Susan Cummins has been involved in numerous ways in the visual arts world over the last 35 years, from working in a pottery studio, doing street fairs, running a retail shop called the Firework in Mill Valley and developing the Susan Cummins Gallery into a nationally recognized venue for regional art and contemporary art jewelry. Now she spends most of her time working with a private family foundation called Rotasa and as a board member of AJF and California College of the Arts.
Fingers Gallery in New Zealand is celebrating its 40th anniversary with an exhibition at Objectspace, an exhibition space in Auckland both publicly and privately funded. Over the years, Fingers Gallery has witnessed and participated in the development of New Zealand jewelry. Finn McCahon-Jones, the curator of the exhibition, gives us its history.
Susan Cummins: Finn, please tell us who you are and why Objectspace is having a show about the gallery Fingers.
Finn McCahon-Jones: I come from a family of makers and observers, and for the past decade have worked at Auckland Museum, primarily with the decorative art and design collection. I am currently employed as a curator working on renewals of the permanent galleries. During this time I have also been involved with not-for-profit arts organizations and artist-run spaces.
In November this year, Fingers turns 40, making it one of the oldest still-running jewelry galleries in the world. It is also the oldest still-running craft gallery in Aotearoa New Zealand. The show at Objectspace will be an important one for jewelry audiences, as it will bring together largely unseen works from private collections, and provide an overview of jewelry history in this country, centered around Fingers.
Please give us a short history of the gallery and how it fit into the development of contemporary jewelry in New Zealand.
Finn McCahon-Jones: Fingers did not begin its life as a contemporary jewelry gallery. When it opened in 1974, it was a jewelry shop selling alternative work. It was in the 1980s that Fingers developed what many people recognize as a “house style”—the generous use of natural materials, and a stylistic and conceptual reference to Pacific adornment. Fingers stocked “jewelry for the beach, not the penthouse,” and became recognized for jewelry made from materials like shell, bone, and coconut, combined with an awareness of European aesthetics and precious metals. These jewelers created wearable objects with a definite sense of belonging to Aotearoa New Zealand. The critique of preciousness had a huge effect on jewelry production in Aotearoa New Zealand. This shift in thinking about value opened up new possibilities and ways to reconsider our local materials.
What do you see when you revisit the early shows at Fingers? Is the jewelry consistent over time or has it changed a lot?
Finn McCahon-Jones: The jewelry that has come out of Fingers has changed considerably over the last 40 years, although their mission is still pretty similar. When the shop first opened, Fingers hoped to encourage a “New Zealand feeling for modern jewelry.” Reviews at the time described the work in Fingers as having a folkloric feel. There were many pieces of jewelry with talismanic qualities, influenced by the alternative hippie culture in New Zealand. The Fingers partners said that they made jewelry to capture the imagination of a potential buyer, something that suited their personalities rather than a conventional diamond ring.
Toward the end of the 1970s, the punk aesthetic had hit Fingers. Guaranteed Trash (1978) launched an assault on adornment, where you would have seen a $2000 necklace made from a McDonalds thick shake carton, a brooch made from a toothbrush with fake toothpaste and diamond, and a slab of smoked fish on a cord. This show triggered a series of themed group shows that engaged with social issues of the day, and showed that Fingers was interested in pushing the limits of what jewelry might be.
Paua Dreams (1981) was a very important show that explored the relationship Aotearoa New Zealand had with pāua (abalone shell). The show took the material that was commonly associated with “junk” souvenir products and turned it into a valued material aligned with national identity. This show tapped into the zeitgeist of the time, reflecting a social movement toward becoming a country more associated with being part of the Pacific rather than a colony of England. Throughout the 1980s the use of local production techniques and materials flourished, evolving into what is known as the Bone Stone Shell movement.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the number of jewelers coming out of craft and jewelry courses increased. It’s in the last 20 years that you can really see a shift in materials—the use of found objects and new materials, as well as different conceptual approaches to making that seem to be more in line with an international practice rather than a regional one. And one of the most obvious changes is that jewelry has become physically larger compared to what was produced in the 1970s.
What did the gallery look like early on? Do the displays still look the same or have they changed over time?
Finn McCahon-Jones: When Fingers first opened, the space took over an old perfume shop on Lorne Street, right in the center of Auckland. The shop was long and narrow, and the walls were lined with an olive green dupioni silk. They purchased a roll of bright pink carpet and carpeted the shop, and in the back the floor was covered in lino printed with footsteps showing dance moves. The cases were an assortment of found and altered cabinets. Throughout the 1970s all sort of display methods were used—some of my favorite pictures from the archives show necklaces pinned to a case lined with cardboard, with the artist and price scribbled next to each piece—very lively and energetic. During the late 1970s/early 1980s the cases were lined with natural linen, and the displays became much more ordered and regulated.
In 1987 they moved to Kitchener Street. The gallery was fitted out with new wood and frosted glass cabinets in a bright, glass-lined gallery. From early on, Fingers has preferred to show jewelry vertically, up against a wall. This is a direct move away from how jewelry was typically shown before that, in counters often covered by wrapping paper.
Is there something particularly New Zealand-ish about New Zealand jewelry?
Finn McCahon-Jones: Yes and no. Some pieces have a definite New Zealand flavor. The use of stone, bone, and shell has a long history in this country. These materials talk to Maori and indigenous practice. Even when these are used in contemporary ways, people here still understand the connection these materials have to Aotearoa New Zealand. Jewelry here has also been heavily influenced by Pacific adornment, with the use of coconut and tortoise shell and production methods. We’re all very proud of our connection to the ocean and the flora of this place, which is also heavily referenced. On the flip side, just as much jewelry is produced in New Zealand that is in dialogue with international trends.
Over the years, thousands of pieces must have passed through the gallery. How did you decide on which ones to use for this exhibit?
Finn McCahon-Jones: It has been a difficult task. I have seen many great pieces while working on this show. Some of the jewelers regret selling certain pieces over the years, many of which are still out there somewhere. Since the publication of the book and my work on the show, lots of people have come forward with pieces from their collections.
To make selection easier, and because this show is connected with a timeline-based history that Damian Skinner and I have recently published, the exhibition has been laid out in chronological order. It focuses on interesting group shows from the past 40 years, as well as a selection of jewelry and shop ephemera that you might have seen in Fingers in each era.
Each piece from this show has been borrowed from an individual collector or maker. It was a bit of a task tracking down past members and exhibitors to see if they still had pieces or knew where pieces might be.
It has been a positive experience. I think most of the artists are quite excited about seeing these pieces together again in one place!
How can people get hold of the publication that you and Damian Skinner (the former editor at Art Jewelry Forum) have written?
Finn McCahon-Jones: Damian and I, with huge support from the Fingers partners, have just had our book published. It’s called Fingers: Jewellery for Aotearoa New Zealand—40 Years of Fingers Jewellery Gallery (David Bateman Ltd.), and you can order it directly from Fingers: firstname.lastname@example.org.
INDEX IMAGE: Renee Bevan, Rose Brooch, 2010, electroformed silver, resin, fabric, 110 x 100 x 40 mm, photo: Michael Couper