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, 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.

Checha Sokolovic Volume 40.3

SEARCHING BROOCH of sponge, blackened steel, stainless steel, aluminum, and concrete, 7.0 x 8.0 x 2.0 centimeters, 2015.  Photograph by Checha Sokolovic.

SEARCHING BROOCH of sponge, blackened steel, stainless steel, aluminum, and concrete, 7.0 x 8.0 x 2.0 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Checha Sokolovic.

The rose-colored slice of cement has the look of a particularly appealing piece of industrial fabrication. Perhaps it is a fixture for a designer kitchen. At 4.5 inches across and about 1/3-inch thick, it is solid and sturdy looking, but also sleek. Slim stainless steel bands encase the outer and inner edges of this pink wheel, and if you pick it up you know exactly what to do with it: slide it over your wrist.

      The cement, stainless and aluminum bangle Pretty in Pink was made by Checha Sokolovic, a Seattle jewelrymaker with an architect’s eye for bold, unfussy design and a builder’s fondness for industrial materials. Besides cement, Sokolovic works with concrete, commercial quality vinyl, brass washers meant for plumbing, egg cartons, kitchen sponges, and hunks of charcoal and pumice. To make backings and armatures she mostly chooses stainless steel. When she gets fancy, she adds a little sterling silver.

RING OF THE RISING SUN of sterling silver, concrete and PVC, 6.0 x 1.5 x 5.0 centimeters, 2017. Photograph by Barbara Cohen.

PRETTY IN PINK BANGLE of stainless steel, aluminum and concrete, 11.4 centimeters diameter, 2012. Photograph by Checha Sokolovic.

      Creating jewelry out of humble materials is one of the hallmarks of contemporary artist-made jewelry. Gold and diamonds are lovely, of course, but beauty can also be coaxed out of far less precious materials—an idea that resonates perfectly with Sokolovic’s modernist aesthetic and her reverence for the common materials of our everyday lives. She whips up batches of concrete and cement in her kitchen, pouring them into molds, sometimes including ice cube trays, and browses hardware stores for small shiny bits that catch her eye, such as washers and screws. The effects she achieves are remarkable. Her neckpiece The Dark Side of the Moon is a four-inch disc of concrete raised in the center and pocked as though pummeled by geological forces. To make the piece, Sokolovic dyed the concrete black, framed it in a stainless steel armature and hung it on black rubber tubing. The Dark Side of the Moon is an evocative bit of cosmic poetry, expressed in the most quotidian of materials. 

 

DARK SIDE OF THE MOON NECKPIECE of stainless steel, concrete, dye, and rubber, pendant 10.0 x 4.0 centimeters, rubber cord 107.0 centimeters, 2017. Photograph by Barbara Cohen.

 

      A lifelong collector of big, bold jewelry, Sokolovic didn’t start making jewelry until 2010, when she took her first jewelrymaking class at Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle. “My first idea was to make big silver jewelry. I’ve been wearing very big silver jewelry all my life, and I thought I’d make something I liked,” Sokolovic says. “But I saw how expensive it would be to buy that much silver. Then I took a class in alternative materials. Up until then I didn’t realize people made jewelry out of plastic bags and other stuff that might be thought of as trash. What really blows my mind is finding the beauty in all this stuff, including pieces of charcoal I find on the beach.”

Despite her background in building design, Sokolovic had never mixed cement or concrete. On the other hand, she understood their physical properties, and she admired the solid heft and strength of construction materials. “I was inspired to work with cement. You can get all these wonderful textures with cement and one of my first ideas was to try to get the look of a polished concrete floor. Also I thought because I started making jewelry kind of late, I wanted to make something different, something that not many others are doing.” 

 

CEMENT BEADS NECKLACE of cement, rubber, sterling silver clasp, stainless steel cord, 50 centimeters long, each bead approximately 2.5 centimeters, 2013. Photograph by Barbara Cohen.

ICE BEAD GAME NECKLACE of ice, sterling silver, 45 centimeters long, each bead approximately 2.5 centimeters, 2012. Photograph by Sean Airhart.

 

      Sokolovic uses Rockite, a mixture of Portland cement and gypsum cement. The resulting material doesn’t shrink as it dries and she can control it when she casts it in her stainless steel metal frames. It is also relatively light to wear compared with concrete, and it has a smoother surface than concrete. Since there are not stones, sand or other materials added, however, her cement mixture can be somewhat brittle. She seals her cement pieces with wax to protect them from water. She points out that cement is not as tough a material as most people believe. “I always make sure to mention that even though cement might sound like a very durable and hard material, these pieces are, in fact quite delicate and need to be handled with care and love.”

Sokolovic says she is a ‘sun freak,’ and that the Sun Goddess jewelry is an antidote to the gray winters of the Pacific Northwest. ‘As soon as I finish making something I always wear it. I want to see how it feels. With the Sun Goddess necklace you put it on and go outside and you feel warmer.’

SUN GODDESS NECKPIECE of PVC, stainless steel and sterling silver rivets, 30.0 centimeters diameter, 2018. SUN GODDESS EARRINGS of PVC, stainless steel and sterling silver. 7.5 centimeters diameter, 2018. SUN GODDESS RING of PVC and sterling silver, 5.0 x 3.0 x 0.5 centimeters, 2018. Photographs by Noel O’Connell.

      Concrete is tougher, and one of her recipes is a mixture of Portland cement and sand. The surfaces of her concrete pieces are rougher since you can see the sand, and the pieces are tougher in that they are less likely to chip. She seals them with a concrete sealant to protect them from water. For The Dark Side of the Moon, she used pre-mixed concrete paste applied over a wire mesh frame.

Her love of charcoal, concrete and stainless steel means that much of Sokolovic’s work is a monochromatic landscape of black, nearly neutral shades of dyed cement, and metal. But in the last year Sokolovic has started working with vivid color thanks to her new enthusiasm for candy-colored polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, the material most of us simply call vinyl. “A friend gave me samples of PVC,” Sokolovic says, displaying place-mat-sized sheets of fire engine red and cobalt blue. “And I find mats in kitchen stores made out of it.” Her new Sun Goddess Collection is a dramatic marriage of brilliant yellow vinyl and riveted stainless steel. The collection includes earrings, bracelet, ring, and neckpiece that resemble golden rays fanning out from a blazing sun. Sokolovic says she is a “sun freak,” and that the Sun Goddess jewelry is an antidote to the gray winters of the Pacific Northwest. “As soon as I finish making something I always wear it. I want to see how it feels. With the Sun Goddess Neckpiece you put it on and go outside and you feel warmer.” If there’s a hint of sunshine, the sun refracts off the golden vinyl tossing bits of yellow light around like the darting choreography of fireflies.

Sokolovic grew up in Sarajevo, in what was then called Yugoslavia. “I loved growing up there, but Sarajevo really had a small town mentality. If you’re a little bit different, you’re made fun of. So wearing big jewelry in the 1980s was my way to rebel a little. It made me a little different. I didn’t want to blend in.” She bought jewelry whenever she could. As a young woman she spent time on a Greek island that she still thinks of as idyllic. But besides the turquoise waters and sunny climate, one attraction was a small jewelry store where on every vacation she bought something. She talks about a silver bracelet that called to her like a siren’s song. 

“I had never seen anything like the bracelet. I think it is probably from Asia. I had to have it. It was as much as my rent for the next month, but I bought it and didn’t eat for weeks.” Sokolovic still has the bracelet, which is a simple though elegant silver-hinged bangle with a clasp closure and a little decorative pattern work. Though she never wears it anymore, she says her reaction to the bracelet a couple of decades ago was a telling sign of her lifelong passion for jewelry.

In 1990 Sokolovic earned her college degree in architectural engineering and urban planning at the University of Sarajevo. When war broke out a few years later she, her mother and sister fled, eventually settling in Vancouver, Canada, where she picked up whatever work she could find. In 1998 she got a job offer from a Seattle architecture firm and relocated to Seattle. A decade later she was laid off and suddenly had free time. At the urging of a friend who noticed her love of jewelry, she signed up for a class at Pratt. Although she comes from a family of artists, and her sister is a self-supporting artist in Canada, Sokolovic says, “I always thought that I’m not that good with my hands, so it took me a long time to finally try. But when I came to class here I was inspired by the idea that I could make exactly what I want. I express myself through wearing jewelry.” And compared to the precise work she does as an interior designer, her current employment, making jewelry is freedom.

 

THE ORIGIN RING of stainless steel, blackened steel, cement, 3.5 x 4.5 x 0.7 centimeters, 2013. Photograph by Barbara Cohen.

METEORITE LANDING RING of sterling silver, patina, charcoal, cement, dye, and resin, 7.0 x 3.0 x 5.0 centimeters, 2017. Photograph by Barbara Cohen.

 

      Rings are Sokolovic’s favorite jewelry. She likes to wear them and make them. Meteorite Landing is certainly one of her most distinctive. Made at the same time as The Dark Side of the Moon, Meteorite Landing is a hunk of charcoal attached to a cement base, both dyed black and stabilized with resin. To accompany Meteorite Landing, Sokolovic made Meteorite Earrings, also with charcoal. The pieces are a reminder that our little planet spins in a big galaxy where something as random as a meteorite could seriously disrupt our world. Other recent rings include Ring of the Rising Sun, a two-inch-wide sterling silver oblong bisected by a red vinyl half sphere. Though Sokolovic’s cement and charcoal pieces often suggest ancient geology and timelessness, her vinyl and stainless steel jewelry is about light, weightlessness and moods elicited by colors. The Ring of the Rising Sun is dramatic and bold, a ring for an adventurer to wear into the future. Like some of her other work, her vinyl and steel jewelry has a futuristic look. Another newer ring is Tickle Me, which is a tuft of white fur sprouting from a single cardboard cup of an egg carton. There is a sly surrealist humor about it given the image of fur emerging from an egg carton. “Tickle Me is for special occasions,” Sokolovic says. “It’s big, and not very practical. But I like it, and I like the idea that you can tickle yourself.”

 

TICKLE ME RING of sterling silver, egg carton, latex paint, fur, 10.0 x 4.0 x 3.5 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Checha Sokolovic.

WINTER BLOOM RING of sterling silver, egg carton, latex paint, rubber,10.0 x 4.0 x 3.5 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Checha Sokolovic.

 

      Partly because of her use of geometric shapes, Sokolovic’s work frequently has a space-age minimalism about it. Her vinyl and stainless jewelry would look terrific with any Star Trek outfit. Her looping earrings and bracelets made of thin-gauge stainless steel ribbon also have a futuristic appeal. Atomic Bracelet is a set of three connected stainless steel orbits pivoting around each other thanks to a rivet at the base of the bracelet. A pair of earrings called Twisted suggests a gravity-defying trajectory through space.

Checha Sokolovic wearing her jewelry. Photograph by Krista Welch.

      Outgoing, with a quick smile and dry sense of humor, Sokolovic says she has never had any interest in using gemstones or other precious materials. “I’m not interested in cars. I shop at thrift stores. Maybe it was being raised in a communist, or socialist, country. But I never thought of expressing myself through expensive things. What interests me is making jewelry, wearing it, and seeing other people wear it. Definitely my biggest satisfaction is when I see people wearing my jewelry.” 

Her jewelry isn’t for everyone. It can be heavy. A black and gray cement necklace that she created by pouring cement into ice cube trays and fashioning cement beads demands a sturdy neck and collarbone from anyone wishing to wear it. Sokolovic intended it to be dramatic. “It was inspired by African beads which are similar in shape to my cement beads. It is my homage to all those big, heavy bead necklaces that I like and that kind of hug you when you’re wearing them. I know my jewelry is big, and that everything has weight to it. But that’s part of my idea. The size and weight of my jewelry means that when you put it on, you don’t forget you’re wearing it. It’s a connection between the jewelry and the wearer. You always know it’s there.”

