stoneware production facility to the studios she established in Oakland, California, Mount Rainier, Maryland, and the St. Croix River Valley northeast of Minneapolis, where she works today.

Another jeweler, Seung Jeon Paik from Annandale, Virginia, will be returning for his second showing in Philadelphia. He has fond memories of meeting collectors and gallerists and receiving helpful feedback from them. 

SEUNG JEON PAIK

Among Paik’s offerings are brooches and pendants made from eighteen karat gold and sterling silver. He has turned to the cosmos for inspiration, creating “naturally occurring galaxy and swarming forms” through the representation of “small particles.” And as with Lyons, technology and tried-and-true techniques go hand in hand: Paik uses traditional granulation, Rhino 3D CAD and laser welding to produce his ornaments.  

In the mixed media category, Amy Roper Lyons from Summit, New Jersey, is returning for her sixth show, honored to be juried in again. She combines precious metals and enamel, seeking, she says, “to capture a tension and balance: the transparent fragility of glass, the strength and subtlety of the matte surface of the metal.” 

Roper Lyons is showing jewelry and larger objects: goblets, cups and bowls. Of note are several examples from her current series of Women’s Work goblets, “reimaginings” of what she calls the “historical trope of decorative female figures used ornamentally in sterling hollowware.” She turned to a mix of digital technologies and traditional methods to create these pieces. She used CAD to model the figures and cup frameworks, which were printed in resin on a 3D printer. She then made molds and cast the parts in sterling silver. The final step entailed enameling them by hand, employing plique-à-jour, a vintage method for creating a glowing surface. 

AMY ROPER LYONS

Meanwhile, Roper Lyons’s recent jewelry, in eighteen karat gold and enamel combined with gemstones, is inspired by outer space. Her cloisonné technique allows for subtle layering of colors over a textured base while creating areas that flash and glint.

William Alburger from Barto, Pennsylvania, won the Best New Artist award at last year’s craft show, earning him an automatic invite to the 2018 gathering. He calls himself a “repurposing eco-artist,” creating art from wood rescued and reclaimed in his part of the Delaware Valley. Most of his pieces are “eco-art” sculptures that can be displayed on the wall, but can also serve as shelf or mantel. He makes console and coffee tables too.

Alburger likes to imagine the life of the wood he works with, “the endless stories that lie buried in its rings and chiseled in its bark.” He also rescues barn boards. “To me, the deep texture and markings of decay are pure art.” The wood itself seems to direct him as he follows “the flow of the wood and tries to place in the spotlight the interesting grain or markings.”

Like many of the artists in the Philadelphia show Alburger is passionate about his materials and has made a personal connection to them. In this regard, Alburger and company fulfill one of the main criteria of the jurors, as noted by one of them, Perry Price, executive director of the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, in an interview for the show. “At this level,” Price states, “the mastery and accomplishments of the individual artists is almost a given, but makers who I tend to recognize with higher scores are the ones who draw me into their work by virtue of the originality and authenticity of their voice as artists.” That’s the common thread here: the original and authentic voices of these remarkable people.

WILLIAM ALBURGER

 
The five jurors for the 42nd annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show had their work cut out for them, selecting 195 artists from a total of 876 applications. As the show gets under way at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, a bounty of beauty and technical expertise awaits those who pass through its doors.
 

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Carl Little has previewed the Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show for Ornament before and loves the opportunity. “The show’s remarkable variety and the stellar quality of the work makes it a daunting task to select a few craft artists to highlight,” he notes. Upcoming for Ornament is his review of “Uneasy Beauty: Discomfort in Contemporary Adornment” at the Fuller Craft Museum. His third collaboration with his brother David, Paintings of Portland, came out in June. He also contributed an essay to Nature Observed: The Landscapes of Joseph Fiore. Little lives and writes on Mount Desert Island in Maine.

Richard Chavez Volume 40.4

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When Richard Chavez polishes a stone, he walks into the bright New Mexico sun to check his work. The natural light allows him to see imperfections that would be invisible in the lights of his studio. Always a perfectionist, Chavez may take several steps in and out of the studio door until a stone is polished to his satisfaction. A fastidious lapidary artist, Chavez has been working with a selection of quality stones since the mid-1970s. Today he is recognized as one of the leading Southwestern lapidary artists.

      Chavez’s work is characterized by clean lines, fine polishing, attention to detail, and reflects his architectural background, which was his first career. While working for the architectural firm of Harvey S. Hoshour, Chavez became familiar with and began to apply the principles of “less is more” pioneered by Bauhaus modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. These same principles are apparent in the jewelry Chavez creates today.

BRACELET of fossilized walrus ivory, turquoise, coral, black jade, and silver, 3.2 centimeters wide, 2012. Private Collection.

      His jewelry is strikingly different from that of other Southwestern artists. The color palette he chooses relies strongly on either a predominant dark background of black jade or lapis lazuli or a light background of fossilized ivory; and generally, he incorporates turquoise and coral—both thought to be traditional Southwestern materials—only as accents.

Like many of his colleagues who began careers in the 1970s, Chavez was influenced by the groundbreaking work of jeweler Charles Loloma (Hopi, 1921-1991), who was also known for his use of atypical stones set in innovative designs. Like Loloma, Chavez distinguished his jewelry beginning in the 1970s by including stones that were thought to be nontraditional. The stones can include Siberian green jade, black jade, tiger’s eye, fossilized ivory, opal, lapis lazuli, sugilite, chrysoprase, and occasionally agates of particularly striking colors.

Chavez was born in 1949 and grew up in the conservative village of San Felipe Pueblo. Educational goals were important to his parents, which led Chavez to pursue a career in architecture. Initially, he trained as an architectural draftsman though a program at Draughon’s Business College in Dallas and later, while working for Hoshour, he took architecture classes at the University of New Mexico. He began making jewelry while working at Hoshour’s firm to supplement his income. Initially, Chavez made heishi beads from olivella shells or he hand-fashioned turquoise beads. But as the lower-priced heishi beads imported from Asia undersold his handmade work, Chavez began to look for other options. He noticed that some other Southwestern jewelers were creating intriguing designs in silver and he decided to try his hand at metalwork.

LAPIS LAZULI EARRINGS of coral, turquoise and fourteen karat gold, 4.1 centimeters long, 1992. Private Collection. BLACK JADE EARRINGS of coral, turquoise and eighteen karat gold, 3.2 centimeters long, 2003-2004. Collection of Joan Borinstein. SIBERIAN GREEN JADE EARRINGS of coral, turquoise and silver, 3.2 centimeters long, 2009. Collection of Carole Katz.

      Within a few short years after transitioning from heishi beads to metal jewelry with inset stones, Chavez began to receive recognition for his innovative designs. He won the Best of Show Award at Eight Northern Pueblos Show in 1976, the first year he participated in the event. That same year, he also sold at the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) Market in Santa Fe. In 1977, the second year he entered the SWAIA Market, he was awarded a first place ribbon, and in 1981 received a SWAIA Fellowship during the second year it was offered to artists. Chavez used the fellowship funds to purchase gold, which was a more expensive metal than silver, and as funds allowed, he utilized it with more frequency as part of his jewelry. During this pivotal period and at the forefront of change in Southwestern wearable art, he and a few other artists were transforming Southwestern jewelry from classic silver and turquoise forms to those that featured gold, innovative shapes and a variety of stones. The materials as well as the designs they created blazed new trails in Native aesthetics.

BRACELET of Sea of Japan coral, turquoise and silver, 2012. Collection of Mike and Gene Waddell.

      SWAIA—the organization that produces the largest leading Native American art market in the U.S.—had another major impact on Chavez’s jewelry. In the 1970s-80s, SWAIA rules required that jewelers use all natural materials. Chavez preferred onyx rather than jet for a black stone because jet is a soft stone and he wanted a stone that was more scratch resistant. Realizing that onyx is dyed to achieve the black color, and as such was not a natural stone, Chavez began to look for alternatives. In 1988, he tried black jade for the first time and found the stone to be one that was suitably hard and took a polish well. Always fond of the deep blue of lapis lazuli, black jade offered Chavez an alternative dark stone choice.

Chavez also found that black jade, which in the U.S. often comes from Wyoming or Northern California, is readily available in an unpolished form. Stone selection is an important part of the work of a lapidarist and Chavez purchases many of his stones at the gem and mineral shows held in Tucson or Denver. Materials are sold by weight and, of course, the stones look much different in their raw, unpolished states. When lapidarists cut into one, they might find that only a portion is of suitable quality. Much of the raw material can be discarded while cutting, shaping and polishing. Artists are taking a chance each time they purchase raw materials. 

NECKLACE of lapis lazuli, coral, turquoise, and silver, 22.9 centimeters long, 1992. Private Collection. Adjacent are preparatory drawings of works; one containing the necklace shown here. Chavez sketches all of his pieces to scale and on the final drawing will add notes about materials and dimensions. He has kept many of the drawings to record the development of his career over time.

BOLO TIE of fossilized ivory, coral, black jade, turquoise, and fourteen karat gold, 8.3 x 5.4 centimeters, 1998. Private Collection.

      When he first began working with metals, Chavez thought about the designs he wanted to make and worked directly with the stones and metals to create each item. Within a few short years, he began to draw preparatory sketches of jewelry designs—initially on lined note paper but more often on graph paper—and has continued this process, drawing all of his works to scale. For some pieces, Chavez may draw a series of designs on different pages of paper until he is satisfied; and on the final drawing, he’ll typically add notes about materials and also include dimensions. He has retained many of these drawings, which as a body of work illustrates the progression of his career through time.

Chavez’s interest in architecture has continued to influence his jewelry designs and he often photographs architectural features when he travels. The rings in particular evince architectural motifs—a building’s cornice may be inspiration for the lines of a ring or the corner of a building reflected in an angle or influence its height. Some have flat planes that rise above the hand, much like a structure rising from the ground. Several examples contain a different design on each side. The circular forms of building ductwork might appear as a circular stone added to a ring’s flat plane.

Through his work at Hoshour’s firm, Chavez was also exposed to contemporary art by artists such as Mark Rothko, Joan Miro and Piet Mondrian. Their influence can be seen especially in Chavez’s color choices. The patterns in stonework are often reminiscent of Mondrian’s colorations. His bolo tie pendants could be compared to a painter’s palette since the ornaments serve as a platform for design and color balance. Generally, these designs are abstracted geometrics, but at times one can detect the shape of a face or the hint of an eye.

Some of Chavez’s creations directly reflect nature. The best examples are his butterfly brooches, which can also be worn as pendants. With great skill, Chavez creates complex stone mosaics in the butterfly wings, or simply carves stones to form the wings, adding incised lines to delineate patterns and creases on the wing’s surface. Often, he carefully carves contrasting stones for use as butterfly bodies and heads.

BRACELET of black jade, coral, dolomite, and silver, 3.0 centimeters wide, 2010. Private Collection.

      Chavez was also influenced by the economy of Scandinavian designs and he strives toward uninterrupted lines—A clasp might be designed to look like other sections in a necklace or bracelet; or alternately, pendants are attached to the fronts of necklaces and, in the process, also serve as the clasp. This meticulous geometry has influenced placements in exhibitions. When his jewelry was included in the Albuquerque Museum’s inaugural exhibition, “One Space, Three Visions” in 1979, the curator included his jewelry in the contemporary rather than the Native American section.

Chavez is perhaps best known for the complex inlay shown in his bracelets. Since he cuts and shapes each stone by hand, his application of the stones to bracelet bands best exemplifies his mastery of blending shape, color and design. The stones are perfectly cut, often in trapezoid forms that match seamlessly. Sometimes Chavez adds thin gold bars as accents to the inlay while at other times he may choose turquoise or coral for his accents.

One of Chavez’s first uses of Siberian green jade was for a bracelet made in 1996: the emerald-green jade stones, some of which have black inclusions, drew further attention to his capacity for detail and it has become a signature design.

Another significant bracelet design represents his great accomplishments in stone polishing. It consists of a highly polished black jade plane with inset cardinal points in red coral or white dolomite. The surfaces are so perfectly polished that it is almost impossible to see the seams of the stones without magnification.

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      Chavez undertakes every step of jewelrymaking without the aid of assistants. In 1997, when the Heard Museum was preparing a Southwestern jewelry exhibition, Chavez submitted a handwritten artist statement, which said, “From raw materials to finished product, I’m the sole maker of my jewelry. Each piece coming out of my studio has a part of me reflected in it. Any aspect of my jewelry making involves designing, fabricating, the grinding of metal and stones, the polishing and the finish applied to a piece. As difficult as it gets sometimes, I’ll never delegate any part of the work to an assistant.” Chavez has kept true to that statement. Because he is involved in every step, he may produce a small number of quality works annually.

COLLABORATIVE BELT BY RICHARD CHAVEZ AND JARED CHAVEZ of black jade, coral, turquoise, and silver, 88.9 centimeters long, buckle measures 7.0 x 7.0 centimeters, 2012. Private Collection.

      In recent years, Chavez has collaborated with his son Jared (born 1982). Jared showed an inclination for art at an early age and an interest in jewelry design and fabrication while still a teenager. His parents encouraged him to attend college and after completing his Bachelor of Arts in studio art, with a focus in digital art and printmaking at Georgetown University, Jared returned to San Felipe and began to make jewelry on his own. The two men share a studio in San Felipe adjacent to the family home. While Richard emphasizes lapidary work, Jared has focused on metalsmithing. In 2011 they collaborated for the first time on a necklace that featured Jared’s metalwork and Richard’s lapidary work. They have undertaken several collaborations since.

For more than forty years, Richard Chavez has created masterful jewelry with complex inlay and striking color patterns that reflect his architectural sensibilities. As his work has evolved, he has perfected his techniques while his designs have continued to delight and intrigue all who view them.

SUGGESTED READING
Chalker, Kari, ed. Totems to Turquoise: Native North American Jewelry Arts of the Northwest and Southwest. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2004.
Cirillo, Dexter. Southwestern Indian Jewelry. New York: Abbeville Press, 1992.
—. Southwestern Indian Jewelry: Crafting New Traditions. New York: Rizzoli, 2008.
Pardue, Diana F. The Cutting Edge: Contemporary Southwestern Jewelry and Metalwork. Phoenix: Heard Museum, 1997.
—. Contemporary Southwestern Jewelry. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2007.
—. Symmetry in Stone: The Jewelry of Richard I. Chavez. Phoenix: Heard Museum, 2017.

“Symmetry in Stone: The Jewelry of Richard I. Chavez” showed February 2 - August 5, 2018 at the Heard Museum, 2301 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, Arizona 85004. Visit their website at www.heard.org.

 

      Get Inspired!


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Diana F. Pardue is Chief Curator at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. Her interest in jewelry has led her to curate several exhibitions as well as to write articles and books about the topic, which include Contemporary Southwestern Jewelry; Shared Images: The Innovative Jewelry of Yazzie Johnson and Gail Bird; Native American Bolo Ties: Vintage and Contemporary Artistry (with Norman Sandfield); Awa Tsireh: Pueblo Painter and Metalsmith (with Norman Sandfield); and Symmetry in Stone: The Jewelry of Richard I. Chavez. It is the fine lapidary skill of Chavez and start-to-finish process that Pardue investigates in her contribution to this issue.

Pierre Balmain and Queen Sirikit Volume 40.4

PIERRE BALMAIN escorts Her Majesty Queen Sirikit to a private showing of his Autumn 1960 collection at Maison Balmain in Paris, October 12, 1960.  Photograph courtesy of Pierre Balmain S.A.

PIERRE BALMAIN escorts Her Majesty Queen Sirikit to a private showing of his Autumn 1960 collection at Maison Balmain in Paris, October 12, 1960. Photograph courtesy of Pierre Balmain S.A.

SKETCH FOR NUIT A LONDRES. All photographs courtesy of the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles.

