Genevieve Yang’s fascination with jewelry has deep roots. As a baby, she would often get up to mischief by pilfering her mother’s jewelry collection, draping it over herself like the Queen of Sheba. Even when not trying on her mother’s jewels, Yang had her own strands of bead necklaces that she would wear every day. Her partner in crime was her grandfather, George Lindberg, who not so subtly directed her interests into working with her hands. A salesman for Caterpillar who previously served in World War II as a flight instructor, Yang’s grandfather made his own jewelry and had an extensive studio and set of tools. His own work involved channel inlay of stones. From introducing her to rock collections and his studio, to making Yang her very own bench pin for her to wirewrap with, his delight in nurturing her desire to create was a fundamental force in her life. Not that Yang needed encouragement; from a very young age beading, wirewrapping and making jewelry was a passion that burned brightly.
Yang’s future revealed itself as early as grade school. “When I was seven, they had me fill out this form that said ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and I wrote ‘Jeweler’ and my brother in his wrote, ‘Make Movies.’ Now my brother’s in the film industry. So it’s really interesting. My mom thinks that kids know when they’re at that age what they want to be.”
Her mother, Georgia Lindberg Yang, is also an art jeweler who most recently has worked with handpainted brooches. However, she was content letting her daughter find her own way. Perhaps she knew Yang had enough of a mentor in her grandfather. Interestingly, while both artists have quite different aesthetic voices, there exists a common fondness for the portrait; of using the metal as a frame within which resides a little narrative.
Yang’s work is an exploration of storytelling by a jeweler who prizes precision in technique. Her pieces are exact, clean and well executed, with strong lines and bold shapes. Into this world of carefully wrought dimensions Yang inserts the seed of a story.
Her star maps, a popular subject that stems from the sense of wonder the celestial lights inspire, come from hours of research. She uses a database of stars to have accurate information, and the source for a particular map often stems from a personal attachment, the emotions and feelings evoked by viewing the pattern these far away suns paint across the depths of space.
Meaning is an evanescent construct, and the desire to imbue meaning into her work lies at the core of Yang’s art. Her approach to cultivating an emotional narrative marries careful attention with the freeflowing aspect of imagination. Each piece is minimalistic and refined, titrated down to its essentials. The vocabulary of the stones and precious metals used is architectural; the silver and gold form the foundation of a cuff, providing a strong base. Decoration comes in the form of diamonds, which in Yang’s jewelry are her way of illustrating on the surface of the metal. Channels are cut into the patinaed silver, and as the diamonds are set, a transformation occurs. The silver becomes the sky; the gold, the rolling hills. And the diamonds, jagged, split, branching in lines, have now been transmuted into lightning flashing down from the heavens.
Yang admits to being a jeweler whose focus is precious stones; there is something about working with such a palette that requires restraint, planning and forethought. The expense of the materials makes mistakes costly, and do-overs difficult. Taking what exists in the mind’s eye, and transmuting it into a piece of precious jewelry, is a different task than when one utilizes nontraditional materials. There is the subtle tinge of adrenaline, the necessity of exerting a level of control over one’s self.
Yet art is about serendipity as much as it is execution of an idea. In a recent series, Yang has begun making use of picture (also called landscape) jasper to depict the deep valleys and rolling hills that make up the playful interpolation of background and foreground which is the earth itself. Picture jasper, as well as agate, is what happens when deposits of silt and ash seep into cavities usually found in volcanic flows. The slow, continual layering of siliceous matter builds upon itself, forming patterns that can look remarkably like a shrubbery studded landscape. Yang’s approach to these miniature miracles is utilizing them like portraits of the land, prong setting them in a silver frame studded with tiny, glittering diamonds.
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There is a common thread tying together the lightning, the star maps and the picture jasper portraits, and it’s not just that they are Yang’s interpretations of earth and sky. There is a narrative, underpinning each piece, which is absent in commercial jewelry. This is not by accident; it is by design. There is an intention behind Yang’s work, and she wants you to know it.
The seed that fostered Yang’s love of the scenic aspects of nature stemmed from a wilderness course she took when she was eighteen years old. Her grandfather drove her out to the site, ever her greatest supporter. “It was snow camping. It was thirty below. And it was brutal,” she pronounces. “That’s when I came up with the whole concept for doing the Phases of the Moon, which I’ve done, and now expanded on.” The evolution of this theme has taken place slowly over time, stretching out like the burgeoning branches of a sapling transforming itself into a mighty oak. From such an intimate encounter with the wild, the night sky, the stars, and the planet’s horizon, Yang found enough sensorial material to last a lifetime.
Transmuting those experiences into a physical form took time. Although her grandfather had taught her basic metalsmithing techniques, including soldering, Yang recognized she wanted professional instruction to broaden her foundation. She knew that she wanted to learn how to make technically precise jewelry; alternative material art jewelry was not the direction she wanted to travel. Yang heard about Revere Academy, founded by master metalsmith Alan Revere in San Francisco, and after taking a tour decided that this was what she had been looking for. She enrolled in the school’s Graduate Jeweler program, and after graduating was ready to take on the world. Her first six pieces of jewelry were submitted to the jury of the American Craft Council Baltimore show, and she was accepted.
