Lauren Tickle’s exhibition Is It Legal? is on display at Four in Gothenburg, Sweden. In this interview, Lauren discusses her concept of value, the different ways she has explored it, and the labor that goes into creating her intricately crafted pieces.
Missy Graff: Can you please tell me about your background? What inspired you to start making jewelry?
Lauren Tickle: I come from a small town in New Hampshire with a population of 6,000. The jewelry I was exposed to in high school came from Claire’s. In other words, my exposure was limited. In rural America, mall brands are the emphasis, not craftsmanship. I was inspired when I saw my uncle exhibit true artistry as he transformed an old lab desk into a beautiful kitchen island. As a family, we would make the two-hour drive to Boston to spend a day looking at dovetail joints, ball and claw feet, and other iconic details of furniture craftsmanship in the basement of the Museum of Fine Arts. I was in awe that human hands carved such detail from wood 200+ years ago. I found art class to be a place where I could strive to do something similar, and when I was accepted to Pratt Institute, I knew that it was the place for me.
My sophomore year at Pratt, I ended up in a jewelry class. The work was obsessive and time-consuming, and detail was paramount. In other words, just like me. I applied to RISD for graduate school and the rest, as they say, is history. RISD was an experimental experience: I experimented with different mediums and subjects and at the same time I was experiencing more in life than I had before. Those experiences were not all positive: Losing my best friend put into perspective what was important. The American ideal of status and materialism is grossly misguided.
Please tell me about your series Increasing Value. What questions are you hoping to provoke? What is the most compelling reaction your work has received while being worn in a public space?
I wrestle with the question of whether to respect the craft of jewelry and luxury goods more broadly or whether to dislike the ostentatious show of wealth they represent. Are these one and the same? Is my craft simply a vehicle to display wealth? If so, why not make its purpose more obvious?
In one instance, that is just what I did—I made a sterling silver brooch holding one-dollar bills. The bills are layered and spaced, hanging vertically down the lapel. While wearing this brooch in public, the reactions were…
An older man hesitantly tapped me on the shoulder and quietly asked:
Excuse me, do you know you have money coming out of your pocket?
I know, thank you, though.
Man walks away and whispers to his companion.
Dollar dollar bill y’all, jokingly said a 22-year-old friend.
You got dollar bills coming out of your pockets. Security guard from The Museum of
Can I have a dollar? Security guard #2.
Contemplative. She smiled after reading what it said and continued to glance back as she moved through the galleries. She even discussed it briefly with her companion.
Some reactions were even extreme…
A concerned subway rider cautioned me that my brooch, worth all of $9, was going to get me kidnapped.
Someone’s going to mistake your one dollar bills for one hundreds. You’ll be kidnapped!
This concern seemed out of proportion, considering that I was flanked by women with designer handbags, which cost exponentially more.
I needed to push the concept further. My next piece was titled Pravda. It was a handbag made out of money and stitched shut. Pravda’s meaning in Russian is “truth,” but it also was the name of a communist propaganda newspaper. This work asked whether a handbag’s purpose was functional or symbolic of wealth and status.
I continued exploring value in different ways by making toilet paper from dollar bills. Here, I elasticized the dollar bill and put it on a toilet paper dispenser in the women’s bathroom. Its title was Disposable, since the recession had just hit and all of a sudden the American dollar seemed meaningless. Then I decided to launder money, washing the filigree away, leaving remnants of what was. In Road to Pretension, I walked around with streamers of cash. It was a money dispenser where you could rip off whole dollar bills from a brooch/dispenser I crafted. Photographic documentation was used to record people’s reactions. Then finally I began focusing on the filigree and its decorative qualities. This was the turning point for my work, and the basis for the work I make now.
Charles Goodhart’s “Cartalist” theory of money points out that the establishment of currency was a necessary approach for governments to enable their citizens to trade and exchange goods easily, store value, and establish a way to measure value precisely, which enabled taxation. Modern society is built on currency acting as a commodity, and after reflecting on what I had done up to this point in my work, I realized that I needed to challenge that fundamental notion of currency as a commodity. I also realized that my work had been so focused on concept that I had drifted from my roots—craft! I began to return to my foundation of taking a material and transforming it into something more valuable through technique and design.
My craft makes the value of currency subjective; it is not a precise measure of value or a way to conduct business. It is a work of art. My work erases the functional value of currency in order to express the creation of value. I see this as dramatically different from the creation of value through an embossed logo or brand name—but is it?
Discuss the work you are showing at Four. What is your concept for the project Is It Legal?
Lauren Tickle: For Is It Legal? I had two aims: putting my brooches back in the public sphere and also continuing my formal study of money transformation.
In exploring the subject matter of value, I used human interaction as a resource to inform my decisions as a maker. Within my field there is always a discussion of “how do we continue to expand people’s knowledge and awareness of art jewelry?” What better way than to have people wear my objects in public?
