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!

 
 

PBL_Contributor-2018.jpg

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!

 
 

CLEB_Contributor.jpg

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.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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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.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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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

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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.”

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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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.

Wiley Sanderson Volume 40.3

WILEY SANDERSON PAGE in a promotional packet for the University of Georgia’s art department, circa 1955. Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries.

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Τhe stories about photographer Wiley Sanderson (1918–2011) are legendary and sometimes shocking. Most of them come from his students and colleagues at the University of Georgia and involve his insistence that the darkroom be spotless (did he really make students lick the floor to prove its cleanliness?), his raging diatribes and his inclination to pop out his glass eye to show the custom “WS” logo painted on it. When his work was included recently in a craft history exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art, visitors who knew him were surprised to learn that this single-minded, unyielding pioneer in bringing pinhole cameras to university classrooms was also an accomplished mid-century jeweler, metalsmith and weaver. Few people, even within his own community, were aware that for two decades, from the late 1940s through the late 1960s, he investigated the possibilities of materials and techniques in modern jewelry.

 
It’s up to today’s craftsmen to make tomorrow’s heirlooms... Machines can’t shape metal, blend threads or mold clay like a pair of loving hands.
— Wiley D. Sanderson
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      Wiley Devere Sanderson, Jr., was born in Detroit, Michigan, to a mother who became head of the home economics department at Wayne State University and a father who was an electrical engineer. He took an early interest in photography and soon developed an awareness of craft and design as well. He attended Olivet College in Michigan, and studied at the Mills College Summer Session of 1940 in Oakland, California, with Bauhaus artists László Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes. Then, from 1941 to 1945, he served as an instrument flying instructor in the United States Army Air Corps, teaching pilots how to use the complex instruments on cockpit panels. He married Rosella “Roz” Nagle (1926–2010) in 1944, and they had three daughters.

Following World War II, Sanderson returned to school on the G. I. Bill and received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in industrial design and crafts, with distinction in metalsmithing, from Detroit’s Wayne State University in 1948; there he studied traditional methods under Arthur Nevill Kirk, a prominent English-born silversmith. Next, Sanderson attended Cranbrook Academy of Art, near Detroit, and obtained his Master of Fine Arts degree in metalsmithing and design in 1949. He arrived at Cranbrook just as metals classes resumed following an erratic period of operation due to the Depression, materials shortages during the war and staffing changes. Richard Thomas, who had just graduated from the program, became the new metals teacher in 1948, when Sanderson arrived, and taught there until 1984.(1) Sanderson excelled and received a Silver Medal for Metalsmithing from the faculty upon graduation.(2)

      Sanderson wrote in his thesis, “Metal Expression by Centrifugal Casting,” that centrifugal casting (in which he used the lost-wax method to create a mold that he then put in a machine that spun the mold, forcing metal into the cavity) had “grown in stature through industrial research,” and described its value to craft as “its directness of fabrication.” He added, “My enthusiasm over this new-found technique was spurred on by the freedom and inspiration of Cranbrook.” The centrifugal casting technique was developed in England in the early nineteenth century, revived by dentists in the early twentieth century, then, according to Janet Koplos and Bruce Metcalf in Makers: A History of American Studio Craft, was adopted by jewelry manufacturers in the 1930s, with studio jewelers following close behind. Marbeth Schon, in Form & Function: American Modernist Jewelry, 1940-1970, credits Bob Winston as the first to incorporate the process into courses at an institution of higher learning, the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, in the mid-1940s. So, when Sanderson focused on the technique at Cranbrook, it was a relatively new skill for a studio craftsman and he was helping to expand and refine the process. Mickey Story, an instructor in the Applied Arts Department at Texas Technical College, referenced Sanderson’s thesis when she wrote Centrifugal Casting as a Jewelry Process in 1963, which indicates that his research was considered informative and important within the field.

Illustrations of Sanderson’s work from his time at Cranbrook appear in a jewelry textbook from 1953 by D. Kenneth Winebrenner, Jewelry Making as an Art Expression, and include a brooch consisting of a cast silver biomorphic shape pierced by a hammered gold wire suggesting a facial profile, cast silver earrings of abstract human figures, a silver ring with a rounded hollow box formed around a pearl, and a cast and enameled brooch with a reclining stick figure. Sanderson revealed his practical approach when noting of the ring that the box would protect the pearl from wear, and of the brooch that casting the raised lines of the stick figure avoided “troublesome solder joints in enameling.”

 

BROOCH of sterling silver and rhinestones, 6.4 x 4.8 x 2.5 centimeters. Collection of Janet Sanderson Johnson. Photograph by Demitra Thomloudis.

 

      Shortly following his graduation in 1949, Sanderson moved to Athens, Georgia, to teach craft at the University of Georgia, and remained there for the rest of his career. Like other programs around the country, the art department at UGA expanded rapidly in the years following World War II with returning servicemen attending school on the G. I. Bill. As the craft instructor, Sanderson covered topics in metals and textiles; the other craft area taught there, ceramics, had its own faculty. A description of the skills covered in one of Sanderson’s jewelry and metalwork classes, listed in the university’s 1950-51 catalogue, reads, “a thorough grounding in the techniques necessary to execute well-designed objects in metal; including forming, chain-making, chasing, repoussé, stone setting, tool making, metal finishing, enameling, and centrifugal casting,” reflecting Sanderson’s broad knowledge of techniques. 

In 1950, Sanderson received a prestigious scholarship to attend a silversmithing workshop conference, the fourth of five annual conferences organized by Handy & Harman, a New York City–based company that refined and sold precious metals. Organized by the artist and educator Margret Craver, these four-week summer workshops were important in promoting metalsmithing in the United States and establishing a network among modern educators in this field.(3

In an interview with the Detroit News, Sanderson extolled the importance of the workshop: “It’s up to today’s craftsmen to make tomorrow’s heirlooms... Machines can’t shape metal, blend threads or mold clay like a pair of loving hands.”(4) He described silversmithing as “almost a lost art” in the United States until the workshops began. Sanderson acknowledged that the objects created by silversmiths were expensive because they required so much labor but proposed that, with more opportunities to see such work, the public would realize that “hand-wrought metal has more individuality, more warmth than machine-made products.” Sanderson created a modern coffee pot during the workshop that was included in a traveling exhibition of works completed by the participants.

 

BROOCH of sterling silver and rhinestone, 2.5 x 4.8 x 1.6 centimeters. Collection of Janet Sanderson Johnson. Photograph by Demitra Thomloudis.

 

      Sanderson’s research during his first two decades at UGA included woven and printed textiles, and, increasingly, photography, but throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s jewelry and metals remained important. The university required departments to submit annual reports with highlights of each faculty member’s activities and requested regular updates from professors for their personnel files. Though Sanderson’s submissions generally were cursory, they are essential in documenting his accomplishments. In his annual report for 1952-53 he listed his research as “experimental process in centrifugal casting,” and by 1955-56 he was working on developing “a silver-bronze alloy suitable for centrifugal casting,” while “designing and making jewelry for an average of two to three hours per week.” In 1958-59 he specifically noted making jewelry using cire perdue (the lost wax method) and rhinestones; the following year he again highlighted that he used “rhinestones in well-designed contemporary jewelry.”(5) Most modern jewelers at the time used gemstones, so his focus on rhinestones was an atypical, even a radical, choice for an artist of the era. Sanderson also created numerous modern pickle forks, a focus he noted in his 1959-60 materials. (His daughter Janet recalls that he liked pickles, especially the watermelon rind pickles his wife made and canned each summer.)

 
 VINTAGE PHOTOGRAPH of cast silver brooch made to suggest a martini glass.  Collection of Jewelry and Metalwork, Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia. Photograph by Wiley Sanderson.

VINTAGE PHOTOGRAPH of cast silver brooch made to suggest a martini glass. Collection of Jewelry and Metalwork, Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia. Photograph by Wiley Sanderson.

 

      The majority of Sanderson’s known surviving jewelry, and much of what is recorded in period photographs he took of his jewelry, is silver, often cast. Several brooches, with colorful rhinestones, have rough textures that create strong contrasts between light and dark. Some works feature small gold accents, such as a gold wire squiggle hanging within an elongated crescent pendant or as round “eyeballs” in an undulating creature-like pendant. One set of cufflinks features lowercase “a”s and belonged to a former president of UGA, while another set of cufflinks with buttons as well features an abstract pattern with roughly radiating lines resembling orange slices; a set of buttons with a brooch, recorded in a photograph, had high relief designs suggesting martini glasses with olives. He marked much of his work with an abstract image of a horned figure, that may, according to his second wife, Mary Sayer Hammond, whom he married in 1983 (he and Roz had divorced around 1970), relate to a portrait a visiting artist did of him titled Satan Sanderson, suggesting an embrace of his reputation for being difficult.

VINTAGE PHOTOGRAPH of a silver and cocobolo pickle fork. Collection of Jewelry and Metalwork, Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia. Photograph by Wiley Sanderson.

      The most unusual area of Sanderson’s jewelry research involved using steel-loaded epoxy to form jewelry, which he first listed as an activity in 1964-65. He also invented a pigment-loaded epoxy to embellish the epoxy/steel-formed pieces, and he noted that it was “a means of ‘enameling’ metals that could not heretofore be enameled by conventional methods.” Unfortunately, no detailed accounts of this research are known. One surviving example of this jewelry is a cone-shaped pendant with bright red “enamel” on the outside and rhinestones affixed randomly to its dark interior. According to his family, he called the material he used “plastic steel,” which is the trade name of a metal-filled epoxy putty used for automotive, plumbing and similar repairs—Devcon’s Plastic Steel was introduced around 1956. His daughter Janet, who sometimes watched him work at home, believes he enjoyed the material because it was easy to use, allowed for freeform creations, and did not require a heat source when applying backs to brooches. Sanderson’s adaptation of this industrial material, and his interest in unconventional and nonprecious materials, was very forward thinking. According to Hammond, Sanderson repeatedly submitted the plastic steel work to competitions and shows, but it was regularly rejected because it was not traditional metal. It was not until several decades later that artists embraced a related modeling-clay-like, metal-infused material, Precious Metal Clay, which emphasizes how ahead of his time Sanderson was.

VINTAGE PHOTOGRAPH of a cast silver pendant with ebony bead. Collection of Jewelry and Metalwork, Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia. Photograph by Wiley Sanderson.

      Sanderson showed his work nationally in the 1950s, including in the First State Fair of Texas Invitational Craft Show, a contemporary jewelry exhibition at the University of Nebraska, and the Third Art Center Invitational Craft Show in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1954, the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta, presented his “unusual and distinctive jewelry,” along with the work of several of his students, in the exhibition “Contemporary Jewelry and Metal.”(6) Later, the exhibition “Craftsmen of the Southeastern States,” the last in a series of regional surveys organized by the American Craftsmen’s Council [ACC (Now known as the American Craft Council)], included a cast silver pendant with an aquamarine, titled The Gemologist, and a cast and forged silver and gold pickle fork by Sanderson. This show traveled during 1963–64 to the Atlanta Art Association, the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts, and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City.

Like many university art faculty, Sanderson also gave lectures and led workshops outside of his classroom, and these reflected his interests in contemporary design and jewelry. He presented a survey of contemporary design in metalwork to the Athens Home Demonstration Club in 1952; in 1957 he led a five-day workshop sponsored by the Chattahoochee Handweavers Guild at the Atlanta Art Institute on handwoven rugs, emphasizing Scandinavian flossa and rya methods; in 1959 he spoke to the Art Center Association in Louisville, Kentucky, about “Jewelry Design Today.” He addressed the National Art Education Association in Tampa, Florida, in 1960, about “Design for Today’s Craftsman.” In 1963 he gave a lecture on centrifugal casting at the Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair and Conference in Tennessee; and in 1967 he spoke about contemporary design to the Chattahoochee Handweavers Guild. He led two workshops for southeastern regional conferences of the ACC, one on centrifugal casting in 1963 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and one titled “Photography for the Craftsmen” in 1966 in Athens, and was a founding member and early president of the Georgia Designer-Craftsmen group, which was organized in 1959 in Atlanta and affiliated with the ACC. 

 PENDANT of metal-loaded epoxy and rhinestones, 7.0 x 3.8 x 0.6 centimeters.  Collection of Janet Sanderson Johnson. Photograph by Demitra Thomloudis.

