Enduring Splendor of India Volume 39.5

BANGLE (kada) of gold, diamonds, cat’s eye, turquoise, enamel, 9.9 centimeters diameter, Jaipur, Rajasthan, circa 1900. All jewelry from the Ronald and Maxine Linde Collection, except where noted. Promised Gift of Ronald and Maxine Linde. Jewelry photographs by Don Cole, courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

‘Enduring Splendor: Jewelry of India’s Thar Desert’ provided a tantalizing window into the five-thousand-year history of jewelrymaking across the Indian Subcontinent. Shown at the Fowler Museum at UCLA (February 19—June 18, 2017), it was the setting for a stunning array of magnificent jeweled objects, part of a promised gift to UCLA from the Ronald and Maxine Linde Collection of Jewelry and Ritual Arts of India. An important aspect, curated by Thomas K. Seligman, was the work of four living metalsmiths (sonis) from the fortress city of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Exhibition co-curator Usha R. Balakrishnan authored two of the essays in the accompanying publication.

The jewelry featured in “Enduring Splendor” derives primarily from Rajasthan and Gujarat, on the westernmost periphery of India. The region in question once encompassed the silver-rich Aravalli Mountains, the Thar Desert (also known as the Great Indian Desert), and areas of the Sind region of modern Pakistan. It extended into Gujarat in the south and central India in the east, and it stretched to the foothills of the Himalayas in the north.

      For many centuries Rajasthan was the gateway to India and came into contact with the great ancient monarchies of Asia. Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and Babur, Alexander the Great and the Greeks, and countless early European visitors, all brought their influence to bear on the region. Communities of pastoral nomads bartered camels and traded gold, silver and gemstones along these routes. Goldsmiths and silversmiths (known as sonis or sonars) who accompanied the caravans exchanged styles, designs and techniques and were subject to myriad influences with the result that jewelry forms often came to traverse great distances.

NECKLACE (nagapada tali) of gold, diamonds, rubies, 32.0 centimeters long, Kerala, nineteenth century. THE ANDROGYNOUS FORM OF SHIVA AND PARVATI (Ardhanarishvara) of black schist, 62.9 x 29.2 x 9.5 centimeters, Rajasthan, eleventh century. Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Ancient Art Council and the Indian Art Special Purpose Fund. Photograph courtesy of LACMA. EARRINGS (bhungri) of gold, 3.5 centimeters diameter, Gujarat, early twentieth century. ARMBAND (nagothu) of gold, rubies, white sapphires, 7.0 centimeters diameter, Tamil Nadu, nineteenth century.

IDEALIZED PORTRAIT OF THE MUGHAL EMPRESS NUR JAHAN of opaque watercolor and gold on paper, 29.5 x 21.6 centimeters, Kishnagarh, Rajasthan, circa 1725–1750. Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Gift of Diandra and Michael Douglas.

      The necklace, earrings and armband adorning an eleventh-century androgynous image of Shiva and Parvati, for example, are mirrored in a necklace from Kerala, a pair of earrings from Gujarat, and an armband from Tamil Nadu. This despite the fact that more than eight hundred years and one thousand miles separate the sculpture and the jewelry. Continuity in jewelry designs can also be seen in a stylized eighteenth-century portrait of the bejeweled Mughal empress Nur Jahan. Her earrings, armband and bangle are remarkably similar to pieces in the Linde Collection.

From birth to death, jewels form an essential part of samskaras, or rite-of-passage rituals in India. Marriage, pregnancy, the birth of a child—each significant life event is commemorated with special jewelry. A young child is adorned with black bead ornaments for protection from the evil eye. In ancient India sixteen rituals of beautification or adornment were prescribed for a bride in preparation for her wedding. Once ritually bathed, she was adorned from head to toe with jewels. These included ornaments for the braid, a forehead jewel, earrings, a nose jewel, necklaces, armbands, bangles, rings, a girdle, and anklets. Thus attired, she became the personification of a goddess and was elevated from human to divine.

EARRINGS (karanphul jhikka) of gold, rubies, pearls, 2.5 × 3.6 centimeters, Orissa, late nineteenth century.

      Names often provide clues to the tribal affiliation of ornaments, their purpose and their design inspiration. The borli derives its form and name from bor, or the Indian plum, a fruit endowed with powerful medicinal properties; hasli is from hansuli meaning “collar bone;” and champakali are the buds of the Michelia champaca flower. Flowers, leaves, fruits, and berries have been incarnated as ornaments and reflect the importance of agriculture. The pahunchi bracelet with its spikes simulates large thorns that grow in the desert and was worn to keep animals at bay. While it is highly unlikely that these spikes could actually function as an effective weapon, they symbolically provided protection to the wearer.

Ornaments have long been thought to enhance fertility; to protect against unsettling effects of the planets; and to serve as talismans against danger. The mere act of adornment—placing a pendant around the neck or encasing a wrist with bangles—does not, however, make a jewel work its metaphorical magic. The form of the jewel, its construction and the motifs or gems that decorate the surface, combine to unleash the requisite powers. Emeralds, for example, were carved with floral motifs and holy verses, and worn as an armband. Pendants were decorated with images of gods, goddesses and symbols to heighten their potency. A necklace, a pendant, a ring or an armband set with the nine planetary gems, navaratna, might be visually attractive, but the nine gems alone do not work any magic. When they are arranged with a ruby symbolizing the sun in the center, and surrounded by the other gems, however, they become able to harness the energies of the cosmos and draw those energies into the individual.

BRACELET (pahunchi) by Dharmendra Soni, of silver, 22.5 centimeters long, 2014. Fowler Museum at UCLA museum purchase.

HEAD ORNAMENT (borla) of gold, pearls, diamond, enamel, 4.2 centimeters diameter, Udaijpur, Rajasthan, circa 1920.

      Wearing jewelry is also believed to have physiological benefits. A branch of traditional Indian medicine known as Marma Shastra maintains that there are vital points, marma, located along energy pathways that run through the body. Gentle pressure and stimulation of these points enhances fertility and releases energies contributing to physical and emotional well-being.

PENDANT (navaratna padak) (reverse and obverse) of gold, emerald, rubies, white sapphire, citrine, amethyst, tourmaline, turquoise, coral, rock crystals, pearl, enamel, 7.0 x 4.2 centimeters, Deccan, circa eighteenth century.

RABARI WOMAN wearing a silver vadlo torque, Kutch, Gujarat, 2010. Photograph by Thomas K. Seligman.

      Men and women have long pierced their ears and suspending ornaments from them as this is believed to open the mind to learning, broaden the intellect and enhance fertility. Amulets are usually worn around the neck or are tied around the arm—both locations of vital marma points. The weight of an ornament gently stimulates the point while the power of its motifs (verses and symbols) and the potency of the material (gold, silver, jade, and so on) works the magic. Heavy torque necklaces, such as hanslis rest on the collarbone releasing energies that provided relief from muscular and joint pains, improved digestion and aid in the elimination of toxins. Cuff bracelets serve a similar purpose functioning almost like a brace and support for the arm, while an amulet with the coiled body of a snake not only promotes fertility but also activates energy points enhancing sexuality. The head is the seat of all consciousness and the spiritual fulcrum of the body, mind and intellect; thus head jewels metaphorically regulated spiritual energy. Jewelry ensured that the rhythm of the body was always in equilibrium.

Jewelry and gems feature in classical Indian literature through the ages with Rama’s signet ring and Sita’s head jewel, for example, playing significant roles in the Ramayana. In the Buddhist Jatakas, the jingling of bracelets by themselves is considered among the thirty-two good omens that appeared when the Buddha became incarnate. In the Kama Sutra, women were required to have knowledge of gold, silver, jewels, and gems, as well as of housekeeping and the arts of singing, dancing and composing poetry. They had to be well versed specifically in stringing necklaces and designing beautiful jewelry. The sound of tinkling bells on anklets, the sparkle of a diamond in the nose, and flower blossom earrings all worked to enhance sensuality.

A FARMER FROM THE GUJJAR COMMUNITY wears a pair of gokhru earrings, Pushkar, 2009. Photograph by Thomas K. Seligman. 

      Ornaments also serve to dispel anonymity, proclaim caste, religion and ethnic identity, and even unequivocally communicate an individual’s region of origin. This is particularly the case among tribal and pastoral communities. Massive silver vadlo and hansli torques are worn by Rabari and Fakirani Jat women in Gujarat and Rajasthan, while male members can be recognized by the single horse-shoe shaped bawaria earring and the thorny gokhru. Strikingly abstract thandatti and pambadam are unique to Vellalar women in rural Tamil Nadu, and large rings joined with faceted beads known as mekkamotiram are worn on the helix of the ears by Syrian Christian women in Kerala. The fabulous kali thiru marriage necklace is a trademark of the Natukottai Chettiar community in Chettinad. Devotees of Shri Nathji wear pendants bearing an image of the god. In fact, for women of the Bonda tribes of Orissa—as well as for Nair women in nineteenth-century Kerala—ornaments and costumes merge and become one with the body. Jewelry functions almost like clothing—row upon row of elaborate necklaces covering the entire chest.

Sonis in most parts of India, especially South India and Bengal, consider themselves to be descended from Vishwakarma and along with the four other communities (blacksmiths, carpenters, metal casters, and stonemasons) occupy an ambivalent position in the Hindu caste order, neither at the topmost nor at the bottommost rung. While Brahmanical texts refer to them as silpis and assign them the rank of sudra (lowest of the four traditional castes), they credit themselves with the primordial act of creation and trace their origins to the “pre-brahminic and pre-caste period.” By virtue of the fact that they “built temples, sculpted the deities, made their ornaments and these were pure and sacred acts,” they claim a social prestige equal to the Brahmins (the uppermost caste).

EARRINGS (durgla ihumar) of silver, 8.3 - 8.4 centimeters long, Rajasthan, early twentieth century. ANKLETS (kalla) of silver, 13.3 centimeters diameter, Rajasthan, nineteenth century.

      The process of transforming a lump of shapeless metal into a beautiful object of adornment was not only a manual task but also a spiritual ritual. For, as Ananda Coomaraswamy, the renowned philosopher-historian of Indian art, explains, “The craftsman is not an individual expressing individual whims, but a part of the universe, giving expression to ideals of eternal beauty and unchanging laws, even as do the trees and flowers whose natural and less ordered beauty is not less God given.” Though a piece of jewelry is not signed or stamped with a hallmark, it bears the fingerprints of its maker. No two jewelry items are identical and no two pieces within a pair are exactly the same. An extra granule, a wire that did not get perfectly twisted, a slightly off-center flower—each piece is unique.

BRACELETS (chood or kadla) of silver, 10 centimeters tall, Gujarat, nineteenth century. ANKLETS (sankhla) of silver, 12.5 centimeters diameter, Gujarat, late nineteenth century.

      There are no metalsmithing schools, and no technical manuals. In accordance with the guru-shishya parampara—the tradition of the father assuming the role of guru, or teacher, and transmitting his knowledge to his son, the shishya, or student—sonis were all formerly apprenticed to their fathers or to an uncle. Their learning consisted of watching, listening, practicing, performing small tasks, and eventually executing assigned pieces of work to the satisfaction of their teacher. The soni designs the piece of jewelry; casts, beats and twists metal into forms; sets gems; decorates surfaces with patterns and enamel; and finally polishes the finished piece. The vocation of a soni is strictly the domain of men, and women are neither trained nor allowed to work in the profession. Shyama Devi, however, the patua, or stringer, who threaded the individual spike elements made by Dharmendra Soni into a beautiful, flexible silver bracelet (pahunchi), is a woman from the Lakhera caste, a community traditionally associated with making shellac bangles. Throughout Rajasthan, women of the Lakhera caste string pendants and individual components into necklaces and bracelets.