 

PEARLS IN LAVA EARRINGS of sterling silver, stainless steel, concrete, dye, pearls, 1.0 X 7.0 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Nenad Stevanovic.

 

ZEN GARDEN RING of sterling silver, blackened steel, stainless steel, cement, and floral pin frog magnetic attachment, 4.0 x 4.0 centimeters, 2012. Photograph by Checha Sokolovic.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Robin Updike is a Seattle-based arts writer who has followed the Pacific Northwest’s vibrant jewelrymaking scene for nearly thirty years and interviewed many of the region’s jewelry makers. But interviewing Checha Sokolovic for this edition of Ornament was the first time she has met a jewelry artist whose primary materials are cement, concrete and stainless steel. Sokolovic started making jewelry after a couple of decades working in architecture and design, so while her choice of materials may be unorthodox, it makes perfect sense for her. The result is eye-catching jewelry that tweaks our ideas about beauty and preciousness.

Tattoo Exhibition Volume 40.3

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In Moby Dick, Herman Melville bemoaned the ephemerality of tattoos: “These mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed.” How does one display—much less demystify—this “living parchment” in a museum setting? A touring exhibition organized by the Musée du quai Branly in Paris—and most recently seen at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles (November 19, 2017 - April 15, 2018) —offers a novel solution: silicone torsos, arms and bottoms decorated with tattoos commissioned for the show from prominent contemporary tattoo artists like Chuey Quintanar, who was born in Mexico but moved to Long Beach, California, as a child, and Leo Zulueta, who grew up in Hawaii and draws inspiration from traditional Micronesian tattooing. (Zulueta refuses to copy traditional tribal designs faithfully, however, considering it disrespectful.) The Los Angeles installation highlights the city’s own rich tattooing history and contemporary skin art scene. Today, Southern California is known for the black-and-gray style of finely detailed, single-needle tattoos, which spread from East Los Angeles via the U.S. prison system.

      Some of these tattoos offer so much coverage that they resemble clothes more than ink. Tattoo traditions have much in common with textile production. Needles “embroider” the skin; carved tattoo blocks recall those used to block-print textiles. The Ainu women of northern Japan wear textiles embroidered with patterns similar to those used in their tattoos; a gorgeous embroidered robe is on display. The show privileges full-limb or full-body tattoos over the more familiar Pokemon characters, roses, or “tramp stamps.” One Ed Hardy design on display is a single giant squid covering the entire body, except the lower arms; it was created for a surgeon, who wanted to be able to roll up his sleeves to scrub in without revealing his tattoo. Japan, in particular, is associated with “bodysuit” tattoos; though they were outlawed in the late 1800s, they remained in favor with the yakuza, perpetuating the link between tattoos and crime that persists in Japan (and elsewhere) today. 

      As trendy as tattoos may be, they have a five-thousand-year history, covering almost every continent and every time period. The oldest known tattoo was discovered on the body of a fifty-three-hundred-year-old mummy found in the Alps. Tattoos have been used to identify, beautify, mark rites of passage or physical maturity, and confer protection, fertility, or healing. England’s National Maritime Museum has mounted excellent exhibitions on the seafaring history of tattoos, but this show’s anthropological approach allows for a broader geographic, thematic and temporal scope. It reminds us that “tattoo” is both a noun and a verb; if there is one thing these disparate global tattooing traditions have in common, it is that the process is as important as the end result. 

Tattoos have always been made and worn by men and women alike. In some tribes in Borneo, men carve tattoo blocks but women are responsible for the tattooing. Among the Ainu, tattooing is performed exclusively by and on women, including around the mouth. Indigenous Arctic women acquire chin stripes to indicate that they are ready to marry. Jessie Knight became the first full-time, professional female tattooist in the U.K. in 1921; she took several years off after she got married, returning in the late 1930s just in time to ink the men and women fighting World War II. 

Tattoos have functioned as signs of status as well as brands of shame, combining physical and psychological pain. In the nineteenth century, criminals were branded with tattoos. Simple pictures inked on the hands of prisoners in the Russian gulag told their life stories: their crimes, their years behind bars, their number of convictions. Victims of the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust were tattooed, for identification as well as humiliation. A haunting photo shows twelve-year-old concentration camp survivor Aljoscha Lebedew displaying his tattoo, a mutilation he would bear for the rest of his life. But many of these painful reminders have now been appropriated as badges of honor. Prison tattoos are a thriving and respected subgenre. Grandchildren of concentration camp survivors have voluntarily had their grandparents’ identification numbers inked on their arms as indelible memorials.

YONYUK WATCHIYA “SUA.” An exhibition print, from Bangkok, Thailand, 2008-2011. Photograph by Cedric Arnold, courtesy of Galerie Olivier Waltman. KORURU OR PARATA (gable mask) of carved wood, white pigment, paua shell, Maori, New Zealand, nineteenth century. Photograph by Thierry Olivier and Michel Urtado. WHANG-OD OGGAY. An exhibition print, from the Philippines, 2011. Photograph by Jake Verzosa.

TATTOOED SILICONE TORSO. Leo Zulueta, 2013. Photograph by Thomas Duvall.

      If tattoos seem to be everywhere today, they are also under threat. Several indigenous tattooing traditions were outlawed or erased by missionaries in the aftermath of the so-called “Age of Discovery,” when Western explorers and traders first encountered tattoos. In 1876, Thomas Edison patented an electric steel pencil that inspired some of the first electric tattoo machines, which were advertised as being faster and less painful than tattooing by hand. This technology—quickly adopted worldwide—popularized tattoos and paved the way for intricate new pictorial styles, but also led to the demise of time-honored techniques. Many artists working today have gone back to the old-fashioned methods. Traditional Maori tattooing—an exceptionally painful blend of tattooing and scarification, using chisels to cut channels into the skin, including the face—is enjoying a renaissance in modern-day New Zealand, a “so old it’s new” expression of cultural pride. But new technology is continually revolutionizing tattoo art. The show ends with a silicone arm sheathed in a glow-in-the-dark “sleeve” tattoo that can only be seen under black light in a nightclub.

The exhibition is wonderfully varied in its materials; in addition to silicone forms, video and photography, there is a wealth of historic tattoo-making equipment, from needles and blocks to small sculptures made of the compressed ashes of cremated monks or burnt religious manuscripts, used for making ink in Myanmar. If there is a fault to this otherwise extravagant display, it is of being too big; one can only look at so many electric needles before one’s skin begins crawling with revulsion—or itching for a tattoo of one’s very own.

     Get Inspired!

 
 

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, published by Yale University Press. Chrisman-Campbell was recently honored by the Costume Society of America, receiving an award for the Betty Kirk Excellence in Research Award. For this issue, she gets under the skin of the “Tattoo” exhibition at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Wendy Stevens Volume 40.2

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"The things that inspire me are buildings, architecture, the industrial essence of a city,” says Wendy Stevens. Never mind that we’re seated inside a converted barn deep in the pastoral landscape of rural Pennsylvania, the evidence of this inspiration is all around us. It’s in the machinery, the hammers and rivets, the rolls of leather and sheet metal, and especially in the products themselves: the gleaming purses, handbags and other wearable items whose delicate patterns both embody and belie their industrial materials.

      The blue-gray Vespa parked outside the studio hints at a more cosmopolitan outlook, and indeed the origins of Stevens’s aesthetic can be traced to New York’s Lower East Side. When she arrived there in the early 1980s, the area still held many remnants of its gritty industrial past. “There was scrap metal on Canal Street,” she recalls. “SoHo had machine shops where they sold tools for working on sheet metal.” Walking around the city, she saw many elements—from buildings, bridges and subways right on down to manhole covers—that would come to inspire her imaginative designs. 

WENDY STEVENS at her hand shear cutting sheet metal. Photograph by Dariel Benton-Updike.

      Stevens was no stranger to industrial landscapes. She grew up in Cleveland, home of U.S. Steel, at a time when the Cuyahoga River was so polluted that it briefly, and famously, caught fire. After living in Spain in 1977–78, she returned to the States to study bilingual education at the University of Arizona, focusing on Spanish and Italian. Upon completing her degree she relocated to San Francisco and found work as an elementary school teacher.

Disillusioned with teaching, she decided to move to New York, where a number of her friends had gone to pursue careers in the arts. She landed in the East Village, which in the early 1980s was still a relatively affordable, if dangerous, place to live. Drugs and crime were rampant, but the neighborhood was also on the cusp of becoming a major center of artistic activity. “The galleries in the East Village were just beginning,” she says. “I got there at an ideal time.” 

A defining aspect of Stevens’s career is that her creativity has worked in tandem with a very practical approach to solving problems. “Moving to a city like New York, I was fascinated with what people carried throughout a whole day. You’re walking all over the city and on subways, and you see all sorts of different things that people carry.” 

STUDIO SHOT of attaching a hinge onto bag with an upholstery hammer on the stake bench. Photograph by Kate Lacey.

      At the time, she was working as a bartender at a Tribeca club called Area. “Women would come into the nightclub carrying these enormous bags,” she recalls. “We’d have to put them behind the bar. I thought, ‘Why not just get a little durable wallet to wear cross-body? You can dance with it; it has your ID and just what you need.’ So that was one of the first pieces I made.”

This functional piece of wearable art became the template for many projects to follow. Her earliest creations were handcrafted in copper, brass and monel (a nickel alloy), but she soon discovered lightweight, durable stainless steel, after which “there was no turning back,” she says. “Sheet metal was great. I didn’t sew much growing up. I hated the fact that nothing ever kept its shape. With the sheet metal, I took a hammer and a nail, put a hole in a piece of copper, set a snap in it, wrapped it around the steel railing outside my building, and said, ‘Wow, this is pretty great!’ ” She would bring the pieces to her co-workers to try out. “All the bartenders, they were my tests, to see how it felt, how it held up.”

Dubbing her business Accessories in Metal, Stevens began fashioning bags, belts, desk accessories, “and even a pair of sandals, made of monel, for my father.” Her years in the cash-starved public school system had given her an important skill that now came into play. “With teaching you learn how to resource things,” she says. “I was able to start pulling things together. I found a company in Brooklyn that sold sheet metal, and they had tons of scrap that they just threw away. My landlord had a plumbing contracting service with all these guys. Every morning they’d be loading their truck and I’d pull them in and say, ‘How do I solder this, anyway?’ They showed me how to use a TurboTorch. So everything was kind of aligned in the right way for me to start what I’m doing.”

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      Her first big break came at an open vendor day at Henri Bendel, the New York design emporium that helped launch the careers of such luminaries as Perry Ellis, Ralph Lauren and Andy Warhol. “First in line, I was ready to show a buyer my three little, very crooked handbags,” she recalls. “So I laid out a piece of leather, put them out. She comes in and says, ‘I love them, I’m going to take three of each.’ I was thrilled. At that point, I had a soldering iron, a tin snip and a file. She asked, ‘How long will it take you to make nine bags?’ I said, ‘All summer.’ She said, ‘OK, deliver at the end of summer.’ ”

Another early buyer was Clodagh Ross & Williams, the high-end furniture and accessories shop opened by three women designers on St. Marks Place in 1986. “They loved what I was doing, that I was using an alternative material for a handbag,” says Stevens. “They ended up publishing a book and put my work in it.”

In the studio Stevens uses a deburring wheel to soften any sharp edges, and then belt sands one side of the sheet to “make the top of the piece super uniform and silky with a matte finish. I like the pieces to look soft and silky,” she says. The result is a light, textured metallic surface that resembles a piece of satin or lace fabric.

      Several years later, when she approached Lewis Dolin, who had a showroom at Broadway and Houston, he already knew her work from the Clodagh Ross & Williams publication. Dolin invited her to participate in the prestigious Accent on Design show in 1988, bringing wider exposure to her growing line of bags and accessories. He also introduced Stevens to her future husband, the furniture-maker Will Stone, who was another of Dolin’s featured artisans. 