PENDANT of metal-loaded epoxy and rhinestones, 7.0 x 3.8 x 0.6 centimeters. Collection of Janet Sanderson Johnson. Photograph by Demitra Thomloudis.

      As skilled as Sanderson was in crafts, his primary passion was photography. He introduced photography classes at UGA in 1953 and worked to incorporate photography in the craft program by, for example, investigating ways to use it to assist with the teaching of textile design. In 1967 the art department restructured its offerings, and Sanderson focused exclusively on photography, which became its own area, while additional faculty, Glen Kaufman and Robert Ebendorf, were hired to teach in the newly formed areas of fabric design and jewelry and metalwork—Sanderson took pride in having to be replaced, as he saw it, by multiple professors. The transition, though, was not seamless. Space was limited, and the studio that had housed all of craft now needed to accommodate both photography and jewelry and metalwork (fabric design settled in a nearby building), which he viewed as an encroachment into his territory. Indeed, there were arguments over space for years, until jewelry and metalwork moved to a different location on campus.

Sanderson retired in 1989. Though he spent almost half of his teaching career in craft, that area is overshadowed by his time in photography—more than twenty years worth of students have memories of making pinhole cameras with him. In addition to his focus on photography in the later decades of his career, several other factors contribute to the lack of recognition of his role as a mid-century modern jeweler: he rarely talked about his earlier work; his mark is not easy to read nor well known, hampering identification; and, as he was not bound by any need to make a profit from his creations and worked in multiple fields, the volume of his production of jewelry was limited. However, Sanderson created a body of innovative, distinctive work that presents an addition to the canon of mid-century American modern silversmiths, especially in the Southeast, and reflects the spread of modern jewelry techniques and styles in the post-war years.

VINTAGE PHOTOGRAPH of a design for a sapphire engagement ring in gold (in progress). Collection of Jewelry and Metalwork, Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia. Photograph by Wiley Sanderson. PHOTOGRAPH OF WILEY SANDERSON, Detroit News, September 1, 1950. Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries.


1—For more on the history of metalwork at Cranbrook, see J. David Farmer, “Metalwork and Bookbinding,” in Design in America: The Cranbrook Vision, 1925-1950, New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 145-171.
2—Martin Magid, “When I become a man I would like to be an artist,” Photographica World 156: 50, 2017. 
3—Jeannine Falino and Yvonne Markowitz, “Margret Craver: A Foremost 20th Century Jeweler and Educator,” Jewelry, The Journal of the American Society of Jewelry Historians 1: 15, 1996-97. 
4—Joy Hakanson, “Detroit Silversmith Shapes Tomorrow’s Heirlooms,” Detroit News, September 1, 1950. 
5—Annual reports and faculty files are in the collection of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries. 
6—“Surrealistic Touch Marks Baker Show,” Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution, April 25, 1954. The students were Marion Davidson, Dan Berry and Aubrey Henley.

SUGGESTED READING
Ashley Callahan, Annelies Mondi and Mary Hallam Pears
e. Crafting History: Textiles, Metals, and Ceramics at the University of Georgia. Athens: Georgia Museum of Art, 2018.
Jeannine Falino, ed. Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design. New York: Abrams in association with the Museum of Arts and Design, 2011. 
Martin Magid. “When I become a man I would like to be an artist,” Photographica World 15: 48-55, 2017. 
Marbeth Schon. Modernist Jewelry 1930-1960, The Wearable Art Movement. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2004.
     —. Form & Function: American Modernist Jewelry, 1940-1970. Atglen, PA: Schiffer, 2008.

 

      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. Together with Annelies Mondi, deputy director at the Georgia Museum of Art, and Mary Hallam Pearse, she recently co-curated an exhibition at the museum titled “Crafting History: Textiles, Metals, and Ceramics at the University of Georgia” that included works by Wiley Sanderson. She was pleased to have a chance to expand the research from that project and appreciated the assistance she received from Sanderson’s daughter, Janet Johnson, scholar Martin Magid who recently wrote about him for Photographica World, his widow Mary Sayer Hammond, and everyone at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries. 

Checha Sokolovic Volume 40.3

 SEARCHING BROOCH of sponge, blackened steel, stainless steel, aluminum, and concrete, 7.0 x 8.0 x 2.0 centimeters, 2015.  Photograph by Checha Sokolovic.

SEARCHING BROOCH of sponge, blackened steel, stainless steel, aluminum, and concrete, 7.0 x 8.0 x 2.0 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Checha Sokolovic.

The rose-colored slice of cement has the look of a particularly appealing piece of industrial fabrication. Perhaps it is a fixture for a designer kitchen. At 4.5 inches across and about 1/3-inch thick, it is solid and sturdy looking, but also sleek. Slim stainless steel bands encase the outer and inner edges of this pink wheel, and if you pick it up you know exactly what to do with it: slide it over your wrist.

      The cement, stainless and aluminum bangle Pretty in Pink was made by Checha Sokolovic, a Seattle jewelrymaker with an architect’s eye for bold, unfussy design and a builder’s fondness for industrial materials. Besides cement, Sokolovic works with concrete, commercial quality vinyl, brass washers meant for plumbing, egg cartons, kitchen sponges, and hunks of charcoal and pumice. To make backings and armatures she mostly chooses stainless steel. When she gets fancy, she adds a little sterling silver.

RING OF THE RISING SUN of sterling silver, concrete and PVC, 6.0 x 1.5 x 5.0 centimeters, 2017. Photograph by Barbara Cohen.

PRETTY IN PINK BANGLE of stainless steel, aluminum and concrete, 11.4 centimeters diameter, 2012. Photograph by Checha Sokolovic.

      Creating jewelry out of humble materials is one of the hallmarks of contemporary artist-made jewelry. Gold and diamonds are lovely, of course, but beauty can also be coaxed out of far less precious materials—an idea that resonates perfectly with Sokolovic’s modernist aesthetic and her reverence for the common materials of our everyday lives. She whips up batches of concrete and cement in her kitchen, pouring them into molds, sometimes including ice cube trays, and browses hardware stores for small shiny bits that catch her eye, such as washers and screws. The effects she achieves are remarkable. Her neckpiece The Dark Side of the Moon is a four-inch disc of concrete raised in the center and pocked as though pummeled by geological forces. To make the piece, Sokolovic dyed the concrete black, framed it in a stainless steel armature and hung it on black rubber tubing. The Dark Side of the Moon is an evocative bit of cosmic poetry, expressed in the most quotidian of materials. 

 

DARK SIDE OF THE MOON NECKPIECE of stainless steel, concrete, dye, and rubber, pendant 10.0 x 4.0 centimeters, rubber cord 107.0 centimeters, 2017. Photograph by Barbara Cohen.

 

      A lifelong collector of big, bold jewelry, Sokolovic didn’t start making jewelry until 2010, when she took her first jewelrymaking class at Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle. “My first idea was to make big silver jewelry. I’ve been wearing very big silver jewelry all my life, and I thought I’d make something I liked,” Sokolovic says. “But I saw how expensive it would be to buy that much silver. Then I took a class in alternative materials. Up until then I didn’t realize people made jewelry out of plastic bags and other stuff that might be thought of as trash. What really blows my mind is finding the beauty in all this stuff, including pieces of charcoal I find on the beach.”

Despite her background in building design, Sokolovic had never mixed cement or concrete. On the other hand, she understood their physical properties, and she admired the solid heft and strength of construction materials. “I was inspired to work with cement. You can get all these wonderful textures with cement and one of my first ideas was to try to get the look of a polished concrete floor. Also I thought because I started making jewelry kind of late, I wanted to make something different, something that not many others are doing.” 

 

CEMENT BEADS NECKLACE of cement, rubber, sterling silver clasp, stainless steel cord, 50 centimeters long, each bead approximately 2.5 centimeters, 2013. Photograph by Barbara Cohen.

ICE BEAD GAME NECKLACE of ice, sterling silver, 45 centimeters long, each bead approximately 2.5 centimeters, 2012. Photograph by Sean Airhart.

 

      Sokolovic uses Rockite, a mixture of Portland cement and gypsum cement. The resulting material doesn’t shrink as it dries and she can control it when she casts it in her stainless steel metal frames. It is also relatively light to wear compared with concrete, and it has a smoother surface than concrete. Since there are not stones, sand or other materials added, however, her cement mixture can be somewhat brittle. She seals her cement pieces with wax to protect them from water. She points out that cement is not as tough a material as most people believe. “I always make sure to mention that even though cement might sound like a very durable and hard material, these pieces are, in fact quite delicate and need to be handled with care and love.”

Sokolovic says she is a ‘sun freak,’ and that the Sun Goddess jewelry is an antidote to the gray winters of the Pacific Northwest. ‘As soon as I finish making something I always wear it. I want to see how it feels. With the Sun Goddess necklace you put it on and go outside and you feel warmer.’

SUN GODDESS NECKPIECE of PVC, stainless steel and sterling silver rivets, 30.0 centimeters diameter, 2018. SUN GODDESS EARRINGS of PVC, stainless steel and sterling silver. 7.5 centimeters diameter, 2018. SUN GODDESS RING of PVC and sterling silver, 5.0 x 3.0 x 0.5 centimeters, 2018. Photographs by Noel O’Connell.

      Concrete is tougher, and one of her recipes is a mixture of Portland cement and sand. The surfaces of her concrete pieces are rougher since you can see the sand, and the pieces are tougher in that they are less likely to chip. She seals them with a concrete sealant to protect them from water. For The Dark Side of the Moon, she used pre-mixed concrete paste applied over a wire mesh frame.

Her love of charcoal, concrete and stainless steel means that much of Sokolovic’s work is a monochromatic landscape of black, nearly neutral shades of dyed cement, and metal. But in the last year Sokolovic has started working with vivid color thanks to her new enthusiasm for candy-colored polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, the material most of us simply call vinyl. “A friend gave me samples of PVC,” Sokolovic says, displaying place-mat-sized sheets of fire engine red and cobalt blue. “And I find mats in kitchen stores made out of it.” Her new Sun Goddess Collection is a dramatic marriage of brilliant yellow vinyl and riveted stainless steel. The collection includes earrings, bracelet, ring, and neckpiece that resemble golden rays fanning out from a blazing sun. Sokolovic says she is a “sun freak,” and that the Sun Goddess jewelry is an antidote to the gray winters of the Pacific Northwest. “As soon as I finish making something I always wear it. I want to see how it feels. With the Sun Goddess Neckpiece you put it on and go outside and you feel warmer.” If there’s a hint of sunshine, the sun refracts off the golden vinyl tossing bits of yellow light around like the darting choreography of fireflies.

Sokolovic grew up in Sarajevo, in what was then called Yugoslavia. “I loved growing up there, but Sarajevo really had a small town mentality. If you’re a little bit different, you’re made fun of. So wearing big jewelry in the 1980s was my way to rebel a little. It made me a little different. I didn’t want to blend in.” She bought jewelry whenever she could. As a young woman she spent time on a Greek island that she still thinks of as idyllic. But besides the turquoise waters and sunny climate, one attraction was a small jewelry store where on every vacation she bought something. She talks about a silver bracelet that called to her like a siren’s song. 

“I had never seen anything like the bracelet. I think it is probably from Asia. I had to have it. It was as much as my rent for the next month, but I bought it and didn’t eat for weeks.” Sokolovic still has the bracelet, which is a simple though elegant silver-hinged bangle with a clasp closure and a little decorative pattern work. Though she never wears it anymore, she says her reaction to the bracelet a couple of decades ago was a telling sign of her lifelong passion for jewelry.

In 1990 Sokolovic earned her college degree in architectural engineering and urban planning at the University of Sarajevo. When war broke out a few years later she, her mother and sister fled, eventually settling in Vancouver, Canada, where she picked up whatever work she could find. In 1998 she got a job offer from a Seattle architecture firm and relocated to Seattle. A decade later she was laid off and suddenly had free time. At the urging of a friend who noticed her love of jewelry, she signed up for a class at Pratt. Although she comes from a family of artists, and her sister is a self-supporting artist in Canada, Sokolovic says, “I always thought that I’m not that good with my hands, so it took me a long time to finally try. But when I came to class here I was inspired by the idea that I could make exactly what I want. I express myself through wearing jewelry.” And compared to the precise work she does as an interior designer, her current employment, making jewelry is freedom.

 

THE ORIGIN RING of stainless steel, blackened steel, cement, 3.5 x 4.5 x 0.7 centimeters, 2013. Photograph by Barbara Cohen.

