Drawing With Wire
Donna D’Aquino describes her early work as labor intensive, about technique and technical virtuosity. She did a lot of casting, stone setting and fabrication, and would make painstaking models and drawings of what the individual piece would look like. Then, in a graduate school workshop, master metalsmith Robert Ebendorf handed her wire and told her to draw. D’Aquino looks back at that interaction as the moment when things started to come together for her as an artist of the ornament.
The pieces D’Aquino now makes have become her drawings. She uses steel wire to develop her ornaments, making sketches afterward to document the result. Each piece is approached with a sense of what its eventual shape will be, and then she arranges layers and layers of elements, exploring various compositions. “It’s mostly in my head now, what I do,” she explains. “I have an idea and I just start to put it together.”
The designer focuses on the repetition of shape and form, and the way elements interact with each other. Her newest works underscore this aesthetic. Necklaces feature an array of circles and ovals within and atop and alongside each other—wonderfully orchestrated tangles of dangling pieces. Steel, D’Aquino says, is probably her favorite material. She traces her love of this medium to the binding wire Ebendorf handed her years ago. She loves its structural quality. “It’s really strong,” she notes, “and allows me to get really nice crisp lines.” Those lines can be seen in her structural steel earrings with their precise layered geometries.
The soft carbon steel wire she uses is a throwaway material in jewelry, employed when fabricating something large like a hollow form object. The wire is soldered to hold the piece in place and then cut off and discarded because it cannot be pickled. D’Aquino loves the idea of giving this utilitarian material a preciousness and value it never had. While she often combines it with eighteen karat gold or sterling silver, she is also comfortable letting it stand on its own.
D’Aquino adds color sparingly to her pieces. She uses Plasti Dip, the rubbery material that covers the handles of pliers, once again drawn to integrating something that is nonprecious into her work. She likes the material’s webbing effect and how it “closes in” some of the lines in her work. Her Plasti Dip palette is mainly red, black and white. While the Plasti Dip is durable, D’Aquino has found its colors to be a little dull when dried. Wanting slightly shinier surfaces for her work she has added powder-coating to her repertoire. The powder is sprayed on with an electrostatic current that adheres it to the metal; the piece is then cured and baked. The colors are extremely hard-wearing.
At the same time, the artist embraces simplicity, remembering the admonitions she received early on from a design teacher: “Less, less, less, take it down, take it down, pare it down.” That simplicity can be found in a recent set of steel and sterling oval earrings and in a double circle steel brooch. Instead of writing riotous lines with wire, she reduces forms down to their bare, abstracted bones.
Asked about influences, D’Aquino refers to that master of the linear, sculptor Alexander Calder, as her hero. She is also a big fan of the Swiss jewelry designer Otto Künzli and more broadly, admires the movement in Europe in the 1970s that challenged the wearer through nontraditional materials, scale and concept. Geometry inspires her, as does architecture and math—“formulas for putting things together.” D’Aquino loves the structures of buildings, what holds them together but also their exterior lines. She is also an aficionado of bridges, telephone towers and all sorts of scaffolding. Among her favorite designs: the airship base near Akron, Ohio, where the Goodyear blimp is housed.
Born in 1965, D’Aquino grew up in Newburgh, New York, in the lower Hudson River Valley, about seventy miles north of New York City. She attended a small local high school. When she told her teachers she wanted to go into the arts, they advised her to try graphic design. So she did. D’Aquino attended the State University of New York at Buffalo as an undergraduate, majoring in graphic design; her ultimate dream at the time was to be an illustrator. In those pre-computer days, design work was done by hand. She has never lost a passion for a hands-on approach.
Steve Saracino, a young 3-D design professor, encouraged her to take his jewelry class, which she did, albeit reluctantly. While not entirely pulled into the field, D’Aquino ended up pursuing a concentration in jewelry as part of her design degree. “There were seven of us,” she recalls; “it was really us and Tim McCreight’s book The Complete Metalsmith.” The design work was lo-tech, but she received a strong foundation and developed basic hand skills.
With no idea what to do upon graduation, D’Aquino “went out into the world.” She worked as a bench jeweler for a few years and then did a two-year stint as service manager for Aaron Faber in Manhattan. From there she went into the furniture business for about five years.
In 1996, at something of a crossroads, D’Aquino decided to go to graduate school. She looked for guidance from some of her professors at SUNY Buffalo. Saracino had attended Kent State and encouraged his former student to “go, go, go,” to which she replied, “To Ohio?” She remembers driving into town and falling in love with it.
Kathleen Browne was head of the jewelry-metals program at the time. D’Aquino found her to be “amazing” as was the work that was being done at the school. “You’d go into that studio and it just sang,” she recalls. She had a full teaching assistant position for the three-year program, where she taught undergraduates and took care of the studio.