ROLLS OF LEATHER STRAPPING, stitched and ready to attach to bags. Photograph by Dariel Benton-Updike. 

      “When I first met Will, he was doing tables, and really doing well with it. He had a major operation out in State College, Pennsylvania,” she recalls. “He would come and visit me in his studio. I’d be sitting there doing something, and he’d say, ‘What are you doing? Do you know that there’s a tool for that?’ And I’d say, ‘Really, what is it?’ ” While a relationship between two artisans could easily have turned competitive, she appreciated that Will didn’t “step in boldly, because it wasn’t his thing. He was already respectful of the fact that it was my thing.”

As her business continued to expand, Stevens found that she needed more space, which meant leaving the East Village behind. Around 1990, friends helped her find a suitable location in East Kingston, New York, a small town along the Hudson some hundred miles north of the city. “It was a great building,” she recalls. “An old sewing factory with huge wooden floors. It was perfect. I built a little apartment at one end of it.”

      Stevens remained in East Kingston for two years, continuing her long-distance relationship with Stone, who was then living in a log cabin in central Pennsylvania. When the couple decided to get married in 1992, they moved onto an old farm near Boyertown, Pennsylvania, some forty-five miles northwest of Philadelphia, converting the barn into a two-thousand-square-foot studio in which they both could work. 

In 2004, after two decades of steadily building up her brand, Stevens’s career took a sudden, devastating turn. On a cold day in January, she received a call from a neighbor to alert her that smoke was coming from the roof of their barn. More than a hundred firefighters battled the blaze throughout the day and into the night, but by the time it was over all that remained were two stone walls and a foundation.

“They couldn’t really figure out what started it,” she says. “It was a barn, so the roof was open and exposed to birds, mice, whatever, so they could have just chewed through the wires in the winter. It was absolutely freezing cold. They sprayed foam into the building. My studio fell in on top of my husband’s. It was so depressing. It was such a mess.”

Despite the shock of losing her work space, her tools and her inventory in the space of twenty-four hours, Stevens came to see the forced hiatus as a chance to reimagine her way of doing things. “It was career-changing for me,” she says. “I had started with nothing—no tools, just hand-punching holes, just really primitive ways of working with sheet metal. It had been a long process. But the fire gave me the opportunity to completely start over again with everything I knew.”

She took an online course in computer-aided design (CAD) and began focusing on how to draw her pieces. This was new territory for Stevens. “I never drew anything. I went right to the sheet metal and cut it out. All of a sudden I realized as I sat down to draw a pattern, ‘I don’t draw.’ ” She enlisted the help of a drawing instructor from Lehigh University, who “would come and sit with me. He was a big help.” 

She also began learning the etching process, which allows her to create her own intricate designs in the metal, rather than working with commercially produced patterns. “The etching process is totally amazing,” she says. “It really took a whole year, and I’m still learning what I can do with this process. I’m constantly pushing it to an uncomfortable edge for my etcher.” 

Up until the fire, her line had still included desk accessories such as lamps, picture frames and letter holders, in addition to the bags for which she was best known. She now chose to focus exclusively on bags and began drawing new designs in AutoCAD. “I have to take into consideration a lot of things when doing these drawings: Where the fold is. What the radius of the fold is. Is it too close to the pattern? Is it going to distort the pattern?”

LEATHER GUSSETS. These parts have been cut, glued and punched with holes corresponding to the metal parts where they will be attached with rivets. Photograph by Dariel Benton-Updike. 

      Her drawings are converted to film, then photo-etched into stainless steel by a company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. A clean sheet of stainless is cut to size and coated with a chemical resist of dry film. The sheet is exposed to ultraviolet light, then placed in an acid bath for about thirty minutes. When the photoresist is removed, the pattern is etched into the surface.

In the studio Stevens uses a deburring wheel to soften any sharp edges, and then belt sands one side of the sheet to “make the top of the piece super uniform and silky with a matte finish,” she says. The result is a light, textured metallic surface that resembles a piece of satin or lace fabric. The sheets are then joined to the leather trim by rivets and outfitted with hardware designed by Stevens and produced in Italy. Most bags have hinges at the bottom and use magnetic clasps. Thanks to the resilient stainless steel, the resulting pieces are both durable and surprisingly light.

The first model she produced after the fire was appropriately titled Phoenix Bag, after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes. Others have taken their names from the fabric-like quality of her patterns, such as the Lace Clutch and Houndstooth Bag. The perforated La Camisa is shaped after the shoulders and neck of a woman’s blouse and comes in powder-coated finishes of red, graphite or black.

WENDY STEVENS STUDIO. After the studio fire in 2004, the facility was redesigned and rebuilt on the main level of the stone barn on her eight-acre farm property. In the foreground is a packing table with finished pieces. To the right is the leather cutting table with a gluing machine. Directly behind the packing table is the stake bench where the pieces are assembled. Against the wall are the orange pallet racks where sheet metal is stored with a hydraulic lift. In the background are the tool benches with slip rolls, notchers, shears, a hand press brake and a hydraulic brake, a sand blast cabinet and deburring wheels. Photograph by Kate Lacey

      Stevens’s line currently includes about fifty pieces. Their whimsical titles often derive from her love of travel and Romance languages. Her series of pasta-themed bags, for example, includes the Bucatini, Penne Purse and Capellini Clutch. The French connection comes across in her Baguette and La Pochette, while the Flamenco and El Dia reference her love for Spanish. Others take their names from the world’s great design capitals, including her London and Paris bags.

While Stevens’s designs continue to reflect the industrial aesthetic she developed in New York in the 1980s, her twenty-five years in bucolic Berks County, Pennsylvania, have not been without an impact on her work, as evidenced by the Seed Pod Purse, with its concentric, onion-like layers, as well as the Fiddlehead Fern Bag, Chestnut Bag, and a series featuring an intricate pattern of overlapping roses—all referencing plants found outside her studio. Other bags take their names from the shapes they emulate, such as the Pinwheel and Accordion.

Stevens’s work has garnered an international following and has been featured in Elle, Mademoiselle, Bazaar, and Vogue magazines. In 2010 she was honored by a solo exhibition at the Tassenmuseum (Museum of Bags and Purses) in Amsterdam. “I was the first American to be invited to do that. I went to Amsterdam and saw the collection in the museum, which was really amazing,” she says. “It’s a beautiful, big old brownstone right on a canal. You start at the top and there’s a case with one of the very first bags from the 1600s, and it’s a man bag! It’s a big huge pouch that slid on the belt with a padlock, insanely heavy.” She also saw precursors to her own work in the museum’s collection of aluminum bags from the Art Deco era. “My bags felt like they belonged there in a historical sense,” she says. “After doing something so alternative, and never feeling like I fit in anywhere, it was just great to have that experience. They ended up acquiring four pieces for their permanent collection.”

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      In the States, she has shown her work at many prestigious craft shows, including the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., the American Craft Council show in Baltimore, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show, where she was honored in 2016 with the Ornament Award for Excellence in Art to Wear. On receiving the latter, she says, “I was surprised, shocked and thrilled! Part of the enormous challenge in designing and making my bags in stainless steel has always been to ensure they’re wearable; that they drape well across the body or over one shoulder, or fit comfortably when clutched in the hand; and that they don’t feel cumbersome or awkward, but rather become part of the person using them. So to have that interpretation honored by Ornament was a very personal success for me.”

The longevity of Stevens’s success can be attributed in large part to her ability to continue adapting and extending her work in new directions while remaining true to her particular vision. A more recent (and very profitable) extension of her line, for example, has been a series of iPhone holders that drape over the shoulder and are worn cross-body.

Her newest venture is a foray into the wedding and bridal market. “My daughter gave me this suggestion. She has friends getting married now. She told me, ‘There are shows that my friends go to, where they can see wedding dressing and meet wedding photographers.’ I’m going to develop a whole collection of wedding bags, which I’m well on my way with.” Her bridal line made its debut at a show in Philadelphia in December.

“It’s very exciting for me,” says Stevens, “because one thing leads to another. I’m thirty-two years into it and still I have so many ideas that I want to do.”

SUGGESTED READING
Arginteanu, Judy.
“Product Placement: In the Bag.” American Craft, June/July 2012, pp. 16–17.
DiNoto, Andrea. “Wendy Stevens: Industrial Chic.” Metalsmith, Vol. 35, No. 1, 2015, pp. 28–35.
Stevens, Wendy (as told to Brandi Stewart). “Blazing Recovery: A Fire Destroyed My Manufacturing Firm—and Ignited My Entrepreneurial Spirit.” Fortune Small Business, November 2008, pp. 71–72.

 

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      Get Inspired!

 
 

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David Updike is an editor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where his most recent projects include books on the art of the Mexican Revolution, the Peale family and Marcel Duchamp. His profile of Rochester-based jewelry artist Barbara Heinrich appeared in Ornament Volume 39, No. 4. For this issue, he visited the designer Wendy Stevens at her studio in rural Pennsylvania. “I took my daughter with me because she’s very interested in fashion and design, and she was totally inspired by Wendy’s work and by the idea that you could build a career around creating beautiful things for people to wear.”

Royal Crests & Vajra Masters Volume 40.2

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art is something of a labyrinth—a vast collection of galleries within galleries. On a morning in the middle of the week after Christmas, the Met was full of visitors from around the world drawn to the permanent collection as well as to various blockbuster offerings: a David Hockney retrospective, and “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer.” Two shows at opposite ends of the main building offered retreats from these throngs—and cultural revelation and enlightenment related to empowering adornments.

CREST (TSESAH) of wood, Bamileke, Cameroon, 91.8 × 57.8 × 33.0 centimeters, late nineteenth/early twentieth century. The Menil Collection, Houston. Photographs courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

       Tucked in among the displays in the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas section of the museum is “The Face of Dynasty: Royal Crests from Western Cameroon” (through September 3, 2018). The inspiration for the show was the Met’s acquisition in 2017 of an eighteenth-century monumental royal crest, or Tsesah, carved by an unknown artist from the Grassfields region of the Central African country. The museum borrowed three additional crests—out of a total of fifteen known extant examples—from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum for African Art, the Menil Collection and a private collection.

According to the curators, this first-ever display of more than one Tsesah in a single show offers an opportunity to appreciate their formal qualities “comparatively.” While the four crests share certain design characteristics, such as their “bombastic facial features” and soaring, expansive brows incised with linear patterns, they vary in size and condition. Some of them have been crudely but deftly repaired, yet they remain imposing, their earthy textures lending them a timeless quality.

In a “MetCollects” video interview about the Tsesah acquisition, Alisa LaGamma, the Pulitzer Curator in Charge for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, calls the Met crest “a sensational art form,” noting how it defies categorization: “it’s not freestanding, it’s not a mask, it actually was a crest that came out as part of a ceremony for the ascension of a new leader to the throne and his succession.” LaGamma remarks on the crest’s “out-of-the-box visual thinking” and how it was “original in its own time, but… remains fresh to this day.” 

African masks were of great interest to modern artists; one thinks of Picasso and others who found inspiration in their stylized visages. The Met display includes an installation shot from the exhibition “African Negro Art” mounted at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935 in which a Tsesah crest is shown displayed on a white pedestal. The Met exhibition also featured a twenty-seven-foot-long ndop royal display cloth; like the crests, ndop cloths were part of the “practice of power” in the Bamileke region of Western Cameroon and were tied to “long-standing regional exchange networks.”

Deep within the Met’s Asian Art section, the penetralia, as it were, of the northern end of the building, “Crowns of Vajra Masters: Ritual Art of Nepal” (through December 16, 2018)offers a stunning arrangement of five elaborate crowns, symbols of ritual authority worn by the hereditary caste of Vajracharyas, the highest ranking figures in Nepalese Buddhist community (the name is translated as “thunderbolt scepter master”).

