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 Ornamental Metal Museum is dedicated to the exhibition, collection, conservation, restoration, education, and research of metalwork. It is the only American institution that devotes itself entirely to this cause. They have started an exhibition series called Tributaries, which refers to the Mississippi River running next to the museum and indicates a meandering retrospective of an artist’s work. For the past few months, the museum has featured the work of Lola Brooks. Lola is a maker of traditionally inspired jewelry wrapped in untraditional garb. (Her recent interview on this blog is worth a second look.) As always, Lola is a pleasure to read and an all around smart contributor to the thoughtful pursuit of making jewelry.
Susan Cummins: Lola, congratulations on being chosen to design the AJF pin for 2013. This is only the third year we have commissioned a pin for our supporters, so you are among a very elite group that includes Arthur Hash and Ted Noten. Not too long ago, we had a pretty great interview for your show at Sienna Gallery, and you answered my questions then with humor, thoughtfulness, and intelligence. We covered a lot of territory at that time, so it may be challenging to come up with new questions. Let’s start with this—Where are living now, and what you are doing?
Lola Brooks: Thank you Susan. It was such an honor to be chosen to design the brooch for AJF this year, and it has been quite an adventure seeing it through. I cannot wait to pin one on my person!
Let see now … where am I living, and what am I doing? I have to agree that this is a great place to start. It has been a year of tumultuous upheaval and transformation for me in every possible way. After almost a quarter-century in New York City, the place I have long considered my heart and soul, I tore up my roots and moved to rural Georgia, about 18 miles (29 km) outside of Athens. Although the move happened fast and seemingly came out of left field, it was not completely capricious.
Late last spring I found out I had been nominated to be the 2012–13 Lamar Dodd Professorial Chair at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia, Athens. It is a one-year appointment bestowed with the rank of full professor. I teach one art seminar class each semester and make my work. It has been a mind-blowing honor to be chosen and an incredible experience working with both graduate and undergraduate students in all the different fine art disciplines.
While it came as a shock to many that I was leaving the city, I will tell you that I have always had a secret love affair with the south. It has afforded me so many things that the city had ceased to provide, such as physical and psychological space, a garden, a reason to put some miles on my car, good junking, and a cornucopia of impressive and terrifying bugs to catalog and collect, to name just a few …
A recent Metalsmith magazine included a review of your show at Sienna Gallery. Andrea DiNoto referred to you as a having “unique diva status in the art jewelry field.” What do you think she means?
Lola Brooks: Ah! You are putting me in the hot seat with this one, no? Well, if by diva she meant imperious and temperamental, she must be mistaking me for my doppelgänger Dolores Canard, who has been known to step in from time to time (and from what I understand can be quite a handful …).
Mostly what I think about the quote is this: it is fascinating how one’s perceptions of self can vary from the impressions of others. I would never confer such a title upon myself. I certainly cultivate a persona, which I believe is inextricable from my work, whether it be art making or teaching. This is not to say that there is anything contrived about it either. The way I dress, tell a story, make work, or inspire my students stems from the way I choose to live my life and who I am. I think I have gotten myself to a place where all of these different facets of who I am have become fully integrated and continue to build off of one another in a way that can be very powerful.
The show at The National Ornamental Metal Museum is a retrospective of your work. You are fairly young to be having a retrospective, don’t you think? Why is it called Tributaries?
Lola Brooks: Tributaries is the title of a series of exhibitions at The National Ornamental Metal Museum. My show is part of this series. The title Tributaries is in part derived from the museum’s proximity to the great Mississippi River. I chose to call the show charted territories, a title I stole from my last exhibition at Sienna Gallery (where I chose it to connote the idea of having lived and navigated my subject matter) because it fit so well with the idea of the retrospective, as in “been there, done that.”
The idea of a show that mapped the evidence of the 10-year journey since my first solo exhibition at Sienna was born out of necessity as well as the ways in which I have been considering the evolution of my work. The need came out of having committed to the metal museum long before I knew I would be having a concurrent show at Lamar Dodd. In the end, it was the perfect opportunity for me to manifest the conversation I have been having with myself about how the work has become what it is. And I suppose I am young to be having a retrospective, but I like to think of it more as a fortuitous opportunity for retrospection.
Can you talk about the time period Tributaries covers? And can you identify the different bodies of works included?
Lola Brooks: The show covers the first decade of my career. It has examples of every body of work I have made since my first solo exhibition in 2002. It includes work from plunder (2002), new works (2004), works in steel (2005), caricature (2006), confection (2008), sentimental foolery (2009), and charted territories, 2012.