As a participant on a tour to Thailand to study textiles, I had the opportunity to visit the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles (QSMT), Bangkok. Among the exhibitions on view was “Fit For A Queen,” a stunning showcase of the wardrobe the legendary Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain designed for Her Majesty Queen Sirikit. This was my second visit to the QSMT and I was again impressed by the quality of the content and installations of the exhibitions. I was particularly engaged by the concept and execution of the new exhibition and was delighted to discover the collaboration between the Queen and her French fashion designer. I had the pleasure to sit down recently with Melissa Leventon, one of the three curators who worked on the exhibition, and dive deeper into the back-story and development of this unique collaboration in fashion involving Thai and French culture.

You’ve been working as the Senior Museum Consultant for QSMT since 2006; when did the idea first originate of developing an exhibition and catalog on Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s wardrobe designed by Pierre Balmain?

The idea originated a number of years ago with our director, Piyavara Teekara Natenoi. We began preliminary research on the relationship between Her Majesty and Balmain in 2009 when a team from the museum traveled to Paris and visited the House of Lesage to discuss his work with the Queen. Fortunately, we videoed that interview with François and we have used excerpts from it in the exhibition. In one of our inaugural exhibitions, we used quite a number of the Thai-style dresses made for Her Majesty by Balmain so the logical follow-up was to do an exhibition that focused on the Queen’s Western-style wardrobe.

Did Her Majesty gift the Balmain pieces to the museum?

Yes. Her Majesty has been donating items from her Balmain holdings to the museum since 2009. Earlier this year we were given another sixteen ensembles and some of those will be rotated into the exhibition in 2018.

In addition to Daywear, Evening Dress and Outerwear, did the collection include other components, such as accessories, luggage and archival materials?

QUEEN SIRIKIT WEARING Nuit a Londres from Balmain’s Spring 1960 collection. The Queen’s customized version was in Thai silk and had shoulder straps added.

      It did, yes. We have a number of the hats Balmain designed for the Queen, as well as quite a number of Her Majesty’s shoes. The museum’s collection includes only one or two pieces of the Vuitton luggage Her Majesty used on the tour but happily, we were able to borrow several additional Vuitton pieces from the Royal Household. The archival materials we have in the exhibition are all on loan from Maison Balmain and the House of Lesage—Balmain kindly lent us nine sketchbooks, representing the house’s regular summer collections from 1960-1969, and Lesage lent us a number of the embroidery samples prepared for Her Majesty’s dresses.

What were some of the challenges in readying the collection for exhibition?

Research and object selection are always lengthy and painstaking. For this project, we had a lot of information and photographs of some ensembles, and very little information for others. So we had both to determine how to choose among many options and make good choices where we had few options. Dating the ensembles for which we had no external information was quite challenging until we were able to see the Balmain sketchbooks lent for the exhibition by Maison Balmain, which happened fairly late in the process. Those sketchbooks were key to our understanding of how the Queen worked with Balmain in the early years of their collaboration, and they challenged a lot of the assumptions we had made. Fortunately, they arrived in Bangkok before the catalog went to press!

We were also fortunate that many dresses were in very good condition, but getting them to look right on their mounts is always challenging. The evening dresses and ball gowns are all on invisible mounts, which our conservators had to make for each dress individually. That was an arduous and time-consuming task.

Can you describe the process that went into the making of the audio-visual components that accompany and complement the exhibition?

 
The Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles in Thailand is presenting more than thirty of the Queen’s daytime, cocktail and evening dresses in an exhibition that focuses on the twenty-two-year-long working relationship between Queen Sirikit and French couturier Pierre Balmain.

      A lot of time and effort went into the short animated presentations that show selected dresses putting themselves together. We commissioned five of them, and worked with a professional animation studio and designer/dressmakers. The designers replicated the patterns Balmain’s workrooms had used in constructing each garment, by studying the garment closely and taking careful measurements. The animators then translated the patterns into computerized form, and created a series of storyboards—just as if they were making a movie—that showed the shape of the pattern pieces and the order in which they were sewn together. We went through several drafts of each one, adjusting the views, construction order and pacing each time. So, a lot of work, but well worth it. The finished animations are not only informative, they are among the most popular features of the exhibition. 

Why did Majesties King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit decide to commission the renowned Paris couturier Pierre Balmain to design Her Majesty’s wardrobe for their 1960 state visit to fourteen European countries and the United States? 

AFTERNOON DRESS AND COAT, made entirely of Thai silk was worn both in New York and Rome during 1960 state visit.

      In that era, royal women and wives of heads of state commonly patronized either well-known fashion designers from their home countries or French couturiers. Her Majesty’s principal Thai dressmaker, Urai Lueumrung, advised her that there were no designers in Thailand in 1959 who were capable of producing the kind of Western wardrobe she would need for the tour, so a French couturier was the obvious choice. Balmain was an excellent choice for Her Majesty. He was experienced, widely traveled and had dressed other noble and royal clients, so the Queen knew that he would be able to advise her on the intricacies of royal dress protocol for European countries. Moreover, his couture operation was then one of the largest in Paris, so he had the capacity to produce Her Majesty’s orders quickly and reliably.

The Thai government had proposed that Her Majesty work with Dior and offered to pay for the Queen’s wardrobe. Their Majesties wisely declined the suggestion, as well as the payment offer. Dior was the largest and best-known couture house in Paris at the time, but Christian Dior himself had died and Yves Saint Laurent was at the helm. Saint Laurent was a great designer but he was very young and more interested in his generation’s youthful tastes than he was in classic style—not what Her Majesty was looking for.

What were the characteristics of Balmain’s designs that Her Majesty found so appealing? 

Balmain was known for elegant, classic designs—neat little suits, chic afternoon dresses and flowing, romantic evening dresses, all executed with close attention to detail. He was also willing to use Thai textiles in his designs for the Queen to help convey a sense of her Thai identity through her Western clothes. This, I think, was crucial to the success of their working relationship.

In the exhibition and catalog texts you make reference to the “seamless blend of Asian aesthetics and European high fashion” that Her Majesty and Balmain “developed and refined over their twenty-two-year collaboration.” This partnership resulted in a “fashionably Western and distinctively Thai” style. Can you talk about some of the pieces in Her Majesty’s wardrobe you feel best illustrate this concept?

EVENING DRESS of Thai silk and metallic brocade, 1960. This is one of several simple, Western-style evening dresses Balmain made for the 1960 tour.

      There are many. The Queen’s daytime ensembles from the 1960 tour, particularly the fashionable suits made entirely from Thai silk, exemplify the marriage of Western fashion and distinctively Thai textiles that created her characteristic style. Two of my favorites in this category are an orange Thai silk skirt suit that Her Majesty wore at least twice during the tour and for several years afterwards; and a Thai silk dress and swing coat ensemble, also worn in both the U.S. and Europe. Balmain also made evening dresses for the Queen in 1960 using this same approach, but substituting Thai gold-metal and silk brocade for the Thai silk.

The 1960 tour wardrobe firmly established Her Majesty’s style as utilizing this joint Thai/Western strategy. It carried over to her use of the Support Foundation’s village-woven textiles beginning in the 1970s, which were styled into Western garments by Balmain. It also applied, in a slightly different way, to Balmain’s work on Her Majesty’s Thai national dress. Modern Thai national dress was developed at Her Majesty’s behest for the 1960 tour. Stylistically, it incorporated modern Western tailoring with elements drawn from nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Thai court dress. Initially, it was made only by the Queen’s Thai designers. However, Balmain and the embroiderer François Lesage began to make some of Her Majesty’s national dress around 1963, adding European construction and embroidery technique, style and materials.

What was the reaction of the public and the press to the Queen’s style? Was she considered to be as fashionably and elegantly dressed as other women of royalty and position to whom she was introduced on the tour? 

The Queen, who was stunningly beautiful, attracted a lot of admiring public attention and was very popular with the press as well. A lot of the press coverage focused on what The New York Times rather breathlessly referred to as the “huge and wonderful wardrobe of fairytale proportions” and there is no doubt that she could hold her own with the most fashionable women in the world. She was elected to the Best Dressed List in 1960, which also included Princess Alexandra of Kent, Audrey Hepburn and Jacqueline Kennedy. She was re-elected to the list twice more, topping it in 1964, and then was elevated to the Best Dressed Hall of Fame in 1965.

What role did the House of Lesage play in developing a design aesthetic for Her Majesty? Was imagery for the embroidery drawn from both European and Thai sources? 

THAI NATIONAL DRESS of silk brocade, shows how the House of Lesage enhanced the garment’s woven pattern with lavish embroidery, 1979.

      Lesage’s embroidery designs for Her Majesty’s dresses often reflected his signature use of varied combinations of materials to create richly textured surfaces, which in turn influenced Thai embroiderers. I think, in fact, that Lesage’s major contribution to the Queen’s evolving style was the successful application of his distinctive approach to embroidery to Thai national dress.

Lesage used both European and Thai sources for the embroidery on Her Majesty’s Western cocktail and evening dresses. Many of Her Majesty’s most formal clothes from the 1960s use both European materials and motifs. However, others incorporate classic Thai motifs, such as flames, palmettes and lotus flowers. For dresses made of Thai brocade, Lesage’s embroidery often echoes the brocade pattern as a way of amplifying it. The Lesage archives also include copies of motifs from books on Thai art so he plainly was looking beyond the information gleaned from the textiles themselves.

As cited in the exhibition catalog, Balmain provided every conceivable service to assure that Her Majesty’s wardrobe on tour met his high standards of craftsmanship and carried “the stamp of enduring elegance.” Can you share with us some of the preparations involved? 

In addition to designing Her Majesty’s clothes, Balmain provided matching hats as needed. His in-house furrier also designed her furs. Balmain commissioned her footwear from René Mancini, a French custom shoemaker who supplied bespoke shoes to a number of couturiers, and he orchestrated the purchases of accessories such as gloves.

Balmain was also very involved in making sure the wardrobe functioned properly on tour. Their Majesties were constantly on the move, especially during the American portion of the tour, and the Queen often had to change three or four times a day. It was crucial that the right clothes for the right occasions be easily findable and always in ready-to-wear condition. To ensure this, Balmain developed a chart for the women who were responsible for caring for the Queen’s clothes during the trip, which listed each outfit, its individual components, the number of the trunk in which it was packed, and the occasion(s) for which it was intended. The list included swatches for easy identification. Balmain also taught Her Majesty’s attendants to pack the clothes so that they would appear fresh and unwrinkled when they were unpacked.

Did Balmain present sketches and fabric swatches to Her Majesty for approval? 

We think so, although we have not yet located any. Erik Mortensen, Balmain’s assistant, mentions in his memoir that Balmain introduced new design ideas to Her Majesty using sketches and samples, and we have seen Mortensen’s own sketches and swatches for Her Majesty from the period after Balmain’s death. 

How were personal fittings handled? 

As would have been customary for a royal client, Balmain went to Her Majesty for fittings. It was and is customary for a couturier to have a customized dress form made for each client to be used as a stand-in when the client was not present, so Balmain would have used the form made to Her Majesty’s measurements draping, cutting, and the preliminary fittings in Paris. For the state tour, Balmain brought the clothes needed for the intensive month in the U.S. to Bangkok along with his assistant Erik Mortensen, and a fitter. They spent about three weeks fitting the clothes on the Queen, and did most of the necessary alterations in the workshop of Urai Lueumrung, Her Majesty’s dressmaker. For the second, European phase of the tour, which lasted for five months and was much less intensive, Balmain and his team would visit the Queen almost every weekend at Their Majesties’ base in Switzerland to fit the clothes needed for the following week or so of official activities.

Why did Balmain contract with Vuitton to make the trunks with customized interior fittings for Her Majesty’s wardrobe? 

VUITTON HAT TRUNK. The Vuitton luggage ordered for Queen Sirikit was striped with the colors of the Thai flag and monogrammed with the Queen’s cipher.

      Vuitton is known for its customized luggage and boasts a long and impressive roster of royal and noble clients. They were really the logical choice. And it made sense for Balmain to order the luggage rather than leaving it to the Palace to do directly, because Balmain would have known which interior fittings were needed to accommodate the royal wardrobe and how many pieces of luggage would have been needed.

Who, if anyone, assumed the role after Balmain’s death in 1982?

Erik Mortensen, Balmain’s primary design assistant, became the designer for Maison Balmain after Pierre Balmain’s death. Mortensen had been in charge of Her Majesty’s orders since 1960 and thus the two already had a close and longstanding working relationship. I think that for the Queen, the transition from Balmain to Mortensen was probably fairly seamless.

When Mortensen left Balmain in 1990, Her Majesty followed him to Jean Louis Scherrer. He remained her couturier of choice until his death in 1998. After that, the Queen tried several other European designers—Dior, Givenchy, Valentino among them, and also increased her patronage of Thai designers such as Bha, Tirapan and Pichita.

You point out that the use of handwoven Thai silk brocades and ikats in Her Balmain-designed wardrobe were a deliberate strategy conceived by Her Majesty to promote Thai identity and elevate the textile arts of Thailand. In the 1970s, Her Majesty established the Support Foundation to promote the revival of Thailand’s traditional crafts, particularly weaving. Do you think the Foundation was a natural outgrowth of this strategy?

RENÉ MANCINI SHOES made for the Queen in a variety of materials. The Queen often wore this type of evening pump with Thai national dress.

      Not exactly. The establishment of the Foundation, in 1976, simply formalized an effort spearheaded by the Queen that had been underway for several years. So I think the strategy was born from Her Majesty’s desire to market the silks that were being produced at her behest in the most effective way possible. In other words, I believe the textiles came first, and Her Majesty’s decision to wear them followed.

One of Her Majesty’s objectives, through the Support Foundation, was to create a commercial market for the fabrics woven by local village women. Do you think the commercial channels have enabled these “humble village textiles” to now become fashionable? 

They are certainly popular in Thailand, and I think that is due to Her Majesty’s advocacy. However, they are not particularly prominent in fashion outside Thailand, so I don’t think they have achieved the lasting international recognition that Her Majesty may have hoped for.

What would you like visitors to “take away” from this exhibition?

I’d like people to understand something of the process of how Balmain and Her Majesty worked together, how important a factor Her Majesty’s appearance and style was in the success of the 1960 tour, how deftly the Queen exploited fashion to raise Thailand’s profile internationally, and how beautiful she looked. I’d also like people to appreciate how hard she worked to raise the profile and reach of Thai textiles.

“Fit For A Queen: Her Majesty Queen Sirikit’s Creations by Balmain” is showing through June 30, 2019,
at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, Bangkok, Thailand.
Visit their website at
www.qsmtthailand.org.

 

      Get Inspired!


Jo Lauria is a Los Angeles-based curator, author and educator who is a specialist in the fields of craft and design. She has explored objects and environments that define the American lifestyle and culture through publications and exhibitions. The organizer of several museum-based surveys and national touring exhibitions, Lauria is currently the adjunct curator of the American Museum of Ceramic Art (AMOCA). Additionally, as Mentor Faculty at Otis College of Art and Design, she has guided students in their artistic pursuits and has contributed meaningfully to the academic environment. This issue she contributes a rare interview with Melissa Leventon, guest curator for “Fit For A Queen,” an exhibition showing at the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles. Together they examine the collaboration between French couturier Pierre Balmain and Thailand’s Queen Sirikit.


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Melissa Leventon is a specialist in European and American costume and textiles, and has been a consultant to the Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles since 2006. Author of two books, she has also contributed to many exhibition catalogs and journals. Leventon is based in San Francisco, California, where she is principal of the museum consultancy Curatrix Group and a Senior Adjunct Professor teaching fashion history and theory at California College of the Arts.

Burning Man at the Renwick Gallery Volume 40.4

TRUTH IS BEAUTY by Marco Cochrane of stainless steel rod and stainless steel mesh, 2013. Photograph by Eleanor Preger, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery. THE 10 PRINCIPLES. Night scene: BURNING MAN PARTICIPANTS, 2013. Photograph by Neil Girling, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery.

Creativity is the principle that lies at the fiery heart of Burning Man. It is the sacred act that is celebrated by this neo-Pagan, techno-Hinduist, born-again-hippie festival, which represents to participants the absolute freedom to be one’s true self. It is appropriate that the hellishly hot, sandy basin in which the event sits is called the Playa. Metaphorically, it’s located on the boundaries of modern civilization and the vast unknown, between proverbial sea and sand. Effectively, it’s humanity’s sandbox, a place to play without all of the artificial constraints and prejudices we humans have made for ourselves.