VAJRACARYA PRIEST’S CROWN of copper, gold, turquoise, semiprecious stones, silver foil, Nepalese, 34.3 x 21.7 x 23.0 centimeters, circa fifteenth/sixteenth century. Rogers Fund, 1948. Collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

      The crowns in the show represent the five Transcendent Buddhas of awakened wisdom. The curators have arranged the crowns in a mandala configuration, with paintings and various objects of ritual performance surrounding them. Entering the darkened room is something of a religious experience—not a temple, per se, but a place of intense and remarkable sacred imagery and imagination.

The ornate dazzling crowns, which date from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century, are made of gilt copper with applied repoussé medallions that have been set with semiprecious stones, crystals, rocks, and coral. They were worn by bodhisattvas, perfected beings possessed of compassion and spiritual wisdom. Four of the five crowns are from the Met’s collection; the fifth was borrowed from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Each conical crown varies in its iconography and decorative elements. A crown from Nepal’s early Malla period (thirteenth/early fourteenth century) features a series of diadem plaques that depict the bodhisattva Manjushri accompanied by smaller plaques of gift-granting goddesses. By contrast, the most recent crown in the show, dated 1717, has no figurative elements and is the most highly decorative, with a profusion of lotus flower plaques and floral bosses. Nearly all the crowns are surmounted by a stylized thunderbolt—the vajra—scepter, its five prongs sometimes resembling the beaks of birds. 

The pieces also vary in their construction, but the metalworking is consistently outstanding. Some elements are riveted to the crown, others are cast. The stones also differ from piece to piece: the VMFA collection crown features a diadem band inlaid with a rich blue lapis lazuli while several others are accented with turquoise. 

The crowns are complemented with an array of Nepalese objects equally stunning in their imagery and creation. Distemper-on-cloth mandalas offer elaborate representations of deities, including the wrathful Chakrasamvara with his embracing consort, Vajravarahi. A couple of mandalas depict the fearsome sword-wielding Acala (translated as “immovable”) who is said to be able to cut through the veil of ignorance.

Other objects in the show relate to the ritual offerings made by the Buddhist priests. There is an iron fire-offering ladle inlaid with gold and silver; a libation conch, which is used to pour blessed water during Vajracharya ceremonies; and a brass ewer with a spout in the form of the sea creature Makara.

In both the Tsesah and Vajra shows, one comes away with a sense of awe. Whether the impulse to create these astonishing adornments came from a need to display power or express belief, the individuals who carved and cast these objects were masters of their arts. The Met exhibitions help give them their due.

“The Face of Dynasty: Royal Crests from Western Cameroon” and “Crowns of Vajra Masters: Ritual Art of Nepal” show through September 3, 2018 and December 16, 2018, respectively, at the Metropolitan Museum, New York City.

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Carl Little, after submitting his reviews for this issue, joked about the complexities of navigating the vast Metropolitan Museum of Art, saying that “I considered leaving behind a trail of bread crumbs.” He relied on guards to guide him to two remarkable shows: “The Face of Dynasty: Royal Crests from Western Cameroon” and “Crowns of Vajra Masters: Ritual Art of Nepal.” Paintings of Portland, Little’s third collaboration with his brother David will be out in June. The two brothers also recently worked together on The Art of Arcadia, celebrating the founding of the national park in Maine.

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.

Wayne Wichern Volume 40.1

PAGLINA STRAW BRAID SKEINS, imported from Switzerland,   and parisisal straw cartwheels ,  imported from China.

PAGLINA STRAW BRAID SKEINS, imported from Switzerland, and parisisal straw cartwheels, imported from China.

Wayne Wichern has a lot of heads. He does not know the exact number, but it is more than a thousand, he estimates, divided between three studios. The cozy tribe greeting visitors to his suburban Seattle studio is comprised of four to five hundred of the sleek wooden forms, all about the size of a human head and all suggesting anthropomorphic sculptures, as though Constantin Brancusi decided to carve a village of people, leaving the details of bodies and faces to your imagination.

WICHERN using the Singer cylinder arm sewing machine to sew a head-size ribbon into the hat. Photograph by Jason Wells.

      Wichern is a hatmaker and the heads are hat blocks, the essential building units of traditional hatmaking. To make classic shapes, such as fedoras, using couture quality hat materials, like wool felt or parisisal straw, you need hat blocks. Wichern has spent thirty-two years collecting the blocks and they have been his constant companions as he has built a career as an artisanal hatmaker. A former ballet dancer whose interest in costuming led him to hatmaking for theater before leaping into couture millinery, he is happy to report that today hats are very much in style.

“The interest in hats has grown,” says Wichern. “There have been very interesting and popular costume shows, like the big fashion shows at The Met. And then there was Downton Abbey and other TV shows like Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, where everyone wears hats. And there are the young royals,” he adds, referring to Queen Elizabeth’s grandsons and their photogenic wives, often photographed wearing eye-catching chapeaux. “I think one thing the young royals have done is to give young people permission to wear hats. It’s not just something that your grandmother did.” Hat shops carrying commercially manufactured hats are doing well, especially with young customers, Wichern notes, and the broader vogue for hats is reflected in his own business. “For the boutique milliner, working in a smaller, artisanal way, it’s never been better.” 

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      Wichern makes individual hats, by which he means handmade hats that are an elegant mix of traditional craftsmanship and contemporary attitude, often made for a specific customer. He makes such classic shapes as cloches, which are bell-shaped and suggest the 1920s or 1930s, and skimmers, which have crisp, flat-topped crowns and flat brims. He makes toques, turbans, fedoras, toppers, and hats whose large, outrageously swirling brims resemble crashing waves. He makes evening hats with names such as Wicked, Dahlia and Evening Rose. Any one of his black evening hats would transform the shyest wallflower into a femme fatale. Not long ago he created a skull-hugging black velvet cloche trimmed with fringes of dangling beadwork for a client with a taste for dramatic fashion. More beadwork rises like an opened fan at the front. Cleopatra could have worn such a headpiece to seduce any of her Roman paramours.

ANASTASIA of sage parisisal straw, dupioni silk, silk and velvet magnolia, and vintage silk veiling, 2010.

      Wichern makes hats on a speculative basis, hoping someone who drops by his Burlingame, California, studio will find one they like. He also holds trunk shows and participates in millinery and craft shows. Early in his career he made hats on a wholesale basis for small manufacturers, and he has made hats for millinery boutiques. But his favorite projects come from regular customers, some of whom commission him on a seasonal basis and for special events. “I have clients I just love. One is prone to bringing me bags of goodies. It could be a bit of fabric salvaged from the hem of a favorite dress. She wants to collaborate. It’s great. She presented me with a particular challenge when she brought me some beadwork that was white with a gold border, two pieces about eight inches each in length and triangular. They had been a neckpiece on something, and she wanted me to use them in a hat. She’s very much about telling me to do what I need to do. I thought and thought, couldn’t come up with anything, and was going to give the beaded pieces back. But then I started playing around with them, and sometimes something magical does happen.” The resulting chapeau is a cream wool felt cloche nearly hidden by the two beaded collars, which Wichern draped over the felt to make a turban shape. As a final touch he added a six-inch gold tassel from his vast trim collection. 

“My customers are people who have a sense of style,” Wichern says. “They are mature enough to know what to wear. People who buy my hats are people with experience. Most people who come to me are dedicated to hats, whether it’s for a special occasion or just to wear.” People who buy his hats are also women. The men’s hat market is entirely different, Wichern says, and would require different hat blocks and different types of felts. “When a man asks me if I would make a man’s hat, I usually tell him that if there’s something you really can’t buy commercially, maybe a bicorne, I’d be happy to work with you. But men’s hats are different, and you can’t be everything to everyone.” Wichern himself wears what he calls “low-key men’s shapes and berets,” none of which he makes.

Wichern creates hats the way professional milliners always have. He buys felt or straw basic hat shapes, called “cartwheels”, from commercial millinery suppliers, then molds them over hat blocks into an infinite number of sizes and styles. Because the brims and crowns of the blocks separate, he can create unique silhouettes by mixing and matching crowns and brims. The felt is wool or rabbit. The parisisal straw is from the sisal plant, and is the standard material for couture straw hats because it is finer than other straws and can be molded into more complicated shapes. 

WICHERN blocking a felt body over a wood hat block; the final task is using the compress tool to press the felt into the recess detail carved into the block.

      Making a hat is surprisingly physical. Millinery ateliers conjure images of artisans adjusting silk flowers on romantic, feminine styles. But hatmaking requires physical strength and an ability to work with high heat. To mold either felt or straw Wichern applies moisture to the material. For felt, he also needs the extreme heat produced by an industrial steamer. The moist hat forms then are tied down tautly with cord at the crown and the brim to create the basic silhouette. When Wichern demonstrates this he throws his shoulders, arms and hands into knotting the cord. Depending on the style, the hats also must be sculpted by hand, in the manner of a ceramist shaping a hunk of clay. If styles have areas that curve in and out on the crown, creating those shapes requires pressing removable parts of the block back into the felt, and tying or tacking that down as well. By happy coincidence, Wichern’s youth as a Wyoming farm boy followed by years of ballet training appear to have prepared him for the physical rigors of hatmaking.

When the hats are dry the next day, they are removed from the blocks, a process that can require a little wrestling. Wichern cuts excess straw or felt from the brim, finishes the brim edge on one of his several sewing machines, and sews a sizing ribbon into the inside crown. He then trims the hat, which could mean anything from sewing silk flowers to the brim to creating leaves and feathers out of salvaged bits of trimmed felt or straw. He saves every scrap of excess material to be repurposed into trim. He also collects beads, feathers, braid, ribbons, scraps of luxe fabric, silk flowers, bits of costume jewelry, and just about anything that might someday be useful as trim. In his Seattle studio he has turned a small bathroom into his trim room, and even the shower stall is stuffed floor to ceiling with plastic storage boxes filled with trims—an Ali Baba’s cave of adornments.

Wichern has always been motivated by aesthetics and artistry. After high school in Cody, Wyoming, he moved to Seattle to study floral design at a community college known for horticultural programs. His degree landed him a job at a floral shop in Bellingham, north of Seattle, where he worked happily for several years. “Then I discovered dance in about ‘78 or ‘79. Movies like The Turning Point and Chorus Line really made an impression on me, and though I was old to be taking up dance, I enrolled in ballet school in Bellingham. After a while my teacher told me I should move to New York to keep studying, so I did. Eventually I was in some regional companies. At those companies I would put in extra time in the costume shop. I had great hands, thanks to my work at the floral shop, and I enjoyed it. In retrospect, I think the extreme aesthetic of ballet comes through in my millinery; the attention to line and gesture that goes into hatmaking is related to ballet.”  

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      By 1985 the life of a professional dancer with its constant travel had lost its allure, and he moved back to Seattle, where he made hats for professional theater companies and worked in visual merchandising for what was then Seattle’s most prestigious department store. He found studio space and decided to learn all he could about couture millinery. He began taking classes from John Eaton, a milliner who had been one of Seattle’s most successful hatmakers in the mid-twentieth century, a time when no well-dressed man or woman attended a formal event without a hat. “John was retired by then and was giving classes casually in his basement. Then, at the point where he could no longer teach, he suggested I buy his stuff, so I did, and dragged it all over to my studio.” Eaton’s blocks were the beginning of Wichern’s collection, though he has added many hundreds since then via eBay and other internet sales sites. “Blocks have a way of finding me. People will be cleaning out grandma’s attic and find a few, and they find me on eBay. Over the years I’ve also purchased hundreds at a time when hat factories close or go offshore. I’ve sold off a lot, since I end up with duplicates.” His oldest blocks are from the 1930s, though many are newer. They have all become more precious as hat block production in the United States has nearly vanished. Most hat blocks today are manufactured in England or Australia.  