METEORITE LANDING RING of sterling silver, patina, charcoal, cement, dye, and resin, 7.0 x 3.0 x 5.0 centimeters, 2017. Photograph by Barbara Cohen.

 

      Rings are Sokolovic’s favorite jewelry. She likes to wear them and make them. Meteorite Landing is certainly one of her most distinctive. Made at the same time as The Dark Side of the Moon, Meteorite Landing is a hunk of charcoal attached to a cement base, both dyed black and stabilized with resin. To accompany Meteorite Landing, Sokolovic made Meteorite Earrings, also with charcoal. The pieces are a reminder that our little planet spins in a big galaxy where something as random as a meteorite could seriously disrupt our world. Other recent rings include Ring of the Rising Sun, a two-inch-wide sterling silver oblong bisected by a red vinyl half sphere. Though Sokolovic’s cement and charcoal pieces often suggest ancient geology and timelessness, her vinyl and stainless steel jewelry is about light, weightlessness and moods elicited by colors. The Ring of the Rising Sun is dramatic and bold, a ring for an adventurer to wear into the future. Like some of her other work, her vinyl and steel jewelry has a futuristic look. Another newer ring is Tickle Me, which is a tuft of white fur sprouting from a single cardboard cup of an egg carton. There is a sly surrealist humor about it given the image of fur emerging from an egg carton. “Tickle Me is for special occasions,” Sokolovic says. “It’s big, and not very practical. But I like it, and I like the idea that you can tickle yourself.”

 

TICKLE ME RING of sterling silver, egg carton, latex paint, fur, 10.0 x 4.0 x 3.5 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Checha Sokolovic.

WINTER BLOOM RING of sterling silver, egg carton, latex paint, rubber,10.0 x 4.0 x 3.5 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Checha Sokolovic.

 

      Partly because of her use of geometric shapes, Sokolovic’s work frequently has a space-age minimalism about it. Her vinyl and stainless jewelry would look terrific with any Star Trek outfit. Her looping earrings and bracelets made of thin-gauge stainless steel ribbon also have a futuristic appeal. Atomic Bracelet is a set of three connected stainless steel orbits pivoting around each other thanks to a rivet at the base of the bracelet. A pair of earrings called Twisted suggests a gravity-defying trajectory through space.

Checha Sokolovic wearing her jewelry. Photograph by Krista Welch.

      Outgoing, with a quick smile and dry sense of humor, Sokolovic says she has never had any interest in using gemstones or other precious materials. “I’m not interested in cars. I shop at thrift stores. Maybe it was being raised in a communist, or socialist, country. But I never thought of expressing myself through expensive things. What interests me is making jewelry, wearing it, and seeing other people wear it. Definitely my biggest satisfaction is when I see people wearing my jewelry.” 

Her jewelry isn’t for everyone. It can be heavy. A black and gray cement necklace that she created by pouring cement into ice cube trays and fashioning cement beads demands a sturdy neck and collarbone from anyone wishing to wear it. Sokolovic intended it to be dramatic. “It was inspired by African beads which are similar in shape to my cement beads. It is my homage to all those big, heavy bead necklaces that I like and that kind of hug you when you’re wearing them. I know my jewelry is big, and that everything has weight to it. But that’s part of my idea. The size and weight of my jewelry means that when you put it on, you don’t forget you’re wearing it. It’s a connection between the jewelry and the wearer. You always know it’s there.”

 

PEARLS IN LAVA EARRINGS of sterling silver, stainless steel, concrete, dye, pearls, 1.0 X 7.0 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Nenad Stevanovic.

 

ZEN GARDEN RING of sterling silver, blackened steel, stainless steel, cement, and floral pin frog magnetic attachment, 4.0 x 4.0 centimeters, 2012. Photograph by Checha Sokolovic.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Robin-Updike_Contributor.jpg

Robin Updike is a Seattle-based arts writer who has followed the Pacific Northwest’s vibrant jewelrymaking scene for nearly thirty years and interviewed many of the region’s jewelry makers. But interviewing Checha Sokolovic for this edition of Ornament was the first time she has met a jewelry artist whose primary materials are cement, concrete and stainless steel. Sokolovic started making jewelry after a couple of decades working in architecture and design, so while her choice of materials may be unorthodox, it makes perfect sense for her. The result is eye-catching jewelry that tweaks our ideas about beauty and preciousness.

Tuareg Jewelry Volume 40.3

 ANTIQUE  TCHEROT  AMULETS/ KITABS  FROM MAURITANIA. Not all of these may have been made by Tuaregs, as the workmanship is quite similar between Tuareg and Mauritanian smiths, although the latter usually have better equipped workshops and tools. The square tcherot amulets are of either silver, or silver and copper, with fine crafting, especially the engraving. Because silver wears easily, many of the engravings are now barely visible. Whether the metal is precious, like silver, or base, like copper or brass, does not determine how well it is worked. An intricately and beautifully engraved tcherot from Niger is entirely of brass (Benesh-Liu and Liu 2007: 71). Often, the silver panels are sweated onto the copper, and most are cold-constructed, with bezels holding the front in place. The use of decorative silver balls is also seen in tcherots from Niger (Gabus 1982). Among my favorites are those inspired by and shaped like a stylized  gerba  or their traditional goatskin water containers (Schienerl 1986). Most are made of steel, onto which are sweated panels of silver, copper or bronze, with copper wire loops. Some may have been covered with leather, with cutouts for the metal, decorative panels; one on this page, which is new, has this leather treatment. These range from 3.0 to 6.6 cm long.  Courtesy of Brinley Thomas (small gerba shape in silver and copper) and Jürgen Busch.

ANTIQUE TCHEROT AMULETS/KITABS FROM MAURITANIA. Not all of these may have been made by Tuaregs, as the workmanship is quite similar between Tuareg and Mauritanian smiths, although the latter usually have better equipped workshops and tools. The square tcherot amulets are of either silver, or silver and copper, with fine crafting, especially the engraving. Because silver wears easily, many of the engravings are now barely visible. Whether the metal is precious, like silver, or base, like copper or brass, does not determine how well it is worked. An intricately and beautifully engraved tcherot from Niger is entirely of brass (Benesh-Liu and Liu 2007: 71). Often, the silver panels are sweated onto the copper, and most are cold-constructed, with bezels holding the front in place. The use of decorative silver balls is also seen in tcherots from Niger (Gabus 1982). Among my favorites are those inspired by and shaped like a stylized gerba or their traditional goatskin water containers (Schienerl 1986). Most are made of steel, onto which are sweated panels of silver, copper or bronze, with copper wire loops. Some may have been covered with leather, with cutouts for the metal, decorative panels; one on this page, which is new, has this leather treatment. These range from 3.0 to 6.6 cm long. Courtesy of Brinley Thomas (small gerba shape in silver and copper) and Jürgen Busch.

The Tuareg are a nomadic, Berber or Tamazight/Tamasheq speaking people, most of whom live in the Saharan and Sahelian regions—southern Algeria, western Libya, eastern Mali, northern Niger, and northeastern Burkina Faso (www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/anthropology-and-archaeology/people/tuareg). Gabus (1982) adds Mauritania, confirmed by Hillary and Abdou Louarti (pers. comm.) for eastern Mauritania and a bit of Nigeria. With the current African diaspora, Tuareg now also live in Europe and the United States.

 

SQUARE, CROPPED TRIANGLE AND TRIANGLE TCHEROT AMULETS FROM MAURITANIA. Two are of steel, one of tin (?) and copper/silver and one of brass, copper and silver. All are finely engraved and have engraved geometric plaques, many triangular, sweated onto their bases and cold-assembled via bezels. Note the rolled tube, used for holding the bent wire copper loops. Again, there is the dual role of the amulet shape and its decorations offering protection, especially regarding the triangular shapes. These are 3.3 to 5.1 cm high.

THREE GERBA AND ONE TRIANGULAR TCHEROT AMULETS. Largest gerba-shaped one is new, of copper covered with leather, with cutouts revealing the white metal/brass panels, poorly engraved, with copper tube and large copper/white metal balls at the tips of the stylized goatskin form, 9.5 cm high and smallest 4.4 cm high. Lower ones are antique, of steel, silver, copper, and/or brass.

THREE VINTAGE CROSSES OF AGADEZ AND IFERWANE. Mauritanian, of cast silver alloy, then tooled; note that engraving is worn on right-hand specimen, which is engraved on reverse/obverse, as is middle one. One to left newer, only engraved on obverse; 7.0 to 8.4 cm high. According to Creyaufmüller (1983), the upper and lower portions of such crosses have at least 20 and 28 variations respectively. Courtesy of J. Busch.

THREE CROSSES OF AGADEZ OR INARANGANAK. Strung on wool; traditionally worn with 3 - 5 crosses, also on cotton or synthetic fibers, according to Ethnic Embellishments. Courtesy of J. Busch.

Photographs by Robert K. Liu/Ornament Magazine and Ethnic Embellishments, where noted.

Tuareg smiths utilize great hand and mental skills, and with a few simple tools produce wonderful ornaments. Truly, while their work is small, their skills and vision are large.

      For a nomadic people, the Tuareg have a large and varied assortment of jewelry, worn from head to ankle,  as well as perhaps the most diverse use of materials and techniques among African jewelers. Unlike jewelers of the Mahgreb, Tuareg smiths or inadan wan-tizol (makers of weapons and jewelry) have a very simple tool kit, suited for an itinerant life and reminiscent of early Native American jewelers. Tuareg jewelers are now very active in Africa and abroad (Benesh-Liu and Liu 2007, Cheminée 2014, Liu 2017). Jewelry or jewelry components often attributed to the Tuareg are also worn by other tribal groups, such as the Bella, Fulani, Moors, and Wodaabe, as shown in photographs by Fisher (1984), as well as Mauritanians (Gabus 1984; Hillary and Abdou Louarti, pers. comm.). Berber and Mauritanian metal jewelry can also be confused with Tuareg adornment, although the latter are usually with less embellishment. While Tuareg jewelry is prominent in the marketplace and their smiths have high visibility (Benesh-Liu and Liu 2007, Bernasek 2008, Cheminée 2014, Liu 2017), their work has been largely ignored in the excellent French literature on Maghreb jewelry. Camps-Fabrer (1990) shows only one page of Tuareg jewelry, while others in the Édisud series have no coverage, and the recent extensive collection of North African jewelry (Chakour et. al. 2016) also does not include Tuareg work. This article only covers amulets/tcherots/kitabs, crosses and some rings, a very limited representation of the Tuareg jewelry repertoire and examples made by Mauritanians or other Berber peoples.

TRADITIONAL OLD TUAREG SHELL AND LEATHER HAMSAS. Niger, one has been embellished with green-dyed leather and red vinyl threads and strung into a contemporary-designed necklace of coral, stone beads and carved conus shell disks. One of the hamsa pendants has grooves on each of the five shell pieces; hard to determine if these are natural features or carved. Other shell squares are ridged in middle. The five geometric shell pieces are an abstraction of the five fingers or hamsa. Fisher’s photo (1984: 206) demonstrates their ubiquity among Niger Tuareg women. Courtesy of Ethnic Embellishments.

TRADITIONAL TUAREG SHELL AND LEATHER HAMSA OR KHOMESSA. Algeria, acquired in 1994: of shell and leather, it is strung on a thick cord wrapped with glass seed beads and leather. A very similar example is shown in Leurquin (2003: 54). The pendant is 10.2 cm wide and the shell has not been identified, possibly Arca? This type of pendant is also made in metal, of a silver alloy; Bernasek (2008: 11) states they are worn by Tuareg women in the Algerian Sahara. There are also pendants where a triangle is joined to a modified hamsa, both antique (Leurquin 2003: 54) and new, as seen on the last page of this article. The making of a popular form of an object in various materials is known as transposition (Liu 1995b). Courtesy of J. Busch.

      Angela Fisher (1984: 194) perhaps best summarized how intensely Tuareg smiths feel about their work, while referring to a padlock one had decorated: “For you this is as small as my thumbnail, for me it is huge. Look—there is the ant, the hyena, the jackal, the horse’s hoof, the moon, the stars and the sun, the good eye, the woman... the devil’s eyebrows, the laughter... that’s our life.” In many ways, she expresses well the conundrum when someone outside of a culture looks at their material goods, whether it is ancient, ethnographic or contemporary jewelry. The observer brings her or his knowledge and aesthetics to understand and evaluate, but usually lacks enough information to truly understand all the symbolism and the deep meaning that the jewelry imparts to that culture. This is especially true in cultures, like the Chinese, where not only the motifs all have symbolic meaning, but their combinations also become phonetic rebuses, further adding to the difficulty in deciphering for outsiders (Bartholomew 2006).

