Linda MacNeil Volume 40.3

LUCENT LINES SERIES NO. 09 NECKLACE of polished clear and neodymium glass, fourteen karat yellow gold-tubing, twenty-four karat yellow gold plated, 17.8 centimeters diameter, 1994.  Photographs by Bill Truslow except where noted.

LUCENT LINES SERIES NO. 09 NECKLACE of polished clear and neodymium glass, fourteen karat yellow gold-tubing, twenty-four karat yellow gold plated, 17.8 centimeters diameter, 1994. Photographs by Bill Truslow except where noted.

Monumentality in art, as André Malraux famously implied through his concept of the musée imaginaire, is an effect of form that, despite its associations with strength, imperviousness to change and dominance over surrounding space, is not necessarily dependent upon the actual size of an object. The effect of monumentality produced by a given artwork can arise in the mind of the viewer entirely through comparison of the features of that work with the formal characteristics of others in the dimensionless space of memory—or, more mundanely, through comparison of such formal characteristics in the printed or digital-media images through which we experience the vast majority of art today. To describe the brooches and necklaces of New Hampshire artist Linda MacNeil as monumental, therefore, is to classify their visual effects with those of Egyptian obelisks, the Chrysler Building’s mammoth steel gargoyles, or the towering Guardians of Traffic on Cleveland’s Hope Memorial Bridge without ever denying their physical compatibility with the intimacy of the body. The monumentality of MacNeil’s work, in other words, arises from associations with a certain kind of art that is often colossal but ultimately not restricted to any absolute scale in relation to the human form.

NECK COLLAR SERIES NO. 28. AJDC Theme Project “Stripes” of acid polished clear mirrored glass, polished ivory and black Vitrolite glass, chrome plate, 21.0 x 14.0 x 1.3 centimeters, 2017. Photograph by Robert Weldon.

BROOCH SERIES NO. 34 of polished cream and black Vitrolite, acid polished mirrored clear glass, rubies, polished fourteen karat white gold, 7.0 x 1.3 x 1.3 centimeters, 2005.

NECK COLLAR SERIES NO. 26 of acid polished blue transparent and clear mirrored glass, ivory and black acid polished Vitrolite glass, twenty-four karat gold plated, 21.3 x 15.2 x 1.9 centimeters, 2017.

      Every artist has at times walked the halls of the musée imaginaire, developing affinities for certain historical styles or other conventions of form. For MacNeil, ancient Egyptian art, with its assertive planarity, basaltic strength and blocky opposition to the influence of time has been of particular interest. Any search for specific references in her work to carved sarcophagi, pharaonic portraiture or funereal amulets would be fruitless however, since traces of Egyptian art can be discerned in her forms only to the degree that they are also embodied by some Art Deco design of the 1920s. There, too, monumentality is pervasive as an effect of smooth planes uninterrupted by superfluous ornament, an overall tendency toward symmetry within an immediately graspable logic of composition, and an underlying sense of strength and durability. Egyptian art and Art Deco design—despite the historical distance between them, the disparate cultural contexts in which they developed, and the distinct associations they carry today of mystery, transcendence and eternity on the one hand and modernity, machinery and the optimism of innovation on the other—clearly share design principles conducive to the effect of abstract and universal monumentality. “Perhaps,” MacNeil speculates, “that’s why both of them attract me.”

I don’t work in a linear manner,” MacNeil explains. “I develop several series, and occasionally pieces that aren’t part of a series, simultaneously. A map of my thinking and work is like a flight path of a hummingbird going after the nectar from blossom to blossom.

      Historical art has been only one of the influences on MacNeil’s work over the forty-one years that she has been exploring design issues through her jewelry. “I’m a deliberate collector of influences through observation,” she says. “I study nature and use details of plant growth as the basis for some drawings. I go to museums often and look carefully at works of art and objects of antiquity or natural history and come away often with thoughts that generate drawings in my sketchbooks.” These drawings are crucial, not only because they help MacNeil to visualize combinations of shapes that might produce effective compositions but also because they help in planning the specific stages necessary to realizing the works materially. Occasionally, through the steps from observation to sketch to final work, representational elements, particularly plant or animal forms, persist, but more important are the relationships of color, shape, contrast, repetition, and other compositional characteristics. Even these are not slavishly copied however. Although MacNeil describes herself as “methodical,” her process of generating designs involves a degree of flexibility that precludes absolute predictability. Neither influences from observation nor her own initial ideas exert complete control over her works. “Most of the time,” she asserts, “I am just thinking things out as I create them.”

While ad hoc solutions to design problems are not the rule at all points in MacNeil’s practice, which tends to rely more on familiar routes to results, those that occur are crucial to the achievement of one-of-a-kind works. Consequently, her method maintains structure while intentionally incorporating two primary opportunities to disrupt lines of thought and thereby reap the innovation arising from sudden challenges. The first of these comes with MacNeil’s practice of shifting attention from one design to another. This is a common practice among artists, especially those who work in series or are particularly concerned with formal problems. Matisse, for example, habitually migrated back and forth between paintings and sculptures whenever he felt that his aesthetic probing had hit a wall. “I don’t work in a linear manner,” MacNeil explains. “I develop several series, and occasionally pieces that aren’t part of a series, simultaneously. A map of my thinking and work is like a flight path of a hummingbird going after the nectar from blossom to blossom.”

DOUBLE DECO, BROOCH SERIES NO. 47 of acid polished light brown and clear glass, acid polished and polished black and cream Vitrolite, white diamonds, polished fourteen karat white gold, 7.6 x 7.0 x 1.0 centimeters, 2009.

MIRRORED, BROOCH SERIES NO. 91 of polished clear, chartreuse mirrored glass, yellow Vitrolite glass, linear striped surface detail, rhodium plated fourteen karat white gold, white diamond, 7.6 x 6.4 x 1.3 centimeters, 2015.

      The other strategy through which MacNeil encourages innovation consists of presenting herself with multiple variables from which to select. As her designs progress from the drawing stage into three-dimensional forms that will ultimately be adapted to functional formats, she maximizes the need for choice. “I have hundreds of parts laid out in my studio,” she says, “so I can constantly see them as a palette for the works I imagine. These are forms in plaster and in glass that I have created from raw materials, usually taking advantage of some phenomenon unique to glass. I cast glass with fading and changing color, with thousands of bubbles or perfectly clear, and often use mirror backing to emphasize certain visual effects.” 

Glass has been the signature material in MacNeil’s work since the early 1970s, when she was introduced to the medium at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design shortly before transferring to the Rhode Island School of Design to complete her undergraduate degree. Rather than exploiting the thin and fragile clarity of blown glass, she has gravitated toward a gemlike solidity and a range of effects from faceted translucency to textured or polished opacity. The sleek and monumental Art Deco designs of René Lalique, such as his celebrated car mascot Spirit of the Wind—Victoire, have been particularly inspirational, but Lalique’s earlier, more delicate floral-inspired Art Nouveau designs have also had their impact. “The many ways in which glass and metal have been combined in the decorative arts in general, from hood ornaments to architectural elements, lighting and vases have been a powerful influence,” MacNeil states. “Lalique’s stylization of natural form and the use of glass as an elegant, almost precious material is very compelling to me, although my work stylistically is quite different.” 

Elements SERIES NO. 40 NECKPIECE of polished multicolored mirror and acid polished clear glass, diamond details, fourteen karat yellow gold, 16.5 centimeters diameter, 2005.

      Regardless of its particular inspiration, each of MacNeil’s works tends to be a one-of-a-kind piece but with the notable familial traits that arise from seriality. “By working through series,” she explains,” I am developing a concept in a repeated way. I often have many ideas for the way it can go, so each piece in the series is a new version of the original concept.” That concept, both a unifying idea and a descriptor of traits that link individual works to one another, ultimately provides the name for the series. The Elements series, for example, “refers to distinct repeated forms within a necklace, usually emphasizing the mechanical connections and making them a feature in the design. This sets off the individual ‘elements’ as they are presented by the structure of the necklace.” Incorporating cut, shaped and drilled plate glass, gold-tubing and sheet stock, the necklaces of this series have since the 1980s provided MacNeil with the opportunity to nudge the often rigid character of geometry toward “a free-flowing orbit of elements.” Geometry, particularly as it defines the bright, flat planes of primary and secondary colors in De Stijl design, has always appealed to MacNeil, but her Elements series seems to arise from the kind of musing in which Alexander Calder indulged when he visited Mondrian’s studio and thought, “how fine it would be if everything there moved.” The quality of motion in the necklaces is not only literal—as a wearer’s movements cause the elements to pivot like links in a chain—but metaphorical as well: elements that repeat, but in different colors, or two different kinds of elements that alternate around the necklace create rhythmic implied motion.

LUCENT LINES SERIES NO. 20 NECKLACE of polished clear optical, black and cream Vitrolite glass, ruby details, fourteen karat yellow gold, 16.5 centimeters diameter, 2004.

      Closely related to the Elements series, the works of the Lucent Lines series display a similar structural logic of elements dispersed in repetition around circular neckpieces. The series title refers to the opaque parallel lines resulting from holes drilled through the glass elements, some merely for visual effect and some as conduits for gold-tube connectors but all of them “punctuating the pure clarity of the geometric form.” Each of the elements—composed of commercially manufactured plate glass, lead crystal or colored transparent glass—is carefully cut, shaped and drilled to identical specifications then either acid-finished for a satiny texture or polished to a high luster. The elements of the Lucent Lines series often channel the bold monumentality of Art Deco architectural or decorative art designs. Necklace, Lucent Lines Series no. 20, 2004, for example, vaguely recalls the mechanical fluting and sleek industrial associations of massive Art Deco cornices on portals of skyscrapers, while Necklace, Lucent Lines Series, no. 09, 1994 conveys the impression of pink-stoppered Lalique perfume bottles strung like faceted beads on gold-tubing.

 
 

MESH SERIES NO. 119 NECKLACE of polished red, purple and yellow Vitrolite glass, polished black and cream Vitrolite glass, gold plated, 6.4 x 5.7 x 1.9 centimeters, 2009.