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      An item of jewelry begins life as raw materials in the workshop of the soni. Silver pieces are handcrafted one at a time, mostly on commission, and the weight of the ornament is carefully calibrated to individual specifications depending on the budget. Soni workshops today are small and family run, and they are usually located in the front room of the home, overlooking the street, while the family resides in the back. Specialization in the various stages of manufacture, such as casting, repoussé work, gem setting, enameling, and so on, are all nurtured within the family. While one solid silver necklace in the Linde collection, for example, was made using the sand-casting process, another elegant torque was created by hammering silver into a thick sheet, cutting out the form, and then engraving peacocks and flowers on the surface with sharp tools; in other pieces, a nose ring is intricately decorated with minute gold granules; and extremely sophisticated repoussé work is conspicuous in the fine detail on an amulet.

HANUMAN SONI is cutting silver with a chisel. Note his working on the floor, with anvils mounted low, and the use of the foot to hold the workpiece.
Photograph by Thomas K. Seligman.  BRACELET (katria) by Hanuman Soni of silver, 10.5 centimeters high, 2014. Fowler Museum at UCLA museum purchase. JEETU, Hanuman’s son, is making a design in silver strip by striking a chisel with a hammer. Photograph by Thomas K. Seligman.

      An unknown smith made a pair of anklets known as sankhla using cire perdue, or lost-wax casting, to fashion an amazingly flexible set. In an exquisite armband (bazuband), the gem setter embedded precious and semiprecious stones within ribbons of pure gold, and the enameler formed cavities and filled them with vibrant colors in an astonishing pair of bracelets (gajre, see Cover). While the preferred metal for setting precious gemstones was gold, silver was usually set with synthetic stones and foil-backed glass to simulate real gems.

Transformations taking place in the artisan community straddle the rural and the urban, the traditional and the modern as they reinvent themselves to adapt to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. Departing from tradition, another soni in “Enduring Splendor,” Bhagwan Das, no longer manufactures jewelry himself but has stayed true to his caste occupation by becoming a retailer of jewelry. He has seized the opportunity afforded by arrivals of large tourist groups in Jaisalmer to offer his expertise and knowledge to an international clientele, which he has assiduously cultivated.

Hanuman is perhaps the only one of the four sonis in “Enduring Splendor” who continues to conform to tradition, replicating traditional forms with the same decorative details, perhaps bound by the sanctity of meaning enshrined in them. While the price of the metal may be too high to allow for the liberty of experimenting with new forms and designs, Hanuman, like most sonis, follows a structured, coordinated and synchronous division of tasks in the workshop that is efficient and time saving and that he is reluctant to change to try something new.

He has trained his sons in jewelry manufacture, and they continue to be apprenticed to him, learning the many technical aspects of the art and executing assigned tasks. Hanuman’s son Jeetu has expressed a desire to forsake the family trade and pursue a career in computers in the city. As a Medh soni, however, Hanuman insisted that his son uphold the pride of his “warrior” lineage and learn the trade into which he was born. It is this hereditary transmission that results in the continuity of skills and the perfection of accumulated generations of artistry and finesse. The lure of the city and a nine-to-five, white-collar job, however, still tempts Jeetu.

Coomaraswamy reminds us “the best things are always well rooted in the soil.” Nowhere is this more evident than in the beautiful organic and geometric forms and decorative motifs inspired by nature that figure so prominently in Indian jewelry. The feathers of a heron, shells, jasmine buds, chrysanthemum flowers, and all manner of flora and fauna, including marine forms such as shells are stylized in objects of adornment and decorative motifs. Over time, the manifold original meanings and connotations of abstract motifs have become blurred, lost in transmission and set aside as a consequence of changed lifestyles. Even the craftsmen are no longer cognizant of these symbolic codes, merely adhering to long-established designs and motifs and replicating them with mechanical precision. While the abstract form of a silver torque made by Hanuman Soni with its solid cuboid centerpiece might look contemporary, minimalist and unusual, the genesis of its long-standing design is lost forever. The striking design of pieces like his allows them to transcend time.

In India, the relationships that exist between jewelry and society, artist and jewelry, and artist and society are profound. Inextricably intertwined are the historical and cultural contexts of ornamental forms, materials and techniques. Among the manifold varieties of human creation, it is instructive and exhilarating to understand that the art of personal adornment goes far beyond merely appending beautiful pieces crafted from gold and silver to the body.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Ornament thanks the Fowler Museum at UCLA, the assistance of Erin Connors, and with special recognition to Ronald and Maxine Linde. The Ronald and Maxine Linde Collection of Jewelry and Ritual Arts of India has been assembled over three decades, and guided by the Lindes’ belief that their collection will help to shape a continuing study of Indian jewelry—design, craftsmanship, spiritual interpretation, and cultural content.

SUGGESTED READING
Seligman, Thomas K. and Usha R Balakrishnan. Enduring Splendor: Jewelry of India’s Thar Desert. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum at UCLA, 2017.
Balakrishnan, Usha R. and Meera Kumar. Dance of the Peacock: Jewellery Traditions of India. New Delhi: India Book House, 1999.
Borel, France. The Splendour of Ethnic Jewelry: From the Colette and Jean-Pierre Ghysels Collection. London: Thames and Hudson, 1994.
Hendley, Thomas H. Indian Jewellery. Repr. Ed. Delhi: Low Price, 1896.
Neubauer, Jutta. Chandrika, Silver Ornaments of India. New Delhi: Shisha, Manchester, in Association with Timeless, 2001.
Untracht, Oppi. Traditional Jewelry of India. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.

Click Photos to Enlarge

ANKLETS (kadla) of silver, 11.5 centimeters diameter, Gujarat, early nineteenth century. TORQUE NECKLACE (hasli) by Hanuman Soni of silver, 15 centimeters diameter, 2014. Fowler Museum at UCLA museum purchase. ARMBAND (bazuband, obverse and reverse), of gold, diamonds, emeralds, enamel, 3.7 x 10.5 centimeters, Jaipur, Rajasthan, nineteenth century. NOSE RING (nathad) of gold, topaz, showing miniature granulation, 5.1 x 4.4 centimeters, Gujarat, late eighteenth to early nineteenth century.

 

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Usha R. Balakrishnan is a freelance scholar based in Mumbai, India. After obtaining a post-doctorate degree in Museum Studies at New York University, she worked as a research associate at the Brooklyn Museum. Her publication Dance of the Peacock: Jewelry Traditions of India (1999) reflects her research on the five-thousand-year history of Indian jewelry. In 2001 the government of India invited her to study the fabulous collection of gems and jewelry that formerly belonged to the Nizams of Hyderabad, where she published her book Jewels of the Nizams. She has also curated “Alamkara: The Beauty of Ornament,” an exhibition of the permanent collection of Indian jewelry at the National Museum, New Delhi, and been a guest curator for “India: Jewels that Enchanted the World” at the Kremlin Museum, Moscow, while contributing essays to or authoring the catalog.

Julie Powell Volume 39.5

JULIE POWELL.  Photograph by Dog Daze Studio.  PATTERNED WRAP CUFF of glass seed beads, woven off loom in peyote stitch with a needle and fishing line. This woven fabric is created and then stretched over a sterling silver wire frame, and laced with fine sterling silver wire. The flexible cuff wraps around the wrist one and a half times, 25.0 centimeters long x 3.6 centimeters high, 2015.  Jewelry photographs by Larry Sanders.

JULIE POWELL. Photograph by Dog Daze Studio. PATTERNED WRAP CUFF of glass seed beads, woven off loom in peyote stitch with a needle and fishing line. This woven fabric is created and then stretched over a sterling silver wire frame, and laced with fine sterling silver wire. The flexible cuff wraps around the wrist one and a half times, 25.0 centimeters long x 3.6 centimeters high, 2015. Jewelry photographs by Larry Sanders.

"A lot of beadwork is too precious,” says bead jewelry designer Julie Powell. A tall, lithe brunette, wearing a pair of kick-ass cowboy boots, the Boulder, Colorado-based artist is in Santa Fe for a trunk show at the prominent Casa Nova Gallery. People are crowding around, asking about her work. “What I’ve seen in beadwork, for the most part, is an ornate and intricate and somewhat overly fussy design sensibility. That doesn’t feel right to me. That really isn’t where I wanted to go.” Powell, who describes herself as a self-taught bead artist, speaks from decades of experience as a successful textile artist and designer. When she began to focus on beadwork, about 2007, she had already left behind a thriving garment business with half-a-million-dollars in annual sales, and was working as a high-level executive travelling the world for another company. It seems daunting that anyone would want to leave behind a jet-fueled life in mid-career for the solitude and meditative slowness of working with a needle and a fishing line. But she craved working again as an independent artist. Beadwork, while familiar, also beckoned her with other possibilities.

      “When I’m interested in something, I research it,” Powell says. “I look online, I look in books and magazines, I go to the library, I go to galleries, I go to stores. In order to do something new, I need to see what else is out there. I process what I see, from ancient beadwork and Native American and African traditions all the way up to the contemporary artists I see in Ornament—all kinds of beadwork, over hundreds of years. One book that was very valuable for me in terms of seeing the history of beadwork and the progressions and the changes and the tweaking was The Art of Beadwork: Historic Inspiration, Contemporary Design, by Valerie Hector.”

Powell schooled herself in beadwork techniques, building what she calls her “muscle memory. My general process is learning about how to use your hands and doing it so you understand it, whether it’s dyeing, weaving, quilting, knitting with multiple colors; whatever it is, learn how to do it, do it again and again, repeat it and learn. Then you have a certain kind of confidence.” She settled on peyote stitch and herringbone stitch for her basic bead language. Herringbone, a weaving technique using two beads at a time, makes a fluid, sinuous tube or rope that drapes well. Peyote stitch she likes better for bracelets because it preserves a firmer, more stable surface that tolerates a lot of stress from moving wrists. Just as often she combines the two stitches; “I’m not really conscious of when I switch from one to the other.”

When she transitioned to jewelry, Powell ransacked her background in textiles, re-interpreting florals from Hungarian folk art or designing with William Morris tapestries in mind. She experimented with merging techniques that she has used in the past with beadwork. A recent example, Mixed Media Cuff, is made of abstract bead embroidery extended on either side with panels of peyote-stitch beadweaving, interspersed with hand embroidery in cotton DNC floss sewn into a felt backing. Powell manipulated tension and spacing to lift the beadwork up off the surface, creating a rising and falling topography in black, red and turquoise. “All of that’s going on in one piece, and for me that was mind-blowing,” she says. “The embroidery comes from a place of just having worked with artisans in Nepal. That’s a completely different context. The Nepalese women were using satin stitch to embroider flowers on woolen mittens, but I’m applying it in a cuff. That’s very exciting for me.”

PLAITED NECKLACE of glass seed beads, woven off loom in herringbone stitch with a needle and fishing line. Strands are woven separately and then braided together and attached; with Czech fire-polished glass, handwoven toggle closure, 44.0 centimeters long x 7.5 centimeters high, 2016.

      Colors are her whole world. “Color moves every part of me,” Powell says. “I feel like that’s what makes me tick. I’ve always been that way.” Her mother told her she could name colors before she could walk (“It took me a long time to walk, let’s put it that way.”) Now she runs marathons, and her color sense is well-nigh unassailable. “I don’t have any real formula, except that I like to create a dynamic feeling of the colors playing off of each other,” Powell says. “I love old Czech, French and Venetian beads, and some Japanese, because they have amazing colors and transparencies; there’s no mistaking that they’re glass.” Her only caveat: she refuses to use delica beads. “They’re too perfect and refined. That’s not me.” She explains her aesthetic as a balance of “warm with cool tones. And while I like to combine unexpected hues, I have to consider the ‘wearability’ of my work. I often make sure each piece has some kind of gray/silver, black, bronze or gold in it to harmonize with other jewelry.” Though she avoids primaries, she will select very bright colors for cuffs or bracelets, and prefers softer, more sophisticated colors for necklaces.