 

WICHERN Studio and classroom in Burlingame, California, Museum Studios, Peninsula Museum of Art.

 

      When his husband’s career took the couple from Seattle to the Bay Area in 2001, Wichern found a studio near San Francisco Airport. The location is ideal for the frequent workshops he teaches, which attract students from around the country. He also teaches at a shared studio he maintains in metropolitan Seattle, and at craft schools, including the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. “I enjoy teaching, and I think it’s partly because I didn’t have an official academic base myself when I started out. And teaching always helps me learn.” He notes that there are very few full-time programs in the U.S. where students can learn couture millinery, so he likes the idea that his teaching passes on the legacy of millinery craftsmanship. He also tries to give his students tips about the business side of boutique millinery. “When students ask me about pricing, it’s always a little awkward, but I understand the question. You can go with time and material, but that doesn’t always work. I tell them I’ve created a range of work for a range of prices. When people duck into my Burlingame studio and ask how much my hats are, I always smile and say they are one hundred twenty-five to four hundred eighty-five dollars, but that I can certainly make a more expensive hat if they like. That usually breaks the ice and if they like hats, they come in.”

LOREDANA SWIRL STRAW of raspberry parisisal straw, silk and rayon brocade fabric, 2006.

      For now Wichern’s career is at full throttle. But he is in his sixties, and looking ahead to what might eventually become of his block collection and his antique tools, such as his very old Willcox & Gibbs machine for sewing hemp straw braid into spirals for certain types of straw hats. His hats are included in the collections at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and in the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle.

“I’ve worked long and hard to create something. I rounded up the equipment, created an artisanal market, been successful, and enjoyed it all these years. I don’t want it go poof someday and be gone.” And because he is always surrounded by his old friends the hat blocks, he finds himself thinking of their future. “I often find inspiration from the blocks. I just love them, even though I haven’t had the occasion to use all of them. But it is time to start thinking about where they will all go. Maybe they can go to several people, or a museum. The legacy doesn’t have to be personal, but I do want it to be about the craft.”

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

Robin-Updike_Contributor.jpg

Robin Updike is an independent, Seattle-based writer. She has been following Wayne Wichern’s remarkable career as a custom hatmaker for more than twenty years. In those days she covered fashion and style for The Seattle Times and Wichern was part of a robust artisanal Seattle hatmaking community. “I remember Wayne as one of the highlights of a show of independent fashion being held in a cavernous former railroad station in front of a very large crowd. Theatrically dressed and wearing some of his own more dramatic hats, he kept the show entertained by swiftly fitting hats onto the models as they stalked down the runway. He has always had great flair.”

Virginia Dudley Volume 39.4

 
Everything I do is related to arts and crafts… It’s not a way of life, it is life to me. If not for that, I’d see no point in living.
— Virginia Dudley
CONTEMPORARY VIEW OF VIRGINIA DUDLEY’S PROPERTY.  Photographs by Ashley Callahan .

CONTEMPORARY VIEW OF VIRGINIA DUDLEY’S PROPERTY. Photographs by Ashley Callahan.

Virginia Dudley was born in 1913 in the small town of Spring City, Tennessee, and grew up in Chattanooga, an industrial city nestled around a bend in the Tennessee River amid the dramatic scenery of the Cumberland Plateau. She practiced many artistic media—photography, printmaking, painting, sculpture, ceramics—and is best known for her award-winning enamels of the 1950s. The records documenting her life and career are fragmentary, but enough survives to indicate the impressive diversity of her artistic pursuits, her remarkable skill and vision, and her determined and independent personality. In an interview for the Chattanooga Times in 1962, she firmly expressed her passion for her vocation: “Everything I do is related to arts and crafts… It’s not a way of life, it is life to me. If not for that, I’d see no point in living.”

FISH BRACELET of enamel on copper with silver, 5.08 x 17.15 centimeters, circa 1955, illustrated in Design Quarterly, 1955. Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. 

      Dudley’s parents were not wealthy, but her mother encouraged her interests, and through a series of scholarships, Dudley pursued an art education. She first received a scholarship to the University of Chattanooga (now the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga), where she studied photography and painting from 1937-1940, earning a certificate of completion of art training. Then she won a scholarship to study in New York—a city she loved—at the Art Students League, where her instructors included William Zorach and Wil Barnet. While in New York, she also studied at the Craft Students League and served as Berenice Abbott’s photographic assistant at the New School for Social Research.

In 1943 she was awarded a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship and left New York to spend a year traveling in the South making photographs and sketches. Though most fellowships went to African American artists, some went to “white southerners with an interest in race relations,” as noted by the Spertus Museum in Chicago for an exhibition of Rosenwald-supported art. Dudley, as her niece Patricia Antonia Collier recalls, was staunchly opposed to segregation. Around this time, she acquired property in Rising Fawn, Georgia, on Lookout Mountain (near Chattanooga) and built a small home. She also married Oscar “Mac” McElhaney (1897-1944), a retired commercial photographer, who died near the end of her fellowship period.

After this loss, Dudley returned to the Art Students League, also studying at Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17, which he had relocated from Paris to New York when World War II began. During this second period in the city she met Joseph Spencer Moran (1923-2005), a graduate student in English at Columbia, and they married in 1946—though she again kept her given name.

Moran took a teaching job at New Mexico College in Las Cruces (now New Mexico State University), but Dudley told the Chattanooga Times (1955) that she did not relish the role of faculty wife. She enrolled in school briefly at New Mexico College, then in 1948 accepted a scholarship to Scripps College in Claremont, California, near Los Angeles, and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate School. Dudley had become enchanted by enamels while in New York, where she had seen an exhibition of medieval enameled objects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Claremont was one of the few places in the country that offered enamel instruction. She studied with leading enamelist Jean Ames (1903-1986), who, with her husband Arthur (1906-1975), was part of “the development of a dynamic enameling movement in Southern California,” as Bernard N. Jazzar and Harold B. Nelson note in their book Little Dreams in Glass and Enamel.

VIRGINIA DUDLEY working in her studio, circa 1954.  Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by A. Glenn Hanson, Max Keister or Guy Hayes.

VIRGINIA DUDLEY working in her studio, circa 1954. Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by A. Glenn Hanson, Max Keister or Guy Hayes.

      During this time, Dudley also traveled to northern California where she visited Pond Farm, an artists’ colony founded by Jane and Gordon Herr that offered the Pond Farm Workshops from 1949-1952. There she encountered, as reported in the Chattanooga Times (1952), “artists from Austria and Germany who had, as she had, the thought that enameling was an art that should be revived.” She received her M.F.A. in 1950, creating a series of large enameled wall panels for her thesis as well as her own kiln.

American studio craft in all areas grew quickly in the post-war years—as returning G.I.s filled schools, academic programs expanded, and opportunities to exhibit and purchase craft multiplied—and the field of enamels was no exception. A relatively small niche within the craft world, enamels often was linked with ceramics, as both use kilns and involve the application of vitreous surfaces to grounds. Exhibitions like the Ceramics Nationals, which originated in Syracuse, New York, at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts (now the Everson Museum of Art), then traveled nationally, brought important media and public attention to contemporary ceramics and enamels. Dudley’s work appeared in many of the Nationals between 1949 and 1959, including the 16th in 1951, which featured two of her trays, Metropolitan and Golden Fishes, and the 19th in 1956 for which she won an award for enamels.

METROPOLITAN TRAY of enamel on copper, 20.32 x 20.32 centimeters, marked “rising faun enamels/virigina dudley” on back, circa 1951. Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by John Poehlman.

GOLDEN FISHES TRAY of enamel on copper, 22.2 x 25.4 centimeters, signed “rising faun enamels/virginia dudley” on back, circa 1951. Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by John Poehlman.

      In 1950 Dudley returned to her home in Rising Fawn with Moran and they established Rising Faun Enamels—with a “u” rather than a “w” to distinguish from the town and to reference the mythological woodland creature—and created pins, pendants, necklaces, earrings, bracelets, tie clips, cufflinks, trays, and wall plaques or mosaics, that “sold in fine stores all over the country from New York to California” (Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution, 1952). They worked with the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild, and Dudley explained, “The guild encourages craftsmen of the area by helping to exchange information, market products, and obtain raw materials.”

During the 1950s Dudley and Moran expanded the one-room cabin by adding a studio, living room and kitchen. Andrew Sparks described the home in the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution (1953) as “constructed largely of love and tarpaper, second-hand windows, old doors and lumberyard bargains.” He also referred to it as “one of the most interesting modern houses in Georgia,” noting, “the front yard is a cantilevered slab of sandstone that projects over an 87-foot vertical drop into a gorge that looks like a
green-and-blue Grand Canyon.”

BIRD BROOCH/PENDANT of enamel on copper, 6.99 centimeters diameter, circa 1950-1957. Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by Ashley Callahan.

      The house sits on the edge of a bluff overlooking Johnson’s Crook, a scenic bend in the valley, and is near both Tennessee and Alabama. Though the address is Rising Fawn, that town—the closest with a post office—sits at the base of the mountain, and the community at the top is referred to as New Salem. The area had developed a reputation as an artists’ colony, thanks to Fannie Mennen’s (1903-1995) efforts, starting in 1947, to organize annual art sales known as the Plum Nelly or Clothesline Art Show.

Dudley was resourceful and fiercely self-reliant, and the couple lived in the home without electricity for a couple of months, without a car for four years, and without running water. They enjoyed the seclusion, and the Chattanooga Times (1952) reported: “Here on Lookout Mountain, they found the freedom to build as they pleased, paint and draw when they wanted to, to fire up the furnace at midnight, if that hour is convenient for them.”

In 1954 Craft Horizons included a six-page illustrated article by Moran that details Dudley’s process. He wrote: “She is demonstrating through her studio-workshop that enameling can be an artistic medium of variety, subtlety and elegance, providing a modest livelihood for the hard-working practitioner.” He offered this description of her studio: “The nucleus of the workshop is the large table on which Virginia applies enamel to copper. This table, flanked on two sides by shelves containing jars of enamels, is directly beneath a skylight. To the right of the table stand the two kilns where the enamels are fired. A wood-burning space heater stands close to the chimney in the south wall.”

SEA BIRDS PANEL of enamel on copper, sand, paint, 81.28 x 48.26 centimeters, circa 1954. Collection of Georgia Museum of Art, University
of Georgia. Photograph courtesy of Georgia Museum of Art.

      For larger works, like enamel plaques, Dudley made preparatory oil paintings, often dividing them into sections to plan basic colors and shapes. Moran prepared the copper, cutting and forming it as needed, and polishing it. Dudley applied the enamel—she had about three hundred colors—to the metal through a variety of methods to create different effects; Moran described how she sprinkled powdered enamel through a fine mesh screen, trailed it gradually between her fingers for a loose and linear effect, and painted “moistened enamel with a brush” for “the greatest control and precision.” Each piece, whether a pendant or a section of a mosaic, would be fired multiple times—usually just for a few minutes each time—to melt the enamel and fuse it to the metal, creating a thin, glassy surface. Small earrings usually required about six firings, while larger, more complex elements might require up to twenty-nine firings. Moran wrote that Dudley was “fascinated with the rich, latent possibilities to be wrought by the fusing of metal and enamels through intense heat,” and there was “always a tremor of excitement when we [opened] the kiln and [took] out an enameled piece.”

The Rising Faun Enamels are sophisticated in their range of techniques, variations in form, color combinations and complexity of layers. The metal is carefully shaped and the objects are finished on the back (counter enameled). Dudley achieved an impressive depth with her enamel, sometimes creating objects with opaque surface colors punctuated by small open areas revealing a translucency below that suggest dappled light shining into mountain streams. Her color combinations—even in miniature—are striking, with hot pink next to bright orange, or golden green below a vivid aqua. Her designs ranged from cubist-inspired geometrics to mid-century biomorphic forms, and she favored natural motifs,
especially fish.