MESH SERIES NO. 145 NECKLACE of acid polished cast mirrored glass, polished Vitrolite glass, twenty-four karat gold plated, 9.5 x 5.7 x 1.6 centimeters, 2017.

 

      A similar monumentality of form characterizes the pendants of the Mesh series, which evolved from aspects of the Elements and Lucent Lines necklaces in the mid 1990s and is still proving a rich source of possibilities for exploration today. MacNeil describes the introduction of the series as liberating because she no longer felt “bound to such a labor-intensive, complicated task as I had in the Elements series” and because it helped in dispensing with “the notion that the use of commercial chain was inappropriate for my work.” Each of the unique glass and metal pendants hangs upon a flexible mesh tube capped at the ends by a catch. 

“The wearability is extremely important to the owners of my necklaces,” MacNeil notes, but the arrangement of a pendant on a simple mesh chain has also allowed for development of a broad range of concepts not possible in the Elements series format.

 

NECK COLLAR SERIES NO. 19 of blue mirror laminated glass, polished cream, black, red, and yellow Vitrolite glass, polished, mirrored cabochons, gold plated, 15.9 centimeters, pendant 14.0 x 3.2 x 1.3 centimeters, 2010. NECK COLLAR SERIES NO. 24 of acid polished blues, orange and clear mirrored transparent/orange ivory Vitrolite, twenty-four karat gold plated brass, 22.9 x 14.3 x 2.2 centimeters, 2016. NECK COLLAR SERIES NO. 18 of acid polished clear glass, mirror laminated yellow glass, polished cream and black Vitrolite glass, gold plated, 15.9 centimeters diameter, pendant 14.0 x 8.9 x 1.9 centimeters, 2010.

 

      Another group that has evolved around a specific physical format with myriad possibilities for design is the Neck Collar series. Eschewing the flexibility of a linked necklace, the Neck Collars are among the most sculptural of MacNeil’s works. Some incorporate pendants, some do not, and some, like Collar, Neck Collar Series no. 29, 2017 seem to dissolve distinctions, merging collar and pendant into a single form, as in the perfect integration of pedestal and sculpture in Brancusi’s Endless Column. MacNeil’s works, however, are always emphatically oriented toward the human frame. “Usually I focus on the center of the chest,” she explains, “and symmetrical details of the colored glass and gold relate to the form of the body. My strong interest in geometry has guided me in many of the designs, however I try to balance this approach with some organic softness of the form.” 

 

BOUQUET EDITION, FLORAL SERIES NO. 84 NECKLACE of acid polished red, orange, amber, pink, maroon transparent glass, laminated to mirrored glass, polished eighteen karat yellow gold, 20.3 centimeters diameter, 2009.

BOUQUET EDITION, FLORAL SERIES NO. 85 NECKLACE of acid polished transparent shades of blue, and clear glass laminated to mirrored glass, polished eighteen karat gold, 15.2 centimeters diameter, 2009.

 

PRIMAVERA NECKLACE, FLORAL SERIES NO. 98 of acid polished, light yellow, green, red, mirrored glass, eighteen karat yellow gold, white diamond detail, 15.2 centimeters diameter, pendant 7.6 x 2.5 x 1.3 centimeters, 2015.

      While monumental forms in MacNeil’s work can frequently be linked to inspiration in architectural elements or decorative art, the influence of nature has also exerted a significant impact. “A pod or a flower in full bloom is an irresistible beginning for a jewelry design,” she says. “Nature has already mastered the mechanics. My challenge is to interpret that plant life and to make a piece of jewelry. What is so interesting to me is that plant life can be extremely complex and feminine and also simple and quite masculine.” This compatibility of complexity and simplicity is reflected in Primavera Necklace, Floral Series no. 98, 2015, in which green-glass leaves and discrete white blossoms recall the monumental forms of Lalique’s Art Deco period while the looped tendrils and tiny faceted inset gems invoke his intricate and organically graceful Art Nouveau designs.

Such historical associations are natural for the viewer to note. MacNeil does not deny their relevance but is quick to point out that her work reflects the monumentality of Art Deco or the organicity of Art Nouveau largely because these styles convey universal principles of design equally applicable to the contemporary context. Her intention, in fact, is to reflect the character of the present while observing time-honored conventions of design and technical mastery: to communicate something both universal and particular. In this respect, the word monumental is relevant for its implications of commemoration, preservation and persistence of meaning across time. “I hope that my work is worthy of being in museums because people find it meaningful,” MacNeil states. “I know many artists who think this way. It’s basically a hope that my work is as interesting and important to others as it is to me.”


SUGGESTED READING
Taragin, Davira S. and Ursula Ilse-Neuman.
Linda MacNeil: Jewels of Glass. Tacoma, WA and Stuttgart: Museum of Glass and Arnoldsche Art Publishers, 2017.
Arial, Kate Dobbs. “Sculptural Radiance: The Jewelry and Objects of Linda MacNeil.” Metalsmith: 24:3, Summer 2004.
Byrd, Joan Falconer. “Linda MacNeil: Mint Museum of Craft + Design, Charlotte, NC.” American Craft: 64:1, Feb/March 2004.

 

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Glen-R.-Brown_Contributor.jpg

Glen R. Brown, a professor of art history at Kansas State University and a specialist on contemporary and historical craft media, takes particular note of jewelry that elevates ordinarily nonprecious materials to functional and aesthetic equivalency with gold or gems. He found in the necklaces of Linda MacNeil an especially interesting use of glass, not for its fragile translucence but rather for the strength and even monumentality that it can convey when cast or worked into simple geometric forms. MacNeil’s inspiration in Art Deco design also appealed to him. Brown is currently completing a book on the aesthetics of ceramic sculptor, painter and glass artist Jun Kaneko.

Smithsonian Craft Show 2018 Volume 40.3

JIYOUNG CHUNG

Smithsonian-Craft-Show-Cover.jpg

National Building Museum
April 26-29, Preview Night April 25
www.SmithsonianCraftShow.org

In the Navajo tradition, master weavers would often weave a thin thread of a contrasting color in the outer corner. Called the ch’ihónít’i, this “spirit line” extended out to the edge of the piece. The Navajo believed that the weaver’s being became part of the woven cloth in the process of making, their soul forever entwined with the piece itself. The spirit line allowed a path for the artist to disentangle herself and move on to create even more works of beauty.

IRINA OKULA

      This notion of a maker’s spirit being encapsulated in their work lies at the heart of the contemporary craft movement. For those who dedicate their lives to craft, making is about more than the practice itself, more than selling work for a living. It is an act of divine creation, linking heart, hand and spirit. It is also an act of vulnerability. Sharing your work opens you to criticism, extending the conversation beyond you and your materials to an outside audience. For makers, there’s arguably nothing better than when viewers appreciate and are moved by your work.

The artists participating in the 2018 Smithsonian Craft Show are well poised for this kind of exchange between maker, object and viewer. Now in its thirty-sixth year, the annual show presents one hundred twenty of the country’s premier craftspeople, and welcomes an educated and seasoned audience of craft lovers each year. Presented by the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, jurors make careful selections, choosing from some one thousand artists working in twelve different media—basketry, ceramics, decorative fiber, furniture, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, mixed media, paper, wearable art, and wood—making this one of the most influential craft events in the nation. For many artists, acceptance in the show is a big moment in their career. Having the chance to exhibit here inspires them to push boundaries, to explore new bodies of work, and to bring their very best to show.

Paper artist Jiyoung Chung relies on tradition, making her painterly, deconstructed paper works using the joomchi method—a Korean artform mixing hanji, or mulberry paper, with water and agitating it to break down and combine layers into one strong, fabric-like entity. It is akin to felting, and over time it ages to an almost leather-like texture. In Chung’s floating sculptures, the paper is layered, with holes like portals to the worlds below, and loose strands, frayed edges and furrowed surfaces. It draws the viewer in and feels both natural and otherworldly. Each piece is one of a kind, and some are large in scale. “It gives me more ground to explore and develop my ideas, as well as challenging my physical limitations,” Chung says of her play with size. “It opens new doors and possibilities for me to discover more about joomchi—what it can do and how far I can push it.”

LAUREN MARKLEY

      In Chung’s eyes her work is driven as much from her own creativity as it is from joomchi itself. She credits much of her design sensibility to a sort of collaboration with it. “I usually have a concept to start with. However, the process has surprising characteristics. It wants to be certain ways. I don’t feel like I am dealing with material, but with a person. So I often negotiate between my original thought and what joomchi wants to do.”

For ceramist Irina Okula, acceptance to her first Smithsonian Craft Show in 2015 was “almost like a dream.” Okula’s fragmented vessels have a quiet, emotive quality, with landscape imagery, text and abstract markings pieced together in simple, pleasing forms. Black bird silhouettes soar alongside snowy hillsides, repeating patterns, excerpts of text and a soft color palette. Her signature technique of piecing together broken clay shards came about by accident, after a pot she was working on broke into several pieces. Rather than mourn the piece, Okula fired the fragments separately and later epoxied them together to reform the original shape. Intrigued by the results, Okula began to break her work on purpose. Each shard is decorated with different surface treatments—using slip, stamps, copper tape, wire, and words—then packed into saggars, or covered clay containers, and fired with combustible materials soaked in solutions of salt, iron, cobalt, or copper oxides. 

The element of chaos brings a narrative quality to the vessels, fragmented like the memories and stories that make up one’s life. “My work emphasizes the relationships of the pieces to each other and to the whole,” Okula says. She welcomes the randomness of her process, each result pushing her to explore further. “There is an unpredictable quality to the breaks and the firing, which play a critical role in the outcome. I like the surprises. After I break the pieces, I tape them back together in the original form and do a drawing, front and back. I love how the pieces contrast and complement each other. They help me tell a story, often my story.”

