Demitra Thomloudis Volume 40.5

HOUSTON YELLOW TAPE PROJECT: 4814 CHENEVERT STREET BROOCH of reclaimed stair spindle, nickel silver, steel, and paint, 15.9 x 3.2 x 1.0 centimeters, 2014. DEMITRA THOMLOUDIS in her studio, 2018.  Photographs by Demitra Thomloudis, except where noted.

HOUSTON YELLOW TAPE PROJECT: 4814 CHENEVERT STREET BROOCH of reclaimed stair spindle, nickel silver, steel, and paint, 15.9 x 3.2 x 1.0 centimeters, 2014. DEMITRA THOMLOUDIS in her studio, 2018. Photographs by Demitra Thomloudis, except where noted.

Demitra Thomloudis’s large workspace looks like part art studio, part construction office. Hung on the walls are posters for contemporary jewelry shows as well as photographs of building projects. Rolls of duct tape, pieces of GreenGuard insulation board, bits of plywood, cement forms, and tabbed strips of metal are abundant. It is unclear what she found or scavenged, what she bought at the hardware store, what she purchased from art suppliers, and what is adornment-in-progress. And she likes it that way. Thomloudis is excited by the aesthetics of the built environment and allows the processes and materials of construction (and sometimes demolition) to inform her jewelry.

Thomloudis, who grew up outside of Philadelphia, strongly identifies with her Greek heritage. Her father emigrated from Greece in his early thirties and her mother, an elementary school special education teacher and a Philadelphian of Italian descent, embraced his traditions. Regular summer visits to Athens, “the New York City of Greece,” helped shape her interest in urban settings. Thomloudis also identifies with her father’s passion for tinkering. He worked as an auto mechanic for much of her youth and, as “a self-proclaimed builder,” often engaged in “crazy remodels” to their house. During first grade she had to enter her house via an eight-foot-ladder when he decided to add a second floor to their home while they were living in it, and she recalls a constant series of projects restricting the use of various rooms or fixtures. The do-it-yourself quality, economic considerations and sheer creativity of this activity made a strong, and positive, impression.

CrossPASS, SITE #8 BROOCH of steel, brass, cement, resin, pigment, and fibers, by Demitra Thomloudis and Motoko Furuhashi, 8.9 x 7.0 x 1.0 centimeters, 2016.  Photograph by Motoko Furuhashi.

CrossPASS, SITE #8 BROOCH of steel, brass, cement, resin, pigment, and fibers, by Demitra Thomloudis and Motoko Furuhashi, 8.9 x 7.0 x 1.0 centimeters, 2016. Photograph by Motoko Furuhashi.

She loved to draw growing up and, combining that with her interest in the human body—inspired in part by the popular “Body Worlds” exhibitions—decided to study medical illustration in college. Thomloudis attended Ohio’s Cleveland Institute of Art, one of the only schools at the time that offered a degree in medical (rather than scientific) illustration. She tells stories of class periods spent drawing cadavers at nearby Case Western University, sometimes with appendages strung to the ceiling to create the desired poses. “It was so wild! I never want to do that ever again, but I’m really glad that I had that opportunity.” While taking life drawing and painting courses at Cleveland, and pre-med courses at Case, she, on a whim, added an elective in jewelry and immediately realized, “this is exactly what I was looking for.” With jewelry she could work with the body, investigate an array of materials, and have greater opportunity for self-expression—“I didn’t want to follow anyone’s rules.”

Continuing her education at San Diego State University, Thomloudis earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in 2013 with an emphasis on jewelry and metalwork. Living so close to the United States’ southern border soon affected how she thought about her work. She took inspiration from the scenes she viewed in Mexico of neighborhoods created out of necessity, of architecture in flux, of materials combined in unexpected ways. She also studied the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and encountered Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture (1964), finding it a key guide when considering vernacular, indigenous and anonymous forms of building and how untrained architects can upend traditional uses of materials and conventional rules of architecture. One of the works she created in California, Reconstructed: Framed, a brooch composed of open rectilinear forms of cement, silver and steel with bits of duct tape and thread (combining elements influenced by both sides of the border fence), appeared in the exhibition “La Frontera” organized in 2013 by Lorena Lazard and Velvet da Vinci Gallery. It was also in the revised version of the exhibition (“La Frontera: Encounters Along the Border”) earlier this year at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

HOUSTON YELLOW TAPE PROJECT: 4910 JACKSON STREET BROOCH of reclaimed upholstery, nickel silver and steel, 7.6 x 8.9 x 3.8 centimeters, 2014.

In the Houston Yellow Tape Project, Thomloudis collected materials—decorative wood trim, colorful foam from a couch, door knobs—from ten residential demolition sites within a two-block radius of her home and used this debris to make ten pieces of jewelry that ‘physically embodied a singular, discarded moment during the sprawling trajectory of the city.’
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Thomloudis next spent a year in Houston as the Artist-in-Residence at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. That “sprawling, overwhelming urban environment,” where new buildings appeared seemingly overnight, drew her attention to “the guts of buildings” and to “how things go up.” In Houston she observed more steel and more corrugated metal, and reflected those contemporary regional choices in her work. While there she participated in an exhibition on sprawl, creating jewelry out of cement, steel and distressed wood, and explained to Houston Public Media, “With my work I’m trying to extract those things we take for granted, like cracks in the sidewalk or some of the materials buildings are made out of, and kind of freeze those moments and preserve them as artifacts.” 

