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.
The National in Chistchurch, New Zealand, was founded in 2004 by Caroline Billing to raise the profile of New Zealand jewelers. She is currently showing work by a really imaginative jeweler named Octavia Cook. I love artists who make up myths or narratives about their work and Octavia is one who does. The jewelry itself doesn’t have to carry the full story but the story can be in addition and just go along with it. For me, it adds an another element that helps me to both understand the work and remember it.
Susan Cummins: Octavia, you have made up a character for this show. What is Cocoa Vitako’s story?
Octavia Cook: Cocoa Vitako is the latest alter ego I invented to move my work in a new direction since killing off Cook & Co, my fictitious family jewelry company (which has been a vehicle for the ideas in my work since 2003).
The name is an anagram of my own name, so she really is a part of me. I wanted the name to sound exotic but unplaceable in terms of nationality. The ‘Cocoa’ part is a bit of a reference to the fashion world that crops up in some pieces of my work – I made a piece for a show last year where I borrowed one of Coco Chanel’s well known portraits and replaced her face with mine. I believe jewelry and fashion are closely linked. The ‘tako’ part in Vitako is meaningful to me as well. Tako is the Japanese word for octopus and both Japan and octopi have been twisted into the narrative of Cook & Co in the past.
Is she based on an historical figure?
As mentioned above she isn’t based on any one person but represents a type of person or a part of my personality that I have chosen to indulge for this exhibition. I see her as a slightly shallow magpie prone to seduction by distinctive objects and clothing.
How does she relate to jewelry?
I make jewelry, she’s obsessed with jewelry! The invention of Cocoa Vitako was necessary for me to distance myself from the ideas I was working on with Cook & Co and start fresh. I wanted to formulate a new way of working and enlarge my visual encyclopedia to include imagery from outside the incestuous world of Cook & Co.
What is her/ your obsession with possessions?
My obsession with possessions started very early. I distinctly remember going to museums when I was young and feeling very strong urges to possess various (pocket sized usually!) artefacts and treasures that were cruelly removed behind glass. This urge extended to small trinkets in shops and friends toys that sometimes (shamefully) culminated in me actually pocketing the item of desire!
I’m interested in what it is about specific objects (unique to each of us) that creates such a strong desire to possess that you could commit crime or potentially hurt someone else in order to fulfill your need.
The Obsession Possession of Cocoa Vitako consists of jewelry items I have made inspired by objects I have admired from afar to try and put my finger on what it was that caused me to love them in the first place.
Why did you make Cocoa Vitako up?
My work tends to be narrative based. I like to add extra layers and reinforce ideas through the story and photography. Jewelry always has a story, whether it has collected it over time or it is created for it.
How do your pieces relate to her?
Cocoa Vitako is really me. She represents the part of me that has an interest in fashion, antique jewelry and beautifully crafted historical objects. All the pieces in the exhibition are inspired by objects I have seen in museums, books, galleries and shops that I can't own for various reasons and so have stayed in my mind as objects of desire. In some pieces I have combined two of these objects to create something new –like the hounds tooth falconry hood pendant, inspired by an Islamic bejeweled falconry hood I saw in an exhibition and the hounds tooth from an item of clothing I was unable to purchase. Others are my favorite sections of an admired object such as the Regency Era Knuckleduster which is based on the handle of a carved rock crystal wine carafe made in regency era Britain.
I often use alter egos in my work to add mystery and narrative and also to distance myself from ideas that actually stem from quite a personal place. This is the first show I have used Cocoa Vitako for so I am still fleshing out her personality.