      That word, play, is a much underappreciated aspect of human nature. Nora Atkinson would probably agree. As the Lloyd E. Herman Curator of Craft for the Renwick Gallery, Atkinson put together the landmark exhibition, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” for many reasons, ranging from the personal (a former resident of the state of Washington, she felt a longing for West Coast culture) to the idealistic. As the quintessential outsider event, bringing Burning Man to the nation’s capital had more than a touch of subversiveness to it.

Burning Man was born in San Francisco, on the original Playa, Baker Beach, in 1986. It all began when carpenter Larry Harvey and his friend, Jerry James, knocked up a crude wooden effigy of a human being, dubbed the Man, bundled him up into the back of a Ford pickup truck, and carried it down to the shoreline. There, they and a group of friends raised the combustible figure, doused him with gasoline, and the rest is history.

WINTER IS COMING... by Manish Arora of silk and metallic armor, hand-embroidered, hand-embellished, chain-linked by hand, 2015. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

THE PLAYA PROVIDES NECKPIECE from various artists, assembled by Jennifer George, of metal, plastic, crystal, abalone, wood, and sterling silver, 2006-2017. The gifting economy that underpins the entire foundation of Burning Man, both literally and figuratively, leads to a continual and constant exchange of medals, pendants, badges, brooches, and other memorabilia as signs of affection, friendship, community, and shared memories. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      Well, not quite. The catalysts that transformed the Baker Beach gathering into a temporary settlement nestled in the sweltering sands of Nevada desert were the po-po, and a group of like-minded malcontents, thrillseekers and iconoclasts known as the Cacophony Society. Like Russian matryoshka dolls, the Society came from a small group of friends who dubbed themselves the Suicide Club—after surviving, according to local lore, a stint hanging precariously from a loose railing over the crashing Pacific Ocean below Fort Point. Afterwards, Gary Warne and three compatriots recovered to safety, with a solemn oath to live each day as their last. These dwellers of the fringe, inhabiting the periphery of the human experience, would attract more like-minded individuals. Happenstance (and word of mouth) brought the flotsam and jetsam of San Francisco together on Baker Beach, celebrating the immolation of the Burning Man.

The festivities were interrupted in 1990, as the local police informed the revelers that the party was over. The community did not waste any time; during Labor Day weekend, a procession set out from Golden Gate Park, to find Burning Man’s new home, in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, far to the north of Reno. Here, in the middle of nowhere, underneath the blazing sun, a member of this band of merry adventurers, Michael Michael, marked the boundary between worlds with a foot dragged through the dirt, baptizing it with the words, “On the other side of this line, everything will be different. Reality itself will change.”

AERIAL VIEW of Burning Man gathering at Black Rock City, 2012.  Photograph by Scott London.

      Black Rock City is the real final frontier (pardons to Gene Roddenberry). There might be a lot of wild, unexplored and untamed land left on planet Earth, but Burning Man dives deep into the social, spiritual and ethical territory that lays far out in uncharted waters. Ten Principles girdle the philosophical foundation of Burning Man: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leave No Trace, Participation, and last, but absolutely not least, Immediacy. It is radical in that most honest of ways, by being a pure expression of what it preaches.

What may surprise those who view the festival as frivolous is the amount of work that goes into organizing Burning Man, and the structures that have grown up around it. The Department of Public Works (whose insignia is the Man circumscribed by the spokes of a tire wheel, embedded in a great black gear) has a laundry list of tasks that include “Building logical roads, creating and placing signage, maintaining approved potable water systems, providing portable and stationary electrical power, assisting with major art projects, and setting up the small-plane airport and runway.” The fact that between all those practical considerations, nestled surreptitiously, is the art, illustrates how the boundaries between practical life and art grow thin and merge together here. Like in many indigenous and folk traditions, there is no separation.

It was this challenge, of authentically presenting the spirit of the event, presenting the glitz and glamour without obscuring the substance, that Nora Atkinson faced in mounting the exhibition at the Renwick, part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Like a living flame, its temporary nature and spontaneity is its essence. How do you communicate that to an audience inside a building that is more than a century old?

 

BEFORE I DIE by Candy Chang (New Orleans, Louisiana), 2011. As an experiment in community building, and healing, Chang created the first wall on an abandoned house in her neighborhood of New Orleans. A response to a loved one who had just died, now these participatory installations, like David Best’s Temple, allow its audience an intimate relation with the art. In fact, the audience is part of the art itself. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

 

      The key, Atkinson reveals, is collaboration. “I reached out early on to the Burning Man organization. I had already had in my head a number of artists that I wanted to include, many of them being perennial artists that I thought really represented the aesthetics that have come out of Burning Man. But I also wanted to make sure that the community felt heard, and that the internal community favorites made it into the show, and that we had a really wide spread.” She makes reference to the populist nature that is at the root of Burning Man, an “Anything You Can Do I Can Do” ethos that sees MFA trained artists creating installations alongside carpenters and death metal heads.

Some, like Michael Garlington, graduated from Burning Man University by first working in the Department of Public Works, then apprenticing to celebrities such as David Best, who created the temple made of recycled wood that takes over the Grand Salon on Renwick’s second floor. Now Garlington’s work is exhibited by a gallery, and he erects his own sacred structures on the dusty surface of the Playa. For Atkinson, revealing this network of connections and relationships that develop through the festival was vital, as was giving Burners (a term for Burning Man attendees/devotees that is as contentious as it is ubiquitous) a voice in the show. “We actually put out a call in the Burning Man community, through the Burning Man organization, asking people to submit artists that they thought were important, artists that were some of their favorites, to us. And there were some pieces in the exhibition that made it in that were discovered through people’s suggestions.”

TEMPLE by David Best and the Temple Crew of recycled wood, 2018. Best creates wooden temples, spiritual structures, that are lit on fire each year at Burning Man. The Renwick commissioned him to create a temple for the exhibition, which Best dedicated to people who have lost, whether it be a loved one or something else. Visitors were encouraged to write on small wooden plaques that could be placed at the various altars around the temple. Best has said that there are few sacred spaces where people can reflect on loss and to celebrate and remember our deepest emotions. Photographs by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

      While the art installations may be the most memorable aspect of the festival’s visual milieu, Atkinson wanted to present the experience of Burning Man in a holistic and comprehensive manner, and what is a day on the Playa without body paint, glow-in-the-dark fabrics and otherworldly outfits?

READY TO LOVE ENSEMBLE by Manish Arora of thread, silk, beads, crystals, faux patent leather, felt, sequins, and iridescent armor, hand-embroidered, hand-embellished, hand-appliquéd, chain-linked by hand, 2016. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

      Normally we associate costumes and clothing as being different; one is unserious, fun and fantastical, while the other is outerwear to protect ourselves from the elements. Both however are the same in one very obvious respect: they are objects worn on the body. It is the gentle and not-so-gentle continuous pressure of society that makes certain outfits “costumes,” generally because they are too outlandish for people to comfortably accept as clothing. 

In fact, we are rejecting the validity of the wearer’s humanity. A person wearing something so outside the norm that we don’t recognize them as part of “our group” anymore becomes a caricature. Whether it is the loose, voluminous clothing of a clown, replete with red hair and rubber nose, or the dazzling ethnic attire from a foreign culture, for many people that invokes The Label of Other.

The costumes and clothing generated by Burners speak to the dissolution of societal labeling, just as the gifting of food, water and services represents an intentional shift away from a heartless status quo towards a healthy one. What you wear on the Playa is an expression of self; a statement of both exploration and identity where the message is simply, “This is who I am.” Whether the image you are projecting is what you want to be, what you actually are underneath society’s baggage, or the self you are finally, after many years, comfortable with revealing, Burning Man, for all its carnival illusions, is rather more real than the circus it superficially resembles.

With limited space and a huge breadth of material, Atkinson had to establish criteria for what pieces she wanted to display in the exhibition. The route she chose was to present artist and designer-made costumes to highlight the more unusual and fantastic wearables seen at Burning Man, while using photographs to give visitors an idea of what the every day Playa-goer looks like. She jokes about how when she has taken Burners through the exhibition, the most audible criticism is “Where’s the duct tape?” For many, who don’t know how to sew or cut fabric for clothing, ensembles are assembled from thrift-store purchases and random gear shimmied together with glue and a prayer.

NAGANA BRASS GOWN by Gelareh Alam of hand-cut leather, and custom metal work by Jungle Tribe, 2014. Although resembling something out of Mad Max, Alam’s intention for both pieces in the exhibition were born of a desire to express her thoughts on the emotional investment, both good and difficult, that love requires in a wearable piece. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

      That is not the case with the specimens on display here. Even though they appear like the regalia of alien queens, Gelareh Alam’s Cocoon Gown and Nagana Brass Gown, along with Caley Johnson’s collaborative piece the Crown of Nagini, are more than simple costumes. Rather than being made for theatrics or pretending, Alam’s clothing is meant to raise the stature of the wearer, and to create an aura of confidence that elevates them. They are also deeply personal. Alam, who grew up during the Iranian revolution, has been going through a journey of self-realization since she arrived in the States.

When Alam first came to the U.S. to study fashion design at the Art Institute of California, she was moving from a degree in psychology to a new world, without being able to speak English. She found her voice through visual communication, which she feels led to her emphasizing sight above the other four senses. America gave her the room to explore and grow as a human being. When Alam went to Burning Man in 2007, as she was completing her degree, it was because a friend gifted her with a birthday ticket.

What that visit did for her self-confidence was profound. She brought some of her clothing to the festival, and the recognition she received from total strangers was like the cosmos giving her the proverbial wink and nod. “I could not believe the response I was getting. It was amazing to see. Suddenly I was being praised for the creativity that I was not allowed to practice growing up, and that was a huge transformation.

“Burning Man was so natural for me, it felt like home,” says Alam. “Expression in the elements. Sublime. Here was a culture screaming that radical self-expression was not just good, but demanded. It was a place to re-define myself, and align with peace, equality, human empathy. It was transformational and deeply empowering. As an artist I am constantly in search of inspiration and constantly trying to break through those barriers. At Burning Man, this is the whole point of everything anyone does there.”

THORAX, AMBASSADOR OF THE INSECTS by Tyler FuQua of reclaimed materials, 2015-16. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

     Tyler FuQua has been constructing giant puppets for over fifteen years as his true passion, while making a living as a contractor. Building things is in his blood, whether it’s remodeling a bathroom or creating large metal installations. “Of course, it’s way more fun to build a giant robot instead of remodeling a bathroom,” he explains, “but sometimes I get projects that combine art and functionality.” His wearable costume, grandly titled Thorax, Ambassador of the Insects, was inspired as he mused about the speaker grills on his stereo, which resembled alien bug eyes. “I made the first helmet using these grills but it was just too ominous. I build fun things for all ages so this just wasn’t doing it for me. I went back to the drawing board and made what you see now. I really wanted to use as many reclaimed materials as possible, so the creation of Thorax was really determined by what I could find on the shelves at thrift stores. I would just walk around with an open mind until I found something that would work for what I needed. A lot of my art is creature-based, and I am a huge superhero fan, so Thorax is a conglomeration of those two things.”

There is also an element of self-invention. For many, Burning Man is that rare time in their life when they can be someone else. The straitjacket of their work, home or family life is temporarily lifted, and they are free to experiment with who they are. On the Playa, Burners find themselves anew, break apart previous conceptions of self, and come back together, rejuvenated, in some cases reborn, no LSD or ayahuasca required.

That isn’t to say everyone who comes to Burning Man finds it a transcendent experience; indeed, the point is the festival represents different things to different people. Perhaps that’s what makes it such a uniquely American phenomenon. Atkinson notes one of the reasons why she chose it as the subject of an exhibition was that Burning Man is as American as apple pie. “It was born in this very frontier culture, this sort of West Coast culture and Silicon Valley, believing that just because something has been done one way before doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be done. The idea of being out in a vast, empty environment and creating something entirely new from scratch has a lot to do with the entire American dream and the spirit of what we are as a country.”

TOTEM OF CONFESSIONS by Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti at Burning Man, 2015. Photograph by Michael Holden, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery.

      Such a multidimensional entity as Burning Man isn’t meant to be pinned down by taxonomists, although many will try. One flailing wing of the butterfly might be identified in that the festival is a radical social experiment. By undergirding the laboratory with strong, actively exercised principles, the Mad Scientist is unleashed into “the real world.” This doesn’t take place in a vacuum, a society without rules that is the nightmare of many a dystopian take on the future. In fact what we have here is a nascent utopia, taken to its practical heights by the wild and untameable spirit of the people involved. But the dream doesn’t die with the end of each year’s festivities; it keeps being passed on by those who lived it, out there on the dusty earth of the Nevada desert.

SUGGESTED READING
Bruder, Jessica.
Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2007.
Christians, Karen and Christine Kristen. Jewelry of Burning Man. Santa Rosa, CA: Global Interprint, Inc., 2015.
Raiser, Jennifer. Burning Man: Art on Fire. New York: RacePoint Publishing, 2016.
King, Nicholas. Burners. Cochiti Lake, NM: Laughing Coyote Press, 2017.
Galbraith, Carrie and John Law. Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2013.
Jones, Steven T. The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert Is Shaping the New American Counterculture. San Francisco: CCC Publishing, 2011.

LORD SNORT by Bryan Tedrick, 2016. Photograph by Duncan Rawlinson, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery.

“No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” is showing in two phases, with the full exhibition through September 16, 2018, then certain works will be viewable through January 21, 2019, at the Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006.
Visit their website at www.americanart.si.edu/visit/renwick.

Burning Man debuts annually; for 2018 it met from August 26 - September 3.
Visit their website at www.burningman.org.

 

     Get Inspired!

 
 

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Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. A scene hopper, Benesh-Liu has spent time in a variety of art and craft-based communities, from millennial pop culture fan groups like Anime cosplay and furry costumes to outsider art museums like the John M. Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. While in Washington, D.C. at the Renwick Gallery’s landmark exhibition, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,” he realized his interests were all leading to one place, Black Rock City. After interviewing Nora Atkinson, the Renwick’s Lloyd E. Herman Curator of Craft, as well as artists whose work was featured, the interconnectivity of this event with creative communities became apparent. As Ornament’s reporter, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest news in craft.

Feathers and Fashion Volume 40.4

ROSEATE SPOONBILL WATERCOLOR (Platalea ajaja) by John James Audubon (1785-1851), circa 1831-32. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Photographs courtesy of the New-York Historical Society. Audubon admired these prehistoric-looking wading birds, the largest North American member of the ibis family. The beauty of their feathers brought the species to the brink of extinction by 1920. They survived after the Audubon Society dispatched wardens to protect them and urged the passage of strict conservation laws. Today, the Roseate Spoonbill is one of the great success stories of the conservation movement.

The centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 is a milestone for the field of ornithology, but the fashion world deserves to share in the celebrations, too. The passage of the Act—which prohibited the hunting, killing, trading, and shipping of migratory birds and regulated America’s commercial feather trade—was the direct result of women rallying together to resist the fashion for extravagantly beplumed hats that had devastated bird populations worldwide.

      In honor of what the National Audubon Society has declared the “Year of the Bird,” the New-York Historical Society’s recent exhibition “Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” blended fashion, activism and conservation science to honor the early environmentalists who helped turn the tide of public opinion against so-called “murderous millinery.” At a time when “ethical” and “sustainable” are once again trendy style buzzwords, the show served as both a cautionary tale and a call to action.

THE BIRD ON NELLIE’S HAT SHEET MUSIC, 1906. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection.

      In the second half of the nineteenth century, hats were essential year-round accessories for respectable women. But they were more social conventions and decorative accoutrements than practical sources of warmth or protection from the elements. “A hat is nothing but a pretext for a feather, an excuse for a spray of flowers, the support for an aigrette, the fastening for a plume of Russian cock’s feathers,” wrote French art critic Charles Blanc in his 1875 treatise Art in Ornament and Dress (L’art dans la parure et dans le vêtement). Hats increasingly incorporated not just feathers but bird’s wings, heads and even entire bodies.

