Signs of Life 2015
Now in its eleventh year, Karen Lorene’s annual “Signs of Life” project remains a unicorn. There is nothing else like it in the world of contemporary art jewelry. Lorene, a longtime champion of art jewelry, each year selects jewelry artists to create pieces to serve as inspiration for writers. As the matchmaker, Lorene decides which writer to pair with which piece of jewelry. The writers and jewelrymakers do not meet or talk before the show. It is a long-distance affair in which writers offer up poems, essays and short stories based on what they see in the jewelry. The journal Lorene publishes to document each show is a literary and visual treat. This year is no exception.
The jewelry made for “Signs of Life 2015” was on display during October at Facèré, Lorene’s Seattle gallery. One of the most arresting was from Kat Cole, a Dallas-based artist whose necklace Oil and Water works as a reference to current politics, environmental concerns and personal relationships. It is also a handsome piece with its glossy black enamel and steel sections that mimic the luster of black crude oil on rock or concrete. Polly Buckingham’s short story Honey was inspired by Oil and Water, and it is a page-long tone poem about the barely noticed death of a dog in a seedy trailer park. In one of the most complementary matchups in the journal, Honey suggests an unhappy landscape where dreams evaporate in the dust. Or, to put it another way, a place where dreams and reality—like oil and water—never mix.
Like all the artists in the show, Cole sent additional pieces and many of hers were inspired by the teardown of a building near her studio. An ambitious necklace called Pile is a steel and enamel pick-up-sticks heap of construction refuse that seems to comment on our society’s never-ending chase for something bigger and newer. Other work referred to our unquenchable thirst for fossil fuels. One of Cole’s Black Gold brooches includes the image of an oilrig pumping over a black substratum of oil, or black gold. Though generally abstract, Cole’s work suggests a remarkable sense of place—whether that place is desolate oil country or a frenetic urban cityscape.
Jim Bové’s sterling, rubber cord and industrial paint necklace is an elegant abstraction that could refer to architecture or geometry, though to writer Christine Hemp the piece looks like a blade. The result is Hemp’s celebratory poem, called A Body Severed from the Head, which, despite its grisly imagery, is about the need to abandon logic and rationality in the pursuit of beauty and art. Another particularly resonant matchup was Eileen Walsh Duncan’s poem Engineers with Paulette J. Werger’s Honey Comb Chain necklace. The minimalist sterling and eighteen karat gold necklace has a graceful repetition that mimics the look of a honeycomb. Duncan’s poem is an homage to the industriousness of honeybees and the exquisitely fine-tuned physiology that makes them such efficient workers.
For pure beauty, Judith Kinghorn’s Overall Ascending Spiral is unmatched. The sterling and twenty-four karat gold brooch is regal yet organic, perhaps a golden nautilus shell to be worn by a queen. Chrysanthemum and Fiddlehead Fern, both pendants, were also gorgeous, intricately fashioned sterling and gold haikus to the natural world. Kinghorn’s jewelry is realism presented with drama and sophistication.
Jewelrymaker Kathleen Faulkner is also an observer of the natural world. The brooch/pendant she made for “Signs of Life” is the image of an owl, which she expertly painted on paper, gazing from between sterling silver branches. Faulkner is a painter and a jeweler, and the other brooches, pendants and earrings she made for the show are faithful renditions of the flowers, birds and fish of the northwestern Washington State, where she lives. You can easily imagine her trekking through woods and along shorelines, sketchbook and pencil in hand. Hers is very literal work, yet much of it is charming, like a rare leaf or flower bud pressed between the pages of a notebook for further study.
Seattle artist Nadine Kariya made some of the most narrative work in the show. Though Lorene in the past has stressed to her “Signs of Life” jewelrymakers that their work for the show should be narrative to help inspire the writers, it appears that Lorene places less emphasis on that now, as shown by the more abstract work of Bové and Werger, for example. Yet the brooch Kariya created for the exhibition is a reminder of just how much powerful storytelling a smart artist can pack into a small piece. Last Salute to the Camp Bird Generation: Medallion is a brooch that pays tribute to the generation of Japanese-Americans shamefully interned in camps on American soil during WWII. The brooch includes a small life preserver, a tiny silver telephone, and the red demon face of an evil character from traditional Japanese theater, all carried by a bird. Kariya notes that carving wooden birds pins became a popular pastime in the camps, where people uprooted from their civic and professional lives, had little to do. Unlike the birds that inspired their carving, the internees were unable to escape the camps.
“Signs of Life” seemed a quixotic project when Lorene started it more than a decade ago. In its early years, for instance, she sometimes had difficulty convincing writers to participate. The idea that jewelry had any connection to the literary arts seemed too far-fetched to some writers and even a few jewelrymakers. But in creating an annual jewelry and literary event, she has thrust art jewelry into a broader cultural arena, and everyone has benefited.
Robin Updike is an arts writer based in Seattle, Washington, who also has a background in fashion reporting. As someone who herself brings together the literary and the visual arts, Updike is a perfect match for Karen Lorene’s Signs of Life. In her role as scribe, she unveils the magic alchemy that goes between jeweler and writer in this most interesting creative experiment. Updike is a longtime contributor to Ornament with her many features drawn from the Pacific Northwest.