Jillian Moore is a maker and writer who currently lives in Iowa City, United States, where she completed her MFA in jewelry and metal arts at the University of Iowa in 2008. She received her BFA in metalsmithing and jewelrymaking from Western Illinois University in Macomb, in 2004.
While attending this year’s Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) conference in Houston, a chronic, nagging question was amplified. What, exactly, is it that I do? In passing conversations I never seem to be able to explain it to any acceptable degree without endless digressive hurdles. In the simplest terms I set out with the word 'jewelry', though even this is a personal conversational concession. The litany of descriptors which we can use to alter the word jewelry can leave a person breathless – art jewelry, contemporary jewelry, sculptural jewelry, just to name a few. Casual conversations always include me saying, 'No, I don’t make that kind of jewelry.' And when I start using phrases like 'abstract life forms' and 'composite resin,' people's faces screw into frustration. When I’m feeling less motivated I just say 'I make jewelry out of plastics . . . various plastics.' But it feels condescending, both to whomever I’m speaking with and what it is that I like about my work. I’ve spent nine years and borrowed tens of thousands of dollars for two degrees – a BFA with the words 'Metalsmithing and Jewelry Making' at the end and an MFA with the alternate 'Jewelry and Metal Arts' attached. But I find none of this mixing and matching of terminology to be of any help when trying to actually articulate what it is I do with all of my time.
During a late-night conversation with several other attendees in Houston, all friends from the now ubiquitous worldwide web, we started talking about our personal beefs with the current state of affairs in the field. 'The field' itself is so difficult to pin down that I find myself returning to a chart in Oppi Untracht’s irreplaceable book Jewelry Concepts and Technology. It reads like a sprawling family tree and in the nearly three decades since its inception, that family tree has sprouted innumerable new branches. It became clear that all of us felt like we were outside of some magic circle of inclusion, either due to the long tired misnomer of SNAG itself, or the content of the conference, or our exclusion from the various exhibitions that were taking place. I found myself wondering how I had gotten to this point when only a few years prior I had felt so completely 'in the fold.' I have not outwardly rejected conference attendance like many close friends and colleagues, but I’ve begun to feel more and more like a tourist. It’s still very much of interest, but my personal level of investment is becoming tenuous. With the sudden resurgence in efforts to change the name of SNAG itself and unload all of its ponderous, colonial-sounding, exclusory baggage, I can’t be the only one having this dilemma.
For me, the shift came when I began electroforming vessels rather than hammer-forming them – and spray-painting rather than enameling, due to structural problems and kiln-size limitations. From there, it was only a matter of time before the metal itself became secondary to any material that might solve the problem. Knowing that I would soon be out of the academic context and setting up a studio in my home only hastened the transition. This puts the death of my 'metalsmithing' career somewhere in the fall of 2007, when I finally traded electroforming for foam and composite resin. Oh, I may dabble in copper still, fabricating elements for the foam and composite resin pieces, but I tend to bury them under layers of paint and epoxy resin to the point of being unrecognizable. I am very aware that this is a decades old debate in our field and that jewelers working in alternate materials have been well accepted. But again, the language we use in our field – and what is chosen to be held up as the shining example – can be a powerful tool to marginalize that work which still falls outside of metalsmithing.
As a result, the last couple of SNAG conferences have left me with a strange, disassociated feeling. Thankfully this year there were a few shows and many notable jewelers who’ve also decided to stop worrying about neat little linguistic lines and just make challenging work. Transmutations: Materials Reborn, curated by Susan Kasson Sloan and shown by the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, featured work in plastics, though I didn’t know this on my first round. The work spoke more to me about form, color and experimentation than of what we tend to expect with the word 'plastic.' Any exhibition that typically addresses 'new' materials – and in particular plastics – tends to look like someone raided the costume department of some low-budget sci-fi movie, but without all of the camp and whimsy that might actually make it palatable. Here, there was new work from personal favorites Natalya Pinchuck, Masakoi Onodera and Masumi Kataoka. There were also many artists I wasn’t yet familiar with, like Lin Stanionis, Rebecca Hannon and Susanne Klemm, whose work I’d either never gotten to see in person or had simply never encountered, which was such a wonderful surprise at a SNAG conference.
