Olivia Shih is a contemporary jeweler, artist and writer based in Oakland, California. Born in the US and raised in Taiwan, she is interested in the cultural nuances that can be explored through wearable sculpture. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and a BFA in Jewelry and Metal Arts from the California College of the Arts.
Susan and Jeff Wise collaborate not only as man and wife, but to make jewelry together. The couple is known for cutting their own sculptural gemstones and integrating them into bold designs—their work has been collected by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Art and Design in New York. On the occasion of their show, An Exhibition of Modern Jewelry, at Patina Gallery, I had the chance to ask them a few questions.
Olivia Shih: This is your first gallery exhibition in two years. Did you take a hiatus from gallery exhibitions, or does it take this long to prepare for a show? Why exhibit now?
Susan and Jeff Wise: We show in galleries on a regular basis, but this is an unusually large collection for us, and it’s especially exciting to have it featured in a gallery as beautifully curated as Patina. We have a very long history with Santa Fe—in Jeff’s case, going back to his teens in the 60s, when the family would take road trips from their home in Denver in a 1948 Chrysler Town & Country Woodie. In those days, there were lots of highly skilled Navajo and Pueblo silversmiths selling their work under the portico of the governor’s palace, where Jeff bought turquoise heishi beads.
We currently are able to produce around 60 pieces a year, and we’ll have around 80 pieces at Patina, so this show represents a significant amount of bench time. Many of the pieces had been put aside as our own retrospective collection, and we don’t normally show them or offer them for sale—but together, Allison and Ivan (Patina’s owners) can be most persuasive. Anything for art. The idea for this show started when Allison came up to Durango and stayed with us while she judged awards for a show at the Durango Art Center, which Susan and I had done the initial jurying for.
Susan and Jeff Wise: Jeff started making jewelry in junior high school. Loved beads and roach clips, actually, which he sold through the Denver Folklore Center gift shop. There was also an excellent college-level jewelry program at his high school taught by Carolyn Roth. He was also greatly influenced by Thomas Gentille’s book, Step by Step Jewelry. After we’d been married about five years, Susan was itching to get in the studio and start making some bijoux.
Susan, you’ve learned many metalsmithing techniques from your husband—could you elaborate on your experience as both student and collaborator?
Susan Wise: Jeff is an excellent teacher, but it was definitely challenging to be his student and spouse at the same time. Our jewelry work is quite technical, and the learning curve was pretty steep, so patience from both of us was very important. Our aesthetics are similar, so we work through the design process as a team, but I really hate it when I melt something or can’t work out an engineering problem. Thank God Jeff makes plenty of mistakes too. We’re both always learning from each other. I tend to have a simpler aesthetic so I often function as the idea editor, and Jeff is a whiz at solving technical issues.
Jeff Wise: I started the stone cutting early on because very nice quality rough turquoise was plentiful, affordable, and easy to cut and polish with basic equipment. As my confidence and aesthetics developed away from Native American style jewelry, I developed a real fascination with agates and other minerals. The fact that very few metalsmiths cut their own stones allowed us to create our own unique style, and we’re able to make the stones an important and integral part of our art.
Your work often couples well-orchestrated compositions with bold graphic elements—do you consider yourselves to be designers, or artists?
Susan and Jeff Wise: In our understanding of “designer” and “artist,” we would say that we’re both. Some of our work embraces the concept of fashion with interesting colors and forms, but we wouldn’t call it art. The marketplace (making a living) is certainly a consideration for this kind of work. With other pieces, we intend to create art. These pieces pose questions about relationships amid disparate materials, historical timelines, and forms that create visual metaphors. We don’t even think about the “saleability" of these pieces, but we’ve certainly developed a following for our artwork.
Have you seen, heard, or read anything of interest lately that you could recommend?
Susan and Jeff Wise: Susan, who considers herself to be an introvert, is currently reading Quiet, by Susan Cain, which is subtitled The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Jeff just finished The Emerald Mile, an amazing book by Kevin Fedarko. It’s an account of a speed run through the flooding Grand Canyon in a wooden dory. We’ve done a lot of boating in both dories and rafts through the Grand Canyon and many other western rivers.
We both really enjoyed The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, in which magic becomes reality.