I asked my participants to investigate what it means to wear money even if it isn’t explicit. I gave older brooches from my Increasing Value series to seven individuals, in and outside the jewelry field. Their task was to observe and investigate what it meant to wear the brooches. The common thread in each person’s journal was the question: Is It Legal? I wanted the title of the exhibition to be this because as a maker I don’t even think of money that way when I am using it as a material. While I use money in my everyday life to survive, it becomes something else to me in my studio. The money on my bench becomes valuable when I transform it. In reading one participant’s journal, I learned she had a big conflict with her worth, the object’s worth, the object’s projection of status, and her complicated relationship with money. Eventually she said she felt the brooch and her body were mismatched. This intrigued me because all of the reasons why she was saying she couldn’t wear the brooch were the reasons why I made it. To me she was the perfect candidate to wear my piece, but in her eyes she resented flashing her cash.
I believe it takes time for people to digest what it is that they are seeing when they encounter one of my pieces being worn in public. One participant ended up having a friend email her a month later. She talked about how seeing her wear this object that embodied many layers of value affected how she picked out a present for her grandmother. What seemed like a meaningless interaction ended up leading to her analysis of the object she was purchasing.
Participants who were far removed from the art jewelry field were eager to understand and unearth what it meant to wear the objects. My artistic choices in subject matter and materials were the platform for them to explore their own preconceived notions, as well as the ideas of others around them. When you wear a piece of art jewelry, I don’t think the experience can be standardized; it is subjective. Yes, some questions and reactions may overlap, but on the whole each person’s experience was completely different. Our varied backgrounds and relationships with money affect how the viewer interacts and understands my Increasing Value objects and art jewelry objects in general. The journal conversations gave context to the jewelry I was displaying at Four.
My second aim in this project was to continue my formal study of bill transformation. How far I can push the dollar bill, how valuable can I make it? This is my base question for working in my studio. My new pieces are completely rooted in Gothic architecture. This kind of visual imagery is very striking and rooted in history, just like the dollar bill. Gothic architecture has captivating beauty, which makes you almost forget its structural function.
While there are numerals and text, as well as Washington’s face on one side of the dollar bill, I have cut them out and only use the line elements, so from that side of the bill, it becomes unrecognizable that my pieces are made of currency. The reverse side, with the green filigree, symbols, and words associated with the dollar bill, is more recognizable.
I am curious to see what kinds of reactions wearers will get with this new body of work. In the older Increasing Value pieces there were pieces of text, like The Great Seal and of the United States. Will people recognize the border around George Washington? Will the wit of the wearer be the signifier that the object is made of dollar bills?
What is your process like? Do you cut the currency by hand or are you using digital resources?
Lauren Tickle: The transformation occurs by cutting and laying each dollar bill out by hand, carefully choosing each pattern, cutting each dollar, gluing it to another dollar bill (making it more sturdy), trimming it again, creating a silver backing, and putting it all together. The time spent transforming the bills into wearable objects is where the value lies. I had to cut every piece with small scissors or an X-Acto blade; value lies in my labor and nuanced variations. If I were to use digital resources like laser cutting, it would leave a burnt fringe and be perfect—that’s not the point.
If I have converted $12.50 to create a brooch and it is being sold for 1,000 euros, it forces the buyer to think, “Is it worth it? How much is an idea, labor, or the transformed currency-into-jewelry really worth? How much is my craft worth today?”
Can you please describe your experience after graduate school? What are some challenges you faced? How has your work changed or developed?
Lauren Tickle: I think after graduating from graduate school there are so many things to consider about what comes next. Some people are lucky to find a niche right after graduation, but for me it took some years to hone my skills and concepts. The Increasing Value series I am known for happened after graduate school and was influenced directly by returning to a materialistic-driven city. I began exploring value in school but it was after school in my own studio where I really began to refine my concept. It was no longer a value exploration but rather a specific idea about how I wanted to transform money and why I was doing it.
I am thankful that I took the time to explore many subject matters in school. These explorations are the beginnings of new concepts to be explored and developed. It is said that in five years if you stop showing and making your work then you will stop altogether. It was really important for me not to become one of those people, so I worked really hard to find programs and artist communities I could be a part of in New York City. After graduating, it is very easy to feel alone. I was lucky to have a few mentors and friends who have helped me along the way. I am very grateful for being able to email them and stay in touch. I contacted Rebecca Hannon the most and she has been an amazing resource for me. Not just because she previously was a goldsmith at Reinstein/Ross, but also because she is genuinely interested in others’ success. She always has ideas about what to apply for. I can’t thank her enough.
What is the largest bill you have used? Have you considered working with any other currencies?
Lauren Tickle: The largest bill I have cut is a 50-dollar bill. The old 50s that have the filigree on them are hard to come by. I have only cut one up and it was for the shells on the back (the green side). I haven’t done anything with them and the elements remain in my studio waiting for me to use them. The monetary value of a bill does not determine if I will cut it up. I choose the bills I work with based on their aesthetic design elements, which aid me in transforming them into something else, potentially of more value.
I have considered working with other currencies, but have only found two bills from other countries that I would potentially use. It’s really hard to find elements that I think are intriguing. Instead of switching to another currency, I see my journey of exploring value changing directions and medium.
Have you read, seen, or heard anything lately that you would like to share?
Lauren Tickle: I am obsessed with animals. I have probably watched every animal documentary on Netflix and I eagerly wait for more to be released. I just read the book Beneath the Surface by John Hargrove, who used to be a Sea World orca trainer. What I found interesting was his idea of how to better orca lives without driving Sea World away only to open up in another country. He may not have found the solutions, but he posed an interesting dilemma that I believe needs to be discussed and explored.