RECONSTRUCTED: FRAMED BROOCH of cement, sterling silver, resin, steel, pigment, thread, duct tape, powder coat, wood, and nickel silver, 10.2 x 7.6 x 5.1 centimeters, 2013. Photograph by Seth Papac.

Along with the omnipresent construction in Houston, there was constant destruction. In her Houston Yellow Tape Project, Thomloudis collected materials—decorative wood trim, colorful foam from a couch, door knobs—from ten residential demolition sites within a two-block radius of her home and used this debris to make ten pieces of jewelry that “physically embodied a singular, discarded moment during the sprawling trajectory of the city.” She presented them in an installation that mapped the locations of the former homes, and she intended the jewelry to “ignite conversations between wearer and viewer regarding connections to material, time and place.”

Then Thomloudis returned to the border region, this time moving to El Paso where she was a visiting assistant professor of Metals and Jewelry at the University of Texas at El Paso. From the parking lot she used every day, she could see a neighborhood called Anapra in Ciudad Juárez comprising a group of houses with stucco facades, some painted in bright colors, that encrusted the otherwise barren hillside like gemstones. Though realizing that the makeshift quality of construction that appealed to her was in part the result of the neighborhood’s poverty, she primarily responded to the sensory experiences of seeing the glistening colors and shifting light reflected from the sun. She explains, “I didn’t want to forget that. I felt like I needed to respond to that place,” so she created Over the Fence, a series of more than ninety cement brooches (with brass, steel and acrylic paint), squarish in shape like the squat homes, that make permanent the view’s ephemeral quality. She acknowledges that this collection documents her individual experience of a specific place, but believes that such work can spur related memories in other people of other places—“I think that jewelry can allow us to keep those memories.”

OVER THE FENCE BROOCHES of cement, brass, pigment, and resin, sizes vary, approximately 2.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 to
7.6 x 7.6 x 15.2 centimeters each, 2016-2017.

OVER THE FENCE BROOCH.

OVER THE FENCE BROOCH.

Over the Fence was part of a collaborative work with Motoko Furuhashi, who teaches Metalsmithing & Jewelry at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, titled CrossPASS. As they explained in an interview for Art Jewelry Forum, they were “colleagues in this very isolated location,” who wanted to foster a sense of community between their university programs and their cities, so they focused their “common fascination with the surrounding landscape” on the forty-six miles of Interstate 10 that connected them. Together they traveled back and forth along this frequently—and speedily—traveled route and created jewelry (individually and collaboratively), video, audio, and a website based on specific locations. For one site, they drove a couple of miles from the highway to walk barefoot up a sand-covered mountain. They made a video of a mound of shifting sand against a blue sky that eventually reveals a hand—playing with the viewer’s sense of scale and heightening the viewer’s tactile awareness. They also created a brooch with the rich beige sand on a rectangular block (shaped like the local farmlands) with steel, silver, shards of clear acrylic with a few light green lines suggesting the area’s dry grasses, and a rusty mesh to evoke the tumbleweeds.

Much of Thomloudis’s work is large and she knows that some people assume it is meant to be sculpture rather than jewelry, but wearability is a constant consideration of hers. “In my studio, my process is that I am always trying things on. I consider things when they are halfway done: ‘How is this sitting? How is this fitting? How is this framing me? Is this heavy? Is this going to bother me? Could I wear this out?’ ” And while she emphasizes that she is not making small sculptures, “one hundred percent not,” she is interested in how her jewelry exists when it is not being worn. In gallery settings, she sometimes presents work in groups, for example allowing the large number of brooches in Over the Fence to convey the immensity of the view she experienced, and she likes the idea of a cluster of small brooches in a personal collection sitting out as a sculpture when off the body. She adds, “I really don’t want my things to be hidden in drawers. I want them to be out. I want them just to be part of life, whether it’s on the body or off the body—like architecture is part of our everyday lives.”

SUBDIVIDED AND JOINED (HT) NECKPIECE of cement, nickel silver, resin, pigment, and silver, 45.7 x 25.4 x 1.9 centimeters, 2014.

Sometimes she uses standard construction techniques, but on a smaller scale, and sometimes she has to reinvent those techniques in order to make works that are light enough to wear. She often uses cement, either adding a thin layer of it to hollow or lightweight structures to produce an “essence of mass” without the heft, or mixing it with resin—which results in a lighter mixture than mixing it with water—and casting it in silicon molds. Her Subdivided and Joined (HT) neckpiece appears to be made of massive chunks of cement with blocks of yellow recalling caution tape or construction equipment, but she formed the rectangular shape with the arched opening out of thin layers of concrete over metal mesh boxes, rubbing away the surface in small patches to reveal the interior structure. 

The geometry, colors, construction, and materials in Thomloudis’s work all reflect her experience of architecture, but she stresses that the references are not direct—she is using the visual vocabulary of architecture, but not trying to make miniature versions of what she sees. She states, “I’m really interested in the framework of architecture and how our bodies are perpetually in the landscape of architecture and this environment, and I’m interested in reversing that. What does it mean when those things are then on the body? Can we find these smaller moments that otherwise are overwhelming or forgotten in some ways?” Through constructing palm-sized reflections of what can be monumental in scale, she raises questions about the relationship of the body to the buildings that surround it.