LARGE BOGHDAD CROSS PENDANT AND SMALL MOROCCAN BERBER BOGHDAD. The former are old and most likely from central Mali, Tuareg territory; not soldered but riveted silver. The Berber boghdad is also silver, old and from southern Morocco. Both of these antique crosses are very similar to the Trarza examples shown, although neither have wood backing. NEW BOGHDAD CROSS PENDANT. Niger, of brass and leather, showing mix of traditional Tuareg jewelry with modern appeal. Obverse and reverse: reverse has hallmark/signature of the maker. Courtesy of Ethnic Embellishments.

OLD SILVER PENDANTS. Niger, open-work/pierced pieces, these were normally sewn onto the front of a leather kitab or amulet, holding verses for the Qur’an and/or other protective writings, and worn as a necklace. Small tisek rings at top middle with agate or carnelian made in Idar-Oberstein: these were woven into women’s hair as ornaments: old, Niger, also Mali. Small silver and metal hair ornaments on a string are mostly from Niger. Many of these are a stylized form seen in North African jewelry of the Punic goddess Tanit, with a triangular shape topped by a circle, sometimes with a horizontal line where the circle and triangle meet, like arms. Courtesy of Ethnic Embellishments.

      Gabus (1982) and Cheminée (2014) provide excellent comparisons and contrasts of how Tuareg smiths work in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, through the former’s wonderful sketches by Hans Ernie and the latter’s photographs and interviews. Tuareg smiths have changed very little in their work processes or their tools and equipment. All still work while seated on the ground, often using a forked piece of wood as the work surface, with a square anvil (in contrast to horned anvils used by other North/West African jewelers) pounded into the ground. Both hands and feet are used, the latter to hold or steady the work. A leather bellows is still used to increase the heat and all their tools usually fit into a small box. They cast (lost wax or sand molds), forge, solder, pierce, surface decorate with gravers/punches and cold-connect. Their forging, filing, engraving and punching (with home-made tools) are superb, as well as their ingenious cold-connecting and use of a very large assortment of metals, wood, leather, and plastic. All the engraving is freehand, without an engraver’s block. Their forging skills, utilizing only the small, square anvil and a typical short-handled, heavy hammer, produce impeccable results, especially in older pieces. If one looked closely at the knobs and bosses on their tcherot or crosses, they all are uniform and finely varied. Some are slightly flattened, others pointed or filed into precise, geometric shapes. While silver is the preferred metal, copper, brass, white metal and steel are all utilized, to add color and vitality, much like how Western jewelers use colored golds. Whether precious or base metal, one does not see a difference in the level of workmanship. Their practice of combining different aspects of their design motifs and components into countless variations adds greatly to their vitality. Perhaps unique among African jewelers, Tuareg use imported Idar-Oberstein agate ornaments in an innovative and pragmatic manner, utilizing damaged or broken portions of talhakimt/talhatana, set in metal rings and pendants, as seen in examples on this and opposite page.

Tuareg smiths utilize great hand and mental skills, and with a few simple tools produce wonderful ornaments. Truly, while their work is small, their skills and vision are large.

 

OLD CROSSES FROM NIGER. Silver on top with colored vinyl underneath, backed by aluminum. These demonstrate the Boghdad cross motif that ranges from Morocco to Mauritania and east to Niger. While some of the shapes are similar, these differ considerably from the Mauritanian crosses of Trarza shown. Note the use of red and/or green on these crosses, as well as those on the Crosses of Trarza and the Hamsa necklaces. Photograph by and courtesy of Ethnic Embellishments private collection.

CROSSES OF TRARZA. Mauritanian, of silver/silver alloy, on ebony backing, with suspension loops of copper wire or the wood backing drilled width-wise. Wood is prized in Mauritania (Leurquin 2003: 57). Some crosses are inlaid with plastic or have additional shaped elements of plastic. The cross with filed geometric red plastic element also has beautifully worked pyramidal elements, besides the round balls. The engraved silver is attached to the ebony via rivets, the heads of which are the silver balls. Some of these may have been made in Boutilimit Province but Gabus (1984: 102-103) shows similar examples from Medérdra, Mauritania. The crosses are either strung on cord, twisted leather or multiple strands of leather/cord. These range from 3.9 to 6.1 cm high, excluding loops. Courtesy of J. Busch.

 

TUAREG AND MAURITANIAN JEWELRY, INCORPORATING EUROPEAN IMPORTS. Upper left shows assortment of Tuareg rings and pendants that incorporate broken or damaged Idar-Oberstein carnelian talhakimt, as well as an undamaged example, to show which portions are utilized when broken or damaged. Two can be used as rings, while the others are often seen strung on necklaces. The largest example is made as a pendant and is beautiful metalsmithing, with layers of copper/silver on the geometric bosses and finely punched decoration, 14.2 cm long. The small silver ring utilizing the broken top of a talhakimt is known as a tisek ring. The seemingly intact carnelian pendant wrapped in metal is actually cracked; it is similar to the two strung as pendants on the Mauritanian necklace to the right. The elaborately set talhakimt in the center, shown in reflected/transilluminated light, is very unusual; it appears to have a second hole drilled into the stone portion, with both openings ringed by silver. The Mauritanian necklace to the right is a very rare example of using human hair for a necklace; it has carved conus disks and Idar agate pendants, heat-treated red and dyed green ones, with a pendant of Mauritanian gilded metal beads, amber (?), Idar agate drop pendants and an Engina shell dangle. The carved conus shell disks are used by Tuaregs for their tcherots (Leurqin 2003: 55) and by Mauritanian Moors (Gabus 1982, Liu 2008). The silver transposition is also seen in aluminum. Further information can be found in Liu (1995a, 2002, 2008). Courtesy of the late Rita Okrent, Elizabeth J. Harris; David Spetka of Niger Bend, Brinley Thomas, J. Busch/G. Kerschna, Joe Loux, and Frontiers.

 
 

TUAREG AMULET OR TCHEROT WITH IMAGE OF THE CATHOLIC SAINT, ST. THERESE OF LISIEUX. An older piece of silver, white metal and copper; the image is original to the piece, so it was probably custom-made. She is a patron saint of missionaries, and there were Catholic missionaries in Southern Algeria and probably in Niger as well. OLD AXE-SHAPED AMULETS. Most likely from the Mauritanian/Mali border region. Silver alloy or white metal, copper and brass, with bail or loop riveted to the amulet, also done with amber beads in Mauritania. Neither of these amulet types have previously been published. Photographs by and courtesy of the private collection of Ethnic Embellishments.

 
 
 

CONTEMPORARY VERSION OF TRADITIONAL TUAREG HAMSA/KHOMESSA. Niger, fabricated, of brass, copper and leather. It is the melding of a triangular amulet and a doubled hamsa, although with two more elements, so as to make the design symmetrical. Both the triangle and hamsa offer protection. While this pendant is new and in base metals, there is still a good level of crafting. Courtesy of Ethnic Embellishments.

OLD TUAREG RINGS. The left is a talismanic ring from Niger, the center is a “mosque ring” from Mali; the right is a Fulani playing card motif fused with a Tuareg tisek ring and lastly a man’s tisek ring in the middle. Compare to the tisek ring on top left of opposite page; these all use broken portions of Idar-Oberstein agate talhakimt. Note inlay of copper in right-hand ring. Photograph by and courtesy of Ethnic Embellishments.

 
 
 

AGATE AND MOLDED GLASS TALHAKIMT, TALHATANA AND TURMRINGS. 1.7 - 7.5 cm long: the oldest are the Indian made agate/carnelian talhakimt (the tall triangular type in pale agate) and talhatana (short triangular type) on the bottom right-hand row, from an ex-museum collection. While these reached West Africa via Mecca (Fisher 1984), and have been discussed by Gabus (1982) and Liu (1977) as to their being the prototypes of European copies in stone and glass, they have never been found in a Tuareg jewelry context, nor the much later German celluloid example, second from right top row or the German agate turmring type (1960s) next to it. Most used are the large agate talhakimt (white pre-1960, red 1960s) and the shorter talhatana types, also on right-hand side of top row. See Kaspers (2018 this issue on dating such agate ornaments) on the Idar-Oberstein industry that made these ornaments. German and English terminology for these ornaments differ (Kaspers 2018, Liu 1977). The smaller talhatana, in either heat-treated or dyed forms are usually worn in the hair, but not by Tuareg, as are the small, molded Czech/Bohemian glass ones. Large Idar talhakimt are also worn by the Dogon, and the larger glass ones in Malian necklaces. Courtesy of the late J. L. Malter, R. Okrent, P.W. Schienerl; Abrima, the Picards, T. Stricker, L. Wataghani, and the Heimat Museum, Idar-Oberstein.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I thank Hillary and Abdou Louarti of Ethnic Embellishments for their informative identifications and comments about Tuareg jewelry, as well as permission to use images of pieces from their inventory and unique private collection and for their excellent photographs. Our study collection of Tuareg jewelry purchased in 1994-95 from Jürgen Busch and Gudrun Kerschna, as well as their gifts, have enabled me to more closely study the personal adornment of this culture. The jewelry shown in this article were documented from the mid-1970s to now. I am very grateful to Dr. Jan Fahey for obtaining a copy of Gabus’s superb 1982 reference on the Sahara for our library; it remains the definitive work on Tuareg jewelry and techniques, covering mid-to-late twentieth century French expeditions.

REFERENCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Bartholomew, T.T. 2006 Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art. San Francisco, Asian Art Museum: 352 p.
Benesh-Liu, P.R. and R.K. Liu. 2007 Museum News: The Art of Being Tuareg. Ornament 30 (3): 70-72. 
Bernasek, L. 2008 Artistry of the Everyday. Beauty and Craftsmanship in Berber Art. Peabody Museum Press, Harvard University: 125 p.
Camps-Fabrer, H. 1990 Bijoux Berbères D’Algérie. grande Kbylie-Aurès. La Calade, Édisud: 139 p.
Chakour, D. et. al. 2016 Des Trésors à Porter. Bijoux et Parures du Maghreb. Collection J.-F. et M.-L. Bouvier. Paris, Institute du monde arabe: 160 p.
Cheminée, M. 2014 Legacy. Jewelry Techniques of West Africa. Brunswick, Brynmorgen Press: 232 p.
Creyaufmüller, W. 1983 Agades cross pendants. Structural components & their modifications. Part I. Ornament 7(2): 16-21, 60-61.
     — 1984 Agades cross pendants. Structural components & their modifications. Part II. Ornament 7(3): 37-39.
Fisher, A. 1984 Africa Adorned. New York, Harry N. Abrams: 304 p.
Gabus, J. 1982 Sahara. bijoux et techniques. Neuchâtel, A la Baconnièré: 508 p.
Kalter, J. 1976 Schmuck aus Nordafrika. Stuttgart, Linden-Museum Stuttgart and Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde: 120 p.
Leurquin, A. 2003 A World of Necklaces. Africa, Asia, Oceania, America from the Ghysels Collection. Milan, Skira, Skira Editore S.p.A.: 464 p.
Liu, R. K. 1977 T’alhakimt (Talhatana), a Tuareg Ornament: Its Origins, Derivatives, Copies and Distribution. The Bead Journal 3 (2): 18-22.
     —1987 India, Idar-Oberstein and Czechoslovakia. Imitators And Competitors. Ornament 10 (4): 56-61.
     —1995a Collectibles: Mauritanian Amulets and Crosses. Ornament 19(1): 28-29.
     —1995b Collectible Beads. A Universal Aesthetic. Vista, Ornament, Inc.: 256 p.
     —2002 Rings from the Sahara and Sahel. Ornament 25 (4): 86-87.
     —2008 Mauritanian Conus Shell Disks. A comparison of Ancient and Ethnographic Ornaments. Ornament 32 (1): 56-59.
     —2017 Ethnographic Arts: Jewelers at the International Folk Art Market. Ornament 40 (1): 62-64.
Loughran, K. and C. Becker. 2008 Desert Jewels. North African Jewelry and Photography from the Xavier Guerrand-Hermès Collection. New York, Museum for African Art: 95 p.
Schienerl, P.W. 1986 The Twofold Roots of Tuareg Charm-cases. Ornament 9(4): 54-57.
Van Cutsem, A. 2000 A World of Rings. Africa, Asia, America. Milan, Skira: 230 p.