Customers invariably comment on Powell’s color compositions, and she has thousands of followers on Pinterest, where she posts color boards. “Certain palettes appeal to me, and I catalogue them on Pinterest. I store inspiration there. I’ll pin everything from a bouquet of flowers to a painting to a landscape photograph. It’s about how the colors work together; I don’t care about individual colors as much as how they’re combined: light and dark, hue, value, tone—all the things that go into mixing colors are what’s interesting to me.”

SHANGHAI BAG of glass seed beads embroidered with a needle and fishing line, embellished with coral, labradorite and fire-polished glass; lined in silk, and backed with Italian wool, 13 centimeters x 15 centimeters with 112 centimeters hand-beaded strap, 2016. 

      Lining the white walls of her studio in Boulder are tall shelves stacked with glass baby-food jars of beads, bright with harlequin colors. Storage bins of cut stones—jade, labradorite, turquoise—stand rowed up beneath the shelves. A hanging abstract quilt, hand-dyed and sewn by Powell in blue-violet and rust, is the room’s only decoration. Two work desks stand close to tall sash windows, rising like portals to let the clear mountain light fill the room. The smaller desk is for metalwork. “I’ve developed quite a few pieces with beadwork stretched on sterling silver wire, like a trampoline or a corset. I’m wrapping and pounding the wire to move the beadwork from the flat plane into a three-dimensional frame.” A vintage oak library-card catalogue houses glass tubes of more beads. When she is constructing a new piece, Powell will get tubes out and think about “How do I want this to flow? How can I get it to move through and around? It’s like Asian dancing.

“It’s the idea of moving planes, of what’s traditionally thought of as a flat surface but it’s come to life by moving in unexpected ways,” Powell says. She calls the regimentation of putting down bead after bead “claustrophobic. With beadwork, you’re making decisions about every placement; everything is controlled.” But uniformity goes against her nature. “That’s partly because of my choice to use color and size over consistency. It’s engineering; solving spatial math problems, getting different shapes to lie down next to each other.”

Her surfaces seem to mimic a panorama of hills and valleys, and at the same time evoke the irregular, tactile quality of handwoven fabric. “When you touch my beadwork it’s very granular; it’s textural and organic. If I want it to go down into a gully I’ll use little beads, or I’ll pull it tighter or put in a stone that gives it a bump, to pop it out of being smooth.

“I want to make a mini-Bilbao in a cuff,” Powell says. She points to two people from different worlds as huge influences: renowned Ghanaian artist El Anatsui and architect Frank Gehry. “Gehry does it with titanium and steel; El Anatsui does it with metal bottle caps and copper wire ties.” She got to know Gehry’s architecture in Chicago; she discovered El Anatsui while on a business trip to Paris, when she walked into the Louvre and saw an enormous, suspended cloth-like assemblage. “Very often he’s present to help, but it’s up to the museum or gallery how they want to hang it, so it’s never the same. Each time it becomes another piece; it’s alive.” Powell’s Flux Panel Cuff, a tribute to El Anatsui, spreads expansively in free-form peyote-stitch panels randomly interspersed with open spaces. Like the gleaming metallics in El Anatsui’s hangings, the corrugated beadwork glitters. Up close, the reflected light suggests an ever-changing visual energy, like water coruscating over rocks in the bottom of a stream.

 
In my head I have a sense of a sine curve or a wave. I see a motion in it; I want the piece to have a life of its own. As I’m making it I’m thinking: how do I want the whole piece to be? Not the half-inch I’m working on, but the whole macrocosm.”
 

FIVE-STRAND PLAITED CUFF of glass seed beads, woven off loom in herringbone stitch with a needle and fishing line. Strands are woven separately and then braided together and attached; handwoven toggle closure, 17 centimeters long x 5 centimeters high, 2016. FLUX PANEL CUFF of glass seed beads and fire-polished glass, woven with a needle and fishing line in a sculptural manner, into an undulating fabric. Pieces are created separately and then linked together with sterling silver beads; handwoven toggle closure, 18 centimeters long x 6 centimeters high, 2012. MIXY CUFF of glass beads, woven with a needle and fishing line in peyote stitch. Various sized beads are used to create texture; embellished with fire-polished glass and stones, 17 centimeters long x 4 centimeters high, 2017.

      Capturing a sense of integral movement gives her work a distinctive edge. “In my head I have a sense of a sine curve or a wave. I see a motion in it; I want the piece to have a life of its own. As I’m making it I’m thinking: how do I want the whole piece to be? Not the half-inch I’m working on, but the whole macrocosm. Then I’ll reach for the materials that I’ll know in my technical brain will work.” She became enthralled with adapting the idea of braiding, of ‘ribbons’ that move, into beadwork: it emerged as the Plaited Necklace. “That one made me so happy. First of all I could use color. I had a palette of black, amber, bone, and red that I loved. I have always baked bread, and the beaded ribbons intertwined like braiding challah. But instead of multiple twisted ribbons all the way around the neck, I beaded continuous ribbons in different lengths that could cascade. They are each independent; you can adjust the ribbons so they fall in different combinations.” The geometric, lozenge-like pattern suggests mobility heightened by an indefinable air of whimsy and elegance, all characteristic of Powell’s art.

WISTERIA AND LEAF SQUARE KNOT NECKLACE of glass beads, woven in a spiral herringbone stitch with a needle and fishing line. The hollow tube is filled with small glass beads and then knotted into a square knot form; with recycled glass, stone beads and handwoven toggle closure, 45 centimeters
long x 5 centimeters high, 2014. 

      Sometimes, if she gets a vision for a piece, she draws it out. “Drawing comes naturally to me. I’ll do a few of them, especially for a new design or a version of a previous one. I always have a piece of paper or a sketchbook around, so if something’s brewing in my head and I wake up in the night I can interpret it. It’s like a riff: what if I change that from herringbone to another stitch; what if I did that in shades of gray instead? It’s the overall structure, form and shape. That’s where the techniques that I’ve nailed come in. I’ll look at how I want it to come out, and then decide on the execution.” She likes to share her creative process on Facebook, posting photos of pen-and-watercolor sketches partly for feedback from other artists. She may do a piece a few times before it comes right, or she may throw it all out.

Raised near New York, Powell grew up immersed in the arts. “I was surrounded by gorgeous books on crafts. We made visits to museums dozens of times a year going into the city.” Her mother was an artist and art teacher; her father, a musician and record producer, always had music playing in the house. As an undergraduate at Bowdoin College, in Maine, Powell began making handwoven jackets and handknit sweaters, spinning and dyeing all the yarns herself. For her junior year she studied textiles with Sherri Smith at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 1981, while still a student and with the wearable art movement coming into full swing, she founded her company, Periwinkle. Relocated to San Francisco, Periwinkle grew into a company with ten employees. Powell sold wholesale and at shows with other Bay Area designers. She remembers inventing her own mission control, a system of “giant white boards with colored post-its to track hundreds of orders,” and hired a production manager and a sales rep. “It was an amazing time. I learned how to get a bank loan; what you do with a purchase order; how to think about price points.”

She told herself she was a businesswoman, not an artist any more. By then Powell and her husband, an attorney, had bought their first home and had two young sons. But after twenty years, she felt depleted. Her jam-packed life had “taken away my love of creativity. You have to have the constitution to handle the stress of constant juggling, marketing and having to be accountable. Like Homer Price and the doughnut machine, eventually it felt out of control. So I decided to stop.”

POWELL stringing beaded ribbon in her studio.

      She took a break before going to work for Icelandic Designs, a multi-million-dollar knitwear corporation based in Colorado. The family moved to Boulder in 2002. For the next ten years Powell was Icelandic’s director of design and merchandising. She mastered CAD programs and Photoshop, and now freelances as a designer. One of her jobs, for a fair-trade handmade knitwear company, takes her to Nepal every year for three weeks to work with women’s cooperatives around the Kathmandu valley. Powell compares the diversity of her work to cross-training; it recharges her design mojo.

The idea of going in a new direction with her own bead embroidery struck the way inspiration tends to: she was watching her son tie a fishing fly. At first she was “doing little paintings in beads, in the style of Robin Atkins, but not to wear.” As soon as she made her first jewelry she began working fine arts fairs. “I love setting up a tent and seeing what happens; I like the outdoors, and the chance to get together with other artists. I love people trying on a piece so I can see how it looks. But for me, it’s gambling for a living. I can’t count on the shows. You drive twenty hours to get there, then there’s a rainstorm and nobody comes.”

 

BLUEBELLS AND POPPIES FIORI NECKLACE of glass beads, woven in various off-loom stitches with a needle and fishing line in a free-form style. Petals and leaves are woven and then embroidered to each other and a fabric base. Embellished with stones and fire-polished glass, the necklace is backed with Ultra-suede; back of necklace is created with a filled herringbone spiral tube, 43 centimeters long x 9 centimeters high, 2014.

 

      Powell, convinced that the internet increasingly is making everything accessible, launched her beadwork jewelry and simultaneously put up her own website, started posting on social media, and soon was selling on Artful Home to promote name recognition. Artful Home has become the premier online marketplace connecting independent artisans with consumers (they also have a print catalogue). It now accounts for nearly one-third of Powell’s business. “It helps keep me current, as an artist, and it informs me about trends.” She offers special editions of jewelry on Artful Home; and on her own site will take custom orders, say for one of her necklaces made in different colors. In February 2017, for the second year, Powell was an exhibitor at the American Craft Council show in Baltimore, which she says is “my best show ever.” These days, her work is featured in galleries, boutiques and museum shops all over the country.

One lesson she learned as an entrepreneur is the vital necessity to stay ahead. She recalls how, during a recent conversation, a knitter in Nepal pulled out a hat made from a design on Pinterest. “You have to stay innovative,” Powell says. “You have to figure out what you can make that’s going to continue appealing to people, that can meet consumer need for something that’s different.” Powell pauses, then smiles with anticipation. “I’ve got hundreds of ideas.”

 

Click on Photos for Captions

 

      Get Inspired!


Leslie Clark still quails at the memory of attempting to learn Native American loom beading. Especially she remembers the torments of trying to spear a row of beads with her needle. “Beads like to jump,” she claims, and for months found beads scattered far, far away. Left with great admiration for the prowess of bead artists, Clark was delighted to speak with bead jewelry designer Julie Powell. “Julie has an extraordinary color sense, and is breaking out in a new direction with the craft. Plus she was articulate and stimulating to talk to about her work,” Clark says. “I bet her beads behave, too.” Clark lives and writes in Santa Fe, a city where all kinds of glorious beadwork flourishes.

Comment

Leslie Clark

Leslie Clark is a freelanced writer and editor in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Clark, who claims red is her favorite color, was flabbergasted by her visit to the “The Red That Colored the World” exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art up on Museum Hill. “I had no idea how exhaustively people worked, for centuries, to produce a red color. No wonder kings and prelates hogged it for themselves. Cochineal changed everything. Even now, with synthetic dyes around, its amazing properties are still the best. It makes you grateful to Mother Nature and those little bugs.”

The Tsosie-Gaussoin Family Volume 39.5

 
The idea of creativity as a shared resource rather than the jealously guarded capital of individual genius comes naturally to the Gaussoins through Native American heritage and family tradition, but it has also been cultivated by an emphasis on the responsibility to community. ‘That’s something that my mom has always taught us,’ David asserts. ‘It’s not right to just be taking. You have to give back. We teach, we volunteer, we give back to our community.’
 

CORN MAIDEN NECKLACE by Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin of sterling silver, bezel set Royston turquoise, tufa cast, dragonfly design on necklace, corn maiden pendant with feather design, and partial patina, collar 2009, pendant 2015. Photograph by Carolyn Wright.

