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.
Caroline van Hoek in Brussels, Belgium, has had her gallery for five years. The storefront she occupies was once a grocery store and the original awning still refers to Fruit and Legumes. She has participated in a number of high profile fairs like Design Miami and has tried to expose art jewelry to new audiences. Her show in April 2012 with Ulrich Reithofer, an Austrian living in Amsterdam, presented a full and rich range of his latest work. Ulrich took a while to get back to me with answers to my questions and apologized with a song by F R David called ‘Words Don’t come Easy.’ I think you will find that his words might not come easy but they are pretty damn poetic.
Susan Cummins: Please tell me where you went to school and where you are now.
Ulrich Reithofer: I was in a technical college for civil engineering in Austria during the 1990s and in 1998 I entered Fachhochschule Trier, Fachbereich Idar- Oberstein in Germany where I learned gemstone cutting and jewelry design with Theo Smeets. That was followed by two years at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam getting a Master of Applied Arts with Marjan Unger. I am now living and working in Amsterdam.
Whose teaching influenced you the most?
Ulrich Reithofer: First Theo Smeets taught me to love jewelry. Then Marjan Umger taught me the width and depth of jewelry. Finally Philip Sajet taught me to make jewelry.
You have had a very distinctive way of making work in the past but I notice that you are trying out a number of new ideas and techniques in this show. Are you in an experimental phase?
Ulrich Reithofer: Actually, the second I step into my studio, the experiments start. There's something I have to do, there's always something I want to do and there is always something going wrong somewhere, or something unexpected happens. Being aware of the value of the unexpected is the ongoing experiment.
Traveling to Japan and meeting Bernhard Schobinger changed a lot in my perception and making of jewelry. Maybe its less the new ideas and techniques, than a new attitude that changed my way of working.
Can you tell me something about your new work?
Five Cups of Sorrow
This is inspired by the song ‘Last Cup of Sorrow’ by American band Faith No More. The cups are made of silver and obsidian (natural, volcanic glass) and several pipes have to get drilled and sanded, many break, until one lasts. Obviously while worn, the cups are turned upside-down. Emptied; not only one, but five cups of sorrow! What a strong woman that must be! The lock: a silver-box encrusted with zirconia; a sugercube revealing sweetness; the reward for succeeded bitterness.
Holy Wish Bone
Most people appreciate pearls for being rare and natural, although nowadays they are cultivated in farms just like pigs and chicken. Shu-Zhu, prayer or counting beads, are appreciated by Buddhists for their spiritual value. These two strings of thoughts (pearls and seeds; material and spiritual) meet in a chicken bone. The chicken-breast-bone is traditionally called wishbone, for its use in folklore rituals: two partners thinking of a wish, each one pulling on one leg of the bone till it breaks into two pieces. The larger piece will fulfill the wish. What a morbid action! Now it’s up to the wearer to break the wishbone; which side will win: the material or spiritual?
I got these white kaui-shells in Japan and fell immediately in love with their shape and color. I had to have them; then I had to do something with them. It was a challenge to contrast this natural beauty with that of half-eaten apples and to find the balance between natural and man-made. The gold plating came naturally and the red glass beads in between are from a rosary bought in Taiwan. This piece is an adaptation of the yin-yang symbol – not geometrical symmetry, but constant movement, creating an atmosphere of harmony and balance.
The appreciation of human labor is an important subject of my work.I became acquainted with the beauty of the Japanese lacquer-ware called urushi (a natural lacquer refined from the urushi tree sap). It is an immensely time consuming, difficult and poisonous process of adding layer after layer of paint on wood. The end result is strong, durable and very light. In this case, after the whole process of adding, sanding and polishing, the urushi-master managed to keep the original texture and grain of the wood. With all that care and know-how, this man-made object becomes as valuable as a brilliant cut diamond! So this is how I used it: by simply catching the rim of the cup and the lid with a thin golden wire.
The Palace of Versailles in wearable form: Louis the 14th, the sun king, was about vanity par excellence, with gold-framed mirrors, reflecting the beauty of the beholder. The condemnation of vanity is difficult to understand for me. My jewels are meant to make you feel special, original and beautiful. The beauty you feel, by wearing something beautiful, is a reflection of the beauty experienced in the world.
Thank you. Those are fascinating answers.
What do you think contemporary art jewelry is?
Ulrich Reithofer: Well, contemporary means existing, occurring, or living at the same time, belonging to the same time. Newton's discovery of calculus was contemporary with that of Leibniz. So, contemporary jewelry is works of the present generation of makers. Jewelry is an art, no doubt, as is sculpture, painting, music, etc. As I am a jeweler, it is not my place to analyze what art is. I think there never were so many people from so many different backgrounds and cultures seriously studying jewelry. So contemporary art jewelry must be the approach of creating an interest or awareness of a society that changes in all its materialism. There is even non-material jewelry today.
What are you reading of interest?
Ulrich Reithofer: James Ellroy: White Jazz; Mark Rothko: The Artists' Reality; David Hockney: Secret Knowledge; Manfred Nisslmüller: Uber (und) Schmuck; Heinrich Boell: Ansichten eines Clowns.
Have you seen an exhibition, movie or attend an event you would like to describe?
Ulrich Reithofer: Well, last night I went to a flamenco performance. There was a guitar, a cajon (wood box percussion) plenty of people clapping their hands and this one girl, wearing a black lace-dress. At first she looked so young and jolly, but when she stepped out of the circle into the center of the dance floor, her expression and her whole physicality changed. Suddenly she became a worried, deeply hurt and angry being. My tears started rolling the second this woman in the black dress, with an expression of utmost violence, started to stomp her feet and pirouette her pain away. A seriously touching moment!