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.
This month Jewelers’Werk Galerie in Washington DC is showing the work of Iris Bodemer, the German jeweler from Pforzheim. Ellen Reiben has been in the jewelry business a long time. She has had the gallery since 1988 when she took it over from the founder, Dutch jeweler Joke van Ommen. I asked both Ellen and Iris some questions about the gallery and the fabulous work being shown.
Susan Cummins: Ellen, how do you describe what you show?
Ellen Reiben: I show contemporary international jewelry by artists, in a range of materials. What is most important to me is a sense of a clear and original vision that does not feel derivative in concept or implementation. The work must speak of its time (I am not fond of the term ‘timeless’) and I am also very attracted to subtlety. Having been in this field for a long time and having seen so much work, it is still inspiring to me to find new work that is truly provocative and powerful and seems to speak its own ‘language.’ My intuition plays a role in selection – an intuition that has grown and that I now trust, from so many years in this field.
What is your background and what led you to run a gallery showing art jewelry?
Ellen Reiben: I have an MFA in jewelry from Rochester Institute of Technology and I studied with Gary Griffin. My work was mostly in non-precious materials. I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin and studied with Fred Fenster. Since then I have done a broad array of exhibition design, theatre props and my own jewelry. Now, however, I focus on my gallery and my daughter, who is fifteen. The gallery was called V O Galerie in 1984 when Joke van Ommen opened it. She was killed in an automobile accident in 1988 and her family asked me to take over. At the time I had my work in her gallery. I changed the name of the gallery for legal reasons and carried on with her goals of bringing international artist jewelers' work to the United States.
Susan Cummins: Thank you Ellen. Now to Iris . . . Iris, how did you become to be a maker of jewelry?
Iris Bodemer: As a girl of about eleven years I started binding simple ornaments with silver wire. Glass beads, slices of wood, rubber tubes – I collected everything that attracted me and I could give these things a new existence by wearing them. Nothing else has been as compelling over the years and today I still love the ability of jewelry to express my ideas in a sculptural way.
In 2004 you used fiber not only as an element in a piece but actually to hold it together. What were your reasons for using it in this way?
Iris Bodemer: I got a ring out of the estate of my grandma, which inspired my earlier work. It was a simple wedding ring and I think it was too big for her. There was a black and brown thread twisted around the ring and the vision of this woolen protuberance inspired the work. I started with rings that were quite big and to change the size I just added more wool. I liked the softness and the strength of the fiber as it wrapped around stones as a simple setting, or as flexible connector for neckpieces. It also offered a choice of colors and the use of lines as drawings. In general I liked the feeling of warmth.
Your work has always had a strong voice but in this new work you seem to have added a boldness or almost roughness that I don’t remember being there before. Is that accurate?
Iris Bodemer: I didn’t add anything. The approach is the same but with a conscious decision to leave wool and material choices behind me. At some point all is said and for me there are no more surprises based on a given idea. So before I get bored with more variations I need a new challenge. In this case, I went back to pure metal, fighting with a powerful material and reflecting on basic techniques and tools. Wire as a pure line with simple forms – a drawing.
Living in Pforzheim, a world-class jewelry center, must have its advantages. Do you interact with the school, the museum and the many manufactures and suppliers of jewelry in the city?
Iris Bodemer: Yes, all of these are part of my life. There are many suppliers of all sorts and that makes it easy to realize almost any idea. For this semester I am a guest teacher at the school and there is an important opportunity next year to have an exhibition in the museum together with Ute Eitzenhöfer.
What are you reading right now?
Iris Bodemer: Art magazines and the German version of Scientific American take all my remaining time right now. But beside these I love novels as well as theories of ecological future, philosophy and so on. William H Gass’s Habitations of the Word is on my table right now.
When you are not making jewelry what do you like to do?
Iris Bodemer: There is no difference between life and work for me. Reading, thinking, talking, walking, observing, even watching TV all influence the development of the jewelry. Processing ideas is endless.
How do you define contemporary art jewelry?
Iris Bodemer: To me works in this field are sovereign and independent with their own presence. There is no condition of beauty, scale or any other restriction other than a strong relevance concerning the message. Pleasing is not their main reason for existence. They are interested in telling a story or expressing an artist’s life and thinking. A good piece of art jewelry leaves its source stating its own existence.