TILTFRAME BROOCH of brass, steel, powder coat, Sharpie marker, graphite pencil, paint, and clear coat, 12.7 x 10.1 x 5.1 centimeters, 2017.

After a year in El Paso, Thomloudis spent a year in Ohio as the assistant professor and head of the Jewelry/Metals/Enameling Program at Kent State University before settling in Athens, Georgia, where she is an assistant professor in Jewelry and Metalwork at the University of Georgia. Her most recent series of work, to be shown at JOYA Barcelona Art Jewellery & Objects, is tentatively titled Tiltframe and reflects her continued investigation of buildings and industrial materials. These works feature pops of neon colors and an increased amount of drawing. Currently, she is intrigued by the systems of marks made by construction and city workers as they note the locations (or future locations) of walls, cuts, water pipes, and gas or electric lines, using carpenter pencils, fluorescent spray paint and markers. She observes them with a designer’s eye, transforming them from functional notations within a building site or streetscape to decorative elements of personal adornment. “I’m fascinated with the markings; what they all mean, how they become an ornament within the landscape; and then transpose that into wearable objects.” The brooches and necklaces of Tiltframe are collections of open brass and steel rectangles, powder coated in white with layers of lines and arrows in pencil and Sharpie. Her husband, a building inspector, offers practical support by interpreting the symbols, and she plans to start making works with marks themed to specific individual utilities such as gas, electricity and water.

Thomloudis particularly is proud to be associated with Athens Jewelry Week in Greece, a new international celebration of contemporary jewelry. The organizers invited her to speak at the first event in 2016, and she has enjoyed developing personal connections with Greek jewelers. Next summer she will participate in a new jewelry artist residency program at the Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum, next to the Acropolis. She relishes the opportunity to develop a more immediate connection to Greece in her work, creating “jewelry inspired by the physical and cultural geography of Athens.” She believes that “relating to the aesthetics of architecture/landscape/place” through jewelry, has “the potential to connect us closer to the world we are surrounded by,” and next summer will use this approach to explore her own cultural heritage.

SUGGESTED READING
“5 Questions, Demitra Thomloudis,” Mother Makers Blog, November 8, 2017, mothermakersblog.wordpress.com/2017/11/08/demitra-thomloudis. 
Callahan, Ashley, Annelies Mondi and Mary Hallam Pearse. Crafting History: Textiles, Metals, and Ceramics at the University of Georgia. Athens, GA: Georgia Museum of Art, 2017.
Malev, Daniela. To the Point: Pin Mechanisms and Brooch Back Design. Leipzig: Edition Winterwork, 2017. 
Thomloudis, Demitra and Motoko Furuhashi. CrossPASS. San Francisco: Blurb Publishing Company, 2017. 
Townsend, Jen and Renée Zettle-Sterling. Cast: Art and Objects Made Using Humanity’s Most Transformational Process. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2017.

 
VIENTO BLOCK 1 & 2 BROOCHES of steel, powder coat, cement, paint, sterling silver, nickel silver, and resin, 8.9 x 7.6 x 5.1 centimeters (left), 10.1 x 8.9 x 5.1 centimeters (right), 2015.

VIENTO BLOCK 1 & 2 BROOCHES of steel, powder coat, cement, paint, sterling silver, nickel silver, and resin, 8.9 x 7.6 x 5.1 centimeters (left), 10.1 x 8.9 x 5.1 centimeters (right), 2015.

 
 

Get Inspired!


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Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts. She recently co-authored, with Annelies Mondi and Mary Hallam Pearse, Crafting History: Textiles, Metals, and Ceramics at the University of Georgia, which included work by Demitra Thomloudis and benefited from her assistance with photography. She appreciated Thomloudis’s enthusiasm, optimism and articulateness in their discussion of jewelry, construction and children. Since visiting the artist’s studio, Callahan has enjoyed a heightened awareness of the textures of the sidewalks, walls and parking decks and of the bright pink and orange markings left by city workers on the edges of the streets.

20/20 Exhibition Volume 40.2

SUZANNE AMENDOLARA: CAST STERLING SILVER ELEMENT, measuring 6.4 x 5.1 x 1.9 centimeters, for the “20/20” collaborative exhibition. Photograph by the artist.

Collaborations are a unique form of education: they bring new ideas to artwork, create a different purpose for making and force artists to take responsibility for creative decisions. As an artist making metalwork for more than three decades, I occasionally get caught in a rut or feel like my work is dated or insignificant. The problem-solving aspects of collaborative pieces help me to work through these challenges. For example, during the past several years, I have engaged in collaborations with Daniel DiCaprio, Renée Zettle-Sterling and Robert Thomas Mullen and much enjoyed how the discourse stretched my imagination. Working with elements created and handed to me by another artist to complete forces me to think in a different manner than I normally do when resolving a piece. It is also informative to see how other artists use forms that are particular to my work. Experiencing both vantage points of the collaborative process allows me to generate unfamiliar and fresh solutions in my own studio practice. In every single case, these collaborations were rich and rewarding experiences for both artists.

