Ahna Adair holds her BA in applied design from San Diego State University and her MFA from the California College of the Arts, San Francisco. She works independently as a writer and artist, focusing on modern temporalities, the pace of craft, and the politics of slowness. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has just relocated with her family to Grand Junction, Colorado.
I recently completed the Graduate Program in Fine Arts at the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Submitting my portfolio to the Jewelry/Metal Arts Department, I was accepted into the program by the program chair, Marilyn da Silva with the approval of the Graduate Admissions Committee. I chose to attend CCA because of its enthusiasm for cross-disciplinary exploration and its emphasis on a greater awareness of the global context of contemporary art. Rooted in critically engaged studio practice, the program explores both the specifics of particular disciplines and the points of interaction and overlap among disciplines.
During my two years at CCA, I worked in close contact with my peers whose skill sets comprised ceramics, furniture, glass, jewelry/metal arts, textiles, media arts, painting/drawing, photography, printmaking sculpture and social practice. This interdisciplinary aspect to the program resulted in an absence of jewelry within my MFA show. Given total freedom of expression, I made a conscious decision to let my concepts lead me to my methods of making, even if it led me away from what I was familiar with. There is no doubt however, that my background as a jeweler informed my work at CCA. Five months after completing the program I am coming to terms with my experience and what it has meant to my artistic practice.
CCA’s graduate program is housed on the San Francisco campus and is comprised of two areas of study, studio practice and academic seminars. While engaged in their studio practice, students create artwork and receive feedback from faculty. This is supplemented with courses in the history of contemporary art aimed at providing grounding in critical theory. The Jewelry/Metal Arts Department, housed on the Oakland campus, is geared toward undergraduate study. While at CCA I came to the conclusion that the two campuses – and the two programs I was affiliated with – were very much separate entities.
I recall one of the first papers assigned in my contemporary art history-and-theory seminar in which I was faced with the task of placing my practice within contemporary critical concepts. Required to compare my work to three artists or movements covered in the curriculum, I chose Rosemarie Trockel, Guy Debord and the Arte Povera Movement. Unable to pull from the craft history I was familiar with because it was not included in the course, I quickly became aware of the new dialogue in which I was engaged. Studio critiques with faculty members worked as extended dialogues to the academic content of seminars. Similar to seminars, the field of art jewelry was not a part of the conversation. In critiques where I presented jewelry to my review panel I received responses such as, 'Why not industrial design?' or 'This belongs in the museum store, not the museum.' These comments communicated the sentiment that jewelry was unfamiliar as fine art. Its functionality and peculiar position between art, design, craft and fashion did not easily fit into the fine art dialogue.
For a period of time, I put my art jewelry books on the shelf. No one knew who Myra Mimlitsch-Gray or Ted Noten was. Therefore, referencing these artists in my critiques and studio practice meetings only confused things and made communication difficult. It also underlined the fact that these jewelers were not on the radar of my peers and instructors in San Francisco. They were craft and specifically jewelry and metal work, which was a different dialogue. To begin building a foundation that would allow me to address my craft sentiment within the contemporary critical dialogue, I explored artists like Josiah McElheney, Anne Wilson, Cornelia Parker, Claudia Tennyson, and Grayson Perry who were not exclusive to craft but undeniably related.
While the more traditional studio craft was not part of the graduate-program curriculum, there was a great deal of activity surrounding craft-related practices such as DIY and subversive craft. In February of 2008 the College Art Association hosted a conference in Dallas, Texas. One of its lectures, entitled 'Gestures of Resistance: Craft, Performance and the Politics of Slowness,' pointed to an emphasis on the use of craft in contemporary art, 'use' being the operative word. It seemed to me that craft was being revisited within contemporary art as an action where the object made is not revered for its craftsmanship, but exists as documentation of the physical act of crafting.
I could not divorce myself from a reverence for craftsmanship; however, while at CCA I decided to ask myself the question, 'Does it make sense to actualize all of my ideas in a jewelry format?' For the time being, I took on the mind-set of a fine artist invested in concepts of craft. My jewelry skills became part of my arsenal of art-making tools, rather than techniques that defined me as a jeweler exclusively. I had to think about why I made jewelry and use that information as a guideline to build a new practice, which I thought of as an extension of my jewelry practice. I considered both to be equal and related but allowed to function independently.
These past five months following my graduation I have been trying to figure out my stance. The urge to make sense of the validity of jewelry making as a fine-art practice and fine art's suspicion of it is always present. Laboring for a tidy conclusion is quickly becoming tedious and boring. For now I’m living within, understanding the in-between and asking questions about both. Nobody gets off the hook, everyone is valid. Recently, I re-read Gert Staal and Ted Noten’s manifesto 'In Celebration of the Street,' in Metalsmith magazine (v.27, n.5). It struck me that without the institution of art, jewelry making is a powerful craft in itself. Making the objects that serve as dialectic units, jewelers create symbols that lubricate the rituals that comprise everyday human life. So here are the new questions I’ve been asking myself: Does that die when you take it away from the everyday sphere and elevate it to the museum or gallery? Or does it perhaps serve to highlight this unique function of jewelry?