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.
Mobilia Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was established in 1978 by Libby and Joanne Cooper, a sister team. Since then, this dynamic duo has been featuring high quality decorative arts, sculpture, paintings and studio jewelry. Rachelle Thiewes has been showing with Mobilia since 1994 and this is her second solo show. Rachelle is a professor at UTEP and an articulate and unique maker. I was delighted by her responses to my questions. If you are interested in seeing more of her work you can purchase a recent publication about a collaborative project she recently completed.
Susan Cummins: What is your background and how did you come to be interested in art jewelry?
Rachelle Thiewes: I grew up in a family that made things. My parents built our first house, kitchen cupboards and all, my mother designed and made most of my clothing (and hers) she made white feather Christmas trees in the 1950s (pre Target) and sold them in Dayton’s department stores, we invented, crafted and made most everything it seems. My mother felt quite strongly that everyday us kids needed to spend significant time playing and creating. The one TV was pretty much off limits except for Disney on Sunday night. It was a rich childhood.
In many ways I was destined to become a jeweler. My father was a hand engraver, freelancing for many jewelry stores, including Tiffany. I spent countless hours in the studio watching him engrave and often accompanied him to our local jewelry stores when delivering work. I have two older brothers that are artists so it seemed natural that I too would study art. I had no idea that ‘metals’ was an art subject until I saw the first student show at Western Illinois University. I was fascinated by the possibilities of the medium and quickly changed over my major from sculpture to metals.
Who are your mentors?
I have a couple of artist friends working in a range of mediums that I depend upon to give straight feedback on my work.
You are now a professor at UTEP in El Paso Texas. Can you tell me about a favorite assignment you give to your students?
A large percentage of El Paso is low income with most of our students receiving Pell grants and working 20 plus hours a week. When I began teaching at UTEP it became apparent to me that most of my students seriously struggled to fund their assigned projects. To combat this I came up with the idea of implementing a production jewelry assignment into my advanced Metals curriculum and selling the results to students, faculty and staff on campus in a one day ‘Cheap Jewelry’ sale. That was in 1978. Since then, this three-week assignment has become a staple of my advanced metals curriculum. In 1991 I was invited to bring the project off campus and for the students participate in a local well-established weekend art and craft sale. With over 80 artist’s booths at this show it provides the students with a competitive market environment to sell their work. Recently my students had the opportunity to exhibit work from the production project at Jewelers’werk Galerie. It was a great success.
Tell me about how the desert shapes your approach to jewelry?
I spend a fair amount of time weekly hiking in the desert, negotiating cactus, small and large rocks and in the hot months, rattlesnakes. It forces me to be very aware of all my body’s movements, large and small. I may get hurt if I lose my focus. Three years ago I let up my guard, fell and severely broke my right wrist requiring surgery with a plate and lots of screws. My jewelry has always challenged the wearer in some respect, forcing their body to focus and adapt or suffer a prick to the skin or damage to the piece.
And then there is the light. The luminous energy of light that baths the desert can swiftly transform from sharp and shrieking to subtle and sensual, all within a day’s time. Capturing the refraction and dispersal of light with my jewelry through the orchestration of body motion has held my fascination for decades and continues to challenge and inform my ideas of light.
You use iridescent auto paint to color your jewelry. Are you interested in custom cars?
Yes! I had no experience with custom cars until my husband and I moved to El Paso in the late 1970s. I still clearly remember driving around downtown El Paso one Sunday morning, stopping at a red light and watching in amazement as the car in front of us did ‘hydraulics.’ I’ve been hooked ever since. I generally attend one or two local lowrider shows each year and this past November attended my first SEMA show in Las Vegas to research new paints. I must say, I was in heaven, hundreds of custom cars on view with fabulous paint jobs.
What led you to the surface quality in your jewelry?
I wanted for my work to have a ‘kinetic’ quality without the application of actual moving parts and the kameleon, kandy and pearl paints became another vehicle for controlling light, which has been the primary focus of my jewelry since 1999.
What book or movie has affected you recently?
Book: I Wonder by Marian Bantjes. It is visually beautiful and provides much to think about.
What music do you usually listen to while you are working?
It changes daily although I listen to a fair amount of jazz and have been particularly influenced by the music of John Coltrane. My husband is a musician and we have new recordings coming into the house literally on a daily basis. Our collection is quite large and very eclectic, ranging from rock, jazz, blues, ethnic, classical, etc. On a given day I might listen to McCoy Tyner, Badi Assad, Ukan Ogur, Curved Air and Ane Brun. Always CDs or records (not through my computer or iPod) for quality sound.