The Bainbridge Island Museum of Art’s exhibition of work by Seattle jewelrymaker Nadine Kariya is called “The Hammer and the Peony,” and the title is perfect. It evokes the idea that work—skilled, diligent, physical work—is required to create beauty. With her hammers, several of which share display cases with her jewelry, Kariya has for more than four decades used her skills as a master metalsmith to make jewelry that is astonishing for the complexity of its craftsmanship and its exquisite design.
The show, curated and designed by Greg Robinson, the museum’s Chief Curator, includes about seventy pieces and serves as a retrospective of Kariya’s career. The exhibition is remarkable for several reasons, including that Kariya has made just about every type of jewelry you can name, from pendants and necklaces, to brooches, bracelets, rings, earrings, and cufflinks. She has made jewelry that looks tribal, such as the magnificent Dragon Stick Pearl Necklace, 2011, a regal composition of pinkish, oblong freshwater pearls and African brass beads. And she has made jewelry descended from the ateliers of European royal jewelers, such as the queenly Chalcedony Oval Ring, 2010.
Having supported herself for a couple of decades as a commercial jewelrymaker, there is not much that Kariya can not or will not design. Much of her work over the years has been commissioned, so she has often had to center jewelry around a stone or precious object given to her by a collector. Kariya obviously relishes the challenge.
Noteworthy too is Kariya’s expertise in every technical aspect of jewelrymaking, from forging, fabrication and welding, to engraving and the alchemy involved in making cloisonné and alloys. She has also carved hardwood to create jewelry. And though metal is the basis of nearly everything she makes, Kariya has sometimes included found objects such as fossils, vintage treasures and animal bone. Her attraction to precious and semiprecious stones—often in majestic sizes—is a signature of her aesthetic.
“The Hammer and the Peony” starts with work from the early 1970s, including Voyager Brooch, 1973, the first piece Kariya sold after earning her BFA in Metal Design from the University of Washington. Made of amethyst, fine silver, sterling silver, and cloisonné enamel, the disc-shaped piece is about two inches in diameter and suggests an amethyst eye gazing into a dark sky. A fiery glow surrounds the oculus; perhaps the sun is in the background. There are white moons, or celestial bodies of some kind, below the oculus. Even in this first professional work Kariya’s talent as a colorist comes through in the brooch’s dramatic palette.
Kariya’s skill with cloisonné is on display in other pieces from the 1970s, especially in a group of small silver boxes that could be containers for precious unguents. In Ume TV Ring Container, 1976, Kariya made a golf-ball size sterling silver television perpetually displaying a cloisonné screen of red plum blossoms, called ume in Japanese. The television knobs are small jewels. The antenna rotates. The box is charming but it is also a nod to the importance of television in 1970s culture, and a reference to Kariya’s Japanese-American heritage. Plum blossoms are a popular decorative motif in traditional Japanese art and design.
Among Kariya’s signature forms are rings and bracelets. Two large bangle bracelets made since 2000 are studies in complex alchemy and intricate surface embellishment. To make the bracelets Human Grid and Moonflower, Kariya used shakudo, an alloy of copper and gold; shibuichi, an alloy of copper and silver; and argentium®, an alloy of germanium and copper. The gold, silver and alloys create metallic palettes of surprising breadth and brilliance. In these bracelets and other pieces, Kariya uses the silver jewelry as a canvas on which to add decoration and pattern.
Until a few years ago, Kariya considered herself a maker of non-narrative jewelry. Her work had always been elegant and beautifully designed, but rarely imbued with stories or social commentary. Then in 2010 she was asked to participate in an exhibition in which each artist made work relating to a particular year from the twentieth or early twenty-first centuries. Kariya chose 2009 and made a piece about Barack Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The piece is a suite of four brooches, each containing lines from speeches Obama made during the year. A white dove with an olive branch in its beak is the center of the suite. Obama’s words are engraved in spiraling ribbons held in a man’s hand, which emerges from the cuff of a peony-decorated sleeve.
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Kariya notes in her exhibition statement that the Barack Obama suite inspired her to make more narrative work. Since then she has created other ambitious narrative pieces. One is Kingfisher Caught Between Man’s God and Mother Nature, a necklace of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, alloys, carved wood, gemstones, braided leather cord, and a vintage gold snake. Prominent is the iconic image of God’s hand touching man from Michelangelo’s fresco, The Creation of Adam, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. A carved wooden kingfisher is trapped behind the giant hands, and in back of the bird is a glimpse of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The Kingfisher is a recurring character in Kariya’s recent work, and in numerous traditional cultures the bird represents peace and prosperity. But in this large, ceremonial-looking neckpiece, the bird seems to represent humankind caught between the world we have created, with our laws and belief systems, and the natural world. In spite of its discomfiting environmental message, it is another beautiful piece. And as this thoughtful, serene exhibition demonstrates so well, beauty brings us joy, which is something we can always use more of.
Lorene, Karen. Celebrating 70. Seattle: Lorene Publications, Facèré Jewelry Art Gallery, 2010.
Snyder, Jeffrey. Art Jewelry Today 2. Atglen: Schiffer Publications, 2008.
Updike, Robin. “Nadine Kariya: A Formalist Approach.” Ornament, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1999.
—. “Celebrating 70: Seventy Jewelers, Seventy Challenges.” Ornament, Vol. 33, No. 5, 2010.
—. “Nadine Kariya: Spiraling Arabesques.” Ornament, Vol. 34, No. 5, 2011.
“Nadine Kariya: The Hammer and the Peony,” shows at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art,
Bainbridge, Washington, through February 28, 2018.
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Robin Updike, a regular contributor to Ornament, is a Seattle-based arts writer who has been following Nadine Kariya’s work for many years. During that time Kariya’s elegant jewelry has been collected by some of Seattle’s best known metal arts patrons as well as those who simply admire beautiful, statement-making jewelry. Having supported herself for years as a commercial jeweler, Kariya combines outstanding craftsmanship with a highly refined aesthetic. Kariya’s current exhibition at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art is a feast for the eyes and the soul.