While Dudley incorporated her last name into the designs of most of the larger trays and plaques, or added her name, “rising faun enamels,” or “virginia and joseph” in enamel on the back, the jewelry is less consistently marked. Some larger pins and pendants have her name on the front, and some jewelry has paper labels on the back with “RISING FAUN ENAMELS/VIRGINIA AND JOSEPH” (sometimes with the line “FROM THE SOUTHERN HIGHLANDS”), but many items are unmarked.

While Rising Faun Enamels fit into the small world of studio enamels, it also fit into the growing field of modern studio jewelry, another area for which Dudley was recognized. In 1955 and 1959 the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis—a leader in promoting mid-century design and craft—included her work in two important issues of its publication Design Quarterly that were dedicated to contemporary jewelry. The 1955 issue, a who’s who of American mid-century jewelry, showed black and white photographs of two of Dudley’s bracelets, both composed of free-form sections, one abstract with light speckles on a dark ground and the other with fish. The 1959 issue included a pendant described as a “gold and silver encrustation on enameled copper,” and includes this quote from her: “I consider each piece of jewelry important within itself, a compatible object which intensifies the being of the wearer by heightening the presence and expanding the reality of the person.”

 
FISH BROOCH/PENDANT, 7.78 x 3.81 centimeters, paper label on back marked “VIRGINIA DUDLEY.”

FISH BROOCH/PENDANT, 7.78 x 3.81 centimeters, paper label on back marked “VIRGINIA DUDLEY.”

 

      In 1954 Dudley explained, “When we built our studio, we were striving to solve a problem perplexing to many artists and craftsmen today: the problem of creating and marketing objects made by hand, with skill and sensibility, for those seeking not just the unique or unusual, but objects, well-made and functional, to gladden the discriminating who are so often wearied by mediocrity and monotonous repetition.” This goal may have been too idealistic, though, especially given their remote southern setting, and the next few years saw a shift in their approach as they worked to supplement their income. In 1955 they opened a retail shop in their home, American Craftsmen, selling Rising Faun Enamels as well as the work of about nine other craftsmen. By 1956 Dudley was teaching classes at the University of Chattanooga Evening College and at the Hunter Gallery of Art in Chattanooga, and in early 1957
she took a job with the Army directing arts and crafts recreational programs at Fort Monroe in Virginia. Though likely determined largely by financial concerns, this change may also reflect Dudley’s inclination to move on to new projects after she mastered a technique, a characteristic her niece remembers well. Dudley once stated, “A constant wariness of being trapped by one material, one approach, lives with me.” Her new job soon was followed by divorce, which marked the end of Rising Faun Enamels.

ABSTRACT BROOCH/PENDANT, 8.26 X 5.56 centimeters. 

      Dudley continued to include enamel work as part of her roster of activities in the following decades, but its prominence diminished. Also, by the 1960s, making enameled jewelry became a popular hobbyist activity, and kits with pre-cut flat forms and limited colors resulted in a saturation of the market that, as Jazzar and Nelson note in their book Painting with Fire: Masters of Enameling in America, 1930-1980, “began to undermine [enamel’s] status as a legitimate and highly regarded form of contemporary art.” Dudley returned to her earlier pursuits of travel and education, and maintained her Rising Fawn home as a weekend or summer retreat. From 1958-1959 she did post-graduate work at the College of William and Mary, and in 1959 at the University of Maryland’s overseas branch in Uijeongbu, Korea, where the Army transferred her to oversee more than a dozen craft shops, which she did until 1961 when she took up a similar role for the Air Force for two more years.

      Even though she was moving on to new activities, Dudley’s reputation as an enamelist was well established. In 1957 Oppi Untracht, instructor in enameling at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, published the how-to book Enameling on Metal, which featured illustrations of several of her plaques/mosaics, including Sea Birds. Also, in 1959 the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York City (now the Museum of Arts and Design) included Dudley in its seminal exhibition titled “Enamels,” which included five of her works, from an early tray to recent jewelry.

NECKLACE with metal choker. Shield is 6.03 x 9.21 centimeters. Jewelry is enamel on copper, circa 1950-1957.  Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by Ashley Callahan.

NECKLACE with metal choker. Shield is 6.03 x 9.21 centimeters. Jewelry is enamel on copper, circa 1950-1957. Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by Ashley Callahan.

During a visit to Rising Fawn in 1962 she discovered that her home had been burglarized, and that many of her finest works, both paintings and enameled plaques, as well as a box of clippings and catalogs, had been stolen. The local newspaper reported, “A quantity of ‘Rising Faun Enamels’ jewelry also was removed, including one-of-a-kind pendants, medallions and cuff links.” None of the material, valued at ten thousand dollars, was recovered, and the event remained a source of bitter frustration to Dudley. 

From 1963-1971 she taught art at Shorter College, in Rome, Georgia, then, as her eyesight began to fail, retired to Rising Fawn. She died in 1981 at age sixty-seven. Though Rising Faun Enamels existed for only seven years—a brief passage in her productive life—that period of creative focus, entrepreneurial collaboration with Moran, and immersion in the natural beauty of her region resulted in a body of work that reflects both the captivating qualities she admired in the medieval enamels that first inspired her and the modernism of the mid-twentieth century.

SUGGESTED READING
Jazzar, Bernard N. and Harold B. Nelson
, Little Dreams in Glass and Metal: Enameling in America, 1920 to the Present. Los Angeles: Enamel Arts Foundation, 2015.
     —Painting with Fire: Masters of Enameling in America, 1930-1980. Long Beach: Long Beach Museum of Art, 2006. 
Stevenson, Margie and Patricia Collier. “Virginia E. Dudley.” Chattanooga Regional Historical Journal 10: July 2007, 49-70.
Thomas, Joe A. Virginia Dudley and American Modernism, exhibition brochure, Zuckerman Museum of Art, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, Georgia, July 1-August 2, 2014.
Virginia Dudley website: http://www.virginiadudley.org.

EARRINGS ON RISING FAUN ENAMELS CARDS of enamel on copper, varying sizes, circa 1950-1957. Collection of Patricia Antonia Collier. Photograph by
Ashley Callahan.

     Get Inspired!


Ashley Callahan is an independent scholar and curator in Athens, Georgia, with a specialty in modern and contemporary American decorative arts. After repeatedly encountering Virginia Dudley’s name for years while working on various research projects about craft in Georgia and modern jewelry, she became an admirer of Dudley’s accomplishments in the field of enamels, especially jewelry. She was thrilled when family friends Sally and John Poehlman of Rising Fawn put her in contact with the current occupant of Dudley’s amazing home, David Lyons, and with Dudley’s niece, Patricia Antonia Collier. Callahan appreciates the support, enthusiasm and warm welcome she and her husband enjoyed in Rising Fawn.

The Tucson Shows 2017 Volume 39.3

PETER VAN DE WIJNGAART, FLOOR KASPARS, ROBERT WILLIAMS, BERNIE LAWITZ, AND HIS DAUGHTER HANNAH LAWITZ at the Silk Road Gem & Jewelry Show off of Grant Road, in the former Grant Inn, now the Grand Luxe Hotel and Resort. Van de Wijngaart and Kaspars are Dutch bead lovers who visit Tucson every year. Lawitz is the former owner of recently closed Beads Galore.  Photographs by Robert K. Liu and Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

PETER VAN DE WIJNGAART, FLOOR KASPARS, ROBERT WILLIAMS, BERNIE LAWITZ, AND HIS DAUGHTER HANNAH LAWITZ at the Silk Road Gem & Jewelry Show off of Grant Road, in the former Grant Inn, now the Grand Luxe Hotel and Resort. Van de Wijngaart and Kaspars are Dutch bead lovers who visit Tucson every year. Lawitz is the former owner of recently closed Beads Galore. Photographs by Robert K. Liu and Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

There is a thrill to treasure-hunting that transcends the humdrum routine of everyday life. It is the feeling that comes from encountering the unknown, and even more alluringly, the ability to somehow take that home with you.

      There exists a place where that is possible. It is called the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, which is somewhat of a misnomer in that instead of being one, singular show, it is more like if one occupied a small city with tents, pop-up tables, booths, and mini-vans. During the months of January and February, Tucson undergoes just such a transformation. Roughly fifty shows, fairs and festivals spring up around the city, some featuring just a dozen exhibitors, others hosting hundreds of vendors. It is not just gems and minerals that are for sale. Tribal and ethnographic art, ancient artifacts, crafting tools and supplies, hand-blown glass beads, jewelry, clothing, baskets, purses, backpacks, fossils, giant sculptures—it really is easier to list what you will not find at the Tucson Shows. Which is to say you can find almost everything there.

To Read the Full Article

 
 

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 January he and Robert travel to Tucson to visit the Gem & Mineral Show, where they will see old friends, make new ones, and cover all the wonders of that worldly bazaar. In this issue he describes one small corner of the vast market, and encourages readers to indulge in their inner explorer and visit the show themselves. As Ornament’s reporter, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest news in craft, where you can find out what is happening with art to wear in the global neighborhood.

Ramona Solberg Volume 38.5 Preview

Ramona Solberg's Fibulae

FIBULA PIN of sterling silver wire, formed, forged and filed, strung with molded Czech glass snake beads, bauxite bead, coconut shell disk bead, ostrich shell disk beads, vintage Chinese glass beads, African terracotta spindle whorl; forged/drilled dangles of silver, bronze and copper, metal bead, stone beads, copper metal disk, Venetian glass bead, many from the African trade; 13.6 centimeters wide, dating from mid-1980s. Spring portion of pin forged to work harden it; priced eighty-five dollars when purchased in 1988. Carolyn L. E. Benesh/Ornament Collection. Photographs by Robert K. Liu/Ornament.

 

The late Ramona Solberg’s found object style of jewelry continues to influence the work of Northwest jewelers Laurie Hall, Ron Ho, Kiff Slemmons, Nancy Worden, and others (Brown 2014; Updike 2001, 2006). Warm and effusive when speaking about the work of her peers, Solberg called herself the Henry Ford of jewelry, and rightly so (Benesh 1989, 2001; Liu 1995). An inveterate traveler and lover of the material culture of the many countries she visited, Solberg often combined her metalwork with beads, which she collected on her trips, and was responsible for two of the best bead jewelry exhibitions (1988, 1998) held in the United States, at the Bellevue Art Museum.

 

 For The Full Article

 
 

Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and for many years its in-house photographer. His new book, The Photography of Personal Adornment, covers forty plus years of shooting jewelry, clothing and events related to wearable art, both in and out of the Ornament studio. He hopes to begin teaching photography to interested students later this year. In this issue Liu writes about Hal and Margie Hiestand, two extraordinary, self-trained jewelers from Santa Fe, New Mexico, and about the pricing of well-known contemporary jewelers’ work when they pass, in reference to the fibulae of the late Ramona Solberg, a beloved Northwest artist.

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork Volume 38.5

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork. Na Hulu Ali'i

 

LEI HULU feather lei of yellow ‘o‘o (Moho sp.) feathers, red Kuhl’s lorikeet (Vini Kuhlii) feathers, and black ribbon, 36.5 x 3.8 centimeters). Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Ethnology Collection.