Far from being seen as barbaric or macabre, these avian accessories were initially admired for their natural beauty, artful craftsmanship and scientific interest. At a time of rapid urbanization, they brought city dwellers closer to nature; there was a corresponding fad for terrariums and aquariums. In February 1900, Vogue described a chic Parisienne wearing a “little toque . . . adorned with a few upright wings of some sort of South American bird, the sleek feathers of which gleamed like jewels.” The dead birds might be mounted on wires to create the illusion of movement. Sometimes they were framed in a bucolic mise-en-scène of leaves, twigs, dead mice, and reptiles. Advances in taxidermy in the 1880s and ‘90s affected hats as well as hunting trophies.

Hats served as posthumous perches for everything from petite songbirds like starlings, parakeets and hummingbirds to large and flamboyant birds of paradise, peacocks and even owls, reanimated with glass eyes. Milliners might amp up their exoticism by assembling Frankenfowl hybrids from the head of one bird and the wings or tail feathers of another. Plumes were dyed colors unknown in nature, or formed into trompe l’oeil flowers.

RED-LEGGED HONEYCREEPER EARRINGS of preserved hummingbird heads, gold, metal, unidentified maker, probably London, England, circa 1865. Animal parts and insects decorated late nineteenth-century jewelry. In 1865, London jeweler Harry Emanuel patented a method to inset hummingbird heads, skins and feathers into gold and silver mounts. As objects of beauty as well as scientific fascination, the dazzling birds’ heads and feathers were prized as earrings, necklaces, brooches, and fans. 

      “Colibri”—the French word for “hummingbird”—was slang for a frivolous person, making the diminutive creatures especially fitting fashion emblems. In 1889, the Parisian milliner Madame Josse created a toque trimmed with cut jet and “a dragonfly made of the breast-feathers of humming-birds,” according to the Millinery Trade Review. The English called hummingbirds “flying gems,” referencing their value as well as their beauty. The birds’ iridescent feathers, heads, skins, and even entire bodies were incorporated into hats, fans and pieces of jewelry; in 1865, London jeweler Harry Emanuel patented a method of setting them in gold and silver mounts. An example in the exhibit showed a pair of hummingbird-head earrings circa 1865 with the beaks tipped with gold.

Indeed, feathers adorned every part of a fashionable woman’s body. The enormous Roseate Spoonbill was a favorite of fan-makers; it was nearly extinct by 1920, though it rebounded after the Audubon Society dispatched protection wardens to its colonies. A bustled ice-blue satin evening gown of 1885 featured a swansdown-trimmed collar and train. Swans were an attribute of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, making their feathers an appropriate feminine ornament. Like the gown’s velvet underskirt and lace cuffs, swansdown was both expensive and sensual. It also played a part in beauty rituals, formed into powder puffs. Just as birds use their extravagant plumage to attract potential mates, so do people. 

SILK SATIN EVENING DRESS with feathers and swansdown accents by R.H. White & Co (1853-1957), Boston, Massachusetts, 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009.

TUNDRA SWAN WATERCOLOR (Cygnus columbianus) by John James Audubon. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Tundra Swans once nested over most of North America, but disappeared rapidly as civilization advanced westward. By the 1930s, fewer than one hundred remained south of Canada. With protection from hunting and the disturbance of plumers, northwestern populations have rebounded. Today, their population is stable enough to sustain a limited hunting season in some areas.

SILK SATIN EVENING DRESS with feathers and swansdown accents by R.H. White & Co (1853-1957), Boston, Massachusetts, 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2009. TUNDRA SWAN WATERCOLOR (Cygnus columbianus) by John James Audubon. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. Tundra Swans once nested over most of North America, but disappeared rapidly as civilization advanced westward. By the 1930s, fewer than one hundred remained south of Canada. With protection from hunting and the disturbance of plumers, northwestern populations have rebounded. Today, their population is stable enough to sustain a limited hunting season in some areas.

      A delicate gold and diamond tiara—worn by a bride on her wedding day in 1894—sported trembling egret feathers instead of an aigrette, the feather-like spray of jewels named for the white bird who wears a lacy cape of plumage during nesting season. Egret feathers were scornfully dubbed the “white badge of cruelty” by wildlife advocates. They were worth a princely twenty dollars per ounce in 1915, according to The Tropic Magazine; as a result, egrets were hunted nearly to extinction. In 1902, about a ton and a half of egret plumes were sold in London, representing around 200,000 adult birds (and the destruction of two to three times that number of eggs).

 

GREAT EGRET WATERCOLOR (Ardea alba) by John James Audubon, 1821. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. The National Audubon Society adopted a flying Great Egret, one of the chief victims of turn-of-the-century plume hunters, as its symbol in 1953. The sheer splendor of their aigrettes positioned the Great Egret on the edge of extinction by the early twentieth century. With conservation laws, the species has rebounded. AIGRETTE HAIR ORNAMENT (from a Snowy or Great Egret) of egret feathers, gold, gold wire, diamonds, J.H. Johnston & Co, NYC, 1894. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mrs. Mary S. Griffin, 1961. Mature Snowy and Great Egrets develop wispy feathers along their breasts, heads and tails during their breeding season. Because of this fleeting growth, these feathers were among the rarest milliners used.

HERRING GULL WATERCOLOR (Larus argentatus) by John James Audubon with George Lehman, 1831. Purchased for the New-York Historical Society by public subscription from Mrs. John J. Audubon, 1863. ACCESSORY SET OF HERRING GULLS, feathers, silk, including muff and tippet, unidentified maker, USA, 1880–99. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, 2009. This unusual muff and tippet, made with four adult Herring Gulls harvested during breeding season, demonstrates how accessory manufacturers exploited these birds.

 
At the height of the “Plume Boom,” the U.S. fashion industry consumed five million wild birds annually, driving many species to the point of near extinction. London, the international hub of the unprocessed feather market, imported nearly 7,000 bird of paradise skins from New Guinea and more than 7,600,000 birds from India and Brazil in the first quarter of 1884 alone.

      Birds and birds’ wings were popular trimmings for the low, brimless hats called toques that trended in the Edwardian era, lending dimension and visual interest to minimalist style. “It’s the toque that dominates,” the weekly magazine La Semaine littéraire declared in 1901. “Birds, alas! entire seagulls rest on these toques, or else a bird’s head forms the middle in front, the two wings spread out to cover the whole hat.” Though seagulls may not seem exotic today, the large Herring Gull species nearly went extinct due to its popularity for hats and other accessories around the turn of the century. A gruesome highlight of the show was a matching muff and tippet set made of carcasses from four adult Herring Gulls; their distinctive red markings indicate that the gulls were killed during breeding season, when their plumage was at its most spectacular.

 

MME. FAUCHÈRE TRADE CARD, circa 1894. Numerous feather traders, importers and manufacturers were located in New York City. Many of the feathers incorporated into clothing and hats were imported from South America, South Africa and Africa. Game and plume hunters from Florida, Texas and Louisiana supplied many of the domestic feathers. 

 

      Women were not the only fans of feathers, however; the nineteenth century was the great age of men in uniform, and the exhibition included a military hat brandishing an exotic scarlet plume. But it was women—often the very elites who helped popularize feathered fashions—who were the first to respond to the trend’s alarming consequences for the environment.

FLORENCE MERRIAM BAILEY (1863–1948). Florence Merriam Bailey began her ornithology career while a college student. She established the Smith College Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned fellow students’ hats. Distinguished by her reverence for scientific observation, many of her books, including  Birds Through an Opera Glass  (1889), became important field guides. 

FLORENCE MERRIAM BAILEY (1863–1948). Florence Merriam Bailey began her ornithology career while a college student. She established the Smith College Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned fellow students’ hats. Distinguished by her reverence for scientific observation, many of her books, including Birds Through an Opera Glass (1889), became important field guides. 

      At the height of the “Plume Boom,” the U.S. fashion industry consumed five million wild birds annually, driving many species to the point of near extinction. London, the international hub of the unprocessed feather market, imported nearly 7,000 bird of paradise skins from New Guinea and more than 7,600,000 birds from India and Brazil in the first quarter of 1884 alone. South America and Africa (particularly France’s African colonies) provided the lion’s share of exotic birds. By 1911, it was estimated that the Paris fashion industry was responsible for the deaths of 300 million birds per year. This grim toll was exacerbated by the fact that birds were hunted when their feathers were at their most magnificent—that is, during mating and breeding seasons, which magnified the problem of hunting birds by disrupting their reproductive cycles and dooming their orphaned chicks to death.

GEORGE BIRD GRINNELL (1849–1938). Born in Brooklyn, Grinnell played a seminal role in American conservation. In 1886, Grinnell founded the Audubon Society of New York, the forerunner of the National Audubon Society (1905). He launched it from its publication Audubon Magazine as “an association for the protection of wild birds and their eggs.”

      The growing concern over the rampant pillaging of exotic bird populations for their plumage led to the formation of England’s Plumage League (later the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) in 1889 and, in America, a series of regional Audubon Societies, named for ornithologist John James Audubon. (Fourteen life-sized watercolors of birds—depicted living, flying and in their natural habitats—from his landmark 1838 book The Birds of America were on display.) The National Audubon Society was founded in 1905; in 1953, it adopted an egret as its symbol.

In Gilded Age New York, socialites Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna Hall staged tea parties to try to persuade their rich friends to stop buying hats with real plumage. Lilli Lehmann, a German opera singer and animal lover, campaigned passionately against wearing feathers during a residence with the Metropolitan Opera, offering her fans autographs in exchange for a promise not to wear feathers. Florence Merriam Bailey, an ornithology student at Smith College, established a campus Audubon Society in 1886 after becoming alarmed by the numbers of birds and feathers that adorned her classmates’ hats.

Politicians and many in the fashion and feather trades pushed back against these protests; after all, jobs were at stake. A cottage industry of “willowers”—often Italian immigrants, sometimes children—who specialized in lengthening the short strands of inferior ostrich feathers were among those affected. The Act impacted these laborers as well as feather importers, hat manufacturers and retailers. Surprisingly, some naturalists and ornithologists rallied to the defense of the feather dealers, pointing out that their destructive tendencies had been exaggerated by ignorant if well-meaning activists, and it was not in their financial interests to hunt birds to the point of extinction.

However, the feather trade was not just devastating to bird populations but to the greater environment; gulls, for examples, are instrumental in keeping shorelines clean. It also impacted the fashion workers who toiled in dangerous conditions in tenements to create feathered hats. Eventually, these widespread moral and environmental concerns were codified into law in the form of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This landmark legislation is credited with saving numerous species from extinction, including the Snowy Egret, Wood Duck and Sandhill Crane. It also paved the way for later legal protections of wildlife, such as the Endangered Species Act of 1973. 

A similar statute, the Importation of Plumage Act, was passed in the United Kingdom in 1922. In France, where a guild of plumassiers—the artisans who dyed, shaped, processed, and sold feathers for use in apparel—had been active since the sixteenth century and retained considerable political power, change was slower to come. But it was undoubtedly hastened by formation of the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO) in 1912, as well as by World War I, which inaugurated a new era of minimalism in French fashion.

UNKNOWN WOMAN WEARING AN AUDUBONNET. American Museum of Natural History, Special Collections. The Audubon Society also addressed the feather craze by promoting “birdless hats” trimmed with a variety of ribbons, flowers and fabric.

      Feathers from game and poultry destined for the dinner table remained morally neutral, as did ostrich feathers, which could be plucked from the tail without harming the bird. Milliners found creative ways to lend exoticism to non-endangered farm fowl like ducks, geese and chickens, or create artificial exotic “birds” out of commonplace feathers and glue. Ethical “Audubonnets” were decorated with ribbons, artificial flowers and twists of fabric; Audubon chapters commissioned leading milliners to design them.

The tradition continues today. Paris-based Lemairé, which has been supplying feathers to haute couture houses for more than a century, routinely makes feathers from common barnyard birds look like exotic specimens. British milliner Stephen Jones, whose work has crowned the heads of Princess Diana and the new Duchess of Sussex, has long used farm fowl feathers and artificial feathers in his elaborate headpieces, in compliance with Audubon Society guidelines.

As feathered hats and frocks have cycled back into fashion in recent months—seen at royal weddings, on the red carpet and on the runways of design houses like Nina Ricci, Calvin Klein, Balenciaga, Prada, Proenza Schouler, and Alexander McQueen—the morality of wearing feathers is once again being debated, just as many women are reluctant to wear fur or leather. Even down-filled winter coats are increasingly advertised as being “ethically sourced” and “cruelty free.” In February of this year, the Trump administration reversed a key provision of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, saying it poses a burden for utilities and energy companies; wildlife advocates argue that this move effectively guts the law. Maybe the Audubonnet will make a comeback?

“Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” showed April 6 – July 15, 2018, at the
New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, New York 10024.
Visit their website at www.nyhistory.org.

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, published by Yale University Press. Chrisman-Campbell was recently honored by the Costume Society of America, receiving the Betty Kirk Excellence in Research Award. For this issue, she explains the history behind the “Feathers: Fashion and the Fight for Wildlife” exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, tracing a fascinating line between exploitation and activism.

Penn Museum Middle East Galleries Volume 40.4

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BRICK FOOTPRINT, circa 2100 - 2000 B.C. This print of a human foot was discovered on an ancient mud brick used in construction at the royal city of Ur (modern-day Iraq), and is now placed at the entrance to the Penn Museum’s Middle East Galleries.  All photographs courtesy of the Penn Museum.   QUEEN PUABI NECKLACE of gold and lapis lazuli with central floral design, 2450 B.C. 

BRICK FOOTPRINT, circa 2100 - 2000 B.C. This print of a human foot was discovered on an ancient mud brick used in construction at the royal city of Ur (modern-day Iraq), and is now placed at the entrance to the Penn Museum’s Middle East Galleries. All photographs courtesy of the Penn Museum. 
QUEEN PUABI NECKLACE of gold and lapis lazuli with central floral design, 2450 B.C. 

It starts with a single footprint. Impressed some four thousand years ago by an anonymous Sumerian into a mud brick in the royal city of Ur, and recovered there a century ago, this mark makes a simple declaration, but one that lies at the heart of all human culture: “I was here.” The first object the visitor encounters upon entering, it is an apt beginning to the story that unfolds across the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology’s newly renovated and expanded Middle East Galleries, which opened to the public on April 21.

Click Image to Enlarge

Top to bottom, left to right: RAM IN A THICKET STATUETTE of gold, lapis lazuli, copper, shell, red limestone, and bitumen, one of a pair found in the “Great Death Pit,” in the royal city of Ur, modern-day Iraq. ANIMAL GAME BOARD of twelve engraved shell plaques of lapis lazuli, limestone and shell. FOOTED BOWLS for eating and drinking, Hissar, Iran, circa 4500 - 4000 B.C. QUEEN PUABI GOLD HAIR COMB with seven finials in the shape of eight-petal blossoms, 2450 B.C. LUNATE EARRINGS of hammered gold, worn by Queen Puabi, 2450 B.C. BEADS of largely agate, gold and single carnelian bead, found in the “Warrior’s Grave,” Akkadian period, circa 2250 B.C.

      Through some twelve hundred objects—more than half of which have never before been on display—this suite of three spacious, well-lit galleries chronicles no less than the emergence of human civilization across millennia, from the earliest villages and towns to increasingly complex urban settlements that paved the way for the modern metropolis. “These galleries tell you a story about how ancient peoples changed their way of life to stay in the same place all year round,” says museum director Julian Siggers. “This led to the formation of the world’s first cities, in ancient Mesopotamia. Urbanization dramatically speeds up innovation and introduced many of the issues—good and bad—that are still with us today. So this story really resonates with all of us because it is our story.”