 

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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 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. 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 some aspects of Tuareg jewelry, based in part on the inventory and private collection of Ethnic Embellishments.

Stepping Out Volume 40.3

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SQUARE TOE, SQUARE HEEL, TWINED CHILD’S SANDAL WITH BOLSTER TOE (Ancestral Pueblo) of yucca, leather, ochre, B.C. 500–A.D. 500. The wearer’s second and third toe slipped under the leather strap below the “fringe” that decorates the toe-end of the sandal. A doubled cord then went over the top of the foot and was tied to the ankle and heel straps on either side of the ankle. This sandal is decorated with a red stripe below the leather bolster. Others were more elaborately decorated with red and black geometric designs. Photographs by Chris Dorantes, courtesy of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, except where noted.

BOY’S MOCCASINS (Northern Cheyenne) of buckskin, rawhide, glass beads, sinew, 1875-80. The small and somewhat irregular white beads on these moccasins help date them.

Most of us are acquainted with moccasins: think of kids’ Halloween costumes or old movies; “driving mocs” for the car; high-tech mocs for rock climbing. The eye-opening exhibit “Stepping Out: 10,000 Years of Walking the West,” at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe through December 31, 2018, tells a much bigger story, that dramatically shifts how to see and appreciate traditional handmade Native American footwear. Gorgeous examples, helped by the museum’s especially strong American Southwest and Plains holdings, look as bright and as prepossessing as the day they were made. Excellent wall texts, three full outfits and three videos that demonstrate construction and beading techniques and discuss heritage and innovation, combine to explain the depths of meanings and identity associated with moccasins. Displayed in four regional groups corresponding to historic tribal homelands, they represent millennia of artistry, design and complex cultural significance. “Stepping Out” offers a rich and satisfying understanding of their role in the lives of indigenous people, past and present.

BOY’S MOCCASINS by Santiago Romero (Jemez) of leather, sinew, vegetal dye, 1950s.

      A chronological arrangement begins with prehistoric sandals made of yucca leaves and fibers, and sweeps around the gallery to today. The dry climate of the American Southwest preserved the three-thousand-year-old sandals found in rock shelters far and wide. In a video, archaeologist Mary Weahkee (Comanche/Santa Clara) makes a Mogollon-style pair of yucca sandals, which are surprisingly tough and sturdy. Although simple at first glance, sandals served as exposés. Just like moccasins, they were intended to announce as much about the wearer as about their world. Made by myriad different finger-weave techniques of plaiting, twining or wrapping, some had tiny painted decorative details; in one unworn example, an impossibly intricate raised pattern covers the soles. They all testify to identity and belonging. If you saw a sandal’s imprint in the dust, you not only knew someone had passed by, but you also knew their culture. Whether friend or foe, they also told you whose territory you were in—virtually a GPS system for navigating.

Sandals disappeared in the Southwest around seven hundred years ago, and moccasins appeared. Then as now, moccasins are built of brain-tanned deer, buffalo, elk or moose hides, with thicker rawhide soles, depending on the tribe. Men’s moccasins are usually around ankle height, while women’s rise to the knee. Tall women’s moccasins from Taos Pueblo look almost demure: plain leather falls in soft folds, covered in matte white kaolin clay and fastened with a single concha-style button. In the old days moccasins were sewn by a relative or close friend, and given as a gift; everything anyone wore was acquired one piece at a time. A more recent trend toward designing and making everything as a set at once is seen in a magnificent full outfit made by Jerry Ingram (Blackfeet) around 1991-92, using brain-tanned, smoked elk and deerskin lavishly decorated with porcupine quills, glass beads, feathers, ermine skins, and sinew. 

MAN’S MOCCASINS (Mescalero Apache) of buckskin, rawhide, dye, glass beads, tin tinklers, early 1900s. The heel and vamp fringes on this pair of moccasins share a similar style to men’s moccasins from southern Great Plains tribes.

WOMAN’S MOCCASINS (Shoshone Bannock) of brain tanned elk hide, rawhide, glass beads, brass buttons, sinew, cotton thread, commercial ribbon, 1920–1940. The floral patterns on these Great Basin moccasins were inspired by designs on European and European-styled goods. The Shoshone became famous for their beautifully executed beaded flowers, especially roses.

WOMAN’S MOCCASINS (Comanche) of brain tanned buckskin, rawhide, pollen pigment, glass beads, nickel-plated brass buttons, early 1900s. These tall moccasins protected the wearer’s legs while riding horseback.

      Once European traders arrived with glass beads, the distinctiveness of many tribes’ moccasins grew even more pronounced. Moccasins can be dated by their beads, because the cut, size and colors available changed over time. A mounted board shows the range of bead sizes, starting with miniscule #15 seed beads seen in Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho moccasins. Northwest tribes fell for extravagant beaded florals, like the famous “Shoshone rose,” of which there are several different ones on view. Big, exuberant blossoms could not be sewn using the common lane or hump stitch, in which short lengths of beads are laid down side-by-side to create a solid surface. Instead, as renowned beadwork artist Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) shows in a nearby video, the two-needle stitch technique was invented to tack down beads in curves. One of the stellar accomplishments of the exhibit is how it helps distinguish between, say, Sioux and Blackfeet—in the designs, the materials and in how they were built. Others are more recognizable: White Mountain Apache moccasins feature a stubby, fuzzy “cactus-kicker” toe; the Shawnee, Kiowa and Comanche favored embellishments of rows of tin cones, or lush heel and side fringes, which happen to cascade gracefully riding on horseback (and made a nice status symbol, too, letting everyone know you owned horses).

MOCCASINS (Hidatsa and Cree) of buckskin, rawhide, quills, glass beads, sinew, brass beads, circa 1880. The quillwork technique on this pair of moccasins is indicative of Hidatsa origins, but the beadwork looks Cree. These may have been made by someone whose background included both tribal traditions or made for someone who descended from both tribes.

BOY’S MOCCASINS (Southern Cheyenne) of buckskin, rawhide, glass beads, sinew, paint, late 1800s. The narrow sole on these shoes is a hallmark of Cheyenne moccasins made for Cheyenne use. The heel and side fringes are often seen on men’s moccasins from the southern Plains.

BEADED CONVERSE ALL-STARS SNEAKERS by Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) of commercial shoes, glass beads, 1999.

      A properly made moccasin had the patterns and colors signifying the tribe. Bead workers carried over much older geometric, abstract designs that symbolized sacred landscape elements, or important animals, or reminded the wearer of the shared stories and beliefs of the tribe. Among the Plains tribes, beadwork was mixed with quillwork, made from flattened, dyed and sewn porcupine quills, which continued in use for a long time. In a pair of circa 1910 Sioux moccasins, branching, narrow-leaf shapes in quillwork meander across a red field on the vamps (tops). But the wearer, looking down, sees the ears and antlers of a deer’s head: the connotations were personal and spiritual. In the later nineteenth century, when tribes were forced together onto reservations, there was much swapping of designs and techniques, like in the circa 1870-1880s moccasins joining Hidatsa and Cree elements. At dance competitions today at inter-tribal pow-wows, hand-beaded regalia often looks like a mashup of designs from several tribes, prized for its showy elaborateness as much as for the fine quality of the work. 

MOCCASINS WITH BEADED SOLES (Sioux) of cowhide, glass beads, sinew, tin tinklers, cow tail hair, prior to 1890. Commonly thought to be for use in burials, moccasins with beaded soles were in actuality a way to honor living people. They were used in ceremonies, to recognize individual achievement and to show status. Some have wear on the soles, confirming that they were worn to walk on.

      Modesty was not an issue out on the Plains. Possibly the moccasins of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho are the most flamboyant in the exhibit. Certainly showstoppers, they are absolutely blazing with bold colors and exquisitely beaded designs. A side text happily blows up a popular myth about fully beaded soles, shown in a handsome pair of Sioux moccasins with two neat rows of yellow hoof prints crossing the bottoms. They were never intended only for burials, as is commonly thought: beaded-sole moccasins were conduits of honor and respect. Old photographs display them worn on horseback for ceremonials, and now they are essential for a celebration or special event.

Moccasins are vital to Native American life. In 2012, Jessica “Jaylyn” Atsye of Laguna Pueblo launched “Rock Your Mocs” day as a way of affirming Native identity. Held the week of November 15, it has grown into a movement across the country (see facebook.com/RockYourMocs). Following in the steps of all Native footwear, where you use whatever materials you have available, some contemporary Native artists have brilliantly integrated mainstream cultural artifacts with beadwork traditions. A pair of Steve Madden high-heel sneakers stands in mid-stride near a child’s high-tops, both fully beaded by Teri Greeves. She explains in an accompanying video that sneakers are “familiar across the planet,” and perfect for telling the story of the Kiowa. Christian Louboutin stiletto heels beaded by Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Sioux) look ravishing and recognizably Native. Native Americans are finding more ways to say who they are. “Stepping Out” jubilantly declares, in the words of the Navajo prayer: “In beauty all day I walk.”

BEADED STEVE MADDEN SHOES by Teri Greeves (Kiowa/Comanche) of commercial shoes, glass beads, 2017. Among the Kiowa, the men were traditionally the pictorial artists. In contrast, Kiowa women created abstract patterns to encode their knowledge of the world. These shoes celebrate those female artists. Each pair of images shows an abstract pattern drawn from Kiowa parfleches (hide containers) or from the beadwork on moccasins, cradleboards, and other items, and pairs that design with the woman who may have created that pattern and its meaning. Photograph by Stephen Lang.

 

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Leslie Clark, a writer and editor with a mad affinity for textiles, is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was captivated by the exhibition of Native American moccasins at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, not least because of its presentation. “Curator Maxine McBrinn draws you in with stories and commentary that bring alive the personal meanings of moccasins. Tribal cultures and traditions are not trapped in the past; instead the lore and legacy of moccasins seem to make them walk beside us now. Showing through December 2018, it’s a do-not-miss exhibit.”

Iris van Herpen Volume 40.3

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IRIS VAN HERPEN. Photograph courtesy of Jean Baptiste Mondino, Iris van Herpen and the Phoenix Art Museum.

A great deal of passion must reside within Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen. An initial stroll through the capacious Steele Gallery, turned over to van Herpen’s “Transforming Fashion” at the Phoenix Art Museum, makes an immediate visceral jolt that gathers strength visually. Instead of succumbing to an ambiguous desire to flee what appears to be a disturbing alien command center, time begins to slow and the exhibition increasingly captivates, exercising upon one a more cerebral curiosity over the installation. Fifteen distinct collections of forty-five ensembles, dating between 2008 and 2015, are arranged mostly along two very long rows staged with vocalless sentinels garbed in the astonishing, unsettling aesthetic that physically transforms them. But the real experience takes place internally, as the world van Herpen has created is housed in a phantasma of dreams, revelations, nightmares, hallucinations, visions. It is unlikely that many will embrace it; observe it yes, willingly enter it, probably not.

      Since the young designer’s first collection in 2007, at the age of twenty-three, her work has transcended the shock value she is known for in the “gowns” designed for celebrities like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Björk, and Tilda Swinton. Her works are designed for the female form of which we are accustomed, but the body is really a springboard for sculptural compositions that serve her drive for incorporating modern discoveries and innovations into her collections. They have become an important vehicle for arriving at a place where her experimentations reveal something seminal and descriptive about the nature of the human body through the power of dress. A dialogue considered necessary, she has described, as being “between our inside and our outside.”

      Science and technology are her muse and the primary stimulus to her creations. And it is here that van Herpen’s evolving aesthetic vision is most consistent, reflecting a personal desire to plunge into and plumb the depths of what modern technology offers the human experience, positively and negatively. We have been living in such a world for some time; so van Herpen’s work is a venture in making sense of our quickly changing temporal landscape. It is one that no longer quantifies life in futuristic imaginings but in the daily here and now, whether we embrace it or endeavor to escape.

MICRO DRESS from 2012 collection of metallic coated stripes, tulle and cotton. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      “Looking around me,” she has written, “I consider what I can’t see as much as what I can see, and that transformative focus creates freedom in my work. Each garment and every collection is an embodiment to new understanding and discovery, on the conceptual level, on the level of materiality and on the level of femininity. It’s my search for new forms of femininity through organic silhouettes, delicate craftsmanship, innovation and the collaboration with other artists, architects and scientists.”

