Art for fingers and ears

17:00, Jul 23 2010

The rising star of the craft world is contemporary jewellery but it doesn't pay a lot and usually it's made for love.

Jewellery. You'd be hard-put to finance a backyard from it, let alone a golf course, but the people making it approach it with the sort of ardour which makes a profit almost by-the-by.

The best contemporary jewellers almost always have a day job because even the most amazing sculptural, meaningful pieces of jewellery can't demand the price of a good piece of fine art.

"It seems like there is strength in contemporary jewellery and lots of critical thinking going on," says Damian Skinner, a curator who also writes critically on the subject.

He won't guess at how many contemporary jewellers live off their work in Wellington and elsewhere. "A lot of people would be making part of their income from it."

New Zealand's strong contemporary jewellery culture, he says, stems from work done in the 1980s, "particularly Fingers in Auckland".


"They developed an audience and an argument as to why people should wear it and buy it."

Skinner curated an exhibition of the work of 15 New Zealand jewellers which, helped by Creative New Zealand, opened in San Francisco earlier this year.

The exhibition, Pocket Guide to New Zealand Jewellery, has since been shown in Boston and is on tour in the United States. Its title is based on the Pocket Guide to New Zealand given to American servicemen in World War II.

"It was a deliberate appeal to nostalgia and a previous connection to New Zealand. Often the argument is: `We're from another place. You should be interested'."

Skinner is interested in jewellers who are like fine artists, driven to realise their ideas rather than make for the sake of selling.

"In New Zealand a lot of people are making jewellery but few people are really good and making meaningful work. There are about 15 we should care about, whose careers are important at different times.

"At any one time there are three or four making fairly important or important work."

Most of the rest, he says, "make what is really nice jewellery that doesn't necessarily have anything to say".

Peter Deckers, internationally known for his jewellery and lecturer in the subject at Whitireia, Wellington's pivotal training ground for contemporary jewellers, says pieces with something to say are "postmodern" in that they "invite the audience to participate".

"Modernism dictates and asks to adjust, in this case, how the jewellery should be worn. In other words it is more dictatorial."

Deckers has taught at Whitireia, since the 1980s when several design courses were established in New Zealand. He calls himself "a part-time tutor and a fulltime artist". "It's all about head space."

Yes, he says, prices are lower than for fine art. "People do it for love. It's an interesting subject.

"Where does it fall – between fashion and high art, it bounces off on both."

The Whitireia course, sought after as it is, produces only a few design graduates majoring in contemporary jewellery. In 2008 there were five, last year only one. They make an impact that belies their number.

Last year's graduate was Sunni Gibson, who opened The See Here gallery in Newtown's design-conscious Constable St last month.

The See Here is a one-window "micro-gallery" associated with a website – It shows individual works from a group of nine contemporary jewellers, some new and some established, and from invited jewellery-makers.

The group is Gibson, Deckers, Jhana Millers, Matthew McIntyre Wilson, Nadine Smith, Sarah Read (who was picked up from a Whitireia catalogue by a gallery in New York), Tara Brady, Vivien Atkinson and Lisa Walker.

Walker, with her jeweller husband Karl Fritsch, returned to Wellington recently after living and working in Germany and just after she won the Francoise Van Den Bosch prize, which she likens to "jewellery's equivalent to the Nobel Prize".

The only other New Zealand jeweller to have won it is Warwick Freeman. Fritsch, a German native, is also a winner.

"When I first heard Lisa and Karl were moving to Wellington we joked the whole world would tip up," says Gibson. "The balance of the contemporary jewellery world was shifting."

Gibson created The See Here "in response to a lack of space available where you can test your work". Quoil, Avid, Te Papa and The Vault all sell contemporary jewellery, but those outlets, she says, "aren't really for risk-taking, experimenting and testing".

Such outlets demand "responsibility, whereas you're extended in this gallery".

"It's not for profit, not for selling as much as for discussion among jewellers and the public."

Gibson says it's hard to make a living. She teaches to support her craft.

Matthew McIntyre Wilson also teaches and has tussled with the problem of wanting to make jewellery that might not be easily saleable.

He has a young family to support, and though his partner Frances Stachl works fulltime at jewellery, he finds it necessary to lecture part time at Whitireia. He has, he says, never made jewellery for the money.

"It's for satisfaction. One thing leads to another. It's a creative compulsion."

His jewellery-making extends to other forms of adornment and sculptural work. Te Papa has three of his pieces, finely woven copper and silver tatua or belts, based on old Maori weaving.

He sells his work at Avid, at Masterworks in Auckland, and at the Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver. In 2008 he had a solo exhibition in the City Gallery's Michael Hirschfeld Gallery.

His current jewellery work involves brooches made from old, welded coins.

Craig McIntosh also teaches, at The Learning Connexion at Tawa.

He tried to make jewellery fulltime "but the whole production thing I couldn't stand. Making to sell was driving me nuts. It stifled my creativity."

He decided to do a job that paid the bills so he could make the jewellery he wanted to. His income doubled and people bought what he wanted to make anyway.

McIntosh's jewellery is based on found material, often rubbish from the beach.

"Others pick up wood and stones and I pick up all the trash."

He retrieves items such as dented and crushed bottle caps, things that are "disgusting, at the same time really beautiful, with texture, form and colour changed. Beauty is important but the idea is what comes first. It's got to be really well made, which doesn't mean all shiny and polished."

Claire Regnault, a senior curator at Te Papa, worked in conceptual development at The NewDowse, which has one of the country's biggest collections of contemporary jewellery.

Though the market is very small in New Zealand, she says, the craftspeople involved form a "very strong, vibrant, very proactive and well-connected community very supportive of each other. It's got on and done things. There are lots of private joint workshops."

Most contemporary jewellers need to have a part-time job or "bread-and-butter" lines, she says, though there would be a dozen or more making a fulltime living from it.

"Any creative practice is a hard road."

Skinner says there is funding in New Zealand, and grants, which are "pretty good" for encouraging the making of contemporary jewellery.

"In the United States they don't have any such things. There are places which sell it here and people who buy it. Jewellery is at a bit of a peak."

But he thinks the ease with which contemporary jewellers can make a living here is not necessarily good for producing the best work.

"A lot of people talk the good talk but never really push themselves in the way they should. I think New Zealand jewellers should be more international with people going overseas for better training, or to look.

"Because they can make a living here they have a sense of complacency to their presence in the rest of the world."

The Dominion Post