Descended from Navajo silversmiths and weavers and Picuris Pueblo potters, Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin and her sons Jerry Jr., David and Wayne Nez, and daughter Tazbah share a creative heritage that has profoundly shaped their experiences and perspectives. Like the progeny of the early American painter Charles Wilson Peale or the Duchamp-Villon siblings who played a prominent role in modernism, Connie’s sons and daughter took to art collectively as a consequence of their upbringing but as adults have demonstrated that the creative spirit can be both a unifier, connecting them in communal understanding, and a means toward individualization and personal expression. There is no doubt that their careers as artists have been mutually sustained through familial bonds, but each can be distinguished by a unique personality that gives direction to the style and content of his or her work.

      Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin, the current matriarch in the artistic lineage, was raised on stories about jewelry related by her father, who worked on a line stamping, doming and soldering with other Native American artists at the famous Maisel Store in Albuquerque. Another key influence was her uncle, Tom Tsosie. “He used to make jewelry the old way,” she recalls. “He would sit on sheepskins on the floor of a large, round hogan. We’d watch him every summer when my parents took us on the Navajo reservation. There was a tufa mine out behind the hogan, and he would go and gather huge stones off the cliff. It was a very hard process. He would cut the tufa into molds and use a bellows to melt down Mexican coin silver to make a cast. So, I saw the very old process.”

In the late 1960s, after traveling extensively, Connie returned to her native New Mexico and married Jerry Gaussoin Sr., who encouraged her studies of metalsmithing with jeweler Nino Padilla at the College of Santa Fe. From Padilla she learned stamping skills, making her own dies from nails and other found objects, then decided to teach herself the traditional tufa-casting techniques she had observed as a child. Honing her abilities through trial and error, she learned to cut the stone, smooth two slabs by abrading them against one another, carve the tufa, and pour molten silver into the resulting mold. She explored traditional forms like the bow guards worn by men for dances on the Navajo reservation, making rapid progress in both technique and aesthetics despite working conditions that were less than ideal. “When I started out, we were living in a trailer,” she recalls. “I used to work on a little table in the kitchen. I’d take everything off to make dinner and then put my tools back and start working again in the evening. It was back and forth every day. My buffing machine was under the trailer, and I’d be out there both summer and winter.”

 
THE TSOSIE-GAUSSOIN FAMILY.  (left to right)  Wayne Nez Gaussoin, Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin, Jerry E. Gaussoin Jr., David Gaussoin, Tazbah Gaussoin, showing at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market, March 2017.  Photograph by Margie Zebell-Parrish.

THE TSOSIE-GAUSSOIN FAMILY. (left to right) Wayne Nez Gaussoin, Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin, Jerry E. Gaussoin Jr., David Gaussoin, Tazbah Gaussoin, showing at the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair and Market, March 2017. Photograph by Margie Zebell-Parrish.

 

      While her makeshift workshop left much to be desired, Connie’s greatest challenge in establishing a career in the tradition of Navajo silversmithing arose from the conventions of that tradition itself. Like most Native American peoples, the Navajo historically observed gender division in the arts, with women weaving and men, after the introduction of silversmithing techniques in the 1860s, working in metal. In the 1970s, when Connie began winning awards for her jewelry at the Santa Fe Indian Market show, few Native American women had ventured into metalsmithing. As a consequence, some male jewelers expressed skepticism that she was producing her own work. To quell the rumors, she took a metals course at the Institute of American Indian Arts with Millard “Skip” Holbrook III, who, recognizing her skills and appreciating her talent, assigned her a position monitoring the lab. This was a vindication of sorts, but breaking longstanding gender barriers remained a struggle for years. “She had to force the door open,” her son David asserts. “She took criticism but she persevered, and now women have her generation to thank for it.”

CASINO LOOT BAG by Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin of sterling silver, bezel set Royston turquoise, Italian coral in gold bezel, tufa cast feather design with fabricated silver sheet, 2012.  Photograph by Carolyn Wright.

CASINO LOOT BAG by Connie Tsosie-Gaussoin of sterling silver, bezel set Royston turquoise, Italian coral in gold bezel, tufa cast feather design with fabricated silver sheet, 2012. Photograph by Carolyn Wright.

      The ostensible paradox of deeply respecting a tradition while simultaneously subverting it has been common enough in modern crafts practice to rarely breed controversy, but Navajo metalsmithing embraces more than aesthetic conventions and historical symbolism. It is deeply ensconced in a cultural identity. While Connie has embraced that identity and has cultivated it in her children, she is at the same time driven in her work by a conception of creativity in which exploration of new possibilities of form, materials and expression is a matter of course. “She’s always encouraged us to learn the traditional ways, because our cultural heritage is important,” David relates. “We know how to make concho belts and squash blossoms, but she didn’t ask us to do that for the rest of our lives. She said, ‘I’m passing this on to you so that you know how to make things in the old way, but then go do what you want.’ ”

Following this advice, Connie’s sons and daughter have felt free to explore diverse artistic avenues without fear of how the resulting work might be received and to show their work in mainstream exhibitions of Native American jewelry despite occasional criticism from traditionalists (whom they facetiously dismiss as the “art police”). As David points out, the idea that Native American identity is a fixed quality that can be adequately represented through a finite number of materials and forms discounts one of the most valuable facets of that identity: its innovative spirit. “Whenever we talk with museum curators and collectors,” he says, “we remind them that traditional Southwest jewelry was once new and progressive. Native jewelers were using materials that they had never used before. That’s the tradition that we’re carrying on. We have to celebrate it and use the abundant materials that are available to us today to create the best things that we can. That’s our tradition as native people.”

For the Gaussoins, the inclination to venture individually beyond the confines of formal and aesthetic conventions in art was no doubt encouraged by a structure of mutual support that existed from the beginning. As children, each had a place in Connie’s workshop, where they naturally developed the ability to work together without conflict and to serve as each other’s sounding boards in the frank and honest manner of their mother. The confidence that reliable critique has imparted to each has been an undeniable boon, and the habit of conversing about one another’s work has bolstered the ties that came naturally through familial connection. As a result, even as they have oriented their lives in different directions and developed unique perspectives as artists, the Gaussoins prefer to present their jewelry collectively at shows. “We all go,” David says. “It’s a family thing. Sometimes it’s so crowded in the booth that you can’t even move, but that’s OK. Our Pueblo and Navajo heritage instilled in us the importance of family, the importance of unity.”

JEWELRY BY JERRY E. GAUSSOIN JR.  (left to right, top to bottom) : Navajo Mother Earth bracelet, 2017; Navajo Four Cardinal Directions concho style buckle, 2017; Ranger belt buckle, 2015; Simplicity cuff, 2017; Navajo Spider brooch, 2014; Pueblo Protector ring, 2017; Pueblo Maiden pendant, 2017; Byzantine Chain bracelet, 2017; and Half Persian chain bracelet, 2017. All jewelry is fabricated, some hand-stamped, formed and/or textured, set with turquoise or lapis.  Photograph by Jerry E. Gaussoin Jr.

JEWELRY BY JERRY E. GAUSSOIN JR. (left to right, top to bottom): Navajo Mother Earth bracelet, 2017; Navajo Four Cardinal Directions concho style buckle, 2017; Ranger belt buckle, 2015; Simplicity cuff, 2017; Navajo Spider brooch, 2014; Pueblo Protector ring, 2017; Pueblo Maiden pendant, 2017; Byzantine Chain bracelet, 2017; and Half Persian chain bracelet, 2017. All jewelry is fabricated, some hand-stamped, formed and/or textured, set with turquoise or lapis. Photograph by Jerry E. Gaussoin Jr.

      As one might expect, occasional collaboration has been a natural offshoot of the many conversations, mutual critiques and communal exhibitions. Sometimes collaborative work has united the creativity of two siblings, as in the case of the looping, head-encircling Postmodern Boa of enameled stainless-steel tubing, silver and feathers that David and Wayne Nez created for the “Native Fashion Now” exhibition organized by the Peabody Essex Museum and on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York until September 4, 2017. In other instances, to support institutions such as the Heard Museum in Phoenix and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, collaboration has produced donated works to which the entire family has contributed. The procedure for collaboration is generally fluid. “Someone will start it off,” Connie explains, “and others will add to it. If we do a seed bowl someone might add dragonflies to it, and someone else might add a pin. Each piece is different. It’s like neighbors meeting at the fence. We don’t know how it will turn out, but we all bring our own ideas.”

505 SERIES CUFF by Wayne Nez Gaussoin of found object, dyed handcut leather, 8.9 x 8.9 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Robert K. Liu.

      Jerry Jr., the eldest of the siblings, sold his first bead-wrapped necklace at a Fayetteville, Arkansas, art show while still in the sixth grade. Now a Lt. Colonel in the United States Army, he remains closely influenced by traditional Navajo and Pueblo silversmithing designs, though his experiences in Germany and during tours of duty in Kosovo and Iraq, have worked their way subtly into his art. After a hiatus during his years abroad, he has returned to jewelrymaking in part as a means of mulling over his life. “What I’ve seen and experienced,” he says, “is definitely reflected in my thought process.” An affinity for the patriotic color combination of coral, pearls and lapis lazuli occasionally reveals itself, but the more profound content of his work is less literal, manifesting itself in the formal choices of an artist given to personal reflection and expression through making.

GET BACK IN YOUR BOX BRACELET by David Gaussoin of found object, sterling silver, copper, chalk (low grade) turquoise, 10.5 x 8.0 x 11.0 centimeters, 2015. “This is a statement piece about not submitting to standards placed upon us to use certain materials just because they are considered ‘traditional’.” Photograph by Mark Herndon.

 

Wayne Nez, whom middle brother David describes as “the iconic artist in the family,” earned an MFA at the University of New Mexico. Working in a variety of media, including monumental sculpture, he approaches jewelry and fashion design with a penchant for non-conventional materials. “I’ve been playing a lot with non-precious metals like aluminum and found objects,” he relates, “particularly steel mechanical parts with an interesting character to them. I play around with them until I find something that speaks to me, that reveals what it wants to be, whether that’s a ring or a wearable collar.” Currently some of his most distinctive work incorporates vibrant, leather-backed fragments of license plates in flared cuff bracelets and drop earrings.

David is clearly an artist from sheer love of the creative process. “Even though I went to college and pursued other interests,” he says, “it’s always been my life. When I make a piece I don’t think about selling it—just the art, the beauty and the expression of it. As a child I used to watch my mom and ask if I could play too. To me it’s still play. It’s a way of going into my own world and designing what I want.” While he enjoys stretching the boundaries of jewelry through innovative materials and techniques, he has come to favor more extensive expression through fashion encompassing the entire body. Among his latest designs is a “head-to-toe statement of sustainability” for an exhibition at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) that consists of an elaborate collar of aluminum and clothesline, a halter-top created from a repurposed leather purse and a skirt fashioned from old prom dresses.

Tazbah, who earned a degree in museum studies and plans to pursue a career “preserving the arts for the long term,” is a weaver and has also collaborated with David on some fashion designs, frequently modeling the resulting apparel for publicity photographs. Fashion first caught her attention when she was still in high school. “I was modeling quite a lot for designers,” she recalls, “and thinking that the clothes were beautiful and that I’d like to know how to make them. I took a course in pattern, but it was David who taught me how to sew.” Despite never having caught the jewelry bug, she made a point of taking courses in metalsmithing, not only because of her conviction that “to preserve things you should know how they were made” but also, no doubt, because of a deep sense of the place of jewelrymaking in family tradition.

SMALL COTTONWOOD CHIEF’S BLANKET, shown in progress on loom, by Tazbah Gaussoin of natural dyes, Navajo Churro Sheep wool, 2017. Photograph by Tazbah Gaussoin.