In her collections, van Herpen uses 3D printing for garment construction and materials such as laser-cut acrylic mesh and resin. More recently in Lucid, from 2016, one of her more fascinating iterations, she chose lucid dreaming as the subject, where the dreamer, while exercising some sense of control, is aware of dreaming. “When I design,” she says, “the draping process most of the time happens to me unconsciously. I see lucid dreams as a microscope with which I can look into my unconsciousness.” In a collaboration with architect Philip Beesley, Lucid manifests what van Herpen terms “the fine line between reality and unreality,” a useful theme that can be drawn throughout her collections. Astonishingly, one of the dresses was composed of five thousand TPU-92A-1 transparent hexagonal laser-cut elements, a thermoplastic polyurethane. This use on a grand scale of a modern material inspires some sense of awe.

From 2012, Micro is a collection inspired by scientific photographer Steve Gschmeissner’s works. Gschmeissner uses Scanning Electron Microscope  (SEM) technology to reveal the plastic universe of microorganisms and how beautiful they are in their infinite diversity. With this collection van Herpen set about trying to make visible a world unseen by us but still an equally vital one, inhabiting and sharing the same plane as our own.

Gschmeissner’s photographs are taken of specimens that are chemically fixed to preserve their inherent structures, but van Herpen veered in a different direction, interested in taking another path, desiring rather to create more imaginative organisms than ones that actually exist. It too is a plastic world and the forms swirl, grow and change, bulge, encapsulate, shoot off into space. Whatever the collection, the overarching theme is repetition and reiteration. It is everywhere in van Herpen’s work and sharpens her desire to exalt and honor the inner and exterior movement that all living organisms possess.

 

RADIATION INVASION DRESS from 2009 collection of faux leather, gold foil, cotton, and tulle. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

 

      2009’s Radiation Invasion marked the beginning of the challenging themes that resonate throughout her annual collections and van Herpen’s grappling with some understanding of technology’s role in society (and perhaps, rule thereof) and how it inevitably affects the physical body and spirit. The idea seemed to stem from an intercontinental phone conversation that caused van Herpen to question the unimaginable flow of digital information that takes place and how it is everywhere, ubiquitous in its presence, drowning us, but also lifting us to spheres we cannot possibly anticipate. She began to develop more thoroughly a simple concept based on repetition, endless repetition, communicating energy and powerful forces, both fascinating and repulsive. It has dominated her work ever since, possessing her, driving her passions.

How can humanity possibly survive in such an environment? Van Herpen’s answer seems not to be reticent: survive we must; just make it work for you in the best way creatively possible.

“Iris van Herpen: Transforming Fashion,” shows at the Phoenix Art Museum,
Phoenix, Arizona, through May 13, 2018.

INSTALLATION VIEWS. Photographs by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

 

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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. Benesh reviewed the astonishing Iris van Herpen show at the Phoenix Art Museum this March, during a stay in the city to attend the Heard Museum Indian Fair. Both museums have fascinating and probing permanent collections as well as temporary, such as the van Herpen show at PAM and the jewelry of Richard Chavez at the Heard.

Tattoo Exhibition Volume 40.3

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In Moby Dick, Herman Melville bemoaned the ephemerality of tattoos: “These mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed.” How does one display—much less demystify—this “living parchment” in a museum setting? A touring exhibition organized by the Musée du quai Branly in Paris—and most recently seen at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles (November 19, 2017 - April 15, 2018) —offers a novel solution: silicone torsos, arms and bottoms decorated with tattoos commissioned for the show from prominent contemporary tattoo artists like Chuey Quintanar, who was born in Mexico but moved to Long Beach, California, as a child, and Leo Zulueta, who grew up in Hawaii and draws inspiration from traditional Micronesian tattooing. (Zulueta refuses to copy traditional tribal designs faithfully, however, considering it disrespectful.) The Los Angeles installation highlights the city’s own rich tattooing history and contemporary skin art scene. Today, Southern California is known for the black-and-gray style of finely detailed, single-needle tattoos, which spread from East Los Angeles via the U.S. prison system.

      Some of these tattoos offer so much coverage that they resemble clothes more than ink. Tattoo traditions have much in common with textile production. Needles “embroider” the skin; carved tattoo blocks recall those used to block-print textiles. The Ainu women of northern Japan wear textiles embroidered with patterns similar to those used in their tattoos; a gorgeous embroidered robe is on display. The show privileges full-limb or full-body tattoos over the more familiar Pokemon characters, roses, or “tramp stamps.” One Ed Hardy design on display is a single giant squid covering the entire body, except the lower arms; it was created for a surgeon, who wanted to be able to roll up his sleeves to scrub in without revealing his tattoo. Japan, in particular, is associated with “bodysuit” tattoos; though they were outlawed in the late 1800s, they remained in favor with the yakuza, perpetuating the link between tattoos and crime that persists in Japan (and elsewhere) today. 

      As trendy as tattoos may be, they have a five-thousand-year history, covering almost every continent and every time period. The oldest known tattoo was discovered on the body of a fifty-three-hundred-year-old mummy found in the Alps. Tattoos have been used to identify, beautify, mark rites of passage or physical maturity, and confer protection, fertility, or healing. England’s National Maritime Museum has mounted excellent exhibitions on the seafaring history of tattoos, but this show’s anthropological approach allows for a broader geographic, thematic and temporal scope. It reminds us that “tattoo” is both a noun and a verb; if there is one thing these disparate global tattooing traditions have in common, it is that the process is as important as the end result. 

Tattoos have always been made and worn by men and women alike. In some tribes in Borneo, men carve tattoo blocks but women are responsible for the tattooing. Among the Ainu, tattooing is performed exclusively by and on women, including around the mouth. Indigenous Arctic women acquire chin stripes to indicate that they are ready to marry. Jessie Knight became the first full-time, professional female tattooist in the U.K. in 1921; she took several years off after she got married, returning in the late 1930s just in time to ink the men and women fighting World War II. 

Tattoos have functioned as signs of status as well as brands of shame, combining physical and psychological pain. In the nineteenth century, criminals were branded with tattoos. Simple pictures inked on the hands of prisoners in the Russian gulag told their life stories: their crimes, their years behind bars, their number of convictions. Victims of the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust were tattooed, for identification as well as humiliation. A haunting photo shows twelve-year-old concentration camp survivor Aljoscha Lebedew displaying his tattoo, a mutilation he would bear for the rest of his life. But many of these painful reminders have now been appropriated as badges of honor. Prison tattoos are a thriving and respected subgenre. Grandchildren of concentration camp survivors have voluntarily had their grandparents’ identification numbers inked on their arms as indelible memorials.

YONYUK WATCHIYA “SUA.” An exhibition print, from Bangkok, Thailand, 2008-2011. Photograph by Cedric Arnold, courtesy of Galerie Olivier Waltman. KORURU OR PARATA (gable mask) of carved wood, white pigment, paua shell, Maori, New Zealand, nineteenth century. Photograph by Thierry Olivier and Michel Urtado. WHANG-OD OGGAY. An exhibition print, from the Philippines, 2011. Photograph by Jake Verzosa.

TATTOOED SILICONE TORSO. Leo Zulueta, 2013. Photograph by Thomas Duvall.

      If tattoos seem to be everywhere today, they are also under threat. Several indigenous tattooing traditions were outlawed or erased by missionaries in the aftermath of the so-called “Age of Discovery,” when Western explorers and traders first encountered tattoos. In 1876, Thomas Edison patented an electric steel pencil that inspired some of the first electric tattoo machines, which were advertised as being faster and less painful than tattooing by hand. This technology—quickly adopted worldwide—popularized tattoos and paved the way for intricate new pictorial styles, but also led to the demise of time-honored techniques. Many artists working today have gone back to the old-fashioned methods. Traditional Maori tattooing—an exceptionally painful blend of tattooing and scarification, using chisels to cut channels into the skin, including the face—is enjoying a renaissance in modern-day New Zealand, a “so old it’s new” expression of cultural pride. But new technology is continually revolutionizing tattoo art. The show ends with a silicone arm sheathed in a glow-in-the-dark “sleeve” tattoo that can only be seen under black light in a nightclub.

The exhibition is wonderfully varied in its materials; in addition to silicone forms, video and photography, there is a wealth of historic tattoo-making equipment, from needles and blocks to small sculptures made of the compressed ashes of cremated monks or burnt religious manuscripts, used for making ink in Myanmar. If there is a fault to this otherwise extravagant display, it is of being too big; one can only look at so many electric needles before one’s skin begins crawling with revulsion—or itching for a tattoo of one’s very own.

     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 an award for the Betty Kirk Excellence in Research Award. For this issue, she gets under the skin of the “Tattoo” exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Freehand Jewelry Show Volume 40.3

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ROBERTA AND DAVID WILLIAMSON

An unassuming storefront along Los Angeles’s bustling West Third Street is a creative way-station for those in the know. Freehand Gallery has been in business since 1980, the carefully stewarded brainchild of Carol Sauvion. Its longevity is a remarkable tribute to the enduring power of craft as an aesthetic and cultural force. As you step through the door, a welcoming sanctuary of handmade contemporary craft offers a respite from the turbulence of life outside its walls. Large windows, in which ceramics, sculpture and other fine works reside on a temporary basis, let in the soft Southern California light. It is an unassuming, unpretentious space and one that invites you to enjoy its offerings in a comfortable, relaxing atmosphere. One can slow down here and take time to enjoy the creative endeavors of artists from all over the country. Throughout the year handmade objects spill over shelves, tables, counters, and displays—a rich tapestry of all the craft media—ceramics, metalwork, decorative fiber, glass, and jewelry. However, each spring, Freehand is devoted to jewelry and the pace of the gallery quickens. From April 21 through June 2, 2018, this year’s annual jewelry show, entitled “Back Again, Forever,” focuses on the way jewelry evokes memories, even imagined ones, of times long past, inducing reflection on possibilities yet to come.

      The eleven jewelers and one clothing maker who were selected create a synthesis between the traditional and the contemporary, each with their own way of paying homage to artists of earlier eras. Roberta and David Williamson, who have been making jewelry together since the 1970s, have a strong and familiar connection with memory. Their work often includes lithographs, a moment frozen in time, harkening to a bygone age. Yet their intent is not to be held back by the past, to dwell in an imagined history that is frozen and unchanging. Rather, their jewelry seeks to connect the past and present, reminding us of those perfect moments that existed then, and still exist now.

RAÏSSA BUMP

The connection between past and present can be interpreted in many ways, some more abstract than others. Raïssa Bump is fascinated by texture. Miniature pearls and seed beads are woven into or adorn the surfaces of many of her brooches, necklaces and earrings. This constant finds itself expressed through many variations, and the results often find a way to echo our primeval beginnings. A bracelet, featuring half-moons of silver and a loose chainmail of wire strung with golden beads, calls to mind European filigree. Nevermind that the method she employs deviates in some important ways to that ancient technique—memory is a strange animal, a carnival hall of mirrors that even though refracted recalls an impression of the original.

MARU LOPEZ

Traditional culture is also a method of remembering. Puerto Rican Maru Lopez moved to the mainland and now resides in San Diego. She takes inspiration from ancient Central American jewelry, using primarily nonprecious metals such as brass to provide the golden glitter that was so prized among precolumbian peoples. Her own contribution to that creative lineage is the use of hand-dyed resin, self-made gemstones as it were. The work she does is both preservation, and play.

Kathlean Gahagan also honors the past through her jewelry. As the daughter of Jewish and Irish parents, she fuses together both heritages in her brooches and pendants. Incorporating Celtic runes, Hebrew script and other symbols native to the two cultures, her interpretative work has kinship with ethnic jewelers for whom these emblems make up a visual lexicon. Each speaks to the viewer in a similar fashion, by employing a common tongue which stirs feelings of belonging and shadows of understanding.

As curators of craft, galleries are a stage upon which the artists being featured are the actors. But the setting can be equally important. Galleries are more than just entrepreneurial exercises, when managed correctly, and Freehand is an example of that. They provide a human connection that elevates the artwork being sold, allowing you to interact with the work, and with the gallery staff who can relate the history behind each piece. Freehand has embodied these qualities, honoring craft with its roots in function and purposeful making, throughout its thirty-eight-year presence in the craft field.