      Brigitte Martin, the founding editor of crafthaus, suggested that I expand and formalize my collaborations as part of an invitational exhibition project that she would co-sponsor. The works were to be shown during the Society of North American Goldsmiths Conference, at the Marion Cage Gallery, in New Orleans, from May 24 to 27, 2017 and online at the crafthaus website, crafthaus.ning.com, from September 23 to October 31, 2017. Our premise was to cast multiples of a single sterling silver element, then send one of them to each member of a group of artists with the request to complete the piece by October 15, 2016, using the shape in any way they chose. Measuring 6.4 x 5.1 x 1.9 centimeters, mine could be interpreted in numerous ways, yet still indicative of my own work, and it would be my only contribution to the show. The majority of the artists wanted to keep their piece a surprise and I saw most of them for the first time as I unwrapped their packages when they arrived to be photographed.

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      While the exhibition title was tied to our original intent of inviting twenty artists, “20/20” also inferred perfect vision or being able to see clearly. In a case of spontaneity, we kept the title even though the show went on to include twenty-one artists. Brigitte and I were concerned with seeing a broad range of solutions to our challenge and developed a list of artists who have a wide range of working styles. Entering into a collaboration, there needs to be total trust between the artists. Therefore, every artist was given complete control over their end of the project; they could forge it, cut it, solder onto it, color it, etc.

We chose artists who work in jewelry and objects in traditional ways (Tom Muir, John Rais, Todd Reed) and others who work with experimental and nontraditional materials and processes. Joshua Kosker made a series of jewelry from tangelo peels. Teresa Faris collaborates with her bird who chews wood that she then incorporates into her pieces. We invited jewelers, metalsmiths, enamelists, sculptors, and artists who work with wood and steel. Some artists, such as Alexis Spina, currently a graduate student at the University of Georgia, and Logan Woodle, an assistant professor at Coastal Carolina University, earning his MFA in 2012, are emerging in the field; while others are well-recognized and established (Andy Cooperman, Marilyn da Silva and Thomas Mann).

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      It was also exciting to see the collection of pieces with markedly different approaches. A few to mention: Joshua Kosker used humor to create a “high end” bathtub stopper with rubber and sterling; Marilyn da Silva used the casting to create one of her quintessential books; Todd Reed encrusted the surface of the casting with diamonds; Andrew Kuebeck used an enameled decal of nude males; and Kathryn Osgood used her typical natural forms found in the Outer Banks with textural enamel and pearls.

Naturally, I was also interested in seeing how the artistic handwriting of each artist would alter my work. And those hoped for influences did appear. Adrienne Grafton’s piece and the way she builds her narrative and Andy Cooperman’s forms and surfaces were those that have gone on to inspire me. In general, I learned to look at forms from every possible angle and orientation including upside down, the cross section and using partial forms or impressions of form. It was also intriguing to observe how artists used color, surface, line, and texture with a variety of materials.

Our purpose for putting together the show was to teach the artists involved, as well as the viewer, about different ways of seeing. There were no preconceived ideas of what each artist would do, just the anticipation that they would bring their own aesthetic to the project. The results were beguiling, entertaining and a testament to the power of creativity.

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      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Suzanne Amendolara is a metalsmith and teaches Jewelry Design/Metalsmithing at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. Amendolara served as President of the Society of North American Goldsmiths from 2011-2014, and is currently on the Board of Governors at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. Her metalwork has been exhibited regionally, nationally and internationally in galleries and museums, and is part of the permanent collections of The Renwick Gallery and the White House Collection of American Crafts, Washington D.C.

Keri Ataumbi Volume 40.1

 

KERI ATAUMBI, 2017. Photograph by Raechel Running. BUMBLE BEE RING of oxidized sterling silver, twenty-two karat yellow gold, brilliant-cut white diamonds, yellow sapphires, black pearl, 5.1 x 4.4 x 5.1 centimeters, 2011. Photographs by Keri Ataumbi except where noted.

 

It is late May in New Mexico. Santa Fe has recently been hit by twelve inches of snow—here today, gone tomorrow. The desert has appreciated the moisture; wild flowers pop up and some of the cacti blossom. An accompanying frost, however, has decimated the Concord grape vines Keri Ataumbi has been cultivating at her home in Cerrillos Hills just south of Santa Fe. She shrugs her shoulders as she beckons a visitor into her studio.

      Ataumbi is preparing for the annual Native Treasures Indian Arts Festival at the Santa Fe Convention Center. It is the kick-off to the busiest season in the city when various arts and cultural festivals draw people from around the world. The Native Treasures show benefits the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) in Santa Fe. Ataumbi and her sister, master bead artist Teri Greeves, have donated works. In 2015 they were designated “Living Treasures” at the festival.

On this May afternoon Ataumbi is also looking ahead to future shows. Earlier in the day, Elizabeth Evans from Four Winds Gallery in Pittsburgh had come by to look at new work, which Ataumbi’s apprentice, jeweler Tania Larsson, is busy photographing. The mood in the studio is bittersweet: after two years with Ataumbi, Larsson is returning to her home in Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Her story is remarkable: Of Gwich’in and Swedish descent, Larsson was born and raised in France and moved to Canada at age fifteen. Her mother, Shirley Firth Larsson (1954-2013), was an Olympic cross-country skier. 