MEGHAN PATRICE RILEY

      Impulsivity and disassembly are also central to jeweler Lauren Markley’s creative practice. In addition to sterling silver and brass, Markley works with reclaimed wood, textiles and enamel, constructing jewelry inspired by architecture, plans and schematics, spaces and structures. A pair of earrings is made from intersecting bits of sterling silver, reminiscent of angled steel. A brooch of layered wood has metal bars extending out like askew scaffolding. Segments of blackened silver overlap like roof tiles, an accent of golden yellow silk thread adding a touch of softness. “I get asked a lot if I’m a frustrated architect—I’m not!” Markley jokes. “Someone once looked at one of my big, chunky, geometric rings and said ‘Oh! I want to live in there!’ It’s still one of my favorite comments.”

Markley’s jewelry starts in sketch form. “Very loose and gestural, just getting an idea of an appealing shape,” she explains. “From there, I cut the material into smaller pieces and spend time figuring out how to reassemble it to achieve the shape I’m aiming for. It’s fairly improvisational, and I don’t have a clear plan or pattern for how I’m going to solder the metal or glue the wood back together.” Like sculpture or architecture, the “site” of her pieces is just as important. “I want my clients to be comfortable with their pieces. There is always a negotiation with weight, proportion, depth, scale, when figuring this out.”

Jeweler Meghan Patrice Riley also enjoys this relation of jewelry to the body. “I love the idea of the body as site—meaning that jewelry is fashion, art, design, and everything in between. A piece that looks like non-wearable art that belongs on the wall comes to life on the body. And I love the idea of people taking a personal approach; they can play with wearing my pieces in traditional ways or push their own ideas.” Her Blanc and Noir lines are made from steel cable cord and aluminum connectors or crimp beads—typically used in beaded necklaces to secure the stringing material to the clasp. But in Riley’s work, the cord, connectors and crimps take center stage; the stones, when used, are secondary, almost like jewelry turned inside out.

 
This notion of a maker’s spirit being encapsulated in their work lies at the heart of the contemporary craft movement. For those who dedicate their lives to craft, making is about more than the practice itself, more than selling work for a living.

The two-dimensional, line drawing feel to her work is not accidental. Some of her pieces almost read as blueprints for other complex structures. “It’s definitely jewelry about jewelry, which can be pretty meta,” Riley explains. “I have always loved all of the mechanisms, small parts, connectors that go into the making of jewelry. I love what I can create with this paired down process. I think of all of the crimps as stars in a larger constellation, creating order amidst chaos.”

CHIE HITCHNER

      Riley often starts with sketches derived from physics and mathematical concepts. She then translates them into her materials, often incorporating new items like the industrial ball chain interwoven with stones and pearls in her Gris line. A result of her obsession with ball chain and safety pins in her “grungy-goth-punk” teenage years, the series demonstrates Riley’s ability to turn traditional jewelry concepts on their head. The line was featured in a runway collaboration with Mariana Valentina, and caught the eye of large retailer Free People, who picked up Riley’s work. Riley designed epaulettes, arm and hand chains for the collection. 

Color is an important factor for Chie Hitchner, who uses natural dyes in her loom-woven fabrics. Working with raw fibers such as silk, wool and linen, Hitchner dyes the threads in small batches in her studio, often using materials she finds nearby. “There is something special about discovering the dyeing properties of plants that are right around you,” says Hitchner. “Fig leaves make a brilliant yellow. Camellia blossoms become a steely gray. Japanese maple leaves usually give me a beautiful gray, but last fall they gave me a beautiful green. Depending on the time of year and location, the color can be different.”

While part of the show’s Decorative Fiber category, Hitchner also creates wearables. This lends versatility to her design process. She imagines the pieces displayed cleanly and flat on the wall or a table, and also considers how they will bunch and flow with the curves of the body. Worn or flat, Hitchner’s firm grasp on design and technique and her debt to Japanese traditions is evident. Her patterns are crisp and exact, in calming neutral tones and soothing repetitive patterns one can get lost in.

Hitchner learned to weave at eighteen and attended a Japanese university that placed a heavy emphasis on technique and methodology. “My work is deeply influenced by Japanese craft techniques,” Hitchner explains. “I like to use kasuri, the Japanese form of ikat, in both warp and weft. I also use sukui-ori, which is a technique of pick-and-weave, where I use manual techniques to insert additional colors and threads into the weft. These techniques broaden the range of the designs that I can produce using a simple four-harness floor loom.” 

MARY JAEGER

      Understanding one’s work in the larger picture of the fashion and commercial market is an important part of survival as a craft artist. Clothing designer Mary Jaeger has been sewing since just four years old, and recognizes the complexities of the fashion, craft and couture worlds. In her NYC atelier, she creates everything from dramatic scarves, shawls and jackets that play with proportion, pattern and shape, to classic cut, shibori-dyed indigo tank tops, hoodies and tees that are perfect for everyday wear. The latter are made to touch a broader client base, but the goal of Jaeger’s garments is the same: to empower the wearer. “My couture garments address the need for thoughtfully designed and beautifully constructed clothing to communicate individuality in our culture currently exploding with fast fashion,” Jaeger reflects. “Fashion design incorporates multiple aspects of today’s culture and can foreshadow the future through the use of colors, shapes, materials, make, fit, and styles. In turn, fashion communicates messages we individually interpret and consciously or unconsciously adapt to make our own style of dress.”

Jaeger’s Accordion Bonbons do feel a bit like a glimpse into the future. Part of her Unfolding series, multiple colors of silk dupioni are pieced, pleated, dyed, and edge-stitched to drape around the neck and shoulders. Their smart construction folds compactly like a fan for traveling, like something out of The Jetsons. Made from repurposed silks, they combine her love for the visual transformation between flat patterns that become three-dimensional when worn, reducing waste, and using color as an accent to her neutral black, gray, white, and indigo palette.  

TREFNY DIX AND BENGT HOKANSON

      Collaboration is key to Trefny Dix and Bengt Hokanson’s blown glass vessels. Working together since 1996, the duo is inspired by everything from 1920s purses, to graffiti and computer circuits. Their work is varied, calling on Italian methods like the use of murrine and canes for pattern, and Swedish influences in their employment of thick, clear glass and large spots of color to frame and offset their colorful murrine.

Their designing works in stages—often starting with discussion of a new murrine or surface texture they want to explore; then moving on to color choice; what form expresses the pattern best; and finally how to achieve the design in mind. “We work out issues with the size, form, surface application, blowing, and shaping techniques, trying to achieve the concept behind the piece,” Dix explains. “Sometimes the piece goes through such a transformation from the idea one of us started with that it becomes a true collaborative effort.” Skilled colorists, their glass has an energetic movement and fluidity, and the heavy use of color demonstrates their skill in the glassblowing. Like all the artists in the show, Dix and Hokanson are thrilled to be returning this year. “We consider exhibiting in the Smithsonian Craft Show to be a high career achievement. The artists have been selected because their work represents a high standard of creativity and technical mastery within their mediums. It is an honor to show our work with the other artists.”

 

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Jill DeDominicis is a former Ornament staff writer and editor whose love for wearable art and all things craft remains strong. She works at Mingei International Museum, a craft, folk art and design museum in lovely Balboa Park in San Diego, California. DeDominicis is delighted to be covering this year’s Smithsonian Craft Show held in the nation’s capital at the National Building Museum. With its one hundred twenty artists in all craft media, the show provided an ample opportunity to write and learn more about some of her favorite contemporary artists who are showing their work.

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!

 
 

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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.

Kat Cole Volume 40.1

 

405 SUMMIT CATALOG OF BELONGINGS NECKLACE of steel, enamel, 17.8 x 25.4 x 0.3 centimeters, 2012. Photographs by Kat Cole except where noted.

 

Κat Cole defines a place by its detritus. For her, Pittsburgh is rusted steel and tin in smoky shades; Greenville, North Carolina, is brightly colored bits of plastic and glass; and Dallas is oily rocks and concrete rubble. As a child, she grew up in the lush hills near Atlanta, Georgia, then as a teenager moved to the flat plains of Muncie, Indiana, and has since lived in six states—a peripatetic existence that has honed her awareness of local land and cityscapes. She explains the importance of these moves to her art: “I find meaning through the observance and intimate awareness of the places I inhabit. With each geographic change, I have become more attuned to the natural and man-made attributes that make a location unique. I look to the built environment of the city where I live for the formal qualities of my work: materials, forms, color, and surface quality.” Cole expresses her experiences of place through jewelry and sculpture, primarily working with liquid enamel on steel and sometimes including found elements.

KAT COLE applying enamel.  Photograph by Gail Reid.

KAT COLE applying enamel. Photograph by Gail Reid.

      Cole attended Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, receiving her BFA in Crafts and Material Studies in 2007. She studied with Jim Meyer, Jack Wax and Susie Ganch, focusing on jewelry and glass. She also worked with noted British enamelist Helen Carnac, whom Ganch invited for a two-week residency; Carnac’s use of liquid enamel on found steel and minimalist approach proved influential and “gave [Cole] the creative beginnings [she] still [draws] from today.” Carnac explored Richmond on foot, and brought “lots of little rusty things” into the studio to enamel. Cole recalls, “It seemed very open ended, she was curious to see what would stick or how the enamel would come out on these found things,” adding, “It was not about perfection, but exploration.” 

Cole next moved to Pittsburgh, where she lived for two years, working as a retail manager for the Society of Contemporary Craft and establishing her first studio. She had limited tools and materials and relied mostly on snips, a soldering torch and found objects. Pittsburgh’s urban landscape—row houses, steel mills, smokestacks—inspired her to create her House Series from the materials she collected along the streets as she walked around her new city, in particular tin cans that she cut and folded into one-inch-high row houses like the old homes where steel workers lived. Through this scavenging process, Cole developed a love of discards and an appreciation for what they can convey about a place. The simple three-dimensional forms of the houses, whether singly in earrings or grouped in necklaces like All Connected, gave her the chance to investigate the aesthetic nuances of rust and shades of aged metal. During her time in Pittsburgh, she met Robert Ebendorf, who is known for his iconoclastic use of nontraditional, found and repurposed materials in jewelry, during an event at the Society of Contemporary Craft; he encouraged her to pursue a graduate degree at Eastern Carolina University, where he taught. 

