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.
Jewelry has been filled with plant forms from the beginning of its history, and these forms continue to intrigue jewelers from all parts of the world. Fingers Contemporary New Zealand Jewellery was founded in 1974 by a group of jewelers in Auckland. This month, the gallery is featuring a jeweler intrigued with plant forms. In fact, she has a horticultural degree. Lynn Kelly is absorbed more deeply than most by the use of plant forms as inspiration for her work.
Susan Cummins: Can you give us the story of how you became a jeweler? Please include your geographical locations, schools, etc.
Lynn Kelly: My parents emigrated from Northern Ireland. I found myself very interested in jewelry while travelling to Britain in the early 1980s to meet my wider family. I cannot pin down any particular person or event that started my desire to make. Once I returned to New Zealand and attempted to get metal training, I realized that I was too old for an apprenticeship, and at that time there was no other formal method of training in New Zealand.
Luckily, in 1986 while I was working at the Wanganui Regional Community College, I was accepted into the inaugural craft design course there. It was an introductory course to a wide variety of media, all of which I approached from a jewelry point of view. When the course finished, I moved to Dunedin, New Zealand, to join Fluxus Contemporary Jewellery, a cooperatively run workshop and gallery. Here, I learned metal skills from European jewelers Kobi Bosshard and Georg Beer, and I was a partner in the co-op for 15 years. Since then, I have set up my own workshop in Dunedin.
What led to your interest in botanical specimens?
Lynn Kelly: I did primary teacher training directly after secondary school, but realized I did not want to be a teacher. To prove to myself I wasn’t just scared to try something new, I moved to Hawkes Bay and got a job gardening. By chance, I was working with a horticulturist who was knowledgeable and got me excited about plants. Within three months, I started a diploma of horticulture correspondence course.
Can you tell us which specific botanical specimens are your favorites to use in your work?
Lynn Kelly: I love the natural world in general and find all plant life fascinating. My work involves plants in a wide variety of ways. For example, I saw some of the plant specimens collected on Captain Cook’s first trip to New Zealand in 1768. This led to a show called Nova Botanica, which I did with botanical illustrator Tim Galloway. This exhibition involved displaying a variety of native plant specimens, Tim’s botanic illustrations, and my jewelry interpretations of these. On another occasion, I read that beads made from rosehips led to the naming of the rosary, and so I followed a similar path and made my own interpretation of this. And finally, I made a brooch using a large version of a traditional cameo layout, but instead of a female bust I set a plant fossil in its center.
Last year you were awarded the Wild Creations Residency, which I understand led to this show. Please describe your experience there. How did it affect you?
Lynn Kelly: The Bannockburn residency is a partnership between the Department of Conservation and Creative New Zealand, which combines conservation and art. It involved spending six weeks in Bannockburn in Central Otago, New Zealand. I spent my time researching the area’s 150-year gold history and undertaking research in the field, which included looking at plants native to the area, skinks and geckos, and fossils. I found this time extremely worthwhile. Being in a very different environment and away from the jeweler’s bench has led to an even wider range of material use.
What are the ideas behind the title of your show Central?
Lynn Kelly: Central is the local name for the area of the residency. It has an extreme climate and very wide open horizons. I was particularly drawn to the delicacy and miniature beauty of some of the plants that seem to defy the harshness of this environment. The Bannockburn residency offered me the perfect place to explore these attributes.
You seem to use many different types of materials. How do you choose what to use for each piece?
Lynn Kelly: I begin with the idea, and then try to find the best material to interpret it. Some happen very quickly, and others take years. The necklace that won The Dowse Gold Award in 2007 mixes tubes of gold and stems of tussock grass, which is native to Central Otago. The tonal similarity between tussock grass and gold is quite striking. In another piece, I wanted to incorporate a map of green forest parks with the native plants that grow in them. Eventually, I found a technique to print the map onto aluminum and cut out the native leaf shape to form a brooch.
What is your current favorite book on jewelry?
Lynn Kelly: I enjoyed reading Manon van Kouswijk’s Hanging Around & The Pearl Chain Principle. It simply illustrates visual connections, and I relate much more to pictures than words.