The artifacts come from more than two dozen excavations by Penn archaeologists in the so-called Fertile Crescent (mostly in modern-day Iraq and Iran) that revolutionized our understanding of the ancient world. Perhaps the most dramatic discoveries sprang from the joint Penn/British Museum excavations of the Royal Tombs at Ur led by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and 1930s. These include the famous Ram in the Thicket statuette of gold, silver and lapis; a silver boat-shaped lyre decorated with a stag; and the centerpiece of the museum’s Middle East collection, Queen Puabi’s headdress and jewels.

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH SUNDAY MAGAZINE, September 28, 1930, newspaper article about Royal Tombs of Ur discoveries: “What Science Has Discovered About the Personal Adornment of Chaldean Ladies.” 

      In January 1928 Woolley sent a breathless telegram (in Latin, for secrecy) to Philadelphia. Translated, it reads: “I found the intact tomb, stone built and vaulted over with bricks of Queen Shubad [Puabi] adorned with a dress in which gems, flowers, crowns and animal figures are woven. Tomb magnificent with jewels and golden cups.” This royal burial chamber, dated to around 2450 B.C., contained not just the body of the bejeweled queen, which was laid out on a wooden bier, but also those of her attendants—six men and sixty-eight women who, as reward for their service, were bludgeoned to death and buried with their queen, along with a trove of royal artifacts, all remarkably well preserved.

Queen Puabi’s headdress is truly spectacular to behold. It includes more than twelve meters of gold ribbon, which was wound around her voluminous hair (think Princess Leia in Star Wars). Above this she wore three wreaths composed of strands of carnelian and lapis beads and festooned with gold leaves. Each leaf is a single piece of gold hammered into shape and folded at one end into two loops that attach the leaf to the strands and the strands to one another. The most ornate wreath features two- and three-pointed willow leaves tipped with carnelian beads, and flowers with petals of lapis and shell. A frontlet joins three strands of lapis and carnelian with twenty gold rings. Atop it all, a large gold comb erupts into an array of star-shaped flowers. A pair of boat-shaped gold earrings completes the ensemble.

According to Jane Hickman, a specialist in ancient jewelry and editor of the museum’s Expedition magazine, Queen Puabi had on more than twelve pounds of ornamentation when she was discovered. “The hair comb itself weighs a pound!” Hickman and her colleague, collection keeper Katy Blanchard, note that all of the materials used in the headdress had to be imported from neighboring regions—the gold from present-day Afghanistan or Syria, the lapis from Badakhshan in Afghanistan, the carnelian from the Indus Valley—indicating the enormous wealth of the queen, as well as the far-flung trade networks that had already developed at this early stage of civilization.

QUEEN PUABI REGALIA of headdress, beaded cape and jewelry of gold, lapis lazuli and carnelian, discovered on the queen’s body in her tomb at the Royal Cemetery of Ur, circa 2450 B.C. Puabi was wearing about five pounds of jewelry, mostly gold, on her head and about seven and a half pounds of jewelry, mostly semiprecious stone beads, on her body. Photograph by Bruce White.

      A modern proverb admonishes us that “you can’t take it with you,” but the ancients seem to have had other ideas. Although much is unknown about Sumerian burial rites and beliefs, the fact that people of importance were buried with their treasures, and warriors with their weapons, suggests a belief that these objects would be of further use to their owners. Blanchard notes that Queen Puabi’s diadem is “more correctly a series of necklaces.” One possible explanation is that these earthly treasures were intended to serve as currency in the afterworld. “Maybe in every level of the underworld she’s handing over a necklace to make it through to the next place,” says Blanchard. “So she took it with her as payment. These are questions we still have.”

Indeed, nearly a century after they were unearthed, these treasures still have many secrets to divulge, and research on the collection is ongoing. Interactive kiosks in the galleries utilize digital technology to allow visitors to take a deeper dive into some of these topics of interest, including what the motifs on ornaments and vessels tell us about the flora, fauna and agricultural practices of the region, many of which continue in various forms today.

Later excavations at sites such as Rayy, near present-day Tehran, yielded artifacts from the Islamic period, which fill much of the third gallery. These include many rare manuscripts such as an illustrated copy of the Khamsa of the twelfth-century Persian poet Nizami and an illuminated Qur’an, as well as everyday objects such as cooking vessels and textiles from the Ottoman period.

The legacy of Near Eastern archaeology cannot be separated from the area’s more recent history and the often troubled relationships between its modern-day inhabitants and the West. “We can’t open galleries from this region of the world without noting that the deep material, human and cultural heritage of the region is also under attack,” says Siggers. With this in mind, the Penn Museum has launched a Global Guides initiative with funding from the Barra Foundation. Through this program, the first of its kind in the nation, the museum has hired as tour guides immigrants from Iraq and Syria. These men and women will, according to associate curator Stephen Tinney, “pair the history of ancient Mesopotamia and surroundings with stories drawn from their own unique experiences growing up in the Middle East,” giving visitors a broader perspective on the region’s long history of continuity and conflict.

Fostering such connections between ancient and modern experience was a stated goal of the Penn Museum’s transformation of its Middle East collections, the first in an ambitious series of planned renovations to the institution’s signature galleries. Indeed, one emerges from these galleries with the sense that our histories—and therefore our destinies—are much more intertwined than we are often led to believe, and that the key to our shared humanity lies in our creativity and the innovative solutions each culture arrives at in addressing the common problems we face.

The Penn Museum is located on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104. Visit their website at www.penn.museum.

 

WILLOW WREATH of gold, lapis, carnelian, and shell.

 
 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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David Updike is an editor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where his current projects include exhibition catalogs on Marcel Duchamp and the Art to Wear movement. His profile of designer Wendy Stevens appeared in Ornament, Vol. 40, No. 2. For this issue, he ventured across the Schuylkill River to another Philadelphia cultural treasure, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, to tour its newly renovated Middle East Galleries. His visit left him with a renewed respect for the common, ancient roots of human civilization, and a little bit in awe of Chaldean superstar, Queen Puabi.

Vanishing Traditions: Miao Textiles Volume 40.4

MIAO WOMAN’S FESTIVAL JACKET of cotton, silk, embroidered, Taijiang County, Guizhou Province, China. Dating from the 1950s, this ceremonial costume was once worn by the wife of the Guzang Festival’s leader. Detail is from the back of the festival jacket. Photographs courtesy of The Textile Museum. 

Dependent on the material accumulations of others, museums around the world have long been recipients of the passionate predilections of collectors. A day arrives when it is time to pack up one’s stuff and leave prized possessions to some established institution for, hopefully, responsible conservation. That storage issue has a history stretching over the millennia. In Britain, the Ashmolean at Oxford University, the world’s oldest university museum, became in 1677 the first public museum when it received its first collection with Elias Ashmole’s “cabinet of curiosities.” The collection was divided between the “wonders of nature” (naturalia) and the “handworks of man” (artificialia). Here could be viewed a variety of natural life, from a salamander, a flying squirrel, shells, and birds from India, to the stuffed body of the last dodo seen in Europe. Artificialia contained agate goblets, rhinoceros horn cups, a bead abacus, Chief Powhatan’s mantle (Pocahontas’s father), Chinese boots. One can readily surmise that these objects were collected with a wondrous excitement that discovery inspires when encountering the formerly unknown. Significantly, while the larger purpose of the Ashmolean was to enhance preservation of knowledge, with these objects recorded and systematized; specifically it was their public display that had an equally great benefit, so the greater populace could participate and benefit. Admission was open to all, with a fee, and not restricted only to the few elite. These actions, dating from the seventeenth century, have long impacted the museum world and the cultural and social ramifications have been incalculable.

MIAO WOMAN’S JACKET of cotton, silk, embroidered, Yahui Township, Danzhai County, Guizhou Province, China, twentieth century. MIAO WOMAN’S APRON of cotton, silk, Job’s tears, chicken feathers, embroidered, Rongjiang County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.
MIAO WOMAN’S JACKET of cotton and silk, embroidered, Guiding County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Behind the jacket is a pleated, indigo-dyed Miao woman’s skirt. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.
MIAO YOUNG MAN’S JACKET of silk, cotton, metal bells, Job’s tears, embroidered, Suoga Township, Liuzhi County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      In a much more contemporaneous example, a recent exhibition at The Textile Museum at George Washington University demonstrated the importance of material gifts to a museum’s identity and mission, and how in resulting exhibitions they inform and educate the larger public. In 2015 Bea Roberts, a collector from California, gifted her 284-piece Chinese minority textile and ornament collection, from Guizhou Province in Southwest China, to the museum. On her trips to this mountainous, subtropical region, Roberts quickly learned just how evanescent cultural traditions were in our swiftly changing present-day. Beguiled by the handcrafted works she found in Guizhou, she was determined to collect and preserve what she knew would “vanish” from the many cultural groups that make up Guizhou. Understanding that traditional cultures are rapidly being absorbed by larger, more dominant ones, perhaps even within a generation, has spurred many collectors to acquire sooner rather than later. (The Han account for almost ninety-two percent of the Chinese population, with fifty-five other ethnic minorities officially recognized.) Cultures that once had little contact with the “outside” world are now sometimes unrecognizable in their original form. It’s the what’s here today is gone tomorrow syndrome of loss.

MIAO WOMAN’S FESTIVAL JACKET of cotton, silk, embroidered, Taijiang County, Guizhou Province, China. Dating from the 1950s, this ceremonial costume was once worn by the wife of the Guzang Festival’s leader. Detail is from the back of the festival jacket. Photographs courtesy of The Textile Museum. 

      Given a keen eye and an instinct for both the singular and the representative, Roberts collected some amazing and instructive physical examples of textiles and jewelry, primarily from the Miao. One is an astonishing Miao festival jacket from the 1950s, an embroidered tapestry of rich patterning, with figures from Miao folklore surrounded by the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. Practically every bit of surface is embellished with musicians, flowers, birds, and more than twenty butterflies referencing the “Butterfly Mother,” the primal ancestor of the Miao people and a central focus of Guzang Festival rituals (celebrated every thirteen years, although more festivals are now annual). Dating from the 1950s, this ceremonial costume was once worn by the wife of the Guzang Festival’s leader.

Textile surfaces exhibit the rich profusion of transformative iconography that permeates minority cultures—bats symbolize happiness and good fortune; hybridized silkworm dragons and fish dragons, other abstracted shapes indicate the importance of achieving a successful birth; birds are also important as protectors and divine messengers. Dress with such totemic imagery enhances the possibility of communing with ancestors or with spirits of the natural world where everything is thought to be alive and interconnected.

DONG CHILD’S HAT, decorated with pompoms and the eight Daoist immortals, of cotton, silk, silver alloy, embroidered, Liping or Rongjiang County, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      Baby carriers, intrinsically functional, are also opportunities for other potent imagery—eight-pointed stars, sunrays and octagons symbolize protective maternal deities who will attract light, warmth and energizing lifeforce to the infant. Children’s hats especially incorporate symbolic motifs to safeguard the growing youngsters and they are often embroidered with auspicious motifs such as lions, fishes and butterflies. One Dong charmer is festooned with pompoms and appliquéd bulging eyes intended to trick evil spirits into thinking the child is a ferocious animal and, leaving nothing to chance, has the twelve Daoist immortals in silver alloy attached.

Trained by female family members and starting early, young girls will learn everything about her clan’s textile techniques—handweaving, indigo dyeing, embroidering are among the critical skills to learn. It can take as long as five years to make a profusely decorated outfit to wear during one’s wedding and the festival cycles, so it is crucial that a garment is beautiful and well made. Technical and aesthetic proficiency is closely linked to attractiveness and desirable marital outcomes. The design and making of an apron as a gift from a young woman to a young man specifies her interest and shows off her accomplishments. Worn by men as well as women, aprons memorialize Miao daily life, its landscape and flora, its folklore—one embroiderer revealed the influence of local songs on their pictorial representations: “If you only embroider and don’t sing, you won’t know the stories of your patterns. Someone who doesn’t sing well doesn’t embroider well.” 

GEJIA WOMAN’S FESTIVAL JACKET, front and back, of silk, cotton, embroidered, indigo-dyed, Matang Village, Kaili City, Guizhou Province, China, mid-twentieth century. Photograph courtesy of The Textile Museum. Installation photograph of back of jacket by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      Subtlety is never the point. Mastery of techniques is to be visibly demonstrated in every possible way, from a festival jacket’s sturdy construction to finely embroidered (and removable) patches that decorate shoulders, sleeves and aprons (and can be passed through generations). More is more and more is highly desirable for a successful garment and similarly true for minority jewelry. Silver is preferred for its power to throw off evil or demons. While textiles are the complete purview of women, jewelry is made by men trained in metalworking who design the neckpieces, pendants, earrings, bracelets, hairpins, and festival crowns, in silver or more typically a silver alloy, that are integral to the success of a festival costume. They are as exuberantly abundant in their design as the lavishly decorated textiles. With auditory attributes bestowed by jingling metal components, nothing should stand in the way of boisterously announcing a family’s wealth at something as important as the Guzang Festival in Guizhou Province.

SUGGESTED READING
Exhibition Catalog
. Contributing authors Angela Sheng, Deng Qiyao, Xi Keding, Li Qianbin, Zhang Xiao, Stevan Harrell, Kate Lingley, Huang Ying Feng. Writing with Thread: Traditional Textiles of Southwest Chinese Minorities. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Art Gallery, 2009.
Roberts, Bea. Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China. Davis, CA: UC Davis Design Museum, 2010.

“Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China” showed February 24 - July 9, 2018 at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C. Visit their website at www.museum.gwu.edu.

 

MIAO FESTIVAL CROWN of silver alloy, cotton and silk streamers, Leishan County, Guizhou Province, China, 1980s. Photograph courtesy of The Textile Museum.

 
 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. Each year she travels to Washington D.C., where Ornament gives the Excellence in Jewelry Award at the Smithsonian Craft Show, this year awarded to Biba Schutz. Her visit was a busy affair, with old friends and a plethora of clothing exhibitions filling the capital. At George Washington University’s Textile Museum, Benesh had the pleasure of meandering through “Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China,” where a concise visual commentary presented a wide range of Miao minority garments and adornment. She also writes about some of the exhibitors new to this year’s International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe.

International Folk Art Market Volume 40.4

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Click Images To Enlarge

STENCILED INDIGO-DYED CLOTHING, SCARVES AND ACCESSORIES by Wen-Chun Tang (pictured) and Wan-Lee Chen, Taiwan. OAXACAN SILVER FILIGREE JEWELRY by Yesenia Yadira Salgado Téllez, Mexico.

For fifteen years the International Folk Art Market (IFAM) has perched on Museum Hill, part of historic Santa Fe, a seductive, enchanting city in the Southwest’s high desert of New Mexico. Ninety-eight countries have participated in the annual July festival since its genesis in 2004; and the 2018 festival brought together fifty-three countries, two of them, Azerbaijan and Greece, for the first time. Originating as a counterpoint to our fiercely competitive, economically global world of corporate dominance, technical, mechanized and digital masteries, IFAM has become another kind of powerful voice, one that celebrates, encourages and supports the handmade.

GULZAT CHYTYRBAEVA, Kyrgyzstan.

FELTED WOOL EMBROIDERED SLIPPERS by Gulzat Chytyrbaeva, Kyrgyzstan.

FELTED WOOL EMBROIDERED SLIPPERS by Gulzat Chytyrbaeva, Kyrgyzstan.

      Numbering among those who are showing for the first time, Gulzat Chytyrbaeva, from Kyrgyzstan, brought her sophisticated skills in embroidery to the venue. Her beautifully and carefully constructed soft merino wool slippers are traditionally worn in the Kyrgyzi home. She and her team of artisans design and make them, and all parts are handworked from the initial shearing of the sheep to final sewing of the slipper and its embroidery in their brightly colored, visually arresting designs. Under an apricot tree as her classroom, a young Chytyrbaeva learned Kyrgyzi embroidery techniques from her grandmother, and says, “Through embroidery I can convey my dreams.”

In Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, just outside of Oaxaca City, Yesenia Yadira Salgado Téllez makes finely detailed handcrafted jewelry, specializing in the ornate filigree work introduced by the Spaniards centuries ago. Her parents, goldsmiths Arturo and Marta Salgado Téllez, have been important mentors in her and her sisters lives, teaching them the exacting techniques and methods of jewelrymaking, such as the traditional “hoop” design replicated throughout Oaxaca. Now established in her own workshop, Téllez hones and increasingly introduces her own signature embellishments. She has gained more and more visibility in the craft world. Along with her 2018 admission to the market, a first, and as a participant in the Competition for Young Artists, held in Oaxaca, she recently received an award for “The Hoop,” a gold-plated pendant and earrings accented with freshwater pearls, rubies and semiprecious stones.

GREEN GLAZED CEREMONIAL WINE VESSELS, JUGS AND GOBLETS by Gyula Borsos, Hungary.

GYULA BORSOS, Hungary.

GREEN GLAZED CEREMONIAL WINE VESSELS, JUGS AND GOBLETS by Gyula Borsos, Hungary.

      Hungarian potter Gyula Borsos says that he was first taught by a master potter in his hometown during a weekend course. Now himself a proficient master of a regional style dating back several hundred years, Borsos makes functional vases, pitchers and stemware for informal daily use. Initially liturgical or commemorative vessels for the Reformed Church of Hungary, based on the Protestant theology of Calvinism, the pottery has evolved from its original purpose and is valued not only for its association with Calvinism but for its own unique aesthetic. Borsos’s application of a locally sourced green glaze brightens the surfaces with a seemingly magical interior beauty. Continuing to honor the past, the life of the present and the promise of the future, Borsos says that, “Someday, I would like to teach pottery besides making it, so as to keep this beautiful and very rich traditional profession alive.”

One of six regions showing at IFAM is East Asia and the Pacific, with crafts from eight distinctive cultures—Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. Their traditions draw on an infinite reservoir of thousands of years of making baskets, beadwork, ceramics, jewelry, and most of all, textiles. These participating countries cumulatively contribute to the overall mix and material texture that makes IFAM such a valuable and meaningful destination. Two artists from Taiwan, Wan-Lee Chen and Wen-Chun Tang, specialize in sublime indigo-dyed garments, casual and wearable. While anchored in the traditional forms and motifs of their history, they also voice a relaxed, confident contemporary aesthetic, one that recognizes the global community as a source of inspiration. In addition to operating her own indigo farm and workshop, Tang is an indigo master dyer and teacher at the National Taiwan Craft Research Institution and her partner Wan-Lee Chen, a professor and designer of costume, received her Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.

In its aspirations, the International Folk Art Market can be viewed through many lens, but one is the influential role the United States continues to play at home and abroad. There are many differences and divisions keenly felt, and the struggle is strong and visible each and every day, but the US still sends a strong message of hope and possibility—and the world looks and listens, taking note. As individuals, there is common ground to be found in cooperation and compromise; and we can live together in peace and civility, respecting our humanity. While the market honors the gifts of creation, bringing together artisans from all over the world, its true value is cultural—the world is a place for you and me to share and to exchange with each other, to grow and to learn. And for one weekend in July there are many such possibilities to be found on a certain hill in Santa Fe.

IFAM next celebrates the global art of the handmade July 12 - 14, 2019.
Visit their website at www.folkartmarket.org.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and our in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the USA in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. Each year she travels to Washington D.C., where Ornament gives the Excellence in Jewelry Award at the Smithsonian Craft Show, this year awarded to Biba Schutz. Her visit was a busy affair, with old friends and a plethora of clothing exhibitions filling the capital. At George Washington University’s Textile Museum, Benesh had the pleasure of meandering through “Vanishing Traditions: Textiles and Treasures from Southwest China,” where a concise visual commentary presented a wide range of Miao minority garments and adornment. She also writes about some of the exhibitors new to this year’s International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe.

Ben Dory Volume 40.4

PENDANT ROW of stainless steel, carbon steel, titanium, sterling silver, and freshwater pearls, 3.8 x 1.9 x 0.6 centimeters, 2017.  Photographs by Ben Dory, except where noted.

PENDANT ROW of stainless steel, carbon steel, titanium, sterling silver, and freshwater pearls, 3.8 x 1.9 x 0.6 centimeters, 2017. Photographs by Ben Dory, except where noted.

Fans of Ben Dory call him a “metal wizard” and a “mad scientist,” names that suggest speed and flair, but he approaches his work with an easy patience and is happy to let ideas evolve gradually. Many of his family members work with their hands—his grandfather, who had a farm in Nebraska, refinished antique furniture, his aunt paints, his father has a woodshop, and his mother sews—and he is used to seeing diligence and beauty combined in everyday life. He grew up on the Kansas side of Kansas City and attended the University of Kansas. Because of his interest in how things are structured, he considered majoring in linguistics or taxonomy, but settled on metals because it satisfied both a desire for research and his interest in making.

BEN DORY.  Photograph by Mercedes Jelinek.

BEN DORY. Photograph by Mercedes Jelinek.

TOPAZ RING of stainless steel and rainforest topaz, 2.9 centimeters diameter, size 7, 2018.

      A few years after graduating, Dory visited Penland School of Crafts for a summer workshop. He describes Penland as “a place where you meet your heroes on a regular basis,” and continues to relish being in its orbit with other metalsmiths. Encouraged by Penland’s immersive environment, he applied to graduate school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. In his application he expressed a desire to “industrialize his process,” meaning that he wanted to use readily available and affordable materials as a practical way to “navigate this world of expense involved in traditional jewelry making.” He graduated in 2014, moved to Asheville, North Carolina, and then Savannah, Georgia, for a few years, and now is relocating to be the Metalsmithing & Jewelry Artist in Residence in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Arkansas Little Rock.

Technically challenging processes like damascene, mokume-gane, and salt (or electrolyte) etching attract Dory, and his current obsession is granulation, a technique closely associated with the Etruscans, but dating back about five thousand years. The technique was prominent in Dory’s educational experience because his teacher at Carbondale, Jon Havener, was a student of John Paul Miller, a jeweler renowned for his work with granulation. Typically, granulation involves pure gold or fine silver, and artists melt small bits of metal to form the tiny granules (surface tension pulls the molten metal into spheres) and bond them to a metal substrate. Dory likes the repetition of granulation, observing that you “see something new each time because there is so much visual texture.” 

CHALCEDONY PENDANT of stainless steel and chalcedony, 2.5 centimeters diameter, 2018.

      Dory’s twist on this ancient technique is to use machine-formed bearing balls of stainless steel. He emphasizes the importance in his work of “thinking in modules,” both for materials and process. At the moment, he has a set group of base shapes that he uses in combination with the balls. Much contemporary granulation appears as simple lines or jumbled mounds, and while Dory allows his granules to gather organically, their precise geometric forms naturally fall into regular patterns (like the molecules of a crystal) that impart an industrial aesthetic.

To create his granulated steel work, Dory micro welds the shiny bearing balls to the piece of jewelry or to each other. He uses a narrow, tube-shaped vacuum with custom silver tips to pick up the granules, and when he presses a pedal, electricity moves through the tip and ball. An arc forms where the ball is in contact with the working surface, and the focused application of heat causes the elements to fuse together. A slight miscalculation in the alignment, and the four-thousand-degree discharge can melt whole areas of work; Dory notes that the learning curve was painful, and he endured numerous shocks and tiny burns as he refined his technique and modified his tools.

Many of Dory’s recent works combine stones with the steel granulation, including a large, faceted amethyst set high in a ring, inverted green tourmalines in a three-lobed brooch, and, in a pair of earrings, pearls with a silky luster that interacts enticingly with the reflective surfaces of the metal orbs. He even uses granulation as a form of stonesetting, creating lattices around stones to hold them in place.

 

Dory appreciates the pervasive presence of digital technology in modern life and views his work as part of a cultural moment that emphasizes computational and parametric design. He also enjoys that we are surrounded by hidden technologies like welding that, while old and overlooked, still provide fertile ground for investigation. He plans to continue studying the possibilities of granulation with steel and maintaining the modular approach, methodical repetition and work ethic that lend his creations an air of scientific magic.

AMETHYST RING of stainless steel and tension-set amethyst, 3.2 x 4.1 x 1.9 centimeters, size 6, 2018.

PENLAND BROOCH of stainless steel, titanium, sterling silver, and nickel, 10.2 x 6.4 x .6 centimeters, 2017.

 
 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts. She has written books and curated exhibitions on sisters Ilonka and Mariska Karasz, Hungarian-born modern designers based in New York; Henry Eugene Thomas, a Colonial Revival furniture craftsman from Athens; and a history of chenille fashion. In her exchange with Ben Dory, she appreciated his eagerness to explain the intricacies of welding and granulation, and Mary Hallam Pearse’s willingness to provide further technical consultation. Dory’s work is a surprising mix of industrial and organic and reflects an impressive amount of innovation in his use of materials and modification of his tools.

Easy Closeup Photography Volume 40.4

CAMERA SETUP FOR TABLETOP PHOTOGRAPHY, with a Canon 7D, 100mm macro lens; a Canon Speedlite 580EX and opaque plastic diffuser mounted on the external flash of the camera, which is attached to a Leica tablepod and ballhead. Visible as a knurled silver knob, this device permits the camera to be adjusted to almost any angle. Alongside is a set of Kenko extension tubes, of 10, 12 and 36mm, which give increasing magnifications. The extension tube is mounted between the camera body and the lens. Being light and compact, this type of setup is easy to carry and use when out of the photo studio. Another use of such lighting equipment is shown on the top right image, last page of this article.  Photographs by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.  WARRING STATES COMPOSITE BEAD shot with 100mm macro and lit by 580EX external flash, 2.9 centimeters diameter.

CAMERA SETUP FOR TABLETOP PHOTOGRAPHY, with a Canon 7D, 100mm macro lens; a Canon Speedlite 580EX and opaque plastic diffuser mounted on the external flash of the camera, which is attached to a Leica tablepod and ballhead. Visible as a knurled silver knob, this device permits the camera to be adjusted to almost any angle. Alongside is a set of Kenko extension tubes, of 10, 12 and 36mm, which give increasing magnifications. The extension tube is mounted between the camera body and the lens. Being light and compact, this type of setup is easy to carry and use when out of the photo studio. Another use of such lighting equipment is shown on the top right image, last page of this article. Photographs by Robert K. Liu/Ornament. WARRING STATES COMPOSITE BEAD shot with 100mm macro and lit by 580EX external flash, 2.9 centimeters diameter.

If you can’t see it, you can’t study it—anyone who is a serious researcher of jewelry needs to be able to look closely at the piece being studied. Ideally, a binocular microscope of 20 to 40x magnification would suffice for examining most jewelry, although such scopes usually do not come equipped with an adaptor to take photos of what is being seen in the scope, and not all researchers have access to binocular scopes. Besides ancient jewelry, I have a deep interest in ethnographic jewelry, especially those made of metal. Detailed and closeup photographs of such jewelry are rarely seen, but these types of images can tell much about techniques and skills of the makers. Good macro photographs can substitute for stereo microscopes, but closeup images sometimes require additional magnification. Here I describe a relatively easy way of making such closeups, with two different ways of providing that all crucial lighting.

 

EXTREME CLOSEUP OF WARRING STATES COMPOSITE BEAD, of low-fired glaze over faience core of plant ashes. The image spans a width of 1.6 centimeters of the 2.9 centimeter diameter bead. This bead is virtually the same as an approximately fifth century B.C. specimen analyzed by Wood et al. (1999). Their bead had the same makeup and colors, which are common to many composite beads. While it is not clear how the low-fired glazes are applied, one can see from this closeup that some are precisely brushed on (?), others appear to be dabbed on in layers, eventually resulting in stratified or mounded/rounded eyes or rosettes, probably due to the high surface tension of the glazes or the glazes incompletely melting (Wood 2001). Shot with 100mm macro, 36mm extension lens, ISO 100 and studio strobe.

 

      I needed to take closeup photographs for recent articles on ancient glass Nubian face beads (Ornament, Vol. 40, No. 2, 2017) and on Tuareg/Mauritanian jewelry (Ornament, Vol. 40, No. 3, 2018), so I have gone back to using the very simple setup of a macro lens, and extension tubes, lit either by an external flash or with studio strobes. Camera is handheld or on a tripod. Either of these modes of lighting work because the speed of a camera flash or a studio strobe is so short that it can more or less eliminate camera shake.

PHOTO SETUP AT BOSTON MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS FOR SHOOTING NUBIAN GLASS FACE BEADS, with Canon 7D, 100mm macro and 12mm Kenko extension ring. Camera is coupled with cable to Canon Speedlite 580EX, with plastic diffuser, that is mounted on a Leica ballhead and table tripod. Camera was handheld, with the tripod mounted light source aimed at glass face beads on white background paper (Liu et al. 2017).

      The first situation, in a museum, required a portable setup that needed little time for setup, as well as limited space. The camera was handheld, which demands steadiness and a lot of concentration, as the slightest movement at high magnification will alter the framing of the photograph and possibly the sharpness. The images for the North and West African jewelry were shot in the Ornament studio on a sweeptable, with the camera on a sturdy tripod. This helped in making images that were more precisely framed, but it is perfectly feasible to handhold cameras when using strobes and it is my usual mode.

When we took closeup images of ancient Nubian face beads excavated over one hundred years ago, we determined that a halo of whitish glass that surrounded all the face canes was actually badly crazed glass, indicating severe incompatibility with the mosaic glass canes (Liu et al., 2017). With my continuing interest in faience, composite and glass beads of the Warring States Period, I decided to revisit some such beads in our study collection, applying closeup photography to them, with two modes of lighting.

WARRING STATES COMPOSITE BEAD shot with 100mm macro and lit by 580EX external flash, 2.9 centimeters diameter. SAME BEAD BUT WITH 20MM EXTENSION TUBE showing increased magnification of the center portion of bead in left-hand image. Four glaze colors are visible, a red brown and a yellow, colored by iron oxides; a blue, colored by copper-barium tetra-silicate or Chinese Blue; and an opaque white. Because the glazes, especially on the stratified eyes may not have melted completely, there is not extensive running or slumping of these structures (Wood 2001).

SAME WARRING STATES COMPOSITE BEAD shot with same camera setup but lit by studio strobe in overhead softbox and under sweeptable. Note difference in color; that lighting by external flash produces colder colors on the bead. FRAMING not exactly duplicated as above but both types of lighting suffice. Unlike glass Warring States beads, this type of composite bead does not require the use of premade elements. More precise Photoshopping would probably better align colors of both images but using these relatively simple setups yield useful imagery to enable close study of such beads.

      One of the continuing puzzling aspects was how intricate, polychrome designs were made on the composite beads that were often contemporaneous to Warring States glass beads. With a faience or clay core, which were atypical in not using quartz, such beads had built-up or high-relief stratified eyes, apparently achieved by layering low-fired glazes, possibly like overglaze firing with ceramics. Firing glazes over a porous faience core may differ from firing other ceramics or silicates and is unique to the Chinese (Wood 2001). However, no one has really determined if the layered designs were fired at the same time, or if there were multiple firings, but most likely the latter was not practiced. That being said, Yang et al. (2013) believed application of glazes and structures like horned eyes was a stepwise procedure, may have involved pre-made components and molds. I believe only horned glass eyebeads required pre-made components. The closeup images reveal no seepage of the glaze colors or layers into each other, although it is not known if a layer of glaze is allowed to dry before another is applied. According to Wood et al. (1999), the glazes of their composite bead were colored by lead, barium and hematite or iron, with the blue glaze related to Han Blue.

CAMERA SETUP ON TILTALL TRIPOD, showing distance from Mauritanian or Tuareg amulet propped upright on sweeptable. Studio strobes provided the lighting. A bellows or a holding device that enabled precise forward/backward movement would have made framing easier.

      Besides studying the composition of ancient beads, closeup photography can be easily applied to many other materials and objects. Tuareg smiths, as well as those from Mauritania, do extremely fine chasing/engraving, with a minimum of crude tools and equipment, often made by the jewelers themselves, while having no access to magnifying aids like Optivisors. According to Cheminée (2014: 75), jewelers from other African countries bring their pieces to be engraved by Tuareg smiths, since they are so good at this technique. Desiring to look closely at their work and skills compelled me to take closeup photos for this article. When I observe their jewelry, I usually cannot see with my eye what the closeup images reveal; only with Optivisors can I begin to see details of the engraving. One wonders how these remarkable metalsmiths can accomplish all this with only their eyes, simple tools and ambient light, often in poorly lit rooms.