ALL CONNECTED NECKLACE of found objects, copper, brass, 20.3 x 20.3 x 1.27 centimeters, 2009.

      So, in 2009, Cole relocated to Greenville, North Carolina, to study at ECU, and received her MFA in Metals and Jewelry in 2012. In addition to Ebendorf (a champion of her work who describes her as “one of the new contemporary voices in the enameling field”), Cole studied with Mi-Sook Hur and Ken Bova, and had another opportunity to learn from Carnac, serving as her studio assistant during a “Mark Making in Enamel” workshop at Penland School of Arts and Crafts in North Carolina in June 2010. Cole enjoyed this chance to get “a full introduction to [Carnac’s] creative process,” in which, according to Cole, “the object is a by-product of the thinking, versus thinking about what to make.” Cole continued to use found objects, but as “Greenville is not a rusty place,” she incorporated colorful plastics and glass in her work. Ebendorf suggested that she work with old tins, so she began collecting vintage enameled boxes (with images applied through a lithographic process) from antique stores. She sanded and marked the decorated exteriors of the boxes, and sometimes the patinated interiors as well. Her Richmond Tobacco necklace features a collection of blue, yellow and orange tobacco boxes—some worn over time and some scratched and abraded at her bench—folded into small rectangular prisms displaying ornate typography. Another necklace, Tractor Trailers and Trash, combines colorful narrow boxes created from tins with found objects in unusual shapes. Cole amassed a “library of tin,” with an impressive variety of colors and patterns, but she wanted more control. Then, while experimenting with enamel on a thin sheet of steel (for a work she never completed), she had an “ah-ha moment”, and realized that using freshly processed steel rather than readymade boxes and scraps would give her the ability to fold, solder and enamel as she pleased. 

TRACTOR TRAILERS AND TRASH NECKLACE of tin, found objects, sterling silver, brass, steel, 116.0 x 116.0 x 3.3 centimeters, 2012.

      Steel’s appeal to Cole is multifaceted. She enjoys its connection to Pittsburgh, which produced multitudes of steel during World War II. She also likes the fact that it is one of the most recycled materials in the world; for her, this quality makes it inherently historical. She also considers steel to be her “secret weapon” when creating jewelry because it allows her to make work that is large, but counterintuitively light in weight. She has “spent a lot of time reading about alloys, surface tooth, steel cleaning agents, and doing trial and error in the studio,” to find the format that works best for her—and she speaks with authority about the science behind her process.

Steel’s strength makes it ideal for enamel. Typically creating enameled jewelry involves applying finely ground glass to metal (often copper) by sifting, then heating it in a kiln until the glass melts and fuses to the surface. Cole uses liquid enamel—which combines ground glass with porcelain powder, pigment and water—and is more common in industrial applications than jewelry. She explains that liquid enamel has been used for over a century on the surfaces of bathtubs, washing machines, automobiles, and food containers. Liquid enamel can be dried with a heat gun before its short kiln firing, which allows her to ornament both sides of a sheet of steel. Also, Cole often solders the steel prior to firing it, an unusual approach that allows her to create distinctive enameled constructions.

From an artistic standpoint, liquid enamel provides a surface that allows for a broad range of mark making—she can draw in it, paint with it, make scratch marks, stencil patterns—on both three-dimensional folded forms and flat plates linked together. Some elements are dipped, leaving part of the steel exposed and giving the rest a thick coating with a fluid edge that emphasizes the liquid nature of the enamel. She fires the enamels in layers, and sometimes scratches through one layer to reveal an earlier color. She explains, “I let it drip and puddle, it can also crackle if a little thick, or have rust bloom, if left wet on the steel.” Cole does not desire to achieve consistent surfaces, instead seeking unexpected moments like when the enamel pools in one area or thins out at the edges or folds, allowing the metal to peek through a hazy layer of glass. 

 

URBAN WALL NECKLACE of steel, enamel, 45.7 x 25.4 x 0.3 centimeters, 2017. “A good friend asked to borrow some work to wear during her maternity photo shoot. When I saw this image I was floored. She changes the context of the necklace entirely, it is powerful and makes me think of my work in a different way. Baby Hendrix Elle Collins was born October 24th.” Model: Marsena Collins. Photograph by Kauwuane Burton.

 

      Through this combination of an industrial material and an industrial process with an artistic approach, Cole often captures the vague essence of a place, suggesting built structures through materials and color palettes or referencing familiar architectural forms in miniature—abstractions that take on universal qualities. For her thesis project, though, Cole sought to represent more specific and personal spaces: the apartments she had lived in. To document her memories of these residences she made lists of her belongings in each. A red necklace, 405 Summit Catalog of Belongings, is a visual inventory of what she owned in her Greenville apartment, with the odd flat shapes symbolizing items such as sinks, a washer, chairs, an oven, and a television. For Cole, this autobiographical jewelry shows how a place can define a person. 

WINTER—THE LAND BELOW NECKLACE of steel, enamel, 30.5 x 16.5 x 3.81 centimeters, 2013.

      After graduate school, Cole served as a visiting artist (a sabbatical replacement) for a year in Metals/Jewelry at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. There she was struck by the graphic quality of the sparse winter landscape with its snow-covered farm and industrial buildings—flat expanses punctuated by geometric volumes in black and white. She created a group of Structure brooches, earrings and necklaces —three-dimensional forms roughly enameled (mostly in white)—that recall distant silos, barns or factories. Often traveling by plane to conferences, she made numerous works based on aerial views, something she had started while in Greenville. One necklace, Winter–The Land Below, is a cluster of white, three-dimensional rectangular forms with black lines, some smooth like highways and some meandering like rivers, that suggests the starkness of the frozen terrain; the areas where the lines come together represent cities (Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids) and the dark mass of Lake Michigan is just visible on the western edge. Cole’s expression of place adopts a distinct cartographic quality through this series. 

X MARKS RED NECKLACE of steel, enamel, 45.7 x 20.3 x 0.3 centimeters, 2016.

In 2013, Cole and her soon-to-be husband, whom she met in Michigan, relocated to Dallas, Texas, their current residence. In an interview for Art Jewelry Forum in 2015, Cole described how the move affected her work: “When I first came to Dallas, I was living right downtown. The skyscrapers, windows, air conditioner units, and trucks on the street are all rectangles, it’s constant repetition of a singular shape. My work has become larger and more abstract since my move here.” The “x”s that had appeared regularly in her work took on a new significance when the couple bought their first home and she felt she could mark that special location on a map with an emphatic “x.” She set about exploring her new environment, reading about its history, considering society’s complicated relationship with oil, and collecting evidence of the city’s quickly changing architecture.

Two distinct bodies of work emerged from her first years in Dallas: the Oil and Water series and the Built/Unbuilt collection. She explains that “Dallas is not a city built on an industry, it is built on banking and the wealth created from oil.” In lieu of the old factory buildings that she favored previously, but which are not part of Dallas, she often incorporates imagery in her ongoing Oil and Water series from historic photographs of drilling rigs, geometric constructions that complement her architectonic jewelry. After digitally manipulating the images, she has them “printed on a special oxide printer,” and applies them to the steel through a decal process. In Old Well necklace, black enamel oozes along the top of an angular projecting form with an image of offshore oil rigs in Galveston, Texas, while the Fields of Oil necklace, in bright red, combines a historic scene of oil rigs with a map of Dallas, expressed through the outlines between the many flat plates composing the necklace as well as a tight group of intricate cutouts that indicate a city grid. Occasionally Cole includes gilded elements, which contrast with the rich blacks and reference oil’s “black gold” nickname, as in Oil & Water #2.

 

PILE NECKLACE/BROOCH of steel, enamel, copper, 15.2 x 15.2 x 6.4 centimeters, 2016. Model: Pilar Zornosa.

OLD WELL NECKLACE of steel, enamel, rubber, magnet, 35.6 x 8.9 x 3.8 centimeters, 2015.

      Built/Unbuilt, which Cole presented as an exhibition at Gallery 360 in Minneapolis in fall 2016, addresses the physical transformations of architectural landscapes. She describes Dallas as a city that is in the midst of change, a city that is growing quickly, and a city that is full of people. Aspects of the new buildings appear in her work through crisp lines, vibrant colors and contemporary materials. At the same time, she observes other buildings aging, becoming empty and being torn down. The ghostly white and gray necklace Vacant, with its columns of open rectangles cut into the neatly fitted angular shapes, suggests the many windows of an apartment or office building through which inhabitants once peered or were observed. For Cole, the spontaneity and visual energy of demolition (a drastic change from the clear organization of a built structure) upends and erases a site’s history, readying it for something new. Cole inverts the demolition process by carefully constructing assemblages of rectilinear elements that suggest remnants of walls, windows and vents, as in the brooch Pile, paying homage to the brief moment between the site’s past and future. One group of pendants take their flat forms from the silhouettes of the debris piles.

COLOR LANDSCAPE #1 NECKLACE/BROOCH of steel, enamel, 27.9 x 10.2 x 2.5 centimeters, 2017. Photograph by Dasha Wright.

      Cole’s latest work, for an exhibition at Facèré Jewelry Art Gallery in Seattle this fall, expands her typical palette of gray, white, black, and red. Cole expresses the challenges of working with color in enamel: “Color brings a lot of subjective information into a piece, and unlike using paint I cannot always achieve a specific color or brightness in glass. This collection is attempting to surmount these doubts. I like to push myself, and this has been a great project for that. It feels riskier.” A new series of Pile Outline in Color pendants present the unconventional shapes in bright oranges, with drips of aqua and streaks of red, or white with misty areas of green and blue. Her Color Landscape #1 necklace/brooch of rectangular prisms with one flat open grid piece, suggests the vibrant hues of sunset over cool blues. The large necklace Color Landscape #2 takes on a painterly quality with smooth areas of built up layers, drops of bright blue, and almost sheer brush strokes of red; the back is bright yellow, scratched through to reveal gestural white “x” marks. 