 
 

In every possible way, humans have made dramatic and creative use of the natural environment in its evolution as a species. Over the millennia with a rapacious enthusiasm we learned how to defoliate the land of its trees and dredge from the water its creatures. Everything we have touched has been a tour de force of reductive skill, from the food we eat to how we adorn our body. Being initially frugal, we found a way to not only kill and eat other natural organisms but to use their skins to clothe ourselves. After we developed methods to trap and kill birds, in due course their feathers became a prime source of colorful adornment from ritual use to power dressing. Even into the twentieth century, the world-over avidly snatched parrots, toucans, jays, kingfishers, all possible bird life, from the skies and their perches, plucked their feathers and refashioned them to feather our own bodies. For a few historical illustrations—think of China for the brilliant blue of the kingfisher turned into hair pins and headdresses—or of Brazil for the variegated Channel-billed Toucan for royal cloaks and plumes for the head.

‘AHU ‘ULA cape of red ‘i‘iwi (Vestiaria coccinea) feathers, yellow and blank ‘o‘o (Moho sp.) feathers, and olona (Touchardia latifolia) fiber, 70 x 107 centimeters, early nineteenth century. Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Ethnology Collection. 

KAHILI STAFF of red Kuhl’s lorikeet (Vini Kuhlii) feathers, Hawaiian domestic fowl or moa (Gallus gallus) feathers, green, sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) shell, and walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) ivory, 129.5 x 15.2 centimeters, nineteenth century. Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Ethnology Collection.

      An astonishing reminder of the complicated attraction of the feather for personal adornment is “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Na Hulu Ali’i,” the first major exhibition of Hawaiian featherwork in the continental United States. The exhibition time line stretches from the arrival of European explorers, unification of the islands in 1810, the Kamehameha dynasty, the conversion to Christianity after the arrival of missionaries, the overthrow of the Hawaiian government in 1893, its annexation by the United States in 1898, and to sovereignty protests by Hawaiians. Co-organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu (and rarely seen outside of Hawai’i), the exhibition at the de Young Museum concomitantly showed visually breathtaking and thought-provoking examples of human ingenuity through seventy-five long cloaks and short capes, helmets, feathered lei, and royal staffs.

The Hawaiians primarily made use of six bird genera: Moho spp. and Drepanis pacifica for their yellow and black feathers, Vestiaria coccinea for scarlet feathers, Psittirostra psittacea and Hemignathus spp. for dark green and olive green feathers, and Himatione sanguinea for red feathers. Of these birds the species are either extinct, uncommon, declining or endangered. Only the Hemignathus spp. is still common.

Cloaks and short capes (‘ahu ‘ula), feathered lei (lei hulu), helmets (mahiole), and royal staffs (kahili) symbolized the divinity and power of Hawaiian royalty and the elite who supported their dynasties. These garments and accessories served as important visual markers for identifying themselves, and their social status, setting them apart from the rest of their people and, for a frequently warring group, as a form of ritual protection. Beautifully and painstakingly wrought, these valuable objects were also used as a form of diplomatic outreach to secure political alliances and agreements.

QUEEN KAPI’OLANI. Photographer unknown. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Collection. 

Now fewer than three hundred royal featherwork (hulu ali’i) are known to exist, almost as vanquished as the fowl from whence they came. The de Young Museum installation centered on pieces made for Hawaiian royalty dating from the late eighteenth century and ending in the early twentieth century. Some of ‘ahu ‘ula were collected by explorers like Captain James Cook and were on loan from the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna or the British Museum in London. Called Hawai’i’s crown jewels and as astonishing as these are, the mind still tries to grasp what stunningly beautiful examples the centuries must have brought forth—crafted by master artisans to amplify the royal personages symbiotic birdlike movements as they pranced and flew across the battle ground or engaged in religious ceremonies.

 

The capes could have great personal value like an ‘ahu ‘ula that Kamehameha IV bestowed as an expression of sympathy in 1861 to Lady Franklin, the widow of a British Royal Navy Officer and explorer who disappeared as he sailed from England to seek the Northwest Passage. From the nineteenth century and having a very different history, another ‘ahu ‘ula was worn by Chief Kekuaokalani, a nephew of Kamehameha I who fought against the rule of Kamehameha II and the abolishment of the kapu system that governed social and religious customs. In 1819, he was killed in the Battle of Kuamo’o on the island of Hawai’i, along with his wife, Chiefess Manono, who fought beside him. The cloak was taken as a battle prize for Kamehameha II.

One fortuitous discovery by Queen Kapi’olani, during her stay in England in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, was of a cape that had been given by King Kamehameha V to E. Faulkner, paymaster of the HMS Havannah in 1857. She purchased it to return to the Hawaiian nation, naming it Kekaulike Nui for the great chiefs and chiefesses in Hawaiian history.

 

 

MAHIOLE feathered helmet of yellow mamo (Drepanis pacifica) feathers, red ‘i‘iwi (Vestiaria coccinea) feathers, black and yellow ‘o‘o (Moho nobilis) feathers ‘ie‘ie (Freycinetia arborea) aerial roots, and olona fiber, 36 x 16 x 36.5 centimeters, circa late eighteenth to early nineteenth century. Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Ethnology Collection.


      A type of head adornment, the colorful lei hulu were the only articles of featherwork worn by high-ranking women. Yet within its simple circumference, there was a great variety of feathers and patterns that could be utilized and translated into lovely, ethereal halos. The art of making feather lei hulu continues and today communicates love or friendship. After European contact, and another form of feather innovation, Western-style hats became fashionable with lei now designed to lie flat against the hat as decorative hatbands.

Feathered crested helmets held great importance for the warrior statesman. Shown here, this example is the only mahiole in the Bishop Museum that can be traced to a known chief. Kamehameha I gave a mahiole made of red ‘i’iwi feathers with a high crest of yellow mamo feathers and an ‘ahu ‘ula of ‘i’iwi and ‘o‘o feathers to Kaumuali’i, chief of Kauai’i, as a symbol of their agreement to unify the Hawaiian Islands under Kamehameha. Before arriving at the Bishop Museum, they were owned by Reverend Samuel and Mrs. Mercy Whitney of Kauai’i, who were among Hawai’i’s first missionaries.

Anonymously handcrafted from life itself, these Hawaiian cloaks, capes, leis, and staff made in servitude to royalty remain far after their human departures, testament to the astonishing ability of humans to create objects of beauty.

 

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Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and the magazine’s resident expert on contemporary wearable art. As an Ornament traveler, part of her yearly itinerary takes her to the Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, D.C., as well as the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show in Pennsylvania. Both are destinations that provide treasured encounters each time she visits them. In early March she visited the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market, which showcases some of the best contemporary Native American art. In addition, she visits museums, galleries and conferences throughout the United States. Benesh reviews the spectacular “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork” exhibition at the de Young Museum.

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.

 

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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.

Signs of Life 2015 Volume 38.4

Signs of Life 2015

 

OWL BROOCH by Kathleen Faulkner of sterling silver, paper, gouache, mica, 10.48 x 6.67 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Larry Bullis.

Now in its eleventh year, Karen Lorene’s annual “Signs of Life” project remains a unicorn. There is nothing else like it in the world of contemporary art jewelry. Lorene, a longtime champion of art jewelry, each year selects jewelry artists to create pieces to serve as inspiration for writers. As the matchmaker, Lorene decides which writer to pair with which piece of jewelry. The writers and jewelrymakers do not meet or talk before the show. It is a long-distance affair in which writers offer up poems, essays and short stories based on what they see in the jewelry. The journal Lorene publishes to document each show is a literary and visual treat. This year is no exception.

      The jewelry made for “Signs of Life 2015” was on display during October at Facèré, Lorene’s Seattle gallery. One of the most arresting was from Kat Cole, a Dallas-based artist whose necklace Oil and Water works as a reference to current politics, environmental concerns and personal relationships. It is also a handsome piece with its glossy black enamel and steel sections that mimic the luster of black crude oil on rock or concrete. Polly Buckingham’s short story Honey was inspired by Oil and Water, and it is a page-long tone poem about the barely noticed death of a dog in a seedy trailer park. In one of the most complementary matchups in the journal, Honey suggests an unhappy landscape where dreams evaporate in the dust. Or, to put it another way, a place where dreams and reality—like oil and water—never mix.

BLACK GOLD BROOCH by Kat Cole of steel, enamel, twenty-three karat gold, brass, 10.16 x 10.16 x .254 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Kat Cole.

      Like all the artists in the show, Cole sent additional pieces and many of hers were inspired by the teardown of a building near her studio. An ambitious necklace called Pile is a steel and enamel pick-up-sticks heap of construction refuse that seems to comment on our society’s never-ending chase for something bigger and newer. Other work referred to our unquenchable thirst for fossil fuels. One of Cole’s Black Gold brooches includes the image of an oilrig pumping over a black substratum of oil, or black gold. Though generally abstract, Cole’s work suggests a remarkable sense of place—whether that place is desolate oil country or a frenetic urban cityscape.

Jim Bové’s sterling, rubber cord and industrial paint necklace is an elegant abstraction that could refer to architecture or geometry, though to writer Christine Hemp the piece looks like a blade. The result is Hemp’s celebratory poem, called A Body Severed from the Head, which, despite its grisly imagery, is about the need to abandon logic and rationality in the pursuit of beauty and art. Another particularly resonant matchup was Eileen Walsh Duncan’s poem Engineers with Paulette J. Werger’s Honey Comb Chain necklace. The minimalist sterling and eighteen karat gold necklace has a graceful repetition that mimics the look of a honeycomb. Duncan’s poem is an homage to the industriousness of honeybees and the exquisitely fine-tuned physiology that makes them such efficient workers.

FOLD 1 NECKLACE by Jim Bové of sterling silver, rubber cord, industrial auto paint on copper, 10.8 x 10.16 x 1.27 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Jim Bové.

      For pure beauty, Judith Kinghorn’s Overall Ascending Spiral is unmatched. The sterling and twenty-four karat gold brooch is regal yet organic, perhaps a golden nautilus shell to be worn by a queen. Chrysanthemum and Fiddlehead Fern, both pendants, were also gorgeous, intricately fashioned sterling and gold haikus to the natural world. Kinghorn’s jewelry is realism presented with drama and sophistication.

Jewelrymaker Kathleen Faulkner is also an observer of the natural world. The brooch/pendant she made for “Signs of Life” is the image of an owl, which she expertly painted on paper, gazing from between sterling silver branches. Faulkner is a painter and a jeweler, and the other brooches, pendants and earrings she made for the show are faithful renditions of the flowers, birds and fish of the northwestern Washington State, where she lives. You can easily imagine her trekking through woods and along shorelines, sketchbook and pencil in hand. Hers is very literal work, yet much of it is charming, like a rare leaf or flower bud pressed between the pages of a notebook for further study.

Seattle artist Nadine Kariya made some of the most narrative work in the show. Though Lorene in the past has stressed to her “Signs of Life” jewelrymakers that their work for the show should be narrative to help inspire the writers, it appears that Lorene places less emphasis on that now, as shown by the more abstract work of Bové and Werger, for example. Yet the brooch Kariya created for the exhibition is a reminder of just how much powerful storytelling a smart artist can pack into a small piece. Last Salute to the Camp Bird Generation: Medallion is a brooch that pays tribute to the generation of Japanese-Americans shamefully interned in camps on American soil during WWII. The brooch includes a small life preserver, a tiny silver telephone, and the red demon face of an evil character from traditional Japanese theater, all carried by a bird. Kariya notes that carving wooden birds pins became a popular pastime in the camps, where people uprooted from their civic and professional lives, had little to do. Unlike the birds that inspired their carving, the internees were unable to escape the camps.

FIDDLEHEAD FERN BROOCH by Judith Kinghorn of sterling silver, twenty-four karat gold, approximately 15.24 long x 4.76 centimeters wide, 2015. Photograph by Stuart Lorenz. LAST SALUTE TO THE CAMP BIRD GENERATION: MEDALLION BROOCH by Nadine Kariya of carved and painted oak and cedar, sterling silver, eighteen karat gold, shibuichi, shakudo, mixed metal backing, vintage Japanese glass buttons, circa 1950 (Noh Theater female demon and bunch of grapes), vintage sterling silver whistle and telephone, steel, nylon, and vintage green cord, 15.24 x 6.35 x 1.91 centimeters, 2015. Photograph by Daniel Fox, Lumina Studio.