      The idea of creativity as a shared resource rather than the jealously guarded capital of individual genius comes naturally to the Gaussoins through Native American heritage and family tradition, but it has also been cultivated by an emphasis on the responsibility to community. “That’s something that my mom has always taught us,” David asserts. “It’s not right to just be taking. You have to give back. We teach, we volunteer, we give back to our community.” This commitment is not simply altruistic. It concerns the nature of creativity itself as a kind of vital energy. “People think I’m crazy because I talk to my pieces and they start coming alive,” Connie explains. “They say, ‘OK, I’ll work with you,’ then they start playing and dancing on their own. Artists are the ones in the world who keep the whole universe alive. Things are moving well because of us, not just this family, but all creative people. To be an artist is to create but also to share.”

 

POSTMODERN BOA, collaboration by David Gaussoin and Wayne Nez Gaussoin of stainless steel, sterling silver, enamel, paint, and feathers, 2009. TEARDROP EARRINGS by David Gaussoin of sterling silver, 8.0 centimeters long, 2009. EFFUSION BRACELET by Wayne Nez Gaussoin of sterling silver, 30.5 centimeters long, 2009. GLISSADE BRACELET by Wayne Nez Gaussoin of sterling silver, stainless steel, 15.2 centimeters diameter, 2009. DRESS by David Gaussoin and Tazbah Gaussoin of metallic blended material and silk, 2009. Photograph by Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. Model: Tazbah Gaussoin.

 
 

      Get Inspired!


Glen R. Brown, Professor of Art History at Kansas State University, was struck by conceptual similarities between some designs in the Denver Art Museum’s “Shock Wave: Japanese Fashion Design, 1980s-1990s” exhibition and a recent piece by David and Wayne Nez Gaussoin, who freely explore possibilities beyond mainstream Native American art. “Innovations are by definition always different,” he observes, “but innovation in the abstract is a consistent force. Why wouldn’t free experimentation beyond mainstream Native American jewelry and fashion and Japanese designers’ radical rethinking of haute couture in the 1980s and 1990s feel kindred in a general creative sense?” Brown is currently working on another article for Ornament, a feature on jeweler Robin Waynee.

Barbara Mann Volume 39.5

 
While works like Life on Mars and Meteorite take a vast perspective of nature, Mann also delves into the other extreme, examining cellular structure—she ponders life’s puzzles both large and small.
A SLICE OF LIFE PENDANT of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, coral, pearls, diamonds, 5.7 x 5.7 x 1.3 centimeters, 2015.  Photograph by Walker Montgomery.

A SLICE OF LIFE PENDANT of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, coral, pearls, diamonds,
5.7 x 5.7 x 1.3 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Walker Montgomery.

Barbara Ingerski Mann’s home sits off a small road on land that is deeply terraced from its time as a cotton farm. Her extensive basement studio looks out into the woods. She and her husband, a retired professor of landscape architecture, live not far from the University of Georgia and enjoy being part of its vibrant research community. She has resided in Athens for more than forty years, but—with a father in the military—she was born in Japan, and lived in Washington state; Washington, D.C.; and Naples, Italy, while growing up. She is an avid nonfiction reader, and her current pile of favorite books includes Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber by Stephen Yafa; Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman; The Cell: A Visual Tour of the Building Block of Life by Jack Challoner; Sacred Architecture by A. T. Mann; and Cosmigraphics by Michael Benson. She channels her interests in art, science and nature into creating work in metal, her longtime passion.

      Mann moved to the deep South to attend the University of Georgia [UGA] in 1969 to study art. The school fit her family’s budget (she is one of five children) and she had seen and liked the paintings of Lamar Dodd, the art department’s director for many years, at an exhibition in D.C. She quickly discovered that art meant more than just painting and drawing, and found her home in the University’s strong craft areas, first in ceramics. She began visiting friends in the metals area while Robert Ebendorf was teaching, and started taking metals classes when Gary Noffke joined the faculty in 1971. She received her B.F.A. in 1973 and her M.F.A. in 1975, focusing on jewelry and metals.

BARBARA MANN in her studio.  Photograph by Bill Mann.

BARBARA MANN in her studio. Photograph by Bill Mann.

      She married William A. Mann, a young professor at UGA, in 1974 and they had their first child, Anthony, in 1982 and second, James, in 1986. She wanted a family and though she took time to focus on raising her boys, she also maintained a steady schedule of part-time teaching and studio work. She offered after-school art classes at St. Joseph Catholic Parish School while her sons attended, taught in the University’s continuing education program, still teaches at local community art centers, and has served intermittently since the mid-1970s as a part-time instructor in jewelry and metals at the University. One of her most personally influential teaching assignments is through the University’s study abroad program in Cortona, Italy, where she has taught nine times. Those travels remind her of the childhood awe she experienced while visiting Italian churches, which were always “full of mystery and smoke.” She is drawn to the rich cultural emphasis in Italy—and in Catholicism—on tradition and on the cycle of life and death, a key theme in her work.

METEORITE NECKLACE of sterling silver, fourteen, eighteen and twenty-two karat gold, meteorites, diamonds, cubic zirconias, garnets, rubies, 40.6 x 2.5 x 1.3 centimeters, 2017. Photograph by Dede Giddens.

LIFE ON MARS BROOCH/PENDANT of sterling silver, eighteen and twenty-two karat gold, glass, slate trilobite fossil, meteorite, 7.0 x 5.1 x 1.3 centimeters, 2000. Photograph by Walker Montgomery.

      One of Mann’s favorite pieces of jewelry is a brooch titled Life on Mars from 2000. She wonders, within the vast expanse of time and the vast expanse of space, could there ever have been life on Mars? This work is composed of three rounded forms: the top section features a trilobite fossil bezel set in gold; the middle a hemisphere of deep red Italian glass bezel set in gold; and the bottom a meteorite cast in place with three gold dots that suggest stars, planets or space dust. Through bringing these objects together, she documents parts of her thought process: one rock records life on Earth from over two-hundred-and-fifty-million years ago, while the other could have carried trace elements of many, potentially living, materials across vast expanses of space; the extreme magnitudes of time and distance embodied by these carefully selected objects—combined with the chance of interstellar contamination—presents many possibilities for speculation upon the red planet’s history.

Mann sets the elements in Life on Mars against sterling silver cuttlefish bone castings. She learned this ancient technique as a student in the early 1970s from artist Nancy Shapiro. Cuttlefish are sea creatures similar to squid with an internal shell that is rich in calcium and pumice-like in consistency. Collected when they wash ashore, cuttlefish bones are popular with pet owners, who place them in birdcages, and jewelers who slice them in half and press forms between them to create molds. The resulting casts have wavy, laminated textures. Many artists smooth these away, but Mann likes the natural ridges, and in her work they suggest growth and emphasize connections to nature.

A recent work, Meteorite Necklace, also features meteorites, each one in a comet-like setting speeding towards a central disk with a ruby slice. Instead of recalling science fiction or space-age-modern qualities, the rough rocks combined with the organic forms and cuttlefish bone texture convey a sense of raw nature. The silver middle element evokes a swirling and churning energy, and numerous faceted stones suggest, as Mann explains, “light rays, explosion, dispersal.” She is fascinated by depictions of the cosmos in art and maps, and with this necklace has added her own wearable representation of a powerful universe.

 

CREATION, STEM CELLS BROOCH/PENDANT of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, diamonds, rubies, 5.1 x 5.1 x 1.3 centimeters, 2014. SINGLE CELL BROOCH of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, amethyst, emeralds, labradorites, 5.1 x 5.1 x 1.3 centimeters, 2000. Photographs by Walker Montgomery.

 

      While works like Life on Mars and Meteorite take a vast perspective of nature, Mann also delves into the other extreme, examining cellular structure—she ponders life’s puzzles both large and small. Single Cell, a round silver brooch, is a luxurious scientific diagram of a eukaryotic cell in sterling and gold with a variety of gemstones representing the nucleus, lysosomes, ribosomes, and mitochondrion, while a similar pendant, A Slice of Life, suggests a cell more generally and is rendered in silver with coral, pearls and diamonds. In her Creation, Stem Cells, a round pendant or brooch that illustrates a stem cell becoming a neuron or nerve cell, Mann chose rubies to represent health and life and diamonds to represent energy or sparks. One reviewer, Dorothy Joiner, describes irregularities in the forms as hinting at deterioration, but likens the work to a “petri dish incubating stem cells, their branchlike extensions stretching toward each other in the miracle of growth.”

THE CLONING OF DOLLY BROOCH of sterling silver, fine silver, fourteen and eighteen karat gold, druzy uvarovite garnet, pearls, 6.4 x 5.1 x 1.3 centimeters, 1998. Photograph by Dede Giddens.

      When Mann sought knowledge about stem cells she contacted Dr. Steven Stice, a professor at the University of Georgia and a leading stem cell and cloning scholar, who generously invited her to his lab, showed her stem cells, and talked with her about their use in research. He shared images of stem cells that she uses as inspiration. Mann made a brooch in 1998 honoring Stice’s work with the first cloned mammal, The Cloning of Dolly, that features a pair of cast sheep atop a grassy green druzy uvarovite with a gold double helix between them, and Cloning Calves Sistrum (2011), a rattle reflecting her belief that research such as Stice’s keeps the world “agitated” in a positive and necessary way.

The importance of science in understanding the cycle of life and death is deeply personal for Mann. When her son Anthony was diagnosed in 2001 with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), which took his life in 2009, she read a lot, “read out of necessity,” in order to understand his illness and to learn about treatment opportunities. In addition to translating cellular structure into metal and stones, she conveyed her appreciation for the efforts of scientists and study animals in a necklace titled Research Mice as Saints from 2010. The necklace is a series of brass washers each stamped with “SOD1” representing a specific gene being studied for its possible connection to ALS, as well as a series of numbers denoting individual mice used for testing. Sections of Pyrex stirring rods, a laboratory essential, hang from some of the washers. The most haunting element are three silver mouse skulls with brass halos, honoring the mice who died. She reverently states, “The mice gave up their lives; they are saints.” Even amidst the great loss that forced her attention toward stem cells and ALS research, she has created works that convey beauty, compassion and hope.

Mann’s Memento Mori Pendant also features insects. In this work a large moth with matched agate wings and a curled proboscis prepares to suck what liquid remains in a decaying lemon, while a larva crawls along another part eating holes in the slice. The two-sided pendant is gently washed with blue and purple enamel, giving it an impressionistic hint of mold, while a few faceted stones flash and twinkle to indicate that the lemon is not completely dry. She reinforces the idea of moisture through the rutilated quartz “droplet” hanging from the bottom. Memento Mori at first glance appears to be conventional jewelry with gemstones, but through the details Mann twists the narrative and makes it a true “reminder of death,” as the name denotes, drawing upon sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch vanitas paintings, beautiful still lifes with added elements like skulls or insects.

 

MEMENTO MORI PENDANT (obverse/reverse) of sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, bronze, copper, agate, opal, diamonds, rutilated quartz, 7.0 x 7.0 x 1.3 centimeters, 2014. Photograph by Walker Montgomery.

 

      Food has emerged as a recurring subject in Mann’s work, and she creates necklaces and bracelets from materials including cast peanut shells, garlic, okra slices, and peach pits. She explains, “I love to cook, and eat, and I see so much beauty in the patterns and forms of many common foods. Preparing and chopping fruits and vegetables can side track me easily and I have to stop and go make a mold of that perfect slice of okra, or top end of a pepper, before it dries.” Her Okra Necklace comprises a series of individual slices, of assorted widths and seed densities, while her works with peanut shells investigate their endless variety of netting patterns. Much of her work is broadly situated—science, the cosmos—but the food pieces are more rooted in her adopted region. She even keeps a bucket for peach pits in her studio and is casting okra pods as vases.

PEACH PIT BRACELET of sterling silver, eighteen and twenty-four karat gold, spinel, citrine, topaz, 6.4 x 2.5 x 7.0 centimeters, 2013. Photograph by Neil Rosenbaum.