Though Cole’s jewelry is made of materials that are hard and forms that, while small, are imposing—often in a limited palette—it reflects a strong sense of a populated world. She explains, “The steel and concrete structures that surround us are evidence of human inhabitants—past and present. Monumental structures are interpreted into the intimate scale of jewelry and are completed when worn on the landscape of the body.” Cole reflects humanity by crafting echoes of its buildings and marks upon the landscape, creating an important body of wearable work that demonstrates new possibilities in enameling and documents her experiences of a place’s history, evolution and potential.

OIL & WATER #1 NECKLACE of steel, enamel, 40.6 x 20.3 x 0.3 centimeters, 2015. Model: Pilar Zornosa.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Ashley-Callahan-Contributor2017.jpg

Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts. She has written books and curated exhibitions on sisters Ilonka and Mariska Karasz, Hungarian-born modern designers based in New York; Henry Eugene Thomas, a Colonial Revival furniture craftsman from Athens; and a history of chenille fashion. She served as the Curator of Decorative Arts at the Georgia Museum of Art from 2000-2008, and is a guest co-curator for an upcoming exhibition there on the history of craft at the University of Georgia. She met Kat Cole when Cole was a visiting artist at UGA, and enjoyed the opportunity to see her teaching students about her enameling techniques.

Chunghie Lee Volume 38.5

 

Chunghie Lee. Stillness and Motion

NO NAME WOMEN BOJAGI of silk screen printed on silk, 61 x 61 centimeters, 2005. Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum. DREAM DURUMAGI of silk, bojagi gekki triple-stitch sewing, 2015. Model: Esther Kang.


The rippling of a sleeve with the gesture of a hand defies the weight of stasis that descends on garments when they lie on a table or against a wall. The contrast between motion and stillness in this opposition is central to Chunghie Lee’s art, not only as a consequence of materials and forms, but also as a means to a metaphor for the expanded perspective that this modern master of the bojagi technique has acquired from the lessons of life. She observes that the mind is a stultifying force when it is too self-assured, too rigid in its convictions to consider alternative perspectives. Over time, however, the mind’s defenses can begin to loosen under the influence of experience. “As I reach a more advanced age,” she explains, “I find that I am a lot less rigid seeing things. When I was young I thought that one perspective was best. At that time, making mistakes was something that I would not allow. Now I find that there is a great joy in discovery through mistakes. I am ready to embrace any situation, any perspective.”

      For Lee, one of the most consequential challenges to conventions of thought came in the 1980s when she returned to her alma mater, Hongik University in Seoul, to pursue graduate studies fourteen years after receiving her BFA. A major in weaving and dyeing, she produced some garments for family members merely as exercises in technique, but the works caught the eye of her adviser, who encouraged her to expand her horizons. “I said that I was not majoring in wearables or clothing,” she recalls, “but he pointed out that there was a lot of process in what I was doing creatively, and he thought that I could go in that direction. That was a little shocking to me, because back then my perspective was not as flexible as it might be now. In Korea there was rather rigid thinking at that time. Wearable art was not considered important. It wasn’t something that I could write about as an MFA student who was not majoring in clothing.”

NOVELTY LONGEVITY DURUMAGI of silk, bojagi gekki triple-stitch sewing, hand-embroidered goldfish provided by Cynthia Good, 2012 – 2014.
Photograph by Karen Phillippi.

     Foremost among Korean artists who would eventually dispel those biases, Lee aligned her explorations in the newly encountered territory of wearable art with research into a very old form of expression through textiles: the traditional craft of bojagi making. Similar to quilts without batting, bojagi were originally produced as wrapping cloths for Buddhist sutras and statues, but their long history is more often associated with the necessity of thrift. Dating back at least to the twelfth century, bojagi spread beyond temple and palace to become patchwork inhabitants of domestic spaces, in particular modest households. These everyday, or minbo, bojagi were pieced together from rectangles of salvaged cloth to serve primarily as food coverings: protection against flies in warm weather and insulators to retain the heat of cooked foods in winter.

For Lee, the visual appeal of bojagi—with their vivid geometric compositions that seemed to anticipate later nonobjective art by such modernist painters as Kandinsky and Delaunay—constituted only one of their attractions. Just as important were the associations of bojagi with generations of humble Korean women whose identities had long since dissipated into the obscurity of history and who had, moreover, passed largely anonymously even through their own times. The makers of historical bojagi lived under deeply engrained social strictures that discouraged self-assertion by women. “They were nameless,” Lee relates. “Back then people would have called me not Chunghie Lee but mother of my son’s name.” Consequently, the simple needlework of bojagi acquired for some women implications of psychological necessity: an affirmation of identity in the absence of more conventional means. Each colorful patch represented the freedom of choice, and the nonconformist asymmetry of compositions expressed personality. Each bojagi was in effect a signature stitched in cloth.

Although the bojagi created by nameless Korean woman in the past were composed from diverse bits of salvaged fabric—handwoven from hemp, often by the same woman who would later reclaim it—Lee generally relies on new silk, which she dyes and cuts into swatches. Much of this cloth is industrially manufactured, though some is handwoven. “That’s very expensive now,” she notes, “because the cost of labor is getting higher and higher. The cloth that I use is all new. It’s not recycled. I can’t get used ones. One of the problems is that in Korea there is a custom that when people die their children and other remaining family members gather the deceased person’s clothing and burn it. That’s why there is so little chance to preserve beautiful fabrics.”

DREAM DURUMAGI II of silk, bojagi gekki triple-stitch sewing, 2015. Model:  Esther Kang. Photograph by Chunghie Lee. CHUNGHIE LEE in front of Kyoungbok Palace, Seoul. Lee is wearing one of her 3-D bojagi sculptures as body ornament. Photograph by Chanhee Choi.

Those rare antique bojagi that have survived into the present have been tremendously influential on Lee’s sense of propriety in color-arrangement, especially her appreciation of an overall harmony built upon the complexity of local dissonance: a unity of composition that stems from contrasts, even clashing, of colors in various parts of the work. The early makers of bojagi may have been constrained by the need to recycle a mix of cloth swatches in various colors, but they turned this potential handicap into an obvious strength, exploring dynamic asymmetrical color compositions that continually amaze Lee. “I teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the foremost art schools in the USA,” she relates, “and those nameless women never had any formal education. But when I see their bojagi compositions I ask myself, ‘What am I, even with my art degree?’ I think that they were doing a better job with color.” While Lee’s deference to the color sense of her predecessors is characteristically modest, her own use of color, particularly her vibrant juxtapositions of complementaries, can be stunning.

The vibrational effects of complementary colors, an electric trembling to which the cones of the retina respond with intensity, serve as significant bridges between Lee’s compositions and an aspect of her work that the makers of antique bojagi did not address: movement through space. Not limiting herself to the format of the wrapping cloth, Lee has created much of her bojagi work in a contemporized form of the durumagi, the traditional long-sleeved Korean overcoat. While her durumagi—delicate, diaphanous garments of open-weave silk that filter light like gauze curtains—tend to be worn by their owners only on such special occasions as museum openings, they are conceived as kinetic sculptures. In the free space of human action, Lee’s durumagi are agents in the realization of an often serendipitous aesthetic: one that cannot be fully anticipated and controlled by the artist. This freedom, communicated through the motion of cloth, is both an acknowledgment of the social freedom in which the nameless makers of antique bojagi could not indulge and a reminder to Lee to maintain an open mind and accept the beauty of spontaneity and even accident in art and life alike.

Just as important as the metaphor for freedom from convention and predictability, however, is the less dramatic role that Lee’s durumagi play, flat against a wall, when not in use. Complementary to the ephemerality of motion that they exhibit when worn, this stillness spawns reflection on the structure of eternity: those principles and values that do not fade with time. Motion and stillness together mark the spectrum of engagement with the world, from the rational strategies of reflection, planning, and carefully controlled action to the more intuitive methods of immediate and decisive response to events as they occur. Both poles are embraced by the perspective that Lee has acquired on her journey through life, so both motion and stillness are essential to her art. “The same situation,” she observes, “can always be perceived in more than one way. I can see both sides now. It’s a result of learning more about the world.”

NO NAME WOMEN DURUMAGI of silk, bojagi gekki triple-stitch sewing, 2001-2004. Collection of the Fuller Craft Museum. Photograph by Karen Phillippi.

      The contrasting states of motion and stillness that complement one another in Lee’s durumagi are equally important to the aesthetics of her most recent forms: boxlike structures sewn from stiff patches of black, red and white fabric. Small enough to be worn as oversized brooches yet large enough to be considered diminutive sculptures, these box forms are intentionally designed to serve in both capacities. “When they’re placed somewhere, I hope near a window, they become miniature sculptures,” Lee explains, “but on the body they become pendants. They could also be neckpieces or brooches. When I have put them on the durumagi, the durumagi must be very simple. They can be hung on the wall together, or someone can wear them together. It’s a new interest and direction for me, and it’s not necessarily connected to a historical tradition. The cloth is made in a traditional way, but I am reinterpreting it.”

When Lee created the first of these new boxlike sculpture/ornaments, she had no particular precedents in mind, but later she recognized that they recalled a series of sculptures she had produced in 2004. Consisting of fabric cubes suspended from flexible-wire poles set into the ground, those forms were free to sway with the movement of the surrounding air, their impression of geometric predictability thus softened by the caprices of nature. Lee’s new sculpture/brooches carry forward this active relationship between predictability and spontaneity, but the meanings that she attaches to these traits are more carefully considered in the context of human action and attitudes. Her works, subtly and through the simplest of formal means, reflect her belief that emotional and intellectual growth occurs through a dialectic between deeply seated conventions of thought and behavior on the one hand and the momentary suspension of those conventions on the other.

DREAM RED JACKET WITH BLACK ORNAMENT of silk, bojagi gekki triple-stitch sewing, 2015. Model: Esther Kang. Photograph by Chunghie Lee.