Did you work with the curator at the metal museum to pick work for this show, or was it up to you to decide which objects best represented you? If you collaborated, how did that work?
Lola Brooks: I chose the work I hoped to have, and then Sienna Patti and I contacted collectors to see if they were able to lend it. Many were excited to participate, and a few didn’t want to part with the work. I have to say I was honored by both positions. In the end I think it was a really strong collection of work, even if I didn’t get every piece I wanted. It was really exciting to see the pieces all living in one space.
Did you have any input in the installation?
Lola Brooks: The installation was left in the capable hands of Joel Parsons, though we did have a few conversations about it. I think there is a common misconception that people have about my work being very precious and very jeweler-ly, and that it should be displayed to reflect those things. However, I am more interested in the lusty gluttonous nature of accumulations and the ways that quantity affects our perceptions of value. I wanted the display to feel casual and lush, to focus on the relationships between the objects rather than overemphasizing their individuality.
Much of the jewelry shown is made from large quantities of gems. How do you feel about stones and their role in the value of jewelry?
Lola Brooks: When I first started working with the vintage garnet hoard, I was terrified to show anyone what I was making. At that time, everyone was critiquing the jewel, critiquing traditional ideals of value—all work that I love, work that has shaped me and my ideas about jewelry. I cut my teeth on postmodern dogma, but in reality I was never very good at remaining purely critically objective about certain things, and it was sort of problematic. How could I get anyone to take what I was doing seriously, to see beyond the glitter. Everyone wanted me to take a stand. And I wish I could break the world down into neat packages of black and white, right and wrong, but unfortunately I live within a million shades of gray. It seems I can critique a thing and love it all at once, and that is precisely why I find living in the world so damn interesting.
Somewhere along the way, I decided that rather than only using a surrogate, I would also try to use the thing itself to talk about issues of value, tradition, history, and jewelry, and sometimes I would try to force a conversation between the surrogate and the real. Coco Chanel once said, “Nothing looks more like a fake bijou than a beautiful real one.” I find this idea both fascinating and true. I am also very curious about how people are easily seduced by these sparkly bits and the constructed mythologies that surround them (and by people I mean myself, among others).
Whether it is a diamond or a rhinestone, a jewel is a cultural signifier of value. That is one of the foundations I build upon. I use it as a strategy, a means to seduce people, a lens through which to gaze at how value is created, manipulated, sustained, or obliterated. I explore these ideas by smashing things up against each other that generally exist in different realms of value—steel, gold, diamonds, rhinestones—and then of course, there’s labor. How we create meaning and value is one of my great obsessions.
You seem to love accumulations of stones, ivory roses, bows, etc. What is it about the quantity of things you like?
Lola Brooks: I tend to accumulate things to assuage my anxieties about loss and possession. I find a certain kind of power in having more than enough of something because then I can actually begin to let go of it without fear of its impending absence. Those same anxieties of loss certainly play out in the subject matter of my work. As I mentioned before, I also believe that accumulations of things can shift perceptions of value, which are at the root of almost everything I do. We live in a culture that values accumulation in a rather unconscious way. The intense labor and deliberation required for each accumulation I build feels like some sort of antidote to the mindlessness of daily consumption.
What do you think are the most pressing issues in contemporary jewelry right now?
Lola Brooks: I would start simply by saying that the exorbitant price of metal is a real obstacle on many levels. It makes it difficult for jewelry students, and it makes it very difficult to start or maintain a jewelry business. This means it can be very difficult to find a job. It hampers inventiveness and innovation, and it threatens the traditions of the field. I think metal prices have had a huge impact on the materials artists choose for their work. While some of this is very exciting to see develop, we are also seeing a series of rather homogenous trends in what is being made.
The role of appropriation and authorship might be an issue, or perhaps there is merely a certain naïveté about what work has come before. This gives me pause, for I wish a certain level of objective criticality was more consistently present in the field. And then of course, there is the issue of how to cultivate a broader collector base that would naturally support the artists who are capable of moving contemporary jewelry into a bright and innovative future.
If you could invite a few people (living or dead) to your studio for a day, who would you ask and why?
Lola Brooks: Sylvia Plath because of her sensitivities to the world around her and the way she wrote it all down. Iris Apfel, my style icon and clotheshorse extraordinaire, whose manner of dressing could be compared to accretion, believing that before going out it was always best to throw on one more thing, rather than take one off. And I would love to make her a piece of jewelry. And I want to raid her closet. And I want to be just like her when I grow up.
Thanks so much.