“Signs of Life” seemed a quixotic project when Lorene started it more than a decade ago. In its early years, for instance, she sometimes had difficulty convincing writers to participate. The idea that jewelry had any connection to the literary arts seemed too far-fetched to some writers and even a few jewelrymakers. But in creating an annual jewelry and literary event, she has thrust art jewelry into a broader cultural arena, and everyone has benefited.

 

Robin Updike is an arts writer based in Seattle, Washington, who also has a background in fashion reporting. As someone who herself brings together the literary and the visual arts, Updike is a perfect match for Karen Lorene’s Signs of Life. In her role as scribe, she unveils the magic alchemy that goes between jeweler and writer in this most interesting creative experiment. Updike is a longtime contributor to Ornament with her many features drawn from the Pacific Northwest.

Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show Volume 38.3

Each autumn as the days turn crisp freshened by the new season on the East Coast, one of the nation’s most treasured craft shows debuts in Philadelphia with thousands of attendees flooding Hall F inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Nearing four decades of presenting contemporary craft to both neophyte and connoisseur, the show is one of the primary fundraisers for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Purchases from the nearly two hundred exhibitors, whether a lustrous ceramic vessel by Cliff Lee, a breathtaking brooch by Judith Kinghorn or elegant handpainted garments by Kay Riley, not only help support the artist directly but also benefit the museum. Since its inception in 1977, the Women’s Committee who sponsors the show has contributed almost eleven million dollars to the museum in the form of educational programs, exhibitions and acquisitions for its permanent collection.

     The show is a panoramic example of the healthy, ever blossoming state of craft in America today and of artist contributions to the cultural innovations of this country. Artists prize the Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show, valuing not only its standards, quality and excellent reputation but for its encouragement and steady nurturance of contemporary craft in the United States.

FRANCESCA VITALI Rochester, New York

FRANCESCA VITALI
Rochester, New York

     In May of this year five jurors met to determine who of a thousand entrants would be admitted into the plentiful fourteen categories as defined by the committee—basketry, ceramics, emerging, fiber decorative, fiber wearable, furniture, glass, jewelry/precious, jewelry/semiprecious, metal, mixed media, paper, and wood. The one hundred ninety-five artists for 2015 were selected by invited jurors Lola Brooks, metalsmith; Sam Harvey, Co-Owner of the Harvey Meadows Gallery; Ronald Labaco, the Marcia Docter Curator of the Museum of Arts and Design; Don Miller, associate professor of The University of the Arts; and Tina Oldknow, senior curator of the Corning Museum of Glass. Work was judged according to an agreed upon assessment of the artist’s originality and innovation in a medium; the prominence of personal expression and creativity; by technical expertise and consistency of quality; and being of one-of-a kind or limited edition pieces in order to qualify.

One of the artists to this year’s show is Amy Nguyen. An award-winning textile artist, Nguyen has perfected her use of shibori in beautifully flowing silk organza coats and kimonos, ever graceful and always sensual. Her work rises to seemingly spiritual levels—an abstracted form of reverence and tribute to the world within us and to that which exists beyond. She is one who perhaps could not create without such a serene recognition, perhaps acceptance, of the indeterminate forces that drive us all. Otherwise her handwork would visibly lack the deliberative care and prayerful attitude brought to her cloth. Additionally, Nguyen’s painting of fiber is demonstratively compelling, another testament to her mastery. The dedication she brings to expressing her craft and the difficult bar set and met with each piece defines her as among the very best in the field.

JAMES PEARCE Peoria, Illinois

JAMES PEARCE
Peoria, Illinois

One of fourteen in the furniture category, James Pearce takes another path to functionality. Part of a fourth generation woodworking family, Pearce continues to explore the nature of wood through his inventive designs, while relying on traditional hand tools to aid their emergence in his custom fabrications. Fascinated by their grain, color and texture, he chooses not to stain his pieces to alter their natural state, preferring a wood’s natural warmth and color. Pearce’s wood is milled locally where he lives in Illinois, and he also uses local hardwood, like walnut, maple, cherry, and hickory. Alert to the advantage of propinquity, he sometimes gathers wood from trees that have been downed by storms in area fields. Pearce goes even further by making his own varnishes and applying a clear coat finish, a mixture of oil and varnish, to sustain the durability of a work and to bring out its particular glow.

Mary Jaeger’s rich repertoire of techniques do not reveal their diversity in her finished garments. Jaeger dyes, stitches, prints, pieces, shrinks, deconstructs—whatever it takes to arrive at what she envisions. It is critical to Jaeger that her textiles maintain their unique quality. Many of her coats employ quilting as part of the process. Jaeger has an inspired instinct for how the layering of cloth makes for warmth and comfort in wearing, and also how in its arrangement through interesting patterns and various textures there arises from within the garment a wholistic aesthetic and sophisticated sense of composing for the human form. She is in addition guided by a fluid sense of the possibilities of shaping and how color appears throughout a piece—that they can take many directions, not just the usual conventional path.

THOMAS HARRIS Bloomington, Indiana

THOMAS HARRIS
Bloomington, Indiana

Ceramist Thomas Harris lives on twenty wooded acres near Bloomington, Indiana, but it is in Bloomington itself where he keeps his studio and there uses wheelthrowing, handbuilding and slip casting to make his fascinating functional and nonfunctional works. Harris was educated in Arizona, receiving a bachelor of fine arts at Northern Arizona University and a master’s degree from the University of Arizona. Deconstructivist in ideation, his bowls, cups and teapots are brilliantly colored exercises in surface decoration—painterly splashes of bold in-your-face blues, yellows, greens, oranges. Harris says that he “looks for the unique in utilitarian forms, often misshaping the form after having thrown it.” Set off by a luminescent glow or polish, they appear to be some type of primeval, mysterious fruit or groves of extravagant wildflowers unfolding in the heat of the mid-day sun.

Another ceramist was born in Taiwan to a family that encouraged his artistic inclinations, and credits his Rhode Island School of Design education to introducing the possibilities of working in clay. “Clay is a very forgiving medium,” says Dwo Wen Chen. “For an undisciplined artist such as myself, it suits me perfectly. I can translate almost anything within my imagination using my hands and clay.” Chen has remained in Providence where he operates Three Wheel Studio, a gallery and studio showing his work and that of others. “I have become more comfortable in calling myself a studio potter,” says the artist. “It started one day when I opened my kiln and found an almost perfect little tea bowl with just the right glaze. To a potter, that was a perfect day.”

Honors, awards, grants, solo and group exhibitions, private and public collections, an author to boot (The Art of Basketry)—Kari Lonning’s resume is a prolific document of this successful working artist over a lifetime, in her instance dating to the early 1970s. Lonning weaves her baskets with natural rattan reed that is dyed by her with commercial, colorfast textile dyes to reach the depth of color so critical to their presentation (and to maintain their long life). Lonning is known for her “hairy” technique, a complex weaving process, where short pieces of reed are woven into the walls of the basket. They astonish the eye with their graphic complexity. She also favors spiral and vertical patterns in her designs and their distinctive coloration varies from bold to subtle. Her influences date from college days: she minored in textiles with a major in ceramics, and basketry, she says, became “the natural union of the two.” A favorite relaxation for Lonning, and a time of important inspiration for later creations, is to work in her Connecticut garden, usually assisted by her canine companion, an Old English Sheepdog named Emma.

PETRA CLASS San Francisco, California

PETRA CLASS
San Francisco, California

San Francisco artist Petra Class makes stunning jewelry in high karat golds and luscious gemstones—tourmalines, aquamarines, natural diamonds, lapis, sapphires, and more. Originally classically trained as a goldsmith in Germany, her techniques and aesthetics have been honed over her productive career. While the work employs methods and techniques she was taught, her jewelry is anything but formal and traditionally inspired. Rather it is emotive, jazzy, idiosyncratic, totally contemporary. The stone-set circles, squares, ovals, and rectangles appear to be improvisational collaged arrangements, but are in fact carefully designed for a unified effect. Class also brings bezel-setting to an impeccable new level and it brings as much to the overall composition as the beautiful stones.

Karen McCreary’s jewelry is a sensitive juxtaposition of color, transparency, light, mood, and illusion suffusing throughout her pendants, bangles and earrings. McCreary primarily uses transparent acrylic which she carves by hand and then layers with colored lacquer and twenty-two karat gold leaf. Her designs are influenced by a deep interest in science and technology and a passion for science fiction. In an earlier Ornament feature (Vol. 29, No. 3), McCreary related how much she strives to make jewelry that is “a reflection of me and the time I live in but has a timeless quality. I try to have a certain amount of balance between designs I can imagine and pieces that can actually be worn and comfortable on the body. For me that’s the reason to make jewelry.”

SCOTT AMRHEIN Sherwood, Wisconsin

SCOTT AMRHEIN
Sherwood, Wisconsin

Another completely alternative way of harnessing light is practiced by Sherwood, Wisconsin, artist Scott Amrhein. His slumped, kiln-formed glass vessels are extraordinary examples demonstrating how the reflective surfaces of glass are unique to the experience by which they are engaged: for example, time of day, whether morning or evening; seasonality, summer or winter; light source, natural or fluorescent. No two pieces of Amrhein’s are exactly alike but they all visually communicate a quietude and transcendence that is almost religious. Amrhein places his forms on pedestals, such as wood, copper and concrete, for support and to further emphasize their singular shape, but they also serve to draw one into the pieces, focusing the observer’s attention on his expert use of color, pattern and texture.

ANNINA KING Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania

ANNINA KING
Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania native Annina King lives in Huntingdon Valley, near Philadelphia where the craft show takes place, and where she received a master’s degree in fashion design from Philly’s Drexel University in 2005. In 2013 she opened Granaté Prêt, an artisanal clothing line also located in the city. King utilizes all kinds of materials: silk, wool, leather, linen, cotton, as well as some synthetic fibers. Her collections, based on a philosophy of making clothing for women that is graceful and feminine, evinces a personal confidence born through the unique quality of her designs. Drawing from the past as well as imagining the future, her sources include history, costume, illustration, and literature. “Structural Organic is a term I often think of,” King says, “as I strive to capture the spirit and forms in nature: leaf veins, branches and especially trees.” She integrates hand embellishment, intricate seaming, vintage techniques, and quirky hardware in her separates, coats, dresses, and tunics. Soft to the touch layers of hand-dyed silk chiffon, a long-romantic legacy of fashion, might be shocked into a startling modernistic lift with a visibly exposed zipper. Part of a welcome new generation of wearable artists, King’s explorations are refreshing re-interpretations of how it is possible to decorate ourselves.

During times like ours artists and their works help point the way to a more ennobling worldview of creation. It is helpful to remember the legacy passed on by artists of other times and places, and how contemporary makers challenge the status quo and memes of the day by their innovations and inspirations, just as their forbearers put forth. The handmade object is inextricably linked through the critical interrelationship of its form (through the way in which something is made) to its meaning (the purpose for which it is made), and from which an aesthetic arises. Craft transmits itself directly and immediately with timeless, inherent simplicity—the handmade object is beautiful not despite its usefulness but because of it.

 

Carolyn L. E. Benesh is Coeditor of Ornament and the magazine’s resident expert on contemporary wearable art. She gives her personal view on what is taking place in the current issue in Postscript on page 64. Benesh also writes about the Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show, one of her favorite craft events, where each year Ornament sponsors and selects the Award for Excellence in Art-to-Wear. She includes a report on the Saul Bell Design Award for 2015. The competition never fails to serve up a rich potpourri of decorative and functional objects, from the classically inspired to the avant garde.

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.”