 
 

BEAUTIFUL MAURITANIAN OR TUAREG AMULET, of silver, copper with steel back; it has cutouts that once held red and most likely green-colored material, now too faded to determine their original color. The silver balls are decorative, as the stepped front is held onto the steel back by bezels, not rivets. Note the fine engraving. The pendant/amulet is 5.7 centimeters wide, not including the hanger. CLOSEUP MAURITANIAN/TUAREG PENDANT, showing the very precise engraving, done before the silver balls were attached. Note the jeweler’s strokes, as well as slight errors in certain areas of the pendant. In the right margin, in a width of 1.8 millimeters, the jeweler has engraved seven lines. The uppermost silver ball is 0.6 cm in diameter.

ELEGANT BUT WORN TUAREG GERBA-SHAPED TCHEROT AMULET, of white metal and brass sweated onto steel and cold-joined by bezels. The back has no decorations. This shape is a stylized goatskin, used to carry water. The amulet is 6.5 centimeters tall and subtly domed. ARROW-SHAPED ENGRAVED PANEL, only 1.7 centimeters wide. It is difficult to comprehend how much engraved detail the Tuareg smith can put into a panel with his graver. In a 1.6 millimeters space, there are six engraved lines; in 2.8 millimeters, there are ten engraved lines. This closeup shows virtually every stroke of the engraving tool and how much engraving goes into each decorative panel on these amulets.

TUAREG NECKLACES COLLECTED by A.J. Arkell in the 1930s from Tuareg refugees living around El Fasher, Darfur Province, Sudan, shot with macro lens/external flash. The inner necklace uses silver Agadez crosses, an Idar-Oberstein agate talhakimt, Czech molded-glass pendants that have been chipped or ground to simulate shape of the diamond-shaped Tuareg silver pendants. This modification again shows how the Tuareg adapt foreign ornaments to their style. The outer necklace uses a characteristic Tuareg diamond-shaped pendant, silver bamboo-shaped beads and silver cornerless cube beads. Image originally published in black/white from film in Sara Wither’s article on the Arkell Collection (1998: 78). Courtesy of The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

      In the past, when film was used, I employed more elaborate equipment and lighting had to be much more carefully controlled, as film images cannot be manipulated as much or as easily as digital images post exposure. The film photograph of the Tuareg necklaces shot twenty years ago did not have sufficient depth-of-field to show the entire necklaces sharply. Closeup photography, its lighting, exposure for film and digital cameras and equipment were discussed in depth in my recent book, Photography of Personal Adornment (Liu 2014). I hope more jewelry and bead researchers will apply these relatively simple photographic techniques to extract more information from their study material.

REFERENCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Cheminée, M. 2014. Legacy. Jewelry Techniques of West Africa. Brunswick, VT: Brynmorgen Press: 232 p.
Liu, R. K. 1977. “T’alhakimt (Talhatana), a Tuareg Ornament: Its Origins, Derivatives, Copies and Distribution.” The Bead Journal 3 (2): 18-22.
2014. Photography of Personal Adornment: Photographic Techniques for Jewelry/Artwear Craftspeople, Researchers, Scholars and Museum/Gallery Staff. San Marcos, CA: Ornament Inc.: 160 p.
2018. “Tuareg Amulets and Crosses: Saharan and Sahelian Innovation and Aesthetics.” Ornament 40 (3): 58-63.
—, Sage and T. Holland. 2017. “Ancient Nubian Face Beads: The Problem With Suppositions.” Ornament 40 (2): 34-39.
Withers, S. 1998. “The Arkell Collection.” Ornament 21 (3): 78-79.
Wood, N. 2001. The influence of glass technology on Chinese ceramics. In: A. and B. Haughton (eds), The International Ceramics Fair and Seminar June 11. London, International Ceramics Fair: 36-40. 
—, I.C. Freestone and C.P. Stapleton. 1999. Early polychrome glazes on a Chinese ceramic bead of the Warring States period: 1-15. In: International Symposium on Ancient Ceramics: Scientific and Technological Insights (ISAC 1999): J. Guo (ed). Shanghai: International Symposium on Ancient Ceramics: 594 p. (In Chinese with English abstract.)
Yang, Y. et al. 2013. Nondestructive Analysis of Dragonfly Eye Beads from the Warring States Period, Excavated from a Chu Tomb at the Shenmingpu Site, Henan Province, China. Microscopy and Microanalysis 19 (2): 1-9.

 

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Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament, for many years its in-house photographer, as well as a jeweler using alternative materials like heatbent bamboo and polyester. His recent book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty-plus years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to wearable art, both in and out of the Ornament studio. Chinese faience, composites and glass, both ancient and ethnographic, are among his primary research interests. A frequent lecturer, some of his topics include precolumbian jewelry, prehistoric Southwest jewelry, ancient Egyptian jewelry, and the worldwide trade in beads. In this issue, Liu discusses how to take closeup photographs of jewelry and beads for study or research, as well as beginning an occasional series on beads of historic and/or technical significance.

Linda MacNeil Volume 40.3

LUCENT LINES SERIES NO. 09 NECKLACE of polished clear and neodymium glass, fourteen karat yellow gold-tubing, twenty-four karat yellow gold plated, 17.8 centimeters diameter, 1994.  Photographs by Bill Truslow except where noted.

LUCENT LINES SERIES NO. 09 NECKLACE of polished clear and neodymium glass, fourteen karat yellow gold-tubing, twenty-four karat yellow gold plated, 17.8 centimeters diameter, 1994. Photographs by Bill Truslow except where noted.

Monumentality in art, as André Malraux famously implied through his concept of the musée imaginaire, is an effect of form that, despite its associations with strength, imperviousness to change and dominance over surrounding space, is not necessarily dependent upon the actual size of an object. The effect of monumentality produced by a given artwork can arise in the mind of the viewer entirely through comparison of the features of that work with the formal characteristics of others in the dimensionless space of memory—or, more mundanely, through comparison of such formal characteristics in the printed or digital-media images through which we experience the vast majority of art today. To describe the brooches and necklaces of New Hampshire artist Linda MacNeil as monumental, therefore, is to classify their visual effects with those of Egyptian obelisks, the Chrysler Building’s mammoth steel gargoyles, or the towering Guardians of Traffic on Cleveland’s Hope Memorial Bridge without ever denying their physical compatibility with the intimacy of the body. The monumentality of MacNeil’s work, in other words, arises from associations with a certain kind of art that is often colossal but ultimately not restricted to any absolute scale in relation to the human form.

NECK COLLAR SERIES NO. 28. AJDC Theme Project “Stripes” of acid polished clear mirrored glass, polished ivory and black Vitrolite glass, chrome plate, 21.0 x 14.0 x 1.3 centimeters, 2017. Photograph by Robert Weldon.

BROOCH SERIES NO. 34 of polished cream and black Vitrolite, acid polished mirrored clear glass, rubies, polished fourteen karat white gold, 7.0 x 1.3 x 1.3 centimeters, 2005.

NECK COLLAR SERIES NO. 26 of acid polished blue transparent and clear mirrored glass, ivory and black acid polished Vitrolite glass, twenty-four karat gold plated, 21.3 x 15.2 x 1.9 centimeters, 2017.

      Every artist has at times walked the halls of the musée imaginaire, developing affinities for certain historical styles or other conventions of form. For MacNeil, ancient Egyptian art, with its assertive planarity, basaltic strength and blocky opposition to the influence of time has been of particular interest. Any search for specific references in her work to carved sarcophagi, pharaonic portraiture or funereal amulets would be fruitless however, since traces of Egyptian art can be discerned in her forms only to the degree that they are also embodied by some Art Deco design of the 1920s. There, too, monumentality is pervasive as an effect of smooth planes uninterrupted by superfluous ornament, an overall tendency toward symmetry within an immediately graspable logic of composition, and an underlying sense of strength and durability. Egyptian art and Art Deco design—despite the historical distance between them, the disparate cultural contexts in which they developed, and the distinct associations they carry today of mystery, transcendence and eternity on the one hand and modernity, machinery and the optimism of innovation on the other—clearly share design principles conducive to the effect of abstract and universal monumentality. “Perhaps,” MacNeil speculates, “that’s why both of them attract me.”

I don’t work in a linear manner,” MacNeil explains. “I develop several series, and occasionally pieces that aren’t part of a series, simultaneously. A map of my thinking and work is like a flight path of a hummingbird going after the nectar from blossom to blossom.

      Historical art has been only one of the influences on MacNeil’s work over the forty-one years that she has been exploring design issues through her jewelry. “I’m a deliberate collector of influences through observation,” she says. “I study nature and use details of plant growth as the basis for some drawings. I go to museums often and look carefully at works of art and objects of antiquity or natural history and come away often with thoughts that generate drawings in my sketchbooks.” These drawings are crucial, not only because they help MacNeil to visualize combinations of shapes that might produce effective compositions but also because they help in planning the specific stages necessary to realizing the works materially. Occasionally, through the steps from observation to sketch to final work, representational elements, particularly plant or animal forms, persist, but more important are the relationships of color, shape, contrast, repetition, and other compositional characteristics. Even these are not slavishly copied however. Although MacNeil describes herself as “methodical,” her process of generating designs involves a degree of flexibility that precludes absolute predictability. Neither influences from observation nor her own initial ideas exert complete control over her works. “Most of the time,” she asserts, “I am just thinking things out as I create them.”

While ad hoc solutions to design problems are not the rule at all points in MacNeil’s practice, which tends to rely more on familiar routes to results, those that occur are crucial to the achievement of one-of-a-kind works. Consequently, her method maintains structure while intentionally incorporating two primary opportunities to disrupt lines of thought and thereby reap the innovation arising from sudden challenges. The first of these comes with MacNeil’s practice of shifting attention from one design to another. This is a common practice among artists, especially those who work in series or are particularly concerned with formal problems. Matisse, for example, habitually migrated back and forth between paintings and sculptures whenever he felt that his aesthetic probing had hit a wall. “I don’t work in a linear manner,” MacNeil explains. “I develop several series, and occasionally pieces that aren’t part of a series, simultaneously. A map of my thinking and work is like a flight path of a hummingbird going after the nectar from blossom to blossom.”

DOUBLE DECO, BROOCH SERIES NO. 47 of acid polished light brown and clear glass, acid polished and polished black and cream Vitrolite, white diamonds, polished fourteen karat white gold, 7.6 x 7.0 x 1.0 centimeters, 2009.

MIRRORED, BROOCH SERIES NO. 91 of polished clear, chartreuse mirrored glass, yellow Vitrolite glass, linear striped surface detail, rhodium plated fourteen karat white gold, white diamond, 7.6 x 6.4 x 1.3 centimeters, 2015.

      The other strategy through which MacNeil encourages innovation consists of presenting herself with multiple variables from which to select. As her designs progress from the drawing stage into three-dimensional forms that will ultimately be adapted to functional formats, she maximizes the need for choice. “I have hundreds of parts laid out in my studio,” she says, “so I can constantly see them as a palette for the works I imagine. These are forms in plaster and in glass that I have created from raw materials, usually taking advantage of some phenomenon unique to glass. I cast glass with fading and changing color, with thousands of bubbles or perfectly clear, and often use mirror backing to emphasize certain visual effects.” 

Glass has been the signature material in MacNeil’s work since the early 1970s, when she was introduced to the medium at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design shortly before transferring to the Rhode Island School of Design to complete her undergraduate degree. Rather than exploiting the thin and fragile clarity of blown glass, she has gravitated toward a gemlike solidity and a range of effects from faceted translucency to textured or polished opacity. The sleek and monumental Art Deco designs of René Lalique, such as his celebrated car mascot Spirit of the Wind—Victoire, have been particularly inspirational, but Lalique’s earlier, more delicate floral-inspired Art Nouveau designs have also had their impact. “The many ways in which glass and metal have been combined in the decorative arts in general, from hood ornaments to architectural elements, lighting and vases have been a powerful influence,” MacNeil states. “Lalique’s stylization of natural form and the use of glass as an elegant, almost precious material is very compelling to me, although my work stylistically is quite different.” 

Elements SERIES NO. 40 NECKPIECE of polished multicolored mirror and acid polished clear glass, diamond details, fourteen karat yellow gold, 16.5 centimeters diameter, 2005.

      Regardless of its particular inspiration, each of MacNeil’s works tends to be a one-of-a-kind piece but with the notable familial traits that arise from seriality. “By working through series,” she explains,” I am developing a concept in a repeated way. I often have many ideas for the way it can go, so each piece in the series is a new version of the original concept.” That concept, both a unifying idea and a descriptor of traits that link individual works to one another, ultimately provides the name for the series. The Elements series, for example, “refers to distinct repeated forms within a necklace, usually emphasizing the mechanical connections and making them a feature in the design. This sets off the individual ‘elements’ as they are presented by the structure of the necklace.” Incorporating cut, shaped and drilled plate glass, gold-tubing and sheet stock, the necklaces of this series have since the 1980s provided MacNeil with the opportunity to nudge the often rigid character of geometry toward “a free-flowing orbit of elements.” Geometry, particularly as it defines the bright, flat planes of primary and secondary colors in De Stijl design, has always appealed to MacNeil, but her Elements series seems to arise from the kind of musing in which Alexander Calder indulged when he visited Mondrian’s studio and thought, “how fine it would be if everything there moved.” The quality of motion in the necklaces is not only literal—as a wearer’s movements cause the elements to pivot like links in a chain—but metaphorical as well: elements that repeat, but in different colors, or two different kinds of elements that alternate around the necklace create rhythmic implied motion.

LUCENT LINES SERIES NO. 20 NECKLACE of polished clear optical, black and cream Vitrolite glass, ruby details, fourteen karat yellow gold, 16.5 centimeters diameter, 2004.

      Closely related to the Elements series, the works of the Lucent Lines series display a similar structural logic of elements dispersed in repetition around circular neckpieces. The series title refers to the opaque parallel lines resulting from holes drilled through the glass elements, some merely for visual effect and some as conduits for gold-tube connectors but all of them “punctuating the pure clarity of the geometric form.” Each of the elements—composed of commercially manufactured plate glass, lead crystal or colored transparent glass—is carefully cut, shaped and drilled to identical specifications then either acid-finished for a satiny texture or polished to a high luster. The elements of the Lucent Lines series often channel the bold monumentality of Art Deco architectural or decorative art designs. Necklace, Lucent Lines Series no. 20, 2004, for example, vaguely recalls the mechanical fluting and sleek industrial associations of massive Art Deco cornices on portals of skyscrapers, while Necklace, Lucent Lines Series, no. 09, 1994 conveys the impression of pink-stoppered Lalique perfume bottles strung like faceted beads on gold-tubing.

 
 

MESH SERIES NO. 119 NECKLACE of polished red, purple and yellow Vitrolite glass, polished black and cream Vitrolite glass, gold plated, 6.4 x 5.7 x 1.9 centimeters, 2009.

MESH SERIES NO. 145 NECKLACE of acid polished cast mirrored glass, polished Vitrolite glass, twenty-four karat gold plated, 9.5 x 5.7 x 1.6 centimeters, 2017.

 

      A similar monumentality of form characterizes the pendants of the Mesh series, which evolved from aspects of the Elements and Lucent Lines necklaces in the mid 1990s and is still proving a rich source of possibilities for exploration today. MacNeil describes the introduction of the series as liberating because she no longer felt “bound to such a labor-intensive, complicated task as I had in the Elements series” and because it helped in dispensing with “the notion that the use of commercial chain was inappropriate for my work.” Each of the unique glass and metal pendants hangs upon a flexible mesh tube capped at the ends by a catch. 

“The wearability is extremely important to the owners of my necklaces,” MacNeil notes, but the arrangement of a pendant on a simple mesh chain has also allowed for development of a broad range of concepts not possible in the Elements series format.