The two women met when Ataumbi filled in for a friend to teach a jewelry class at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe where Larsson was pursuing a fine arts degree. The only native college with a focus on fine art, IAIA enrolls students from tribes across North America. Ataumbi found it refreshing to be around young minds, and she was impressed by Larsson’s go-getter attitude and took her on. 

Ataumbi herself came to jewelry in her late twenties; she has been a full-time craft artist for going on eighteen years. She started her artistic life as a painter, but switched to jewelry after taking a basics course at the Santa Fe Community College. Today, she boasts a thriving jewelry business and a special stature among the makers of wearable art in America.   

Her approach to art and life is the same: Ataumbi gets inspired by an idea and sets out to make it happen. Sometimes it will take her a couple of years to figure it out, designing and drawing, reworking and rethinking. When she has finally settled on the concept, she may have to turn to friends to pull it off. For example, a piece with a prominent pavé setting required that she learn the technique. She sought assistance and acquired a new skill in order to fulfill her vision. It is one reason why she loves being in her field: there is always something new to learn. 

Ataumbi works in series, developing a theme then exploring different ways to represent it. For example, her insect collection featured damsel flies, beetles, water bugs, yellow jackets, and her “girls,” the honey bees she cares for (she calls herself a “lackadaisical beekeeper”). The water bugs appear in a set of earrings, their small eighteen karat gold bodies hugging black Tahitian pearls. A brooch inspired by a Datura flower features twenty-two karat gold honey bees exploring its crocheted silver folds.

THAW-YAW KOOIE EARRINGS of eighteen karat yellow gold, white diamonds, coyote fur, 8.3 x 5.7 x 1.3 centimeters, 2016. Model: Amber Morning Star Byers. Photograph by Bri Crimino.

      Rarely will Ataumbi return to a series even if it has been popular; she likes the idea of having a finite body of work. “Even though I could make bugs forever,” she explains, “I’m not going to go back because those pieces were made in a specific time period.” She also wants to be able to explore other imagery—and honor the collectors who have invested in her work. She does do commissions, with a special passion for wedding rings. “You get to make something so highly personalized,” she says. She often works closely with the couple, to channel their vision. Making these rings is, to her, an “act of prayer.”

Ataumbi’s pieces have tended to move between structural and surface-oriented—and abstract—on the one hand and pictorial/figurative on the other. The oxidized silver arrow cuff from her Archery series, for example, has a hard-edge dynamism, even with its various accents: eighteen karat gold, six rose-cut diamonds, and twenty-eight brilliant-cut diamonds. The series arose after Ataumbi took up archery as a way to deal with carpal tunnel syndrome. 

In the pictorial category, Ataumbi often draws on animals, including the “critters” that frequent the desert around her home and studio: snakes, tarantulas, birds, and spring peepers. She can be quite literal in her representations of these creatures, but more often she stylizes their shapes. A snake brooch features a sleek gold serpent with diamond eyes sliding along a sterling silver twig. 

Asked about her favorite materials, Ataumbi is quick to declare her love for high karat gold. “It’s a color thing,” she explains, but she has also developed an understanding of its properties that allows her to work with it in complete comfort. She has a similar passion for diamonds—low cut, colored, natural gray. She likes combining the rose-cut with the brilliant: “I like the fact that they’re the same stone but look so different, but they just love each other—one big happy family.” 

Silver, platinum and gemstones, as well as such natural materials as buffalo horn and brain-tanned buckskin, are also on Ataumbi’s list. She tends, she says, to use materials in an untraditional manner. She points to platinum: Instead of a high shine, she likes to leave it in a rough state with a kind of buffered texture. “I think of the material as an artist, not as a trained jeweler who has a degree in stone setting,” she says. She sets out to make an art object rather than a piece of fine jewelry. 

Ataumbi and her husband enjoy sailing—on lakes in New Mexico, in Turkey, the Caribbean, and Maine, among other places. This connection to the water led to the Ocean collection. Here again, the pieces range from abstract to more literal. Sometimes it is the material, such as coral, that ties the work to the theme; at other times, it is the image: a squid ring, a sea turtle cuff. The latter piece was inspired by snorkeling and watching turtles graze in sea grass. The turtle is carved from a mabé pearl; the grass, made of twenty-two karat gold, is sprinkled with sapphires and diamonds. 

THAN TDAY KX’OLE-PAHN NECKLACE of sterling silver, eighteen karat yellow gold, twenty-two karat gold, rose-cut colored diamond, brilliant-cut white diamonds, sapphires, mother of pearl, watercolor on velllum, hand-painted, 5.1 x 2.5 x 81.3 centimeters, 2016. Photograph by UnderexposedStudios.com.

      Ataumbi’s mussel shell necklace is among her boldest creations. Thirty or so of the bivalves were formed using a hydraulic press and then were etched, soldered and connected by rivets. One gold shell stands out from the silvery gray array of its oxidized silver neighbors. A hook allows the wearer to wrap it twice around the neck or leave it long. The piece was featured in “Native Fashion Now”, which originated at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, in 2014, and finished up at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City this past September. 

Among her most remarkable series is one Ataumbi started two years ago after her mother died. From her twenties on, Jeri Ah-be-hill (1935-2015), a Kiowa-Comanche, had worn native clothing everywhere she went as a way of graciously educating people she met about who she was while honoring the people she came from. She also oversaw the Native American Clothing Contest at the Santa Fe Indian Market for seventeen years. When she died, Indian Country News titled its obituary “Kiowa-Comanche fashion icon Jeri Ah-be-hill walks on.”