The “Back Again, Forever” show illustrates this by being both venue, experience and source. The gallery’s openness (except when filled with jewelry enthusiasts and onlookers) and receptive environment are an invitation to take pleasure in just observing. And perhaps, buying, if what you see calls to mind a memory, whether of the past, or something subtler still.

CARLY WRIGHT

MARY FILAPEK AND LOU ANN TOWNSEND

 

      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. As a former resident of Los Angeles (albeit only as a toddler), the City of Angels holds a certain sense of nostalgia, in particular one of its oldest purveyors of fine craft, Freehand Gallery. This issue he takes the reader through its annual jewelry show, where an eclectic assortment from the bright and bubbly, to the sedate and contemplative, brings the world of studio art jewelry to Southern California. As Ornament’s reporter, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest news in craft.

Idar-Oberstein Volume 40.3

GEBRÜDER WILD COMPANY BEAD SAMPLE CARD, showing a wide range of Idar-Oberstein agate ornaments, including some rarely seen in the African trade. The top row displays talhakimt, turmrings and simulations of feline claws.

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Beads from Idar-Oberstein are easy to spot. Whether they are part of a Mauritanian headdress, prayer beads from Mecca or a strand from a West African market, they have a standard set of characteristics—striped dark brown, black or orange stones, cut in a variety of distinct shapes and made with great skill and precision.

      A German town of about thirty thousand people, Idar-Oberstein has been known throughout history as a place of stones, with local deposits of mostly low grade agate, jasper and other semiprecious stones. When it comes to bead history specifically, the town is almost synonymous with a wide array of agate beads that were traded to African and Arab countries. Though these stones were probably used since Roman times, the first documented proof of stonecutting in Idar-Oberstein dates from the fifteenth century. This was not a source of much income though. Due to economic hardship in the 1800s, growing numbers of Germans from this region settled in Brazil searching for opportunities. In 1827, a group of stonecutters from Idar who had settled in Brazil found local Brazilian agate deposits. The first shipment of rough stones arrived in Idar-Oberstein in 1834 and led to the very successful production and trade of Idar-Oberstein agates. 

STONECUTTER AT WORK. Stonecutting was hard work, abetted by having to lie down and push against the grindstone. Young workers risked a deformed chest. In general, the lifespan of the workers was short. Photograph from early 1900s. ROUGH BRAZILIAN AGATE STONE BOULDERS brought into Idar-Oberstein, from early 1900s. Photographs courtesy of Floor Kaspers.

 
 

      The rough stones from Brazil were auctioned in Idar-Oberstein. They were sorted, weighed and small pieces were cut off to show the natural color and banding. At first, a lot of the stones were cut and set in gold jewelry; later on, they were mostly made into loose agate objects, like beads and pendants for a foreign market. The agate from Brazil proved tough competition for the Indian agate. As a result, the agate trade from India slowed down and production and wealth in Idar-Oberstein grew quickly.

NEWER PRODUCTION TALHAKIMTS, TALHATANAS AND TURMRINGS, IMPEXCO COMPANY. Germans call these turmrings, although English terminology distinguishes them as three types. The rounded “soft” edges indicate tumble polishing and therefore are newer pendants, dating from the 1960s.

      Trade companies were set up in the mid-1800s to serve the market for stone beads. An example is Gebrüder Wild, a company established in 1858—the firm was known around the world for their production of African jewelry. Harald Wild, from the company, in describing the process says, “The traders brought all the craftsmen together. Before the arrival of Brazilian agate, there really was not much of a professional industry. The traders managed to get the cutters, drillers, polishers, and the women stringing the beads working together. Companies like Gebrüder Wild would give orders to the different craftsmen to produce certain goods, which would then be exported in bulk.”

The traders brought examples of designs in agate to Cairo, even though it was not real carnelian; but the color was good, and so it was held in high regard (Spittler, 2002). In the second half of the twentieth century, the trade was more and more done by the Africans themselves.

BEAD SAMPLE CARD FROM THE GEBRÜDER WILD COMPANY, of hand-polished talhakimt, with sharp edges, thus pre-1960s. The blue agate examples have not been seen in the African trade.

Many of the bead merchants traded in a great variety of items, and they cooperated with other European beadmaking places. For example, they would let the people in Gablonz (Bohemia, now the Czech Republic) make glass copies of the agate beads. These copies were sent to Idar-Oberstein and traded together with the agate beads. Examples are the talhakimt pendants. Their design was patented by German cutters, and then the makers in Gablonz were given permission to make the same designs in glass. Since the 1980s, the demand for stone beads in Africa has declined.

The coloring is what really set the beads apart from those coming from India. The rough material, agate, is a striped or banded version of chalcedony. In nature, different metals produce different colors, and the resulting agates are called sardonyx, chrysoprase, carnelian, or onyx, depending on their color. 

Artificial coloring techniques were already used in antiquity, but the Germans managed to perfect it. Brown was made by soaking the stone in a sugar solution and then heating it, turning the sugar into a dark brown caramel with white stripes. Black “onyx” was made by putting the stone in sulfuric acid and sugar and then heating it (Francis, 1994). The sugar would get carbonized. Each color had its own recipe. As Si Frazier referenced in Beads (1999): “It was found that certain types of Brazilian agate were eminently suited for staining. The agate could be turned red, white, blue, green, black, or yellow using inorganic chemicals, colors which would not fade in the harsh sunlight of Africa or the Middle East. The recipes were regarded as highly important trade secrets.”

The people from Idar-Oberstein refer to the coloring techniques as brennen (heating or burning), färben (coloring or dyeing) and beitzen (often translated as staining, but a different, more permanent, technique). Different processes produce different colors. Most of these techniques were developed in Idar-Oberstein between 1813 and 1879 (Trebbin, 1985).

The stones would be cut into smaller pieces, and these pieces were pre-cut into the basic shapes. For this first step, it was easier and cheaper to use a hammer and chisel to shape the stone, because grinding is more time-consuming. For big beads and other products, the stone was shaped directly on the wheel. Smaller pieces, like cabochons, would be stuck onto a wooden handle so they could be ground against the wheel. 

Idar-Oberstein cutters used large stone wheels that could be up to two meters wide and weigh up to three hundred kilos. Generally, two people would work on a wheel powered by a water mill. Some of the wheels had grooves to make specific shapes like round, oval and bicone roughs. Stonecutting was not an easy or a healthy profession. The cutters would lie on a wooden bench, pushing the stone against the wheel (Frazier, 1999). 

The final step on the wheels was the polishing which was done on beechwood cylinders, with earth as the abrasive agent. From the 1960s onwards, most of the polishing, especially on beads with simple shapes, was by tumbling. Instead of individually polishing the stone they were tumbled together, which is a much more efficient but a less precise process. It is also a way to distinguish the older beads from the newer ones. The beads with sharp edges are most likely made before 1960.

 
 

Left to right: BARREL OF ROUGH UNTREATED AGATE at the Impexco Company in Idar-Oberstein. HEATING A POTFUL OF AGATE BEAD ROUGHS on the stove, part of small scale treatment of agate to arrive at the orange/carnelian color, at the Impexco Company. UNTREATED AGATE with pieces core-drilled for bead blanks. Note the gray color versus that of the treated bead blanks in right-hand photograph. HALF-FINISHED BEAD BLANKS from Idar-Oberstein, ready to be drilled, cut or polished, already treated to reveal the intricate banding patterns. Courtesy of Floor Kaspers Collection.

 
 

BULK STRAND OF AGATE TALHAKIMT PENDANTS, as well as other stone and glass beads from the African trade, from a West-African vendor at a recent African Art Village Show, Tucson, Arizona. These talhakimt appear to be pre-1960s, as indicated by the series of small cuts or nicks along their edges.

      The trade and production of agate beads in Idar-Oberstein took off once the companies discovered a Brazilian agate source. The skill of the craftsmen, the quality of the stone, the use of international trade routes, and adapting to the world market was how Idar-Oberstein became a very successful beadmaking town.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Much help in the research of stone beadmaking in Idar-Oberstein has come from Harald and Julia Wild, Wolfgang Weinz and Wolfgang Kley. Support has come from the Bead Society of Los Angeles.


REFERENCES
Dalarozière, Marie-Françoise. 1994 Perles d’Afrique. Édisud, Aix-en-Provence, France.
Dubin, Lois Sherr. 1987 The history of beads, from 30,000 BC to the present. Harry N. Abrams Inc, New York, USA.
Francis, Peter Jr. 1994 Beads of the world, a collector’s guide with price reference. Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, USA.
     —2001 The stone bead industry of southern India. Beads, Volume 12-13.
Frazier, Si. 1999 A history of gem beadmaking in Idar-Oberstein. Beads, Volume 10-11.
Kaspers, Floor. 2016 Beads from Germany, Idar-Oberstein, Lauscha, Neugablonz. Marblings Publishing, Netherlands.
Liu, Robert K. 1982 Amira Francoise: Living with beads in the Sudan. Ornament 5 (4): 24-27. 
     — 1987 Imitators and Competitors, India, Idar-Oberstein and Czechoslovakia. Ornament 10 (4): 56-61.
     —1995 Collectible beads, A Universal Aesthetic. Ornament, Vista, USA.
Spittler, Gerd. 1999 Der Weg des Achats zu den Tuareg-eine Reise um die halbe Welt. Geographische Rundschau, Jahrgang 54, Heft 10.
Trebbin, C. 1985 Achate, geschliffen in Idar-Oberstein – Amulette, Schmuck und Zahlungsmittel in Afrika. Die Heimatfreunde Oberstein e.V., Idar-Oberstein.
Wild, Julia. 2016 Afrikanisches Geld aus Idar-Oberstein. Simurg, Kulturzeitschrift, Heft 6.

 

BEAD SAMPLES FROM THE GEBRÜDER WILD COMPANY traded to Mecca at the turn of twentieth century. Many were used in the Sudan, some repaired with silver caps when the ends broke (Liu 1982).

 
 

    Get Inspired!

 
 

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Floor Kaspers is an independent bead researcher and artist from the Netherlands. She has been exploring European bead history through her travels. By going to factories, old dump sites, shops and museums, she collects not just beads, but the stories connected to beads. After learning more about bead history, she also started making her own beadwork and glass art as a new way to explore the medium of beads and glass. Kaspers has written several books, including Beads from Germany which describes the development and production of beads in three German bead towns: Lauscha, Idar-Oberstein and Neugablonz. In the article on stone beads from Idar-Oberstein she explains the origin of the stones, the designs and the techniques of these typical agate trade beads.

Wendy Stevens Volume 40.2

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"The things that inspire me are buildings, architecture, the industrial essence of a city,” says Wendy Stevens. Never mind that we’re seated inside a converted barn deep in the pastoral landscape of rural Pennsylvania, the evidence of this inspiration is all around us. It’s in the machinery, the hammers and rivets, the rolls of leather and sheet metal, and especially in the products themselves: the gleaming purses, handbags and other wearable items whose delicate patterns both embody and belie their industrial materials.

      The blue-gray Vespa parked outside the studio hints at a more cosmopolitan outlook, and indeed the origins of Stevens’s aesthetic can be traced to New York’s Lower East Side. When she arrived there in the early 1980s, the area still held many remnants of its gritty industrial past. “There was scrap metal on Canal Street,” she recalls. “SoHo had machine shops where they sold tools for working on sheet metal.” Walking around the city, she saw many elements—from buildings, bridges and subways right on down to manhole covers—that would come to inspire her imaginative designs. 

WENDY STEVENS at her hand shear cutting sheet metal. Photograph by Dariel Benton-Updike.

      Stevens was no stranger to industrial landscapes. She grew up in Cleveland, home of U.S. Steel, at a time when the Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it briefly, and famously, caught fire. After living in Spain in 1977–78, she returned to the States to study bilingual education at the University of Arizona, focusing on Spanish and Italian. Upon completing her degree she relocated to San Francisco and found work as an elementary school teacher.

Disillusioned with teaching, she decided to move to New York, where a number of her friends had gone to pursue careers in the arts. She landed in the East Village, which in the early 1980s was still a relatively affordable, if dangerous, place to live. Drugs and crime were rampant, but the neighborhood was also on the cusp of becoming a major center of artistic activity. “The galleries in the East Village were just beginning,” she says. “I got there at an ideal time.” 