Following graduation in 1999, D'Aquino would continue to teach for four years at the university level. Although she enjoyed teaching, she wanted to start selling her work. She started a low-end line of jewelry while at Kent State and developed a taste of the craft show world through the annual holiday sale put on by the students. Over a span of three or four days they would make as much as seven thousand dollars as a group. They returned twenty-five percent of the proceeds to the studio and could choose what they wanted to spend it on: tools, lectures, visiting artists, or travel to the Society of North American Goldsmiths conference.
In an attempt to push herself forward in the market, D’Aquino scheduled her first craft show appearance for three weeks after completing her thesis. She quickly joined the circuit and eventually decided to stop teaching and focus on producing and selling her own work. She has been successfully doing just that now for over fifteen years.
D’Aquino moved to Maine after her “partner in crime” built a home in Bethel in western Maine. She loves the town and finds herself wishing she did not have to spend weeks at a time on the road (she drives to many of her shows). In the past year she has attended events in St. Paul, Washington, D.C., Des Moines, Denver, and Boston, among other locales.
D’Aquino’s visit to the American Craft Council’s Baltimore Craft Show in February 2015 is the subject of a post on jeweler Emily Shaffer’s blog site, American Craft Forward. Shaffer, who assisted her at the show, offers a detailed account of the trip, from packing up D’Aquino’s Honda Element (“It was like a puzzle!”) to setting up the booth.
Before moving to Bethel, D’Aquino had felt like a moving target, having started out at Kent, relocating to Toledo to teach, and then onward to Maryland to join an artist live-work space. In 2006, she returned home to Plattekill, a small town about half way between New Paltz and Newburgh, New York. Her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that year; D’Aquino stayed there till her passing in March 2011. Part-time assistant, Erin Seegers, from Farmington, Maine, helps with finishing pieces. “Erin kept me afloat when my mother was ill,” D’Aquino says. “Never in a million years could I have been able to keep up.” They work by mail.
After her mother’s death, D’Aquino wanted to create something that she could sell that would help raise funds for pancreatic cancer research. A friend told her about the bracelets that were made during the Vietnam War that were inscribed with a soldier’s name and were a way to honor the soldier and keep him or her in one’s thoughts and prayers. She designed a keychain with TIME printed on one side and the name of the person with cancer on the other. “I decided to have the names printed on the inside of the keychain because pancreatic cancer is often called a ‘hidden disease,’ ” D’Aquino states on her website.
This past May, D’Aquino taught her first workshop at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine (her workshop assistant was Cara Romano—see Ornament, 38.1). She decided to focus on cocktail rings, bringing major changes on the traditional large and elaborate costume jewelry. Her students used wire to create three-dimensional structures as the basis for their “baubles.” These structures were then transformed into rings, with color added using Plasti Dip.
Although D’Aquino has lived in Maine for four years now, she has not been able to connect to the jewelry community as much as she would like. “I come home from a show, I work, I leave town, I come home, I work,” she explains. The visit to Haystack helped expand her ties to fellow artists in the state. Most recently there has been an exciting development which indicates her desire to set down roots in her neighborhood. D’Aquino, in collaboration with fellow artist Lauren Head, has opened Art@57MAINe, a space currently being transformed into a gallery, studio and place for classes.
In 2007 D’Aquino was selected to be included in the traveling show and the book that accompanied the Craft in America PBS series Craft in America: Celebrating Two Centuries of Artists and Objects. Her jewelry was recently donated to the permanent collection of the Charles A. Wustum Museum of Fine Arts in Racine, Wisconsin.
As she reflects on her situation, D’Aquino sees changes in the future. She would like to travel less. She is also retrieving her work from some of the galleries that have represented her, wishing to have more control of her inventory. She is trying hard to get away from production and to pay more attention to the collector who wants one-of-a-kind.
D’Aquino also dreams of sculpture. She started making sculptural work in 2005, excited by the potential of increasing the scale of some of her jewelry design ideas; “Good design works on any scale,” she avers. Without the proper space to fabricate the sculptures, she searched for a partner to help create them. Recently, she has been working with blacksmith Steve Bronstein at the Blackthorne Forge in Marshfield, Vermont. She has been pleased with the arrangement—“He really understands what I’m trying to do,” she says.
D’Aquino wants to make pieces eight feet tall that could be installed in public spaces, and she has had a lot of encouragement from friends and clients. She has been taking some of the small sculptures with her to shows and has had a positive reaction. Sculpture, new jewelry designs, places to go—it is a creative and rewarding life.
Carl Little caught up with Donna D’Aquino in Portland, Maine, last spring and later met her at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts where she was teaching for the first time. “It is such an incredible place,” she noted, “filled with so much history and the marks left from all the wonderful folks who have passed there before me.” Little served as judge of the 2015 Maine Crafts Association’s Master Craft Artist Award; this year’s recipients were jeweler Sam Shaw and book artist Rebecca Goodale. His latest book is Jeffery Becton: The Farthest House. He helped produce the video Imber’s Left Hand about painter Jon Imber’s courageous battle with ALS.