      Lee references the human in her new sculpture/brooches through line—more specifically, red threads representing longevity that run within the bojagi construction and dangle freely from the boxlike forms. These threads of life are lines that, like the abstract lines in geometry, can be measured with precision through a logical, mathematical system that is not subject to error. At the same time, Lee’s threads flutter with the movement of a wearer, invoking spontaneity as a theme. In this respect, her works call to mind the mobiles of Alexander Calder—kinetic sculptures that the Existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously described as reflecting the human condition as a constant negotiation between facticity and freedom. The lengths of Lee’s threads remain constant in terms of mathematical measurement, but their flexibility gives them an almost infinite freedom to change their curves: to wave, curl and bend as they interact with the surrounding environment, submit to the force of gravity, and act under the influence of energy transferred to them by a wearer’s motions.

For Lee, the implications of time and continuity conveyed by the threads carry personal significance as well. In the first place, they are reminders that her work forms part of a historical tradition in which the bojagi sewn by women of the Korean past are in spirit carried forward into a still-unfolding future of textile art. Lee’s deep sense of participation in this historical process accounts for her enthusiastic promotion of bojagi through workshops, exhibitions and other events. More important, it has manifested itself in a desire to share her knowledge and shape the future through teaching: a commitment that has become as central to Lee’s identity as her creative work as an artist. “I would like to think that I can offer not only information but also experience,” she explains. “I can give some real help if the student is ready to use it. So I am prepared to take the next step. I would like to start a small school for underprivileged young people that would teach students how to go out and make a living. It would start with teaching fabric techniques, but who knows how it would grow? It would give students the confidence to say ‘I can do this.’ ”

The urge to make this simple assertion—to overcome restrictive conventions on thought and action, confront stasis with motion and counter oppression with freedom —lies at the heart of Lee’s work as an artist. Through her success in reviving and enlivening the bojagi technique she has, in a sense, imparted identity to generations of her nameless predecessors. Her pedagogical goals make clear that her motive has never been solely to gain her own voice but rather to instruct by example. Lee’s works in the bojagi technique, in other words, are not mere means to a successful artistic career. In their dynamic of stillness and motion lies a message of universal significance.

Organized by Chunghie Lee, the biennial Korea Bojagi Forum meets August 30 – September 4, 2016 in Seoul, Korea. For more information, visit www.koreabojagiforum.com.

SUGGESTED READING
Benesh, Carolyn L. E. “2012 Korea Bojagi Forum.” Ornament, Vol. 35, No. 4: 14-15, 2012.
Benesh-Liu, Patrick R. “Patchwork Community: 2012 Korea Bojagi Forum.” Ornament, Vol. 36, No. 1: 10-13, 2012.
Flynn, Janine Vescelius. “Reinterpreting a Tradition: New Meaning in Korean Patchwork.” Surface Design Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2: 17-22, Fall 1999.
Lee, Eunsook. “An Interview with Chunghie Lee.” Surface Design Journal, Vol. 31,
No. 4: 40-45, Summer 2007.
Peck, Nancy. “Chunghie Lee: Ambassador of Korean Pojagi.” Shuttle, Spindle & Dyepot, Vol. 34, No. 4: 53-57, Fall 2003.
Searle, Karen. “Chunghie Lee: The Pursuit of Dreams.” Ornament, 19, No. 4: 44-47, 1996.
Updike, Robin. “Bojagi Cloth, Color & Beyond by Chunghie Lee.” Ornament, Vol. 36, No. 3: 28-29, 2013.

 

   GET INSPIRED!

 
 

When Glen R. Brown, a professor of art history at Kansas State University, met with Chunghie Lee at the Rhode Island School of Design he was impressed by the optimistic spirit of her work and her commitment to sharing her experience with the bojagi technique through conferences, exhibitions and publications as well as teaching. “What I enjoyed most when I spoke with Chunghie,” he says, “was the passion that she showed for bojagi, not just as a technique to employ in her own work but also as a means of drawing people together.” Next issue of Ornament, Brown writes on the work of James Thurman and Umut Demirgüç Thurman.

Chris Francis Volume 38.3

CHRIS FRANCIS: TINKER, TAILOR, SHOEMAKER

Photograph by Vanessa Gonzalez.

Photograph by Vanessa Gonzalez.

With every dawning day, that rockstar glamour emerges from a robust shower of hair. Creator Chris Francis bears the resemblance of a raucous musician, of treble-decibel proportions. Deliciously satisfying to meet in person, the shine does not wear off even upon discovering that he is actually a shoemaker.

      Born in Kokomo, Indiana, Francis has forged a trail through life, managing that seemingly-impossible task of remaining one hundred percent on. Having migrated from job to job, from working on film sets to skyscraper abseiler, Francis has made his way in the world led by an attitude of embracing the experience and the present moment.

He is no less passionately engaged in his current occupation of shoemaker as his other walks of life. In four years, he has plunged wholesale into a demanding craft, and found room for personal expression that literally overflows like water burbling out the sides of a boiling soup pot.

Francis has been showing in “Chris Francis: Shoe Designer” at the Craft & Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, and in an agreement with the museum he transported his entire studio into its front window. This arrangement allowed guests direct access to the maker himself as he crafts his shoes. A friend came with me to the museum to meet with Francis for an interview and a lively discussion and debate ensued. Originally from May 24 through September 5, the exhibition, while downsized, has been extended through January 3, 2016, with his studio in the museum window still receiving visitors.

With a background as a carpenter and a clothing maker, among his other occupations, these experiences of working with his hands were integral steps before his current stint in creating shoes. There is a high degree of competence in their construction that no fresh amateur could achieve. It is the seasoning of life experience that provided the grounding to move on to this new stage.

 Francis’s journey has been a story of going with the flow in a conscious, and conscientious, direction. One of his comments refers to his making a curriculum for himself, a curriculum of life. 

Francis attended the Art Institute of Maryland for over a year, but he found prevailing attitudes about types of art and their value in relation to each other stifling. Francis values learning, whatever the source, and he attributes the class in color theory at the Art Institute as being foundational for his sense of shoe design.

Catching the freight train express, Francis traveled, worked and lived across the country for five years. The diverse occupations he took on all played a role in broadening his skillset—“I worked as a tree topper which taught me perseverance,” he reports. “I was a street side shoe shiner in Chicago and in New York, which proved to be a street level business course that taught me humility, and sparked my fascination for shoes. I worked on fishing ships in the Atlantic and the Pacific where I learned knot work and developed a deep understanding for life.” Seeing the vast nets of fish being reeled in, with hundreds to thousands of gasping, dying animals, made Francis consider the world more carefully and compassionately.

 
LAMINATE HEELS of leather, found plywood, paper, canvas, rubber, screws, washers, 2015.   Photographs by Noel Bass except where noted; courtesy of Craft & Folk Art Museum.

LAMINATE HEELS of leather, found plywood, paper, canvas, rubber, screws, washers, 2015. Photographs by Noel Bass except where noted; courtesy of Craft & Folk Art Museum.

 

      When he made the decision to become a shoemaker, Francis threw himself into the effort with both feet first. He went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising’s bookstore and studied all the pattern making books until he memorized the formulas. Francis is a dog lover. With his terrier Schnoopy (a beloved family member, source of inspiration and continuoustrickster), he would go to the dog park to sew his first shoes. Lacking a leather sewing machine, Francis had to do all the work by hand, and in the beginning there were no proper shoe lasts, so he carved them himself on the dog park bench. He picked up tools where he could, often from other makers in the Hollywood area. “They all have a great deal of attached history,” he murmurs fondly. His big find came in an attic two blocks away from Salvatore Ferragamo’s first shop in Hollywood. The majority of the lasts he now owns came from that discovery.

CLOG of found wood, found canvas, leather, 2014. This shoe was made almost entirely from materials Francis recovered from the dumpster behind the Mack Sennett Studios in Silver Lake, a Los Angeles neighborhood. Only the leather insole was found elsewhere. MOBILE STREET COBBLER set up during the time that the artist was making shoes on the streetside.  Photographs by Chris Francis.  CHRIS FRANCIS in the “Second floor underground,” his first workshop.  Photograph by Betsy Winchell.

CLOG of found wood, found canvas, leather, 2014. This shoe was made almost entirely from materials Francis recovered from the dumpster behind the Mack Sennett Studios in Silver Lake, a Los Angeles neighborhood. Only the leather insole was found elsewhere. MOBILE STREET COBBLER set up during the time that the artist was making shoes on the streetside. Photographs by Chris Francis. CHRIS FRANCIS in the “Second floor underground,” his first workshop. Photograph by Betsy Winchell.

      This road of self-choice has not been easy. Francis has had to surmount many obstacles, from technical issues to lack of tools, equipment and materials. However, knowing this was the road he wanted to tread made matters rather simple. When asked about how he managed, Francis responds, “I just think it was determination. Just not giving in at all. I was told, so many times, what you’re doing is absolutely crazy. One guy told me I’m building a Spruce Goose—he’s like, ‘Quit, you’re building a Spruce Goose doing that.’ See I’ve always had this running joke with Howard Hughes, you know, over that, and all I can say is, ‘The Spruce Goose flew man! And it went to a museum!’ ”

HOMESICK of wood, cotton batting, steel, rubber, leather, paint, 2015. Both Homesick and Comfortable Shoe, Size 7 were made during Francis’s residency at CAFAM.

HOMESICK of wood, cotton batting, steel, rubber, leather, paint, 2015. Both Homesick and Comfortable Shoe, Size 7 were made during Francis’s residency at CAFAM.

      Francis comes from Kokomo, a small town in Indiana, a factory town, with white steam billowing from the ghostly forest of chimneys. It is the inspiration behind one of his shoes, a logical anomaly where the shoes’ sole is a fluffy white cloud, and the heel and platform the factory buildings, multicolored in greenish-blue hues, with slanted roofs, backed by the exhaust pipe exhaling its deep, vaporous breath. In fact, it is a shoe sitting on a shoe, or rather, clouds floating above the factories. Their name is Homesick, and they are composed of cotton, wood, batting, steel, rubber, leather, and paint.

Like Detroit, which thrived and fell on the rise and fall of the car industry, Kokomo was home to many steel and car manufacturing plants. The 1980s rendered those factories into an industrial mausoleum, and Francis grew up in this steel and concrete graveyard. “As a kid I played in the abandoned factories, the interiors of blast furnaces became time machines or other imaginary scenarios. I was fascinated by these giant machines. My environment shaped me, and gave me a social conscience at a very early age,” he relates. As he became older, his uncle introduced the young Francis to punk, taking him to shows in Chicago and Kokomo, and this  
musical movement provided a social refuge.