      In a recent exhibition of her work she included the following text: “Festina Lente is an Italian phrase which means ‘Make Haste Slowly.’ ” For her, this “is a reminder to slow down, take time, and take a long look at the beauty and complexity of what surrounds us.” And, she enjoys connecting her experiences with nature to the scientific texts she reads. Once she found an unusual sea creature fragment on the beach, and it reminded her of “reading about the amazing discoveries in the ocean depths and hydrothermal vents.” She considered the form, contemplated the “unknown in nature and life,” and used her sparkling vocabulary of gemstones and precious metals to express her wonder at nature and science, and the “mystery of the sea,” through the pendant Proliferation.

Mann avidly amasses materials for her work and for inspiration and especially relishes starting projects. She has drawers and drawers—filled with tidy little trays—of projects (at least a hundred) she has begun and intends to complete. Her studio is lovingly cluttered with skulls, postcards, toys, boxes, pistachio shells, dried flowers, books, and tools, and has at least eight places for her to sit and work, plus a casting studio in a former horse barn and a separate drawing room. Each day she walks in the woods, always returning home with a treasure—rough bark, a special stick, a beautiful feather or leaf, or maybe a glittery rock. She believes, “Observation gives us a more intimate relationship with nature and miracles,” and in that spirit recently completed the brooch and pendant Sunlight in the Trees. For this work she cast found twigs and added shimmering baguettes to replicate the dappled light she enjoys seeing filter through the limbs and leaves as she walks. This simple observation of nature translated through metal and stones reflects Mann’s optimism and the pleasure she finds in looking, learning and making.

 

PROLIFERATION PENDANT of argentium sterling silver, fourteen, eighteen and twenty-two karat gold, spinel, 6.4 x 5.1 x 1.3 centimeters, 2016. Photograph by Dede Giddens.

SUNLIGHT IN THE TREES BROOCH/PENDANT of sterling silver, fourteen and eighteen karat gold, cubic zirconia, peridot, aquamarine, garnet spessartite, 6.4 x 5.7 x 1.3 centimeters, 2017.  Photograph by Dede Giddens.

SUNLIGHT IN THE TREES BROOCH/PENDANT of sterling silver, fourteen and eighteen karat gold, cubic zirconia, peridot, aquamarine, garnet spessartite, 6.4 x 5.7 x 1.3 centimeters, 2017. Photograph by Dede Giddens.

 

SUGGESTED READING
Joiner, Dorothy. “Barbara Mann: Form and Response.” Metalsmith 33: June 2011.
“Barbara Mann at Wiregrass Museum,” World Sculpture News 21, No. 3: Summer 2015.
Roberts, Holly. “& Artist Spotlight: Barbara Mann,” Ampersand (magazine of the Red and Black, University of Georgia student newspaper), April 4, 2016.

 

      Get Inspired!


Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts. As part of her research for an upcoming exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art, “Crafting History: Textiles, Metals, and Ceramics at the University of Georgia,” for which she was a co-curator, she interviewed Barbara Mann, who has been involved with the school’s craft areas since the early 1970s. Mann, a local leader in metals who helped found the Athens Metal Arts Guild in 2013, graciously shared her knowledge of the history of craft in Athens. Callahan was pleased to have the opportunity to expand her discussions with Mann to include details of Mann’s own career and artistic perspective. Next up will be Callahan’s contribution to Ornament on jeweler Kat Cole.

Photography on the Run Volume 39.5

As a photographer, I try to continually improve my skills and adapt to different types of shooting, as well as attempting to utilize more fully the capabilities of modern digital single lens reflex cameras (DSLR), especially outside of the Ornament studio. Also, I minimize the amount of equipment I travel with, both to reduce weight and avoid problems with airport security, with the realization that the added weight of a laptop is now a must for functioning outside of the office. Instead of multiple camera bodies and lenses, I restrict myself to one body, perhaps a zoom and a macro lens, and if necessary, an external flash. Often, I just carry a DSLR, preferably with my image stabilized 17-55mm lens. If traveling by car, then a full complement of photography equipment may be carried, including a sturdy tripod and ballhead.

      In this brief article, I show images shot from late 2016 to recently, mainly photographed with makeshift setups, at museum exhibitions or shows and a few studio photos for comparison. With time always a premium, I still try to shoot images that are good enough to use for articles, news, blogs, and documentation, although it is hard to always match the quality produced by studio strobes in our office. When I am photographing outside of the studio, I consider it shooting on the run and often have to improvise without the proper equipment. But, by using external flashes, high ISO, image stabilized lenses and good camera holding techniques, one can get pretty close to studio quality. The images of the Bedouin necklace shows how a studio softbox and its diffused light can produce subtle qualities that enhance an image, like how the cloves and corralles glass beads are so well delineated, versus that shot with external flash in an improvised photo setup. In the latter situation, the more direct, less diffused light does not separate nor model as well the individual components of the necklace.

When I wrote the Photography of Personal Adornment (2014), I had already used almost all of the above techniques, although I had not used as much high ISO. Sometimes increasing the ISO, which is the equivalent of using higher speed film or ASA, produces too much electronic noise. The image of the Loloma bracelet, if examined at a higher magnification, shows noise or grain. Other times, by using high ISO and closing down the aperture of the lens, I can get very good imagery, even though the image on the viewfinder might be too dark to judge. After downloading to a computer and applying a few Photoshop moves, the image vastly improves, as seen in the minute glass facial mosaic of the Corning Museum of Glass (Liu 2014: 135).

Photography can be a difficult pursuit for both the professional and the hobbyist, but these photographs should give you an idea of what is possible with limited equipment.  Experiment and enjoy the process while searching for that satisfying result.


Click Photos to Enlarge

 

“AFRICAN-PRINT FASHION NOW!,” an exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, a large, well-installed show of vibrant clothing and accessories. Both shot with handheld Canon 7D, 17-55mm image stabilized lens (IS) on P or programmed mode, ISO 2500, 1/80. Left at f4.5, right at f4.0. For exhibitions, the 17-55mm is ideal, although because it was used with a sub sized and not full sensor, there is a magnifying effect, lessening the effectiveness of the 17mm wide angle lens. But the weight of the 7D and the IS lens make such a combination excellent for handheld photography, even though we did have a tripod with us, which requires much more time for each shot and reduces spontaneity. Courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

 
 

DRAGON BROOCH WITH KINGFISHER FEATHER MOSAICS, 7.5 centimeters wide, from my sister Margaret’s childhood; shot as part of an inventory of her jewelry collection, on a piece of black Tufflock. On the left, M mode, with Canon 7D, 60mm macro and 580EZ external flash with diffuser, at f32, 1/100, ISO 100, handheld, with flash aimed at brooch. On the right is the same brooch shot in the Ornament studio, same settings but with strobe in overhead softbox, and Mylar reflector in front of jewelry to bounce light against vertically oriented brooch. Note differences in amount of reflections and that color of studio images is more purple, as colors of bird feathers change due to the angle of light striking them. Shooting with external flash and macro can yield reproduction quality images.

 
 

BEDOUIN NECKLACE purchased in the 1970s, with the upper portion re-strung by author, given to my sister Margaret as a gift. It is an excellent example of use of cloves for smell as a component, as well as Chinese glass beads, evidence of trade. Right, shot on site with M mode, 7D, 60mm, external flash, f32, 1/100, ISO 100. Left, shot with studio strobe, equipment and settings exactly same.

 
 

CHARLES LOLOMA GOLD BRACELET, in his signature style of inlay, at the Heard Museum exhibition “Beauty Speaks for Us.” Shot with 7D, 17-55mm, manual mode, f14, 1/60, ISO 6400; at higher magnification, one can detect appreciable noise. HOPI DANCER, HALL OF DANCE, MUSEUM OF AMERICAN INDIAN, shot handheld, with 7D, 17-55mm: Left image f2.8, 1/6, ISO 2000, program mode; Right image f6.3, 1/80, ISO 2000, manual mode. While the latter is much darker exposure, the colors are better. The lighting for the installation was very low, to protect the colors of the costume materials. With more trials, a decent exposure would be possible.

 
 

BALEORA NECKLACE, of gold, rock crystals, rubies, nineteenth century, 35.3 centimeters, Rajasthan, as seen in exhibition installation at the Fowler Museum. Shot with tripod mounted Canon 6D, 100mm macro, manual mode, f8.0, 1/80, ISO 2500. Slightly underexposed, details are sharp; note how the curved parts of the necklace catch more light, whereas the more vertical lower portion and pendant are somewhat darker. When an external flash on an extended sync cord was used, the necklace cast too strong a shadow, so only ambient light from the overhead spots was utilized. Ideally, one would use an overhead softbox, with light bounced onto the lower portions of the necklace. Courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA. PATRICK BENESH-LIU is shown using the above equipment to take these shots. A good, steady tripod like the three decades old Tilt-All is mandatory for this type of photography. The light is being projected into the Plex case from overhead spots that are slightly to the side of Patrick.

 
 

ROBERT K. LIU shooting with tripod mounted 6D, 100mm macro, manual mode, f4.0, 1/80, ISO 2500. Because of the shallow depth-of-field at f4.0, one focuses at the midpoint of the image, about where the brass rod of the armature bends. Much of the background blurs, but one can still see reflections off the silver of other jewelry. The 100mm macro is perfect, where one cannot get too close to object. VADLO SILVER TORQUE, early twentieth century, 21.5 centimeters diameter, Rajasthan. Courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

 
 

      Get Inspired!


Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. 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 and ancient Egyptian jewelry. Recently he has been giving one-on-one photography lessons at our office, as well as teaching workshops on bamboo and matrix jewelry. In this issue Liu writes about photographing in improvised situations while producing near studio quality images, by using accessories like external flash and increasing the ISO of digital cameras.

Bhagwan Das Soni Volume 39.5

AMULET NECKLACE (haar) of silver, glass, paper, and paint worn by Hindus. WRIST BRACELET of silver worn by Rabari tribes of Gujarat. AMULET (sikka) of silver, pearls, turquoise, coins, and carnelian. Photographs by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

We live on a planet where the global neighborhood has broadened, with once great distances being traversed daily. The land and sea between continents are not the barriers they once were, even for those who live in small towns and villages. Worlds that were once far apart may meet, as is the case with Rajasthani goldsmith, Bhagwan Das Soni, or B.D. as he is more well known, who graced the Fowler Museum at the University of Los Angeles with his presence and wares one mildly overcast afternoon this past May. At a one-day trunk show featuring his work, exactly eight thousand, one hundred and seventy six miles away from the city in which he resides, people who might never have met had a chance to share in their passion for jewelry, culture and the handmade, face to face.

      Coinciding with the Fowler Museum’s exhibition on East Indian jewelry, “Enduring Splendor: Jewelry of India’s Thar Desert,” this event brought to the West Coast one of the four Rajasthani jewelers whose work, and livelihood, was researched for the exhibit. In 2002, Bhagwan Das was one of two Indian goldsmiths invited to the Smithsonian Silk Road Festival in Washington, D.C., a show he has since used to make engagements and pursue connections in the United States. On the second floor of the museum, in a small room perhaps used for meetings, a literal treasure trove spilled out over several tables. Jewelry from all over India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Afghanistan mingled with more contemporary work made by B.D.’s family. A stream of visitors, both ardent collectors and those simply looking to add a little flash to their wardrobe, wandered from display to display, occasionally asking a question regarding material, origin or technique that he unhesitatingly fielded. It was as if the contents of a jeweler’s store in India had been transported to a foreign land and set out as a sumptuous repast.

The history of B.D.’s family in goldsmithing goes back nine generations, an unbroken line of tradition tying past to present. His father, Govindlal, worked for the Maharajah of Jaisalmer, as did his father, Inderchand. The Inderchand family originally heralded from Sind, a migration that dates back roughly eight generations. Govindlal himself had seven daughters and four sons, all of whom are either married to, or are, sonis; both the family name, caste and tradition, sonis are jewelers who work in gold, although they can also make objects from silver, brass, bronze, and copper. Part of the Soni caste of jewelers in the Thar desert region, Soni is a popular surname for goldsmiths in Rajasthan—thus Bhagwan Das Soni’s name is both occupation and title.