MOMMY’S SERIES: TDAHN KHAW CUFF of oxidized sterling silver, twenty-two karat yellow gold,  brilliant-cut white diamonds, 5.1 x 4.4 x 5.1 centimeters, 2015.

      In addition to fine moccasins, belts and tea dresses, Ah-be-hill wore jewelry from her extensive collection. In her Mommy’s Series Ataumbi set out to recreate some of the pieces she had inherited. Developing the work was a way to both honor her mother and work through her grief, which had left her in a kind of creative limbo (her mother’s death had been unexpected—she suffered a heart attack in her yard). 

Among the pieces was a vintage Harvey ring her mother used to wear on her little finger. Fred Harvey (1835-1901) was a British-born entrepreneur who is generally credited with helping to build a market for Native American jewelry in the American west. The original ring, in silver, was falling apart so Ataumbi remade it in her own style, using eighteen karat gold and adding her signature accent: a small diamond set in the underside. The actress Melaw Nakehk’o wore this dazzling vertical ring, along with a set of Ataumbi’s gold orb earrings, on the red carpet at the premiere of the 2015 film The Revenant in which she starred. 

In another piece, Ataumbi combined painting and jewelry, a first for her. She was inspired by the Native American tradition of placing umbilical cords into fetishes that represent one’s clan. Ataumbi’s, made by her grandmother, is in the shape of a turtle. “The fetishes are hung on a cradleboard when we’re babies,” she explains, “and then as we grow older we wear them on a belt. When we die, they’re buried with us.” Which is why, she adds, “it’s so offensive to go into stores, trading posts, galleries and find them lined up, old ones, taken from graves.”  

The multipart piece, which won best in show at the 2016 Indian Market in Santa Fe, features a miniature portrait of Ataumbi’s grandmother, Carrie Susie Ataumbi, for whom she was named. Certain elements of the piece conjure her mother, such as the white buffalo symbol, which is made from mother of pearl. “It’s hard to put something like this up for sale,” she notes. She hopes a museum might acquire it.  

Recreating her mother’s jewelry led Ataumbi to reconsider her attitude toward Native American jewelry. She had generally steered clear of “native aesthetic” in favor of her own creative vision. When she was younger, she had made a conscious decision to avoid being pigeonholed as a native artist (“a lot of our young native artists go through this,” she explains).  

Since her mother died, Ataumbi has begun to rethink this stance. “At forty-five, total mid-career,” she states, “I’m owning it finally.” While she has always drawn on traditional Kiowa imagery and materials, in some of her new pieces she has been mixing in the things that “are valuable to us as native people” with things that are valuable in the jewelry world. One example is a pair of earrings that incorporates porcupine hair. Some of these pieces appeared in “From My Studio: Feathers to Diamonds” at the Shiprock Gallery in Santa Fe in July. 

      Ataumbi has collaborated on pieces with several artists, including jeweler Robin Waynee and beader Jamie Okuma. Waynee, who lives in Santa Fe, is of German and Saginaw Chippewa descent and “likes very clean lines,” according to her collaborator. A multiple Saul Bell Award winner, she and Ataumbi partnered on an earrings-ring-necklace set related to the insect series. They donated the necklace to the Indian Market’s gala auction in 2011, in support of the Southwest Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA). 

Ataumbi’s collaborative pieces with Jaime Okuma have drawn on the latter’s award-winning beadwork. Of Shoshone-Bannock and Luiseño heritage, Okuma, who lives on the La Jolla Indian Reservation in Pauma Valley, California, is known for her customized designer footwear as well as exquisite beaded ornaments. 

Okuma and Ataumbi chose Pocahontas as the subject of their first piece, a jewelry set comprised of a ring, pendant and a pair of earrings. “[Pocahontas] changed history, a single individual acting as a bridge,” Ataumbi has stated, “and Jamie and I are bridge people, too, moving between two worlds, esthetics, and perspectives.” 

The artists used three well-known images of the renowned Native American cultural figure as sources: Simon van de Passe’s 1616 engraving, the Sedgeford Hall portrait from the 1750s and Thomas Sully’s 1852 rendering. The complex piece, which incorporates a wide range of materials, including antique glass, buckskin, twenty-four karat electroplated beads, eighteen-karat yellow gold, fresh water pearls, indigenous wampum, and diamonds, was purchased by the Minneapolis Institute of Art for its permanent collection in 2014. The two have teamed up since to co-create a Marilyn Monroe ring and a bracelet with a human skull, For the Love of Art, inspired by German artist Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull and For the Love of God (2007).

FOR THE LOVE OF ART BRACELET, collaboration with Jamie Okuma of oxidized sterling silver, eighteen karat yellow gold, rose-cut colored diamonds, black diamonds, antique seed beads, black diamond beads, brain-tanned buckskin, 5.1 x 4.4 x 5.1 centimeters, 2014.
POCAHONTAS RING, collaboration with Jamie Okuma of eighteen karat yellow gold, rose-cut colored diamonds, brilliant-cut white diamonds, antique seed beads, brain-tanned buckskin, 5.1 x 5.1 x 5.7 centimeters, 2014. Collection of Minneapolis Institute of Art.