A defining aspect of Stevens’s career is that her creativity has worked in tandem with a very practical approach to solving problems. “Moving to a city like New York, I was fascinated with what people carried throughout a whole day. You’re walking all over the city and on subways, and you see all sorts of different things that people carry.” 

STUDIO SHOT of attaching a hinge onto bag with an upholstery hammer on the stake bench. Photograph by Kate Lacey.

      At the time, she was working as a bartender at a Tribeca club called Area. “Women would come into the nightclub carrying these enormous bags,” she recalls. “We’d have to put them behind the bar. I thought, ‘Why not just get a little durable wallet to wear cross-body? You can dance with it; it has your ID and just what you need.’ So that was one of the first pieces I made.”

This functional piece of wearable art became the template for many projects to follow. Her earliest creations were handcrafted in copper, brass and monel (a nickel alloy), but she soon discovered lightweight, durable stainless steel, after which “there was no turning back,” she says. “Sheet metal was great. I didn’t sew much growing up. I hated the fact that nothing ever kept its shape. With the sheet metal, I took a hammer and a nail, put a hole in a piece of copper, set a snap in it, wrapped it around the steel railing outside my building, and said, ‘Wow, this is pretty great!’ ” She would bring the pieces to her co-workers to try out. “All the bartenders, they were my tests, to see how it felt, how it held up.”

Dubbing her business Accessories in Metal, Stevens began fashioning bags, belts, desk accessories, “and even a pair of sandals, made of monel, for my father.” Her years in the cash-starved public school system had given her an important skill that now came into play. “With teaching you learn how to resource things,” she says. “I was able to start pulling things together. I found a company in Brooklyn that sold sheet metal, and they had tons of scrap that they just threw away. My landlord had a plumbing contracting service with all these guys. Every morning they’d be loading their truck and I’d pull them in and say, ‘How do I solder this, anyway?’ They showed me how to use a TurboTorch. So everything was kind of aligned in the right way for me to start what I’m doing.”

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      Her first big break came at an open vendor day at Henri Bendel, the New York design emporium that helped launch the careers of such luminaries as Perry Ellis, Ralph Lauren and Andy Warhol. “First in line, I was ready to show a buyer my three little, very crooked handbags,” she recalls. “So I laid out a piece of leather, put them out. She comes in and says, ‘I love them, I’m going to take three of each.’ I was thrilled. At that point, I had a soldering iron, a tin snip and a file. She asked, ‘How long will it take you to make nine bags?’ I said, ‘All summer.’ She said, ‘OK, deliver at the end of summer.’ ”

Another early buyer was Clodagh Ross & Williams, the high-end furniture and accessories shop opened by three women designers on St. Marks Place in 1986. “They loved what I was doing, that I was using an alternative material for a handbag,” says Stevens. “They ended up publishing a book and put my work in it.”

In the studio Stevens uses a deburring wheel to soften any sharp edges, and then belt sands one side of the sheet to “make the top of the piece super uniform and silky with a matte finish. I like the pieces to look soft and silky,” she says. The result is a light, textured metallic surface that resembles a piece of satin or lace fabric.

      Several years later, when she approached Lewis Dolin, who had a showroom at Broadway and Houston, he already knew her work from the Clodagh Ross & Williams publication. Dolin invited her to participate in the prestigious Accent on Design show in 1988, bringing wider exposure to her growing line of bags and accessories. He also introduced Stevens to her future husband, the furniture-maker Will Stone, who was another of Dolin’s featured artisans. 

ROLLS OF LEATHER STRAPPING, stitched and ready to attach to bags. Photograph by Dariel Benton-Updike. 

      “When I first met Will, he was doing tables, and really doing well with it. He had a major operation out in State College, Pennsylvania,” she recalls. “He would come and visit me in his studio. I’d be sitting there doing something, and he’d say, ‘What are you doing? Do you know that there’s a tool for that?’ And I’d say, ‘Really, what is it?’ ” While a relationship between two artisans could easily have turned competitive, she appreciated that Will didn’t “step in boldly, because it wasn’t his thing. He was already respectful of the fact that it was my thing.”

As her business continued to expand, Stevens found that she needed more space, which meant leaving the East Village behind. Around 1990, friends helped her find a suitable location in East Kingston, New York, a small town along the Hudson some hundred miles north of the city. “It was a great building,” she recalls. “An old sewing factory with huge wooden floors. It was perfect. I built a little apartment at one end of it.”

      Stevens remained in East Kingston for two years, continuing her long-distance relationship with Stone, who was then living in a log cabin in central Pennsylvania. When the couple decided to get married in 1992, they moved onto an old farm near Boyertown, Pennsylvania, some forty-five miles northwest of Philadelphia, converting the barn into a two-thousand-square-foot studio in which they both could work. 

In 2004, after two decades of steadily building up her brand, Stevens’s career took a sudden, devastating turn. On a cold day in January, she received a call from a neighbor to alert her that smoke was coming from the roof of their barn. More than a hundred firefighters battled the blaze throughout the day and into the night, but by the time it was over all that remained were two stone walls and a foundation.

“They couldn’t really figure out what started it,” she says. “It was a barn, so the roof was open and exposed to birds, mice, whatever, so they could have just chewed through the wires in the winter. It was absolutely freezing cold. They sprayed foam into the building. My studio fell in on top of my husband’s. It was so depressing. It was such a mess.”

Despite the shock of losing her work space, her tools and her inventory in the space of twenty-four hours, Stevens came to see the forced hiatus as a chance to reimagine her way of doing things. “It was career-changing for me,” she says. “I had started with nothing—no tools, just hand-punching holes, just really primitive ways of working with sheet metal. It had been a long process. But the fire gave me the opportunity to completely start over again with everything I knew.”

She took an online course in computer-aided design (CAD) and began focusing on how to draw her pieces. This was new territory for Stevens. “I never drew anything. I went right to the sheet metal and cut it out. All of a sudden I realized as I sat down to draw a pattern, ‘I don’t draw.’ ” She enlisted the help of a drawing instructor from Lehigh University, who “would come and sit with me. He was a big help.” 

She also began learning the etching process, which allows her to create her own intricate designs in the metal, rather than working with commercially produced patterns. “The etching process is totally amazing,” she says. “It really took a whole year, and I’m still learning what I can do with this process. I’m constantly pushing it to an uncomfortable edge for my etcher.” 

Up until the fire, her line had still included desk accessories such as lamps, picture frames and letter holders, in addition to the bags for which she was best known. She now chose to focus exclusively on bags and began drawing new designs in AutoCAD. “I have to take into consideration a lot of things when doing these drawings: Where the fold is. What the radius of the fold is. Is it too close to the pattern? Is it going to distort the pattern?”

LEATHER GUSSETS. These parts have been cut, glued and punched with holes corresponding to the metal parts where they will be attached with rivets. Photograph by Dariel Benton-Updike. 

      Her drawings are converted to film, then photo-etched into stainless steel by a company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A clean sheet of stainless is cut to size and coated with a chemical resist of dry film. The sheet is exposed to ultraviolet light, then placed in an acid bath for about thirty minutes. When the photoresist is removed, the pattern is etched into the surface.

In the studio Stevens uses a deburring wheel to soften any sharp edges, and then belt sands one side of the sheet to “make the top of the piece super uniform and silky with a matte finish,” she says. The result is a light, textured metallic surface that resembles a piece of satin or lace fabric. The sheets are then joined to the leather trim by rivets and outfitted with hardware designed by Stevens and produced in Italy. Most bags have hinges at the bottom and use magnetic clasps. Thanks to the resilient stainless steel, the resulting pieces are both durable and surprisingly light.

The first model she produced after the fire was appropriately titled Phoenix Bag, after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes. Others have taken their names from the fabric-like quality of her patterns, such as the Lace Clutch and Houndstooth Bag. The perforated La Camisa is shaped after the shoulders and neck of a woman’s blouse and comes in powder-coated finishes of red, graphite or black.

WENDY STEVENS STUDIO. After the studio fire in 2004, the facility was redesigned and rebuilt on the main level of the stone barn on her eight-acre farm property. In the foreground is a packing table with finished pieces. To the right is the leather cutting table with a gluing machine. Directly behind the packing table is the stake bench where the pieces are assembled. Against the wall are the orange pallet racks where sheet metal is stored with a hydraulic lift. In the background are the tool benches with slip rolls, notchers, shears, a hand press brake and a hydraulic brake, a sand blast cabinet and deburring wheels. Photograph by Kate Lacey

      Stevens’s line currently includes about fifty pieces. Their whimsical titles often derive from her love of travel and Romance languages. Her series of pasta-themed bags, for example, includes the Bucatini, Penne Purse and Capellini Clutch. The French connection comes across in her Baguette and La Pochette, while the Flamenco and El Dia reference her love for Spanish. Others take their names from the world’s great design capitals, including her London and Paris bags.

While Stevens’s designs continue to reflect the industrial aesthetic she developed in New York in the 1980s, her twenty-five years in bucolic Berks County, Pennsylvania, have not been without an impact on her work, as evidenced by the Seed Pod Purse, with its concentric, onion-like layers, as well as the Fiddlehead Fern Bag, Chestnut Bag, and a series featuring an intricate pattern of overlapping roses—all referencing plants found outside her studio. Other bags take their names from the shapes they emulate, such as the Pinwheel and Accordion.

Stevens’s work has garnered an international following and has been featured in Elle, Mademoiselle, Bazaar, and Vogue magazines. In 2010 she was honored by a solo exhibition at the Tassenmuseum (Museum of Bags and Purses) in Amsterdam. “I was the first American to be invited to do that. I went to Amsterdam and saw the collection in the museum, which was really amazing,” she says. “It’s a beautiful, big old brownstone right on a canal. You start at the top and there’s a case with one of the very first bags from the 1600s, and it’s a man bag! It’s a big huge pouch that slid on the belt with a padlock, insanely heavy.” She also saw precursors to her own work in the museum’s collection of aluminum bags from the Art Deco era. “My bags felt like they belonged there in a historical sense,” she says. “After doing something so alternative, and never feeling like I fit in anywhere, it was just great to have that experience. They ended up acquiring four pieces for their permanent collection.”

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      In the States, she has shown her work at many prestigious craft shows, including the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., the American Craft Council show in Baltimore, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, where she was honored in 2016 with the Ornament Award for Excellence in Art to Wear. On receiving the latter, she says, “I was surprised, shocked and thrilled! Part of the enormous challenge in designing and making my bags in stainless steel has always been to ensure they’re wearable; that they drape well across the body or over one shoulder, or fit comfortably when clutched in the hand; and that they don’t feel cumbersome or awkward, but rather become part of the person using them. So to have that interpretation honored by Ornament was a very personal success for me.”

The longevity of Stevens’s success can be attributed in large part to her ability to continue adapting and extending her work in new directions while remaining true to her particular vision. A more recent (and very profitable) extension of her line, for example, has been a series of iPhone holders that drape over the shoulder and are worn cross-body.

Her newest venture is a foray into the wedding and bridal market. “My daughter gave me this suggestion. She has friends getting married now. She told me, ‘There are shows that my friends go to, where they can see wedding dressing and meet wedding photographers.’ I’m going to develop a whole collection of wedding bags, which I’m well on my way with.” Her bridal line made its debut at a show in Philadelphia in December.

“It’s very exciting for me,” says Stevens, “because one thing leads to another. I’m thirty-two years into it and still I have so many ideas that I want to do.”

SUGGESTED READING
Arginteanu, Judy.
“Product Placement: In the Bag.” American Craft, June/July 2012, pp. 16–17.
DiNoto, Andrea. “Wendy Stevens: Industrial Chic.” Metalsmith, Vol. 35, No. 1, 2015, pp. 28–35.
Stevens, Wendy (as told to Brandi Stewart). “Blazing Recovery: A Fire Destroyed My Manufacturing Firm—and Ignited My Entrepreneurial Spirit.” Fortune Small Business, November 2008, pp. 71–72.

 

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      Get Inspired!

 
 

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David Updike is an editor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where his most recent projects include books on the art of the Mexican Revolution, the Peale family and Marcel Duchamp. His profile of Rochester-based jewelry artist Barbara Heinrich appeared in Ornament Volume 39, No. 4. For this issue, he visited the designer Wendy Stevens at her studio in rural Pennsylvania. “I took my daughter with me because she’s very interested in fashion and design, and she was totally inspired by Wendy’s work and by the idea that you could build a career around creating beautiful things for people to wear.”