 

NECK COLLAR SERIES NO. 19 of blue mirror laminated glass, polished cream, black, red, and yellow Vitrolite glass, polished, mirrored cabochons, gold plated, 15.9 centimeters, pendant 14.0 x 3.2 x 1.3 centimeters, 2010. NECK COLLAR SERIES NO. 24 of acid polished blues, orange and clear mirrored transparent/orange ivory Vitrolite, twenty-four karat gold plated brass, 22.9 x 14.3 x 2.2 centimeters, 2016. NECK COLLAR SERIES NO. 18 of acid polished clear glass, mirror laminated yellow glass, polished cream and black Vitrolite glass, gold plated, 15.9 centimeters diameter, pendant 14.0 x 8.9 x 1.9 centimeters, 2010.

 

      Another group that has evolved around a specific physical format with myriad possibilities for design is the Neck Collar series. Eschewing the flexibility of a linked necklace, the Neck Collars are among the most sculptural of MacNeil’s works. Some incorporate pendants, some do not, and some, like Collar, Neck Collar Series no. 29, 2017 seem to dissolve distinctions, merging collar and pendant into a single form, as in the perfect integration of pedestal and sculpture in Brancusi’s Endless Column. MacNeil’s works, however, are always emphatically oriented toward the human frame. “Usually I focus on the center of the chest,” she explains, “and symmetrical details of the colored glass and gold relate to the form of the body. My strong interest in geometry has guided me in many of the designs, however I try to balance this approach with some organic softness of the form.” 

 

BOUQUET EDITION, FLORAL SERIES NO. 84 NECKLACE of acid polished red, orange, amber, pink, maroon transparent glass, laminated to mirrored glass, polished eighteen karat yellow gold, 20.3 centimeters diameter, 2009.

BOUQUET EDITION, FLORAL SERIES NO. 85 NECKLACE of acid polished transparent shades of blue, and clear glass laminated to mirrored glass, polished eighteen karat gold, 15.2 centimeters diameter, 2009.

 

PRIMAVERA NECKLACE, FLORAL SERIES NO. 98 of acid polished, light yellow, green, red, mirrored glass, eighteen karat yellow gold, white diamond detail, 15.2 centimeters diameter, pendant 7.6 x 2.5 x 1.3 centimeters, 2015.

      While monumental forms in MacNeil’s work can frequently be linked to inspiration in architectural elements or decorative art, the influence of nature has also exerted a significant impact. “A pod or a flower in full bloom is an irresistible beginning for a jewelry design,” she says. “Nature has already mastered the mechanics. My challenge is to interpret that plant life and to make a piece of jewelry. What is so interesting to me is that plant life can be extremely complex and feminine and also simple and quite masculine.” This compatibility of complexity and simplicity is reflected in Primavera Necklace, Floral Series no. 98, 2015, in which green-glass leaves and discrete white blossoms recall the monumental forms of Lalique’s Art Deco period while the looped tendrils and tiny faceted inset gems invoke his intricate and organically graceful Art Nouveau designs.

Such historical associations are natural for the viewer to note. MacNeil does not deny their relevance but is quick to point out that her work reflects the monumentality of Art Deco or the organicity of Art Nouveau largely because these styles convey universal principles of design equally applicable to the contemporary context. Her intention, in fact, is to reflect the character of the present while observing time-honored conventions of design and technical mastery: to communicate something both universal and particular. In this respect, the word monumental is relevant for its implications of commemoration, preservation and persistence of meaning across time. “I hope that my work is worthy of being in museums because people find it meaningful,” MacNeil states. “I know many artists who think this way. It’s basically a hope that my work is as interesting and important to others as it is to me.”


SUGGESTED READING
Taragin, Davira S. and Ursula Ilse-Neuman.
Linda MacNeil: Jewels of Glass. Tacoma, WA and Stuttgart: Museum of Glass and Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2017.
Arial, Kate Dobbs. “Sculptural Radiance: The Jewelry and Objects of Linda MacNeil.” Metalsmith: 24:3, Summer 2004.
Byrd, Joan Falconer. “Linda MacNeil: Mint Museum of Craft + Design, Charlotte, NC.” American Craft: 64:1, Feb/March 2004.

 

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Glen R. Brown, a professor of art history at Kansas State University and a specialist on contemporary and historical craft media, takes particular note of jewelry that elevates ordinarily nonprecious materials to functional and aesthetic equivalency with gold or gems. He found in the necklaces of Linda MacNeil an especially interesting use of glass, not for its fragile translucence but rather for the strength and even monumentality that it can convey when cast or worked into simple geometric forms. MacNeil’s inspiration in Art Deco design also appealed to him. Brown is currently completing a book on the aesthetics of ceramic sculptor, painter and glass artist Jun Kaneko.

Smithsonian Craft Show 2018 Volume 40.3

JIYOUNG CHUNG

Smithsonian-Craft-Show-Cover.jpg

National Building Museum
April 26-29, Preview Night April 25
www.SmithsonianCraftShow.org

In the Navajo tradition, master weavers would often weave a thin thread of a contrasting color in the outer corner. Called the ch’ihónít’i, this “spirit line” extended out to the edge of the piece. The Navajo believed that the weaver’s being became part of the woven cloth in the process of making, their soul forever entwined with the piece itself. The spirit line allowed a path for the artist to disentangle herself and move on to create even more works of beauty.

IRINA OKULA

      This notion of a maker’s spirit being encapsulated in their work lies at the heart of the contemporary craft movement. For those who dedicate their lives to craft, making is about more than the practice itself, more than selling work for a living. It is an act of divine creation, linking heart, hand and spirit. It is also an act of vulnerability. Sharing your work opens you to criticism, extending the conversation beyond you and your materials to an outside audience. For makers, there’s arguably nothing better than when viewers appreciate and are moved by your work.

The artists participating in the 2018 Smithsonian Craft Show are well poised for this kind of exchange between maker, object and viewer. Now in its thirty-sixth year, the annual show presents one hundred twenty of the country’s premier craftspeople, and welcomes an educated and seasoned audience of craft lovers each year. Presented by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, jurors make careful selections, choosing from some one thousand artists working in twelve different media—basketry, ceramics, decorative fiber, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, wearable art, and wood—making this one of the most influential craft events in the nation. For many artists, acceptance in the show is a big moment in their career. Having the chance to exhibit here inspires them to push boundaries, to explore new bodies of work, and to bring their very best to show.

Paper artist Jiyoung Chung relies on tradition, making her painterly, deconstructed paper works using the joomchi method—a Korean artform mixing hanji, or mulberry paper, with water and agitating it to break down and combine layers into one strong, fabric-like entity. It is akin to felting, and over time it ages to an almost leather-like texture. In Chung’s floating sculptures, the paper is layered, with holes like portals to the worlds below, and loose strands, frayed edges and furrowed surfaces. It draws the viewer in and feels both natural and otherworldly. Each piece is one of a kind, and some are large in scale. “It gives me more ground to explore and develop my ideas, as well as challenging my physical limitations,” Chung says of her play with size. “It opens new doors and possibilities for me to discover more about joomchi—what it can do and how far I can push it.”

LAUREN MARKLEY

      In Chung’s eyes her work is driven as much from her own creativity as it is from joomchi itself. She credits much of her design sensibility to a sort of collaboration with it. “I usually have a concept to start with. However, the process has surprising characteristics. It wants to be certain ways. I don’t feel like I am dealing with material, but with a person. So I often negotiate between my original thought and what joomchi wants to do.”

For ceramist Irina Okula, acceptance to her first Smithsonian Craft Show in 2015 was “almost like a dream.” Okula’s fragmented vessels have a quiet, emotive quality, with landscape imagery, text and abstract markings pieced together in simple, pleasing forms. Black bird silhouettes soar alongside snowy hillsides, repeating patterns, excerpts of text and a soft color palette. Her signature technique of piecing together broken clay shards came about by accident, after a pot she was working on broke into several pieces. Rather than mourn the piece, Okula fired the fragments separately and later epoxied them together to reform the original shape. Intrigued by the results, Okula began to break her work on purpose. Each shard is decorated with different surface treatments—using slip, stamps, copper tape, wire, and words—then packed into saggars, or covered clay containers, and fired with combustible materials soaked in solutions of salt, iron, cobalt, or copper oxides. 

The element of chaos brings a narrative quality to the vessels, fragmented like the memories and stories that make up one’s life. “My work emphasizes the relationships of the pieces to each other and to the whole,” Okula says. She welcomes the randomness of her process, each result pushing her to explore further. “There is an unpredictable quality to the breaks and the firing, which play a critical role in the outcome. I like the surprises. After I break the pieces, I tape them back together in the original form and do a drawing, front and back. I love how the pieces contrast and complement each other. They help me tell a story, often my story.”

MEGHAN PATRICE RILEY

      Impulsivity and disassembly are also central to jeweler Lauren Markley’s creative practice. In addition to sterling silver and brass, Markley works with reclaimed wood, textiles and enamel, constructing jewelry inspired by architecture, plans and schematics, spaces and structures. A pair of earrings is made from intersecting bits of sterling silver, reminiscent of angled steel. A brooch of layered wood has metal bars extending out like askew scaffolding. Segments of blackened silver overlap like roof tiles, an accent of golden yellow silk thread adding a touch of softness. “I get asked a lot if I’m a frustrated architect—I’m not!” Markley jokes. “Someone once looked at one of my big, chunky, geometric rings and said ‘Oh! I want to live in there!’ It’s still one of my favorite comments.”

Markley’s jewelry starts in sketch form. “Very loose and gestural, just getting an idea of an appealing shape,” she explains. “From there, I cut the material into smaller pieces and spend time figuring out how to reassemble it to achieve the shape I’m aiming for. It’s fairly improvisational, and I don’t have a clear plan or pattern for how I’m going to solder the metal or glue the wood back together.” Like sculpture or architecture, the “site” of her pieces is just as important. “I want my clients to be comfortable with their pieces. There is always a negotiation with weight, proportion, depth, scale, when figuring this out.”

Jeweler Meghan Patrice Riley also enjoys this relation of jewelry to the body. “I love the idea of the body as site—meaning that jewelry is fashion, art, design, and everything in between. A piece that looks like non-wearable art that belongs on the wall comes to life on the body. And I love the idea of people taking a personal approach; they can play with wearing my pieces in traditional ways or push their own ideas.” Her Blanc and Noir lines are made from steel cable cord and aluminum connectors or crimp beads—typically used in beaded necklaces to secure the stringing material to the clasp. But in Riley’s work, the cord, connectors and crimps take center stage; the stones, when used, are secondary, almost like jewelry turned inside out.

 
This notion of a maker’s spirit being encapsulated in their work lies at the heart of the contemporary craft movement. For those who dedicate their lives to craft, making is about more than the practice itself, more than selling work for a living.

The two-dimensional, line drawing feel to her work is not accidental. Some of her pieces almost read as blueprints for other complex structures. “It’s definitely jewelry about jewelry, which can be pretty meta,” Riley explains. “I have always loved all of the mechanisms, small parts, connectors that go into the making of jewelry. I love what I can create with this paired down process. I think of all of the crimps as stars in a larger constellation, creating order amidst chaos.”

CHIE HITCHNER

      Riley often starts with sketches derived from physics and mathematical concepts. She then translates them into her materials, often incorporating new items like the industrial ball chain interwoven with stones and pearls in her Gris line. A result of her obsession with ball chain and safety pins in her “grungy-goth-punk” teenage years, the series demonstrates Riley’s ability to turn traditional jewelry concepts on their head. The line was featured in a runway collaboration with Mariana Valentina, and caught the eye of large retailer Free People, who picked up Riley’s work. Riley designed epaulettes, arm and hand chains for the collection. 

Color is an important factor for Chie Hitchner, who uses natural dyes in her loom-woven fabrics. Working with raw fibers such as silk, wool and linen, Hitchner dyes the threads in small batches in her studio, often using materials she finds nearby. “There is something special about discovering the dyeing properties of plants that are right around you,” says Hitchner. “Fig leaves make a brilliant yellow. Camellia blossoms become a steely gray. Japanese maple leaves usually give me a beautiful gray, but last fall they gave me a beautiful green. Depending on the time of year and location, the color can be different.”

While part of the show’s Decorative Fiber category, Hitchner also creates wearables. This lends versatility to her design process. She imagines the pieces displayed cleanly and flat on the wall or a table, and also considers how they will bunch and flow with the curves of the body. Worn or flat, Hitchner’s firm grasp on design and technique and her debt to Japanese traditions is evident. Her patterns are crisp and exact, in calming neutral tones and soothing repetitive patterns one can get lost in.

Hitchner learned to weave at eighteen and attended a Japanese university that placed a heavy emphasis on technique and methodology. “My work is deeply influenced by Japanese craft techniques,” Hitchner explains. “I like to use kasuri, the Japanese form of ikat, in both warp and weft. I also use sukui-ori, which is a technique of pick-and-weave, where I use manual techniques to insert additional colors and threads into the weft. These techniques broaden the range of the designs that I can produce using a simple four-harness floor loom.” 

MARY JAEGER

      Understanding one’s work in the larger picture of the fashion and commercial market is an important part of survival as a craft artist. Clothing designer Mary Jaeger has been sewing since just four years old, and recognizes the complexities of the fashion, craft and couture worlds. In her NYC atelier, she creates everything from dramatic scarves, shawls and jackets that play with proportion, pattern and shape, to classic cut, shibori-dyed indigo tank tops, hoodies and tees that are perfect for everyday wear. The latter are made to touch a broader client base, but the goal of Jaeger’s garments is the same: to empower the wearer. “My couture garments address the need for thoughtfully designed and beautifully constructed clothing to communicate individuality in our culture currently exploding with fast fashion,” Jaeger reflects. “Fashion design incorporates multiple aspects of today’s culture and can foreshadow the future through the use of colors, shapes, materials, make, fit, and styles. In turn, fashion communicates messages we individually interpret and consciously or unconsciously adapt to make our own style of dress.”

Jaeger’s Accordion Bonbons do feel a bit like a glimpse into the future. Part of her Unfolding series, multiple colors of silk dupioni are pieced, pleated, dyed, and edge-stitched to drape around the neck and shoulders. Their smart construction folds compactly like a fan for traveling, like something out of The Jetsons. Made from repurposed silks, they combine her love for the visual transformation between flat patterns that become three-dimensional when worn, reducing waste, and using color as an accent to her neutral black, gray, white, and indigo palette.  

TREFNY DIX AND BENGT HOKANSON

      Collaboration is key to Trefny Dix and Bengt Hokanson’s blown glass vessels. Working together since 1996, the duo is inspired by everything from 1920s purses, to graffiti and computer circuits. Their work is varied, calling on Italian methods like the use of murrine and canes for pattern, and Swedish influences in their employment of thick, clear glass and large spots of color to frame and offset their colorful murrine.

Their designing works in stages—often starting with discussion of a new murrine or surface texture they want to explore; then moving on to color choice; what form expresses the pattern best; and finally how to achieve the design in mind. “We work out issues with the size, form, surface application, blowing, and shaping techniques, trying to achieve the concept behind the piece,” Dix explains. “Sometimes the piece goes through such a transformation from the idea one of us started with that it becomes a true collaborative effort.” Skilled colorists, their glass has an energetic movement and fluidity, and the heavy use of color demonstrates their skill in the glassblowing. Like all the artists in the show, Dix and Hokanson are thrilled to be returning this year. “We consider exhibiting in the Smithsonian Craft Show to be a high career achievement. The artists have been selected because their work represents a high standard of creativity and technical mastery within their mediums. It is an honor to show our work with the other artists.”

 

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Jill DeDominicis is a former Ornament staff writer and editor whose love for wearable art and all things craft remains strong. She works at Mingei International Museum, a craft, folk art and design museum in lovely Balboa Park in San Diego, California. DeDominicis is delighted to be covering this year’s Smithsonian Craft Show held in the nation’s capital at the National Building Museum. With its one hundred twenty artists in all craft media, the show provided an ample opportunity to write and learn more about some of her favorite contemporary artists who are showing their work.