BHAGWAN DAS SONI AND KATHY DIGENOVA, Museum Store Manager at the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

      B.D’s beginning as a goldsmith can be traced to childhood, when at the age of twelve he would carry his father’s tools to the workshop and sit with him, watching the master at work. It was through careful observation that B.D. learned his father’s craft. Once he felt his son had absorbed enough lessons, his father let him play with the least expensive of materials, copper, with which he fabricated simple rings and earrings. Slowly but surely, more valuable materials were supplied, silver, and then gold. A brief interlude took place as his father pushed him to work for the government. “When I was seventeen years old, my father encouraged me to become a civil servant because he thought my financial future would be more secure,” B.D. remembers. “I tried it for nearly one year before resigning. I didn’t like the work and wanted to return to making jewelry.” By the age of twenty, he had become an expert in granulation, and at that point began to work independently. He established his own shop, and has now built up their operation to the point where his sons are largely responsible for producing the jewelry. 

The making and selling of jewelry is a family affair. “Every adult member of my family is involved one way or another in the family jewelrymaking enterprise,” B.D. explains. “Each of my brothers makes jewelry and sells it through his own shop. I especially enjoy designing jewelry. Two of my sons make jewelry and sell it through my haveli.” Somewhat like a cross between a mansion and a Spanish hacienda, havelis have a similar sense of gravity, and in Bhagwan Das’s case, is used as a gallery and storefront. His third son Yogesh, who traveled to Ahmadabad to apprentice, also studied business administration, a valuable skill for managing the extended network of family shops. He is involved in the sale of their jewelry. “We all learn from, and support, each other,” B.D. says. “Everyone in my family is proud of being part of a multi-generational goldsmithing tradition.” 

 

This tradition is something shared between the contemporary American art jeweler and a soni, a love for the care invested in making an object, and of the knowledge needed to do so. “Creative people everywhere take great pride and pleasure in making something of beauty with their own hands,” he remarks. “In my opinion, there is no comparison between a one-of-a-kind, handmade object and something mass produced by machine. If goldsmith families don’t continue to make jewelry by hand, the techniques and skills required to make it will be lost.”

In a city steeped in tradition as Jaisalmer those techniques and skills are well alive. Bhagwan Das Soni’s presence in an American museum was a reminder of the different worlds of creativity that inhabit our planet, separated by distance yet sharing that same appreciation for a life lived with care and a respect for the beautiful.

Click on Photos for Captions

 
 
 

      Get Inspired!


PBL_Contributor.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. This year saw him visiting New York for the veritable deluge of fashion shows on display during this past spring, such as “Black Fashion Designers” in the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. After observing the parade of garments and ensembles made over several decades, he comments, “You learn that some of the seminal styles of the twentieth century were pioneered by African-Americans. The slinky, silky jumpsuit that filled the discotheques of the 1970s? That is called the sizzler, and it was made by James Daugherty.” Back on the West Coast, it was his pleasure to meet Bhagwan Das Soni and cover the trunk show of his jewelry at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. As Ornament’s reporter, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest news in craft.

Shockwave: Japanese Fashion Volume 39.5

 

DECONSTRUCTION/RECONSTRUCTION INSTALLATION. REI KAWAKUBO. Photograph by Jean-Luce Huré ©Jean-Luce Huré. JACKET AND SKIRT by Comme des Garçons of nylon/polyurethane stretch gingham with padding, Spring/Summer 1997 collection: Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body. ISSEY MIYAKE. Photograph by Jean-Luce Huré ©Jean-Luce Huré. JACKET WITH TRANSFORMABLE BUSTLE AND ASYMMETRIC SKIRT by Issey Miyake of Japanese ikat-printed cotton, Autumn/Winter 1986 collection. KANSAI YAMAMOTO. Photograph by Jean-Luce Huré ©Jean-Luce Huré. T-SHIRT DRESS by Kansai Yamamoto of printed cotton jersey, about 1980. Photographs courtesy of Denver Art Museum: Neusteter Textile Collection.

 

Characterizing as a shock wave the impact of six Japanese fashion designers on the haute-couture ethos of Paris, London and New York in the 1980s and 1990s, Denver Art Museum curator Florence Müller assembled seventy garments to relate a story of confrontation and cultural synergy centered largely on the question of where primacy lay in the relationship between body and clothing.

       The gallery space, divided into four thematic sections devoted to designs by Issey Miyake, Kenzo Takada, Kansai Yamamoto, Yohji Yamamoto, Rei Kawakubo, and Junya Watanabe interspersed with Western counter-examples, was not particularly suggestive of revolt or even agitation. On the contrary, the contemplative environment of subdued illumination and black-plinthed unobtrusiveness created hushed atmospheric interstices that drew together in quiet connection a group of garments that might otherwise have been fractious. Intentional or not, the effect was a reminder that revolutions are recognized as such because their consequences have been significant enough to have overturned one order of things and established in its stead another that becomes equally pervasive, unified and familiar.

JUMPSUIT by Thierry Mugler of knit velvet; “Hiver Futuriste,” Autumn/Winter 1979 collection. 

      After passing through a vestibule—beyond which a projected video of fashion in motion emphasized that garments on museum display do not fully engage their potential as wearable art—the viewer encountered the first section of the exhibition: East Meets West. Here, against a backdrop of panels inspired by Japanese folding screens, three vibrant pictorial shirts by Kansai Yamamoto asserted the designer’s interest in aesthetic similarities between the Ukiyo-e tradition of woodblock prints and the graphic inspiration of such Pop artists as Andy Warhol. More important for the exhibition as a whole, they emphasized through their display—not on mannequins but rather as planes spread flat with sleeves extended—a fundamental difference between the custom-tailored designs of haute couture and traditional Japanese clothing, above all the rectangular, flat-stitched kimono. As Issey Miyake states in an exhibition-catalog quote: “Western clothes are cut and shaped with the body as the starting point; Japanese clothes start with the fabric.”

That this simple difference could become the seismic epicenter of an upheaval in Western high fashion was stressed by the next part of the exhibition. Titled Deconstruction/Reconstruction, this section provided examples of an haute-couture status quo, including a body-contoured velvet jersey jumpsuit from French designer Thierry Mugler’s Autumn/Winter 1979-1980 collection. In the Western context this epitome of tailoring to the female body, particularly the lower torso and legs, could be said to mark the culmination of a revolt against the prudish female attire of a century earlier. Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe responded to this close-cut aesthetic with designs that, as Müller relates, “seemed to eschew any notion of overt seduction or femininity.” Under the name Comme des Garçons (Like Boys), Kawakubo designed baggy coats and tunic dresses that disregarded the structure of the body. Her 1997 gingham jacket and skirt, derisively nicknamed “Quasimodo” and the “bump dress” for the pillows sewn into its lining, was iconic. Nearby, a tweed send-up of Coco Chanel from his Autumn/Winter 2003-2004 collection, Ensemble: Trench Coat and Skirt, seemed to deliberately revive an Edwardian decorum of the female form.

While haute-couture sensibilities may have been irked by this lumpy, loose-sack aesthetic, the greatest affront from the Japanese designers came not in design but rather in material. In some cases fabrics were intentionally distressed to the point that critics, in reference to an atomic blast, dubbed Kawakubo’s creations “Hiroshima chic” and described her practice, in a postmodern vulgarization of the term, as deconstruction. Ostensibly moth-eaten sweaters, frayed and faded pseudo-military-surplus jackets, and linen apparel, such as Ensemble: Tunic and Skirt from the early 1980s, that seemed salvaged from ascetic monasteries, the garments were composed of fabric soaked in diverse shades of dye then washed repeatedly or exposed to weeks of sunlight.

When clothing becomes more about effect, particularly conceptual impact, than utility, the term wearable art begins to seem appropriate, even essential. The third section of “Shock Wave,” titled Art and Fashion in Dialogue, explored the forays of Kawakubo and Miyake into the postmodern art world of New York in the 1980s and early 1990s. Untitled #299 from 1994, a Cindy Sherman self-portrait chromogenic print in which the artist slouches in Comme-des-Garçons attire holding a phallically positioned cigarette in a gingham-gloved hand; a 1982 ArtForum cover on which a model appears wearing Miyake’s rattan and bamboo woven bodice (also on display); and a red Miyake molded-plastic bustier, simultaneously suggestive of futuristic female-superhero garb and traditional negoro lacquerware, that appeared in a 1982 Robert Mapplethorpe photograph of bodybuilder Lisa Lyon, attested to the consonance of Japanese experimental fashion design with the eclectic irreverence of late twentieth century art.

 

Click on Photos for Captions

      The shock value of Japanese high-fashion design in the 1980s and 1990s was evidenced in the final section of the exhibition, West Meets East, both through the influence evident in the work of such young European designers of the time as Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang and in the tamed and diluted feeling of that influence.  A shock, after all, is localized and momentary though its effects can spread and linger—even revolutionize an entire field of practice. 

“Shock Wave: Japanese Fashion Design 1980s-1990s” showed at the Denver Art Museum from September 11, 2016 through May 28, 2017.

 

      Get Inspired!


Glen R. Brown, Professor of Art History at Kansas State University, was struck by conceptual similarities between some designs in the Denver Art Museum’s “Shock Wave: Japanese Fashion Design, 1980s-1990s” exhibition and a recent piece by David and Wayne Nez Gaussoin, who freely explore possibilities beyond mainstream Native American art. “Innovations are by definition always different,” he observes, “but innovation in the abstract is a consistent force. Why wouldn’t free experimentation beyond mainstream Native American jewelry and fashion and Japanese designers’ radical rethinking of haute couture in the 1980s and 1990s feel kindred in a general creative sense?” Brown is currently working on another article for Ornament, a feature on jeweler Robin Waynee.

Black Fashion Designers Volume 39.5

COAT by Harbison, Spring 2015, United States.  All photographs © The Museum at FIT, New York.

COAT by Harbison, Spring 2015, United States. All photographs © The Museum at FIT, New York.

It has always been a struggle for the African American, whether the battlefield has been civil rights, politics, entertainment, culture, or art. Underlying all of these, and much more, has been a wrestling with identity, of coming up with a sense of self that was true, historically rooted, and as an avenue for self expression within the predominant Caucasian culture. While fashion might seem an unlikely realm in which to resolve the contradictions and tensions inherent to black identity, in many ways it is a timeline, deep with symbolism and broad in inspiration, with which that journey can be measured. Thus it was amply shown with “Black Fashion Designers,” recently closed at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (December 6, 2016 – May 16, 2017).

      What makes black fashion? It is perhaps best likened to a quilt or tapestry; filled with individual parts that up close seem unrelated or separate, but from afar come together to create something wild, diverse, unusual, meditative, and beautiful. Each African-American designer, whether recognized for her or his talents or sitting in the shadows, out of the limelight, had to swim against the inertia of prevailing institutions that were built by a largely white demographic. The central triumph of FIT’s exhibition was in raising awareness of these makers and trendsetters, and by selecting representative pieces demonstrating how wide-ranging the contributions of black fashion designers truly has been. In isolation, it can be difficult to envision the breadth of the field.

 

WEDDING DRESS (front, back and detail) by Ann Lowe, made for Judith Tabler, 1968.