      Keri Sue Ataumbi was born in Lander, Wyoming, on the Wind River Indian Reservation, home of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. She grew up on the Eastern Shoshone side of the reservation. Her mother, Jeri Ah-be-hill, had met her husband, Italian-American sculptor Richard Greeves, in St. Louis. They eventually moved to Wyoming where she opened the Fort Washakie Trading Company in the mid-1960s. She ran it for nearly thirty years. 

Both parents had a major influence on Ataumbi’s growth as an artist. She remembers her father welding horseshoes to create a garden gate and pouring bronze to create one of his romanticized western figures for which he is well known. As she told Southwest Art Magazine in 2004, she came to love spending time in the foundry. She and her sister learned to think for themselves, to tackle the challenges of creating objects.

YELLOW MUSSEL SHELL TAB EARRINGS AND STACKING RINGS of twenty-two karat yellow gold and yellow mussel shell; rose-cut colored diamonds, turquoise and twenty-two karat gold, 5.1 x 3.2 x 0.6 centimeters; 1.9 x 1.9 x 0.6 centimeters, 2016. Model: Shayla Blatchford. Photograph by UnderexposedStudios.com

      Her mother’s grassroots commitment to Native American artists inspired her from early on. In her teens, while working at the Anadarko Southern Plains Museum, Ah-be-hill encountered a native artist who was trying to place her moccasins, an exquisite pair with extraordinary beadwork, in the museum’s shop. Outlets were few, and after coming upon the moccasins on a gas station counter alongside the Wrigley’s gum and cigarettes, Ah-be-hill felt compelled to bring this work to a broader audience.

Ataumbi describes this moment as a turning point in her mother’s life. She was among a group of pioneers who said, “This is art.” When she opened the trading post at Fort Washokie, she made sure Native American art from across the country was front and center. Among Ataumbi’s memories is the bottom shelf of a long counter in the trading post filled with moccasins of all sizes, from baby to adult. “Anyone who walked through those doors could walk out with a pair of brain-tanned handmade authentic Native American moccasins,” she recounts, adding, “and that fit you.”  

BISBEE TURQUOISE RING of eighteen karat yellow gold, Bisbee turquoise, white diamonds, 2.5 x 2.5 x 1.9 centimeters, 2015.

      Ataumbi also remembers the native traders coming by her mother’s store in their RVs to sell their wares: Navaho rugs, sterling silver, pottery. Her mother would buy “bread and butter” stuff—earrings, rings, beadwork items, and the like—as well as the materials for making them: hides, beads, needles, etc. Then she would usher in her daughters, who helped in the store, to look at the “good stuff” and let them pick out something. Ataumbi still remembers seeing her first Charles Loloma piece, in the back of a Winnebago. Loloma (1921-1991) played a major liberating role in the development of the contemporary Native American jewelry movement.

Ataumbi claims she came out of the womb knowing she wanted to be an artist. “I didn’t have a choice,” she says with a smile. While sorting through her late mother’s belongings, she discovered all her childhood drawings (“the woman did not throw anything away”), including a self-portrait made when she was six or so years old that showed her sitting at a work table. Beneath her mother’s heading, “What I’m good at,” it says “Making stuff.” 

At age eight or nine Ataumbi considered becoming a mortician because she had read that da Vinci used to go to the morgue to study cadavers. “That was really silly,” she admits, yet it foreshadowed her determination to pursue a life in art.

Ataumbi attended the Cambridge School of Weston outside Boston. It was the “ultimate culture shock,” she recalls, moving from remote Wyoming where she had been home-schooled to this predominantly white upper class school. At a “hugely formative moment” in her life, she loved it. It strengthened her independent spirit and helped fuel her artistic inclinations. She remembers in particular a drawing class taught by painter Todd Bartel. Bartel encouraged his students to freely explore what drawing might be. “As a teenager, that blew my mind.”   

      Bartel had attended the Rhode Island School of Design and recommended it to Ataumbi. Looking back, she might have chosen a different route: RISD proved to be a “wrong fit,” plus a lot of unpleasant things happened while she was there, from having her car and house broken into to having a friend thrown in jail. After less than a year, she fled west to Santa Fe where her mother was living.

Following a short stint in retail, Ataumbi established a landscaping business with a friend—“two women who didn’t have a clue but who were determined to figure it out,” she recalls with a smile. And figure it out they did, building a successful business. When her partner decided to go to medical school, Ataumbi found herself at a crossroads: would she carry on without her or embrace art full-time? 

Ataumbi is quick to point out that the whole time she was landscaping she was painting and showing her work at LewAllen Contemporary in Santa Fe. She would take time off to paint, working furiously for several weeks to produce work for shows. Her paintings at the time were “very surface-oriented, very abstract, very textured,” influenced by the contemporary Italian artist Francesco Clemente. She produced several series, riffing on Native American subjects, such as Séndé, the Kiowa trickster, and Stony Road, one of the survivors of the great flood. 

While her paintings sold, Ataumbi felt the need to return to school. She earned an Associate of Fine Arts degree at the IAIA, then transferred to the College of Santa Fe (now the Santa Fe University of Art and Design). While not especially strong in the arts, the small Catholic school had a terrific art history department. One of her teachers there, artist and clothing designer Linda Swanson, had a profound impact on her thinking. “She taught me how not to fear intellectualism and criticism,” Ataumbi recalls, and to communicate in her own voice. 