Music plays a fundamental role in Francis’s life. Sounds literally are colors in his mind’s eye; listening to music is as putting paintbrush to canvas. Music becomes visions, visions become paintings, and that ethereal conduit from energy to physicality takes place because of sonic inspiration. One wonders if, despite punk influences, jazz blazes in his soul. The quick paintings that Francis creates as his model for a pair of shoes is like the abstract play between trumpet blare and saxophone flair. They are what happens when musical notes become visual notes. Protoforms lurk within the curves and sharp angles of Francis’s paintings, an effort, as he describes it, to portray the blueprint for transforming something from the first dimension to the third dimension.

FIRST ATTEMPT OF TATLIN’S TOWER BOOT, handpainted and handmade, hanging among sketches.

FIRST ATTEMPT OF TATLIN’S TOWER BOOT, handpainted and handmade, hanging among sketches.

      Francis’s perspective of the multiple dimensions, as is his knowledge regarding a number of different subjects, is homegrown—he is a person who tries to figure out the world for himself. “I guess the way I thought we defined one dimension was when it’s just a line like this, and a line that has no shading, no illusion of depth, is what I always considered the first dimension, in the sense of drawing. Then once you shade it and add a point of light, and that sort of depth reference, that’s the second dimension, and then once you bring that to the next level, to the ‘third’ dimension, you expand it into the reality. That’s just how I’ve always broken it down.”

This way of viewing the world extends to his method of making as well. “I basically start by attempting to break as many rules as I can possibly get away with. Every shoe is different and involves new sets of probabilities, each with unique structural challenges and material variables. If the shoe is for a client I am usually pretty hand-tied to tradition and I have to follow more of the known techniques of shoemaking,” he explains.

And what shoes does he make? If you were to take someone who absorbed influences from all over the world, and provided him a vast canvas to methodically paint interpretations, variations and experiments, this is what his oeuvre would be. Francis seeks to stretch us beyond labels, and his shoes, although eventually identifiable, do their best in one way or another to undermine our concept of what a shoe should be or is. At least, the successful ones are. He ruefully acknowledges there are a lot of failures among his “babies.”

 
SHOE of woven textile, vegetable-tanned leather, wood, hand-brogued leather, linen, cheesecloth, leather, nails, natural glue, 2014.

SHOE of woven textile, vegetable-tanned leather, wood, hand-brogued leather, linen, cheesecloth, leather, nails, natural glue, 2014.

 

      How to describe one? A Pinocchio’s nose elongated Thousand and One Nights/Scheherazade style into footwear? Or perhaps something fit for an Arabian Jack and the Beanstalk? Reusing textile samples from carpets and wall hangings, the interior is sumptuous gold, with some glittering golden faux snake leather adorning the heel. The divergence between observer and maker can be quite pronounced, however, as we find that Francis’s muse for this piece is the novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne (1759-1767). The characters residing within have various“hobby horses” in their lives, bringing color and that peculiarity of behavior which lead to individuality in their personalities. Francis felt himself relating to the concept of an activity or occupation that helped define one’s identity, and from there these fairy tale shoes took shape. However, it is this diversity of response from his audience which titillates him.

DADA TEPEPA of cotton mud cloth from Mali, hand-dyed silk, printed fabric, linen, muslin, canvas, wood, leather, 2015.  Photograph by Chris Francis.

DADA TEPEPA of cotton mud cloth from Mali, hand-dyed silk, printed fabric, linen, muslin, canvas, wood, leather, 2015. Photograph by Chris Francis.

Two rather stately and bold ivory-white, purple, yellow, and red high heels come accented with a deep blue-gray platform that keeps the eye winding from contrast to contrast, all the way up the shoe. Its spiralling sinuous shape wends its way towards the heavens. They belong to the clean, sleek world of modern royalty. However, in a democratized fashion, anyone who can afford them could wear these graceful pumps. There are no court artisans here.

When he really succeeds at breaking “as many rules as he can possibly get away with,” the results barely look like footwear. “So this one, is called Dada Tepepa, and this one’s kind of far out. This was me being very bored with shoemaking, and not wanting to play by the rules of shoemaking. That thought was really absurd, but I started feeling absurd being a shoemaker in the modern world. When I’m making these objects, but you can just go to the store and buy them for twenty dollars, why make these things at all? So I thought, if I’m going to be that absurd, why not make really absurd objects altogether?

“I was watching this spaghetti Western movie called Tepepa, and it was about this Mexican revolutionary single-handedly fighting the government, and I thought that was fantastic. I sort of felt I was like that with shoemaking a bit. I don’t want to make brogues, I didn’t make brogues yesterday, I didn’t wake up making them today and I’ve got no plans to make them tomorrow, and I’m going to make teepees.” He gesticulates towards them—they are like giant, primeval tents encasing the foot. He says with obvious pride, and a slight touch of awe: “They’re wearable. They’re all handstitched. I sat there and handstitched them for hours. That was sort of the insanity of it all. And then doing it twice, that was the ultimate act of insanity. Making a ridiculous object twice.”

COMFORTABLE SHOE, SIZE 7 of wood, foam, cotton, upholstery fabric, 2015. Francis sourced the fabric for this pair from a chair he found on a Hollywood street.  Photograph by Chris Francis.

COMFORTABLE SHOE, SIZE 7 of wood, foam, cotton, upholstery fabric, 2015. Francis sourced the fabric for this pair from a chair he found on a Hollywood street. Photograph by Chris Francis.

However, there are rather wonderful reasons why Francis makes ridiculous objects. “I make the objects I make because they are in the most reasonable format I’ve found to express myself in the world. They have become a true extension of myself and my personality, sharing my awkwardness and whimsical outlook. I often exist more comfortably in my own imagination—most of my creations make sense there. Sometimes I make designs only because they make me laugh and I’m okay with them being laughed at when they arrive in reality—it becomes the function of the object!”

On his ride through time, with multiple stops along the road, Francis has pretty well exemplified his own preachings. Now that he has become a shoemaker, he explains why this particular occupation is fulfilling. “The shoe challenges me and inspires my imagination more than anything else. I see the shoe as a sculptural object capable of infinite possibility, an outlet for invention and a way to be a structural engineer and architect on a small scale. The shoe has also become my means of expression and my format for relaying my interpretations of life, history, sound, and social commentary. Every shoe is a unique situation with changing variables, the odds for failure make for an exciting gamble.”

Although Francis would perhaps revel in being called an iconoclast, he is in fact accepting of all types, from the corporate marketing world to blue collar workers to the urbanites of Los Angeles. What he dislikes is the result of a corporate system: its environmental and cultural impact, and its effect on us as individuals and human beings rather than consumers. His work, and
his dedication to the handmade, is a manifestation of his philosophies and principles in action. “A tactile and interactive life is just the most peaceful way I’ve found to exist, so I prefer it. The best way to propagate anything is by example and by offering positive solutions. My positive solution is to be the person you want to be in the world, and live a life that doesn’t abuse others. Live your art or whatever your dreams may be and create a world that you love. Be yourself and let others be themselves and invent your own way of life.”

PUMPS of artist’s pants, broom bristles, Sex Pistols button, found fabric, dental floss, roofing tar, 2014. The broom bristles used for this piece come from Francis’s shop.  Photograph by Chris Francis.

PUMPS of artist’s pants, broom bristles, Sex Pistols button, found fabric, dental floss, roofing tar, 2014. The broom bristles used for this piece come from Francis’s shop. Photograph by Chris Francis.

 

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 issue, he is delighted to debut Chris Francis, shoemaker extraordinaire, currently parked in the front window of the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles. He found in Francis a patient and curious person who revels in the self-expression and exploration the artist achieves through crafting shoes. In addition to this report, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest craft News, where you can find out what is happening with art-to-wear in your local corner of the world.

Nicki Marx Volume 38.2

Nicki Marx: Feathered Fantasies

#38/14 of rooster and Golden pheasant feathers, glued individually feather by feather on backing of deer suede, 2014. Also being worn is a vintage Ring-necked pheasant cummerbund. VINTAGE NECKPIECE of Ring-necked pheasant feathers, circa 1975. NECKPIECE of Ring-necked pheasant feathers, circa 1975. Photographs by Phillip Dixon, courtesy of The Nartonis Project. Model: Fanny Inanga Vega.

A compelling story has a defined beginning, middle, and end, and a protagonist whose dimensionality and intrigue hooks the reader into the narrative. Cape, Shaman’s Robe turned out to be the hook that drew me into the story of Nicki Marx, artist of singular wearables and wall sculptures crafted with feathers and other natural materials. Constructed of feathers, horsehair and leather, it was exhibited in California Design 1976, at the Pacific Design Center, Los Angeles, and subsequently featured in the Chronicle book California Design: The Legacy of West Coast Craft and Style (2005). The dramatic, fluttering cloak was cited in the Fiber Revolution chapter of the book as emblematic of the time when artists dared to make body coverings that were highly expressive, larger than life-size, sometimes outlandish, and constructed more as costume than clothing.

BRUJA DE PLATA, a collaboration by Nicki Marx and Ben Compton of vicuna, rooster feathers, metallic fabric, sheared sheep skin, woven fiber strap with metal hardware, leather, 1976. Photograph by Robert Mertens.

BRUJA DE PLATA, a collaboration by Nicki Marx and Ben Compton of vicuna, rooster feathers, metallic fabric, sheared sheep skin, woven fiber strap with metal hardware, leather, 1976. Photograph by Robert Mertens.

      Indeed, the striking, earth-trailing robe made a forceful statement about this explosive period in the fiber/wearable art movement (page 48). But this was just the tip of the quill—the beginning of what would reveal itself as a richly woven narrative. Marx’s career as an artist took flight when she discovered she could use feathers, shells, seeds, bones, bark, bugs, driftwood, flowers, minerals, and earth as her primary ingredients to make a signature statement in wearable and mixed media artwork.