I also really enjoyed the exhibition Extreme Beauty, curated by Kim Cridler at the Glassell School of Art. Not so much new names as work I’d never get to see up close and personal, especially given that I’m tucked away here in Iowa – Karl Frisch, Gijs Bakker, Andrea Wagner and Constanze Schreiber to name just a few. More importantly, there was work I wouldn’t have expected to see at a SNAG conference, which is typically dominated by student work and a finite number of 'approved' jewelers mostly from within our geographic borders. This means a vast number of international artists are unseen at SNAG, even if they are very well-represented by United States galleries. I regret that I was shooed out of the Museum of Fine Arts after the Exhibition in Motion and missed the other work on display there. From what I’ve heard and images I’ve seen, it would have been very enjoyable. Had I known, I would have ducked out on the 'bustier' portion of the Exhibition in Motion. I’ve since read that the fashion students selected pieces to design around, but it resulted in the segregation of wearable work in two camps. And the first camp was not interesting unless you were inclined to attend fancy-dress balls in parking garages. Again this is just my personal opinion and I mean no hostility toward fancy-dress balls or parking garages in general. The work in the second half was more conscious of the body and seemed to contain the more fully realized work, making it, I would assume, difficult to comfortably spin off a fashion piece.
With regard to current student work, only a few jewelers have stayed with me. This doesn’t mean that the student work this year was necessarily uninteresting, simply that I had become so oversaturated I’ve come to notice the names that didn’t shake loose with time. These two students – Rachel Timmins who is a graduate student at Towson University, Maryland and Nick Mullins, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana – were not only a nice change from the current, frenzied mining of historical ornament, but also a break from the dry, humorless, autobiographical work that seems to be the loudest counterpoint on offer. At Extremities: Exploring the Margins of the Human Body, juried by Andy Cooperman, I found two pieces by Rachel Timmins: I Want To Be A Gold Lobster With Blue Puffs and I Want To Be A Unicorn. Both pieces were exhibited with photographs to show how they looked when worn – of particular importance for her work, given how both were activated on the body, highlighting their absurdity. Rachel’s work is fun as well as fearless, proving that the two aren’t mutually exclusive and her use of textiles and metal interchangeably speaks to her commitment to her work over material loyalty. Nick Mullins had several pieces in No Boundaries, the SNAG juried student exhibition at the Glassell Junior School Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, which was juried by Brigitte Martin and Lena Vigna. Nick’s work is clumsy in the best way – the forms are large and awkward, hacked from wood and other found materials. Treated roughly, they come off feeling urgent as if they were made in a sort of frenzied play session resulting in objects that are fun and self-effacing.
I realize the work I’m drawn to talks more about my personal taste than about the conference as a whole. And given my lack of sleep and the overload of two gallery nights, I’m sure I’ve overlooked a lot of wonderful work. But there is a predominant homogeneity that should be of concern, not just to practicing artists, but to students and educators out there as well.
So where does this leave me in terms of my identity crisis? What do I have left to identify with and what is lost to me? Handwork and the inception of a tactile object is still a source of solidarity for us as makers, even when some of us feel wholly removed from the vast majority of work being made. To be situated in a place between definitions, ahead of language as it struggles to keep up, can be a very satisfying thing. Though I may never be able to fully explain what I do for a living to a casual acquaintance on a bus ride or in an elevator, there’s something exciting about that striving to encapsulate what is happening with contemporary jewelry making. The nebulous state we find ourselves inhabiting can be frustrating, but change is a beautiful and messy thing. You only need to look at the current political climate for a gross magnification of our field’s current polarized state. Paradigm shifts aren’t just inevitable, they’re necessary.