Following graduation, Ataumbi felt she needed to get her masters, but changed her mind after a half of a year at the University of New Mexico. “I’m going to end up being a teacher,” she thought to herself, “and not have any time to do my own work.” She took a jewelry class at the local community college, a beginner’s course—“how to saw, how to use fire, this is what a mullion is.” She was hooked: “This is it. This is it. This is it.”

Over time Ataumbi built up her business while doing random jobs to help make ends meet. She recalls with a smile her first showing at the Heard Fair in Phoenix: dreaming of selling out and being the next big thing, she managed two “pity sales”: purchases by her mother and a cousin. The steps forward were slower than she wished, but she was dogged. 

Her studio is located in what was once a small barn space renovated by her husband, Joel Muller, a contractor (her office is in the former chicken coop). The walls are decorated with a wonderfully eclectic assortment of art and objects, many from her mother’s collection. Here and there are her own paintings. Although painting was her first love, Ataumbi has found it to be anxiety-provoking, and yet she returns to it when time allows.

ARROW CUFF of oxidized sterling silver, eighteen karat yellow gold, rose-cut colored diamonds, brilliant-cut white diamonds, 5.1 x 4.4 x 5.1 centimeters, 2015. 

      Showing off her laser welder, Ataumbi admits to feeling love for an inanimate object. “I can make a weld that is half the width of a hair,” she says with awe. She keeps some of her tools in a handsome Japanese tea cabinet from the 1920s. She spends a lot of time in the Los Cerillos hills near her home, running with her dogs (“my studio assistants”), hiking and exploring. 

Ataumbi has lived in and around Santa Fe for going on thirty years now. She loves the mix of cultures and communities. The artists support one another. “I’ve run out of acetylene—got a tank?” She markets her work through several galleries, museum shops and fairs, including the annual Indian Fair and Market at the Heard Museum in Phoenix where she has won a number of prizes in several categories. She is considering entering some non-native fairs, but recognizes the challenge of putting together a cohesive body of work. “I tend to be all over the place,” she says. She also uses social media, including Facebook, to promote her work. 

Part of her mission as an artist is to educate people. When non-natives tell her that her work “doesn’t look native,” Ataumbi explains that she grew up on the rez, in a native home. “You can see the lightbulbs go on,” she says. She firmly believes, and has proven by her own example, that contemporary native jewelry does not have to fit a certain mold.

Like Keri Ataumbi's work? Here's a few beautiful pieces that we weren't able to show in print:

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Carl-Little_Contributor.jpg

After a week in Santa Fe this past May, Carl Little was ready to move there. “Santa Fe boasts the third largest art market in the U.S.,” he notes, “and it was the National Geographic Traveler World Legacy Award winner for Sense of Place in 2017.” In addition to a memorable visit with Keri Ataumbi, Little spent time on Museum Hill (where the Wheelwright Museum was featuring an extraordinary beadwork exhibition), took in the galleries on Canyon Road, and enjoyed the city’s high desert vibe. Little’s most recent book is Philip Barter: Forever Maine, published by Marshall Wilkes.

James Thurman & Umut Demirgüç Thurman Volume 39.1

 

The ideals of marriage neatly conveyed by a triad of Cs—complementarity, collaboration and coexistence—are as relevant to the combination of two different art media as they are to the literal union of spouses. In both cases advantages come with the ability of each element of the relationship to enhance the inherent qualities of the other, the potential to combine these qualities in pursuit of mutual objectives, and, perhaps most important of all for the perpetuation of the relationship, the freedom to retain individual identities even while contributing to one that is jointly held. For James Thurman and Umut Demirgüç Thurman, the husband-and-wife team behind Denton, Texas-based UJ Design Studios, the exactitude of the parallel between an effective marriage of art media and success in matrimony is obviously more than just a matter of speculation.

 

LAYERED SYNERGY 12-0929 BROOCH by James Thurman of lathe-turned Thurmanite® and Damascus steel, 5.08 x 5.08 x 1.27 centimeters, 2012.
Photograph by James Thurman.
FRAMED PENÇ NECKLACE by UJ Design Studios of lathe-turned Thurmanite®, enamel, sterling silver, and copper, 5.08 x 3.81 x 0.64 centimeters, 2014. Photograph by Rafael Molina.
MAVI (BLUE) BROOCH by Umut Demirgüç Thurman of sterling silver and enamel, 4.0 x 5.0 centimeters, 2008. Photograph by Ufuk Demirgüç.

 

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“There’s never a break in the conversation,” comments Kansas State University Professor of Art History Glen R. Brown on the advantages of interviewing two artists at once.  “If one doesn’t recall the answer to a question, the other one will.” When Brown visited James Thurman and Umut Demirgüç Thurman, the husband-and-wife team behind UJ Design Studios in Denton, Texas, he was impressed by the degree to which the two artists seemed to understand each other’s personalities as well as their respective work in the studio. “It’s clearly a successful collaboration on two fronts,” he remarks. Brown will be reviewing “Glitterati, Portraits & Jewelry From Colonial Latin America,” at the Denver Art Museum, in the next issue.