Living in the coastal town of Santa Cruz, California, in the freewheeling 1970s, Marx, who consistently worked on both wearables and wall sculptures, became identified with a close-knit community of artists who were following their own visions in artwear. Wholly self-taught, Marx popularized natural feather-patterning: the process of creating decorative compositions through arrangement of colors and designs inherent in the natural feathers she would glue to a substructure, most often leather. The brilliance of the hues, iridescences and patterns of the feathers are distinctive to their species, and Marx favored peacock, pheasant, rooster, and duck.

During this time, and in this place, Marx was part of a vibrant artistic circle. Artists Marian Clayden, K. Lee Manuel, Gaza Bowen, and Eliot Marshall Smith were also part of the creative community in Santa Cruz. Clayden actively advanced new techniques in textiles, such as silk resist and clamp dyeing; Manuel introduced methods for painting on leather and feathers; Bowen charted new territory in boot and shoe construction infused with content; and Marshall Smith made strides in mask fabrication with alternative materials.

Marx and other artwear artists were recognized for creating vanguard works by inclusion in important exhibitions and documentation in publications. “Maximum Coverage, Wearables by Contemporary American Artists,” an exhibition at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in 1980, followed by the eponymous publication in 1981, highlighted the works of these Santa Cruz artists, among others, who were influential in the art-to-wear movement. Marx’s wearable featured in the exhibition and catalog was a collaborative piece (page 48) with artwear designer Ben Compton: A spectacular, shimmering, vicuna leather/rooster-feathered, full-length cape with headpiece, Bruja De Plata (Sorcerer of Silver), appropriately titled the hundreds of rooster feathers—covering the entire surface of the leather cloak—were silvery and reflective as if the feathers had been dipped in liquid silver. More accessible than a museum exhibition, the wearables produced by artwear artists could be viewed, sampled and purchased at Julie Schafler’s Julie: Artisans Gallery, a prestigious Madison Avenue emporium in New York City. Marx’s capes, vests, collars, and cloaks were shown at, and purchased from this gallery in the 1970s and early 1980s, and consequently have landed in significant collections of artwear.

#37/14 of Lady Amherst pheasant feathers, 2014. #33/14 of striped rooster feathers, 2014. #48/14 of rooster and Lady Amherst pheasant feathers, 2014.
Photographs by Faria Raji, courtesy of The Nartonis Project, 2015.

      The wearables of Marx and Manuel were often exhibited in the same shows and appeared in the same publications, and it has been noted that there is an aesthetic kinship between Marx’s feather breastplates and Manuel’s feather collars. The two women were friends and lived in the same community, and according to Marx, they may have started making feather collars at the same time and incorporating feathers into other artwear. However, there is one notable, and distinguishing difference: Manuel had studied fine arts in college and considered herself a painter; her impulse was to paint the feathers and have them serve as painted elements of the composition. Marx, an ardent environmentalist who reveres earth and believes nature is sacred, sees beauty in the feather’s pristine
state. Marx’s objective is to make dazzling arrangements, naturally, without alteration; feathers become “her tubes of paint—her palette.”

At any rate, it is a moot point to consider which of the two artists arrived first at the idea of making feathered adornments. According to costume and textile curator Dale Carolyn Gluckman, both were building on a longstanding tradition: “Marx’s and Manuel’s use of feathers on clothing and neckpieces has antecedents in geographically diverse ancient cultures. For example, among the Nazca people in precolumbian Latin America between A.D. 600-800, ceremonial capes, aprons and standards were covered with the intensely colored feathers of parrots, macaw and other tropical birds, many obviously traded long distances.”

Further, documented research by Dr. Zvezdana Dode, an authority on the textiles and dress of the Mongols of Central Asia, reveals that robes decorated with feathers were mentioned in the writings of Marco Polo and have been found in Mongol noble burials dating from the second half of the thirteenth century to the end of the fourteenth. Thus proving that the threads of cultures connect through centuries. Suffice to say, Marx and Manuel can lay claim to reviving an ancient tradition, making it relevant to their time, and imprinting it with their personal stamp.

CAPE, SHAMAN’S ROBE of feathers, horsehair and leather, worn by Nicki Marx, and exhibited in “California Design ‘76,” 1975. Photographer unknown.

CAPE, SHAMAN’S ROBE of feathers, horsehair and leather, worn by Nicki Marx, and exhibited in “California Design ‘76,” 1975. Photographer unknown.

      Self-identified as The Feather Lady (announced on her feather-trimmed business card), Marx continued a rich and flourishing production of art-to-wear and performance pieces, and wall compositions (some with feathers, some with encaustic, all with natural materials) from the 1970s through the early 1980s, showing in major galleries nationwide, and building an impressive publication and exhibition record. Along the way, Marx fulfilled several high-profile commissions, most notably Eye Dazzler, a monumental mural comprised of Golden and Lady Amherst pheasant feathers created for Stanford University’s Sherman-Fairchild Science Center in 1976, still on display today.

Other remarkable credits to Marx’s name, that shot her into the stratosphere of rock-star-artwear fame, were purchases by celebrated artists Louise Nevelson and Georgia O’Keeffe. This visibility brought production managers from the fashion industry to Marx’s studio doorstep; she was approached with the idea of having her designs produced by other artisans. “It’s a totally intuitive process,” explains Marx. “It’s like breathing. Breathe in—select and place the feather; exhale—glue. It’s so natural for me. Having other people laboring in my studio would change the meditative quality of the work.” Hence, Marx continued along the path of handcrafting each piece, affixing each feather individually, tallying hours of artistic labor.

By 1985, Marx was at a crossroads: primed for a change in both location and creative direction, Marx relocated to Taos, New Mexico, and decided to discontinue making wearables. The remoteness and wildness of the New Mexico landscape had been drawing her to the region; she had lived there part-time for the last fifteen years, and felt “connected to the peace and violence of the natural surroundings” she found outside her door. Evolving out of her wearable work, Marx brought the same skills and intuition to the wall sculptures, which she worked on exclusively through the mid-1990s. Two important series emerged that were politically themed reactions to the horrors and devastation of war: the Gulf War series and the Aftermath series, the latter based on a vision of the world after nuclear destruction. Marx’s artistic diligence was rewarded with a twenty-five-year retrospective in 1996 at Sun Cities Museum of Art, Arizona, where all phases of her career were represented, demonstrating the totality of her creative output.

In any story, this would be considered a happy ending; but the narrative has only reached the end of the second act. Marx’s life took a sharp left turn when a car crash sent her into disability and forced her into a challenging time of survival. Unable to produce work of scale due to injuries caused to her arms and neck, Marx turned to making jewelry from precious metal clay and minerals. The necklaces and pendants that she made from her Taos home and sold locally sustained her during this period of time—more than a decade—that she spent recovering from the injury and regaining her mobility.

#55/14 of Golden pheasant feathers, 2014. Photograph by Faria Raji, courtesy of The Nartonis Project, 2015.

#55/14 of Golden pheasant feathers, 2014. Photograph by Faria Raji, courtesy of The Nartonis Project, 2015.

Her art career having faded from view, but not ready for it to “fade to black” (as when the screen goes dark; the end), Marx was yearning for a comeback. Then, in 2014, opportunity came calling, literally: a phone call exchange ended with an offer to re-enter the art scene, via a Los Angeles gallery that specializes in craft and design. Katie Nartonis, twentieth-century design specialist, had been on the other end of the phone. The outcome was a solo exhibition of wearables and feather-based wall sculptures, “Marx: Rising,” co-curated by Nartonis and Gerard O’Brien. Presented were vintage feathered artwear along with recently crafted versions of collars, breastplates and vests, and feather wall compositions hung on three contiguous walls.

Shown at The Landing at Reform Gallery, in Los Angeles, the 2014 opening produced a powerfully intoxicating effect, as viewers were surrounded by the sumptuous body adornments and wall ornaments, and further, were tantalized by models wearing the collars and breastplates created from the brilliantly hued feathers of many species of birds. These neckpieces, some with vertical extensions of suede and braided leather, fell gracefully at the chests, shoulders and backs of the models as they strutted through the aisles, mimicking the proud birds whose feathers they fluttered with every pivot. By all accounts, Marx had a rousing re-discovery.

During the run of the exhibition, there was excitement over, and purchases of, the wearables and wall sculptures. A vintage 1970s breastplate of peacock feathers was acquired for the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for inclusion in a major exhibition in 2016, demonstrating that Marx’s body adornments were signifiers of their time. Additionally, famed fashion photographer Phillip Dixon was inspired by Marx’s feathered fantasies. Dixon’s visionary approach resulted in photographs of a nude model wearing only a collar or breastplate. These photographs present the opportunity to see Marx’s body adornments with great clarity and raw energy as they function as true body coverings, skimming over skin without the mediation of clothing.

Her art career once again soaring, Nicki Marx is taking advantage of the momentum. She is back at work in her Taos studio, creating new bodies of artwork. Recently ten of her wall sculptures went on view at the Gallery at the El Monte Sagrado Resort, Taos. But Marx, who just turned seventy-one, knows the power of pause and contemplation. Marx reflects on her re-launch and renewed popularity. “I’m very grateful that I’ve been able to pick up the thread and continue the tapestry of my life. I’ve hung on to my inspiration; I’ve stayed the course. My work was part of the zeitgeist of the ‘60s and now it’s timely again. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to manifest my vision all these years.”

 

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Jo Lauria is an independent art/design curator and author living in Los Angeles. She first came across the wearable art of Nicki Marx during research for California Design, The Legacy of West Coast Craft and Style, which she coauthored with Suzanne Baizerman. Lauria was intrigued by the exotic leather and feather Cape, Shaman’s Robe that Marx had created in 1975 and exhibited in California Design ‘76, but had no idea that she would actually meet the artist who created this extravagant cloak. That opportunity presented itself in late 2014 at an exhibit of Marx’s feather neckpieces, wearables and wall sculptures. “It was a great pleasure to meet her and presented the platform for me to interview Nicki for this article and learn of her renewed energy and commitment to her singular vision.”