      The exhibition exploded that limited vision with seventy-five ensembles from sixty different designers. In the darkened corridor of the Fashion & Textile History Gallery, rows of illuminated mannikins told a nuanced tale of African-American expression, from past to present, starting with Anne Lowe’s wedding dresses. Five divisions made up the exhibition and provided it with structure; Eveningwear, Menswear, Street Influence, African Influence, Breaking Into The Industry, Experimentation, Black Models, and Rise of the Black Fashion Designer. One striking example from 1968 featured a sweeping train and a figure-hugging bodice, plain and nearly unembellished but for a garland of appliquéd flowers trailing near the hem. These blooms scatter themselves across the train, as if the bridesmaids were tossing flowers in the bride’s wake. A collar of flowers along the neckline complete the natural simplicity of Lowe’s dress.

What this elegant article neglects to publicize is Lowe’s prominence as the fashion designer for the rich and famous. She learned her craft from her grandmother, Georgia Cole, a former slave from Alabama. Cole’s own story is one of those old school romances, having been liberated by her husband, a free black man by the name of General Cole. That her granddaughter would one day be couturier to Jacqueline Kennedy (whose wedding dress is also in the exhibition) is proof that African Americans have and continue to flourish in spite of adversity.

DRESS by Balmain (Olivier Rousteing) of raffia, silk, rhinestones, Spring 2013, France. JUMPSUIT by James Daugherty of polyester matte jersey, circa 1974, United States. DRESS by Jon Haggins of silk, 1980-1985, United States. LEGGINGS AND HAT by Patrick Kelly of spandex, straw, cotton, Spring 1988, France.

      However, the beauty of the exhibit was putting into context the sheer range of aesthetic contributions made by black fashion designers, from the simple and the demure to the loud, fun and exuberant. A checkered dress from Balmain, the French fashion house which recently designed costumes for the Paris opera, is a nearly Wonderlandian ensemble combining the glitz of Mardi Gras with a surreal twist on medieval pageantry. Olivier Rousteing, the man behind this chic, starchly embroidered outfit, became the creative director of Balmain when he was just twenty-five. Despite being seen as a black sheep in the fashion world, for reasons beyond just his race, Rousteing made significant changes in the Balmain brand, increasing its percentage of sales for menswear to forty percent, and opening up a boutique in London. He also has helped evolve its aesthetic, hybridizing Western designs with Asian influences. Perhaps of most notoriety in this digital age, Rousteing tipped Balmain over the one million follower mark on Instagram, thanks to his dedication to taking selfies with a variety of celebrities, among them Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, Chris Brown, and Rihanna.

The understated elegance of James Daugherty and Jon Haggins was a look at the other end of the spectrum, and their simplicity on first glance may conceal their fundamental contributions to fashion. Daugherty’s sleek polyester beauty, in glowing sea foam green, is a form of jumpsuit evocatively dubbed a “sizzler” by Ebony magazine. Born during the 1970s, his slinky design was emblematic of the era. Daugherty himself got his career underway working for the celebrated American costume designer Edith Head, and would end up teaching at the FIT.

Haggins’s royal blue silk number features a plunging back-cowl and a geometric staircase surface pattern that shimmies its way down around the waist and hips. A graduate of FIT, he founded his own fashion label in 1966. His decision to move away from stiff, structural dresses towards loose and elegant fabrics that draped languidly upon the body laid the groundwork for the decade to come.

 

ENSEMBLE by Christie Brown of cotton, synthetic, Spring 2016, Ghana.

 

      The section named African Influence spoke to the challenge of deriving inspiration from Mother Africa without falling into imitation. Some pieces, such as a pair of trousers and a clever hat made to mimic the practice of African women balancing a basket on their heads to carry food and goods, by famed black designer Patrick Kelly, were playful homages. Others, like a diaphanous dress adorned with flowers, cut out patterns and paisley edging by the fashion brand Christie Brown, are actually from Africa. Christie Brown originates in Ghana, and was established by Aisha Ayensu in March 2008. Named eponymously after Ayensu’s grandmother, the relatively young brand won Emerging Designer of the Year Award in 2009 at Arise Africa Fashion Week in Johannesburg, South Africa, and also earned the right to represent Ghana in the Parisian Arise L’Afrique-a-Porter in 2010. Both bright and floral, with a screen-printed scene of the savannah decorating the back of the coat that rests on the wearer’s shoulders like a mantle, the piece is most unique for the open-work appliqué panel covering the chest, which mimics the paisley patterns adorning the waist.

 

JACKET (back detail) by Pyer Moss, Spring 2016, United States. 

 

      The exhibition was unafraid of tackling the unpleasant social issues that are part and parcel of the lives of these designers, and the political angle of black fashion was explored in both t-shirts, which featured loud, demonstrative statements on injustice and the environment, and fully realized garments. Such was aptly, and soundly, displayed by the duality of a t-shirt and a men’s jacket by Pyer Moss, an American fashion label founded by Kerby Jean-Ramond, a Haitian-American whose parents came to the States in 1980.
Along the hem of the jacket in raw paint reminiscent of graffiti is scrawled the words “We Already Have a Black Designer.” The white shirt is a reliquary of names of those black men who have died in confrontations with the police, and was worn by Jean-Ramond to his spring 2016 fashion show.

Throughout the exhibit, the unveiling of this history is a potent reminder of the vitality and contribution of these artisans to the contemporary fashion movement.

 

Click on Photos for Captions

 

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Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. This year saw him visiting New York for the veritable deluge of fashion shows on display during this past spring, such as “Black Fashion Designers” in the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. After observing the parade of garments and ensembles made over several decades, he comments, “You learn that some of the seminal styles of the twentieth century were pioneered by African-Americans. The slinky, silky jumpsuit that filled the discotheques of the 1970s? That is called the sizzler, and it was made by James Daugherty.” Back on the West Coast, it was his pleasure to meet Bhagwan Das Soni and cover the trunk show of his jewelry at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. As Ornament’s reporter, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest news in craft.

Counter-Couture Volume 39.5

 

CHRISTOPHER CROOKEDSTITCH DRESS of hand-dyed cotton with beads and found embellishments, 1978. KASIK WONG RED RAY DRESS of gauze, net and metallic brocade, 1974. BIRGITTA BJERKE DRESS of crocheted yarn, circa 1970. YVONNE PORCELLA PATCHWORK DRESSES of cotton fabric, ribbons and molas, 1972. Installation photographs by Rex Rystedt; courtesy of Museum of Arts and Design.

 

It was bound to come around; fifty years later is about the right time for museums to gather their curatorial muscle for reviewing, gathering, documenting, and committing to an exhibition that has now achieved some distance, to allow for some semblance of an objective, informed presentation. Sometimes they are wonderfully subjective thematically, which can make for engaging, fascinating exhibitions. That time has come for America’s personal counterculture, ranging from the 1960s to 1970s. Initially organized by Washington state’s Bellevue Arts Museum, “Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture” is now showing through August 20, 2017, at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City. Another exhibition is cementing that time in current consciousness with “The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll,” at San Francisco’s De Young Museum through August 29, 2017. The hippie meme continues spreading its message of love and peace and there are sure to be more exhibitions exploring this iconic cultural framework.

 

EMBROIDERED PATCH, a Levi Contest submission, 1974, artist unknown. Courtesy of American Craft Council. ALEX AND LEE shown in Native Funk and Flash, 1974. Photograph by Jerry Wainwright. SCRUMBLY KOLDEWYN OUTFIT of sewn cloth doilies and other materials, 1972.

 

      Displayed at the museum is a full representation of the handmade through the techniques favored during this innovative era, yet based on traditional methods put to service in unique ways: crocheting, knitting, weaving, featherwork, leatherwork, dyeing, beading, appliqué, painting, stitching, felting, quilting. Particularly engaging, and so characteristic of the garments, is that the street and ceremonial fashion of the times was an inclusively-based American style, drawing on global sources, consciously, not subliminally, arrived at. They were adapted, personalized and individuated, a new formula for “mixing and matching.” And they were fresh and exciting, especially after the 1950s when post-wartime clothing constraints were set aside and younger people began to use clothes to sartorially express themselves.

 

FAYETTE HAUSER wearing her Cosmic Gypsy ensemble of grass skirt and found objects, 1970. BILLY SHIRE JACKET of Levi denim, adorned with rivets, rim sets, furniture studs, and desk bell, 1975.

 

LESLIE CORRELL DANCEPIECE #1 of brass, Turkish “evil eye” beads, other trade beads, mounted on Indonesian batik, 1971.

      Those expecting the works contained in Julie Schafler Dale’s exceptional Art to Wear (1986) will be denied that pleasure. Her extraordinary volume listed works of genius, like that of Jean Williams Cacicedo, but not shown to similar advantage in “Counter-Couture” with a crocheted, quilted wool and velvet vest from 1972. Very few rise to the pinnacles that Dale’s refined selections portrayed. Certainly, there are highpoints with garments by Kasik Wong who influenced others but never received proper acclaim until after his death. There is the much celebrated Welfare jacket by Billy Shire in Levi denim, brass studs, rivets, furniture studs, and desk bell. Shire was the winner of Levi’s Denim Art Competition. An over-the-top tour-de-force of the period’s embrace of an insatiable appetite for surface design, Shire’s jacket glows from the metal and rhinestone studs crossing the denim surface in a carefully designed yet ambling, druggy symmetry.

Before fashion changed a few decades later, this clothing and jewelry still had wearability as its locus, and consciously expressed a basic romanticism for both feminine and masculine genders with its timely tendency for individualistic liberalism and radicalism as its cultural inspiration. Adornment appealed to the age’s sense of theatrics, from the artistic point of origin to wearer to viewer. The effect could be bold and graphic or subtle and suggestive. It strongly identified with aspects of ethnography and primitivism; was emotional in context, to provoke or invoke a response, be it hot or cool; and it celebrated and exposed the body as a form of kinetic sculpture, as living, sensuous flesh. If the idea was to cover the fabric or whatever material was used, maybe improve upon it, possibly deliberatively or spontaneously, leaving nothing untouched; the results often worked, sometimes hilariously so, striking one dumb with appreciation for their incongruous, kaleidoscopic visions.

ALEX AND LEE NECKLACE of clay scarab, brass, moss agate, abalone buttons, hand-dyed, knotted and woven cord, 1973.

      Clothing was not the only objective for personal adornment. Giving rise to a singularly American lexicon for jewelry construction, Alex and Lee’s works assembled diverse materials like lobster claws, feathers, rabbit fur, monkey hair, leather, clay, glass, in a feast of perfectly arranged assemblage. Deserving of popular culture’s new coinage for one of a kind, their jewelry not only astonished the eye, but was beautiful and elegant, and influenced designers for decades to come.

For all the euphoria, joy and whimsy, a darkness clouded the American atmosphere and showed up prominently in bodily accoutrements, in patches, buttons, body painting, t-shirts, and peace pendants. Riots, wars, marches, rebellions, and violent deaths with the gunning down of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, John and Robert Kennedy, marked irrevocably the complicated ways in which we acted and viewed ourselves. All of this was at odds with a deep sense of the necessity to create a better society than born into, even with its overwhelming challenges, such as the one in which we now belong. The idealism of the age may have been splintered by the realities of its time and place, and its clothing and jewelry no longer worn, becoming archival material, but it reflected an Earth-based spirit that was tolerant, kindly and welcoming. Its better nature expressed a sort of mantra deeply woven into the American origin narrative. We the people are here to form an ever more perfect union, rising above and fixing our flaws, and that noble work is constant and never ends. It was a vibrant, passionate search fifty years ago that continues to this day.

 

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Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and the magazine’s in-house expert on contemporary wearable art. As Ornament’s resident itinerant, she moves to and fro across the United States in search of inspiring craft, great experiences and, of course, excellent food. In the wake of her trip to the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., always a pleasurable encounter, she continued by bus to the Big Apple, to review “Counter-Couture: Handmade Fashion in an American Counterculture” at the Museum of Arts and Design (March 2 – August 20, 2017). Having been in her youth through that hallowed period, Benesh took great enjoyment (and tried not to wallow in nostalgia) in seeing the experimental work pioneered by artists who were her contemporaries.