Shows are a glamorous affair for Yang, where she can dress her best and be surrounded by beautiful worksmanship and incredible craft. She has also made many friends along the way, all of whom have helped her to become a better craftsperson and saleswoman.
Jaclyn Davidson was one of those mentors on the craft show circuit. “ ‘You are going about this all wrong. You are going to exhaust yourself. You need to save your energy for the people that really care,’ she told me. And I was like, ‘Okay.’ ” That revelation made a big impression on Yang, who prior to the established jeweler’s critique believed every visitor to her booth had to be greeted, that each person required the same amount of attention. Davidson’s advice drove home the need to be discerning with her potential customers.
Precious jewelry is not a field which many young people break into, particularly in the craft shows, and Yang was very young when she first got into that ACC show. Thomas Turner, a jeweler who often attended alongside Yang, recently recollected those early shows, reminiscing that, “You looked like a baby, when you showed up here.” She gives a lot of credit to Judith Kinghorn and Devta Doolan for being supportive of her work, in providing a constructive atmosphere that helped her feel safe and welcome.
Yang’s earliest jewelry was abstract shapes; still minimal, and hollow, which has continued to be a motif in her oeuvre. Eventually, she worked up the courage to take her big creative leap, which resulted in her first moon piece. “I sit on ideas forever,” Yang explains, laughing. Gestating, developing, turning it over and over in her mind, that piece, which would eventually become her Phases of the Moon necklace, was a concept that somehow needed to be brought forth.
“Sometimes I have these moments, for example, on my wilderness course, where I felt this certain way, and I thought ‘I want to capture that feeling in this piece.’ When there’s this extra layer of meaning, something that speaks to me, trying to capture this feeling that I had, I can see it come out in the piece. I’m not drawn so much to the outdoors where people say, ‘I love leaves and seedpods’ and that kind of thing; for me it’s more the landscape. This vast view, and the feeling it gives you, and trying to funnel it into my work.”
In the last few years Yang and her family have suffered two tragedies, the first was the loss of her father, and then, her sister. Each passed away within three months of each other. When those whose lives are interwoven with our own are pulled away from us, an attempt is made to make sense of the nonsensical. Yang’s own journey since then has been of reclaiming herself and finding a new path forward.
Since then she has moved to a new house in Mill Valley with her husband, to which she’s relocated her studio (formerly in her mother’s home). As of last year she applied to the Mill Valley Arts Festival for the first time, wanting to test how her work would sell in her local community. She had an unexpectedly enthusiastic response to the jewelry, with a greater number of postcards finding their way into the hands of potential clients.
“Saleswise it was good, not the best, but could have been a lot worse. I suspect that I will likely have a couple people reach out once they have some time to process my work,” she remarks contemplatively.
In her own way, Yang comes from a jewelry tradition that is similar in spirit to the multigenerational craft lineages of Native American families. The wonderful peculiarity of George Lindberg and Yang’s connection is that there was only one child in the family who received tutelage in continuing the crafting tradition. What Lindberg recognized in his granddaughter was an understanding of why jewelry is so important—it is not simply a way of earning a living. For all three jewelers, grandfather, mother and daughter, making jewelry is a form of expressing the contents of the heart.
Jewelry’s physical perfection can hide from the casual observer the amount of effort required—the daily foibles and the dirty work that lies behind the magic curtain. At their best, a jewelry artist succeeds in communicating that depth. Looking at her carefully wrought Day/Night Earrings with Clouds, with precision-set diamonds surrounding a rainbow moonstone and tiny stones emulating the sun’s rays radiating from a bold citrine, one could hardly imagine that its maker wears sweatpants and Uggs while in her studio. However, it only takes a willingness to examine an object closely to see how Yang’s jewelry is the result of intense effort.
Once one gets past the surface, and begins to question how the object came to be, answers arrive. How were these lines that connect diamond stars made? Even without an extensive background in jewelry, one can tell that they had to be cut into the surface of the metal. How were these diamonds set, to appear as if they are intrinsically part of a piece? Once you look closely, the divots must have been made to place each diamond, which then had the metal crimped to lock each precious stone in place.
Yang has worked all her life to be able to make miniature pieces that look like they were effortless, a complete creation. Each one, which can fit into the palm of your hand, has a great deal more history than greets the eye at first glance. If, with deeper inspection, you find the phases of the moon; the rolling hills of your home state; a sun shining brightly above the mountains; or perhaps, something which relates to a very personal memory, you will have found what Yang is striving for. Make sure to tell her that; she will be glad to know.
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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. On a visit to San Francisco for his uncle’s eightieth birthday, he had the pleasure of visiting Genevieve Yang and her mother, Georgia, in Santa Rosa. In her jewelry studio they discussed Yang’s work, background and inspirations. Yang’s responses ranged far and wide, from childhood to her most recent shows, and despite an interlude when the gardener’s lawnmowing provided a noisy backdrop to the conversation, Benesh-Liu came out with greater insight and appreciation into her career.