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.
Willemijn de Greef’s summer show at Galerie Marzee in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, just ended, but I wanted to know more about the large gem-shaped ceramic brooches she produced and about her thoughts on work she has done in the past. In particular, a large gold earring AJF featured in the show Geography has always intrigued me. The story behind it is very moving. I am impressed with the large scale of Wilemijn’s jewelry and the interaction she has with folk traditions.
Susan Cummins: I understand that much of your work relates to where you grew up in Zeeland, The Netherlands. Can you describe it?
Willemijn de Greef: Only Weefsels, the collection of work I made for my graduation, and Zeeuwse knopen, some rings that I made before my graduation year at Rietveld Academy, are related to Zeeland (Sealand), a region in the south of The Netherlands. My parents and I moved there when I was seven years old. It was the beginning of the 80s. I remember the 70s craftwork of my mother decorating the house, some macramé pieces and several ceramic objects. I’ve combined my love for craftwork with traditional costumes from that region. The shapes are free interpretations of the jewelry worn with the costumes. I’ve enlarged them to create the link between the jewelry and the costumes. I also love the small mistakes and flaws in handcraft. As jewelers, we are always working in detail, erasing as many errors as possible. I love those tiny mistakes. I like to make them visible.
Willemijn de Greef: When I was 17 years old, I started a vocational study in jewelry making in Schoonhoven, The Netherlands. A year later, my mother started a course with Sofie Lachaert in Belgium. I doubled a year and decided to travel to Belgium to join my mother in Sofie’s course. Nowadays, my mother and I are giving workshops together twice a year in France at “Atelier en Route.” For the last year of my vocational study, I did my internship at Galerie Marzee in Nijmegen. Much later, I started my study at Rietveld Academy.
Your jewelry is also extremely large, and you are very tall. Are the two related? Why do you work in such a large scale?
Willemijn de Greef: Probably the two are related, although it was never intentional. As I said earlier, I tried to interlace the traditional costumes and the costume jewelry worn with them. When I first started working in a larger scale, it felt like I had found a size that fitted my way of working. People often think my wearable pieces are only suitable for large people. Personally, I prefer to see them worn by smaller women. I acknowledge it takes some effort to wear my work, so I am pleasantly surprised when people wear my pieces.
Given this large scale, why do you still call yourself a jeweler? Are you tempted to become an object maker?
Willemijn de Greef: Even though my work often crosses the border of being wearable, all my work relates to jewelry. I sometimes don’t know what to call myself anymore. Maybe I have started to become more of a visual artist than a jewelry artist by preferring to work in a context to (other) jewelry. Next to wearable pieces, I also like to make objects and installations.
Willemijn de Greef: It could have been related to Zeeland, but this necklace was a piece I made for my collection of jewelry called Zuiderzeewerken II. The Zuiderzee, nowadays called Ijsselmeer, is a former sea in the middle of The Netherlands. Around the Ijsselmeer, you still find a lot of small fishermen´s villages. In some villages, you still find some women wearing traditional costumes.
It is said that fishermen wore the golden earring as insurance. If one drowned at sea and it wasn’t possible to identify the fisherman anymore they could at least give this person a decent funeral. My earring is an enlarged version of this fishermen’s earring and can be worn as a necklace. It is electroformed silver, plated with gold.
Why is it important for you to make jewelry related to your personal history?
Willemijn de Greef: Not all my work is related to my personal history, but if it is, I try to use recognizable shapes and materials that also hopefully relate to the personal history of others. I use my personal background and memories for choosing the techniques and materials I work with. Interlacing all these gives me a sense of why I choose a material or shape. It gives me a second layer to work with. This is not always visible for the wearer or viewer, but in the end I think and hope you can see my choices are not randomly made.
Can you talk about the new series at Galerie Marzee called Recollection II?
Willemijn de Greef: Recollection II is inspired by the Cartier-like jewelry and other bejeweled pieces my grandmother wears. As a child, I already experienced her jewelry as a fascinating matter. Occasionally, I could wear a piece out of a special box with less precious jewelry. My grandfather collected art, antiques, and jewelry. The brooches/wall objects for Recollection II tell about my memories connected to my grandmother’s jewelry and about collecting as such. The shapes of the pieces are based on cutting shapes of precious stones. The collection has the subtitle “Tante Toos” (Auntie Toos.) Tante Toos is my grandma’s sister. As a child, I often went there with my mother to work in clay. I associate my earliest memories of creatively expressing myself with her. The glazes I used for this collection are a gift from Tante Toos.