1. Both of you have worked as contemporary jewellers and artists for a number of years and we’re always curious as to what initially draws an artist to work or train in a particular medium? If you cast your mind back to your childhood/early adulthood, is there a particular moment, experience or object that helped you fall in love with making and with jewellery?
Vicki - My sisters travelled a lot and I remember one year being given a metal ring that had a cabochon (an unfaceted gemstone) in it. The feel of this foreign jewel entranced me and I was captivated by its smallness and beauty for many years. For me it encapsulated stories of far off places, worlds and lives I would never know and it threw up the possibility that jewellery could be deeply loaded and layered with cultural stories open to being read.
Alice - There are several experiences that influenced my decision to make jewellery. The first came at the age of 15 when my father asked me if I would like to learn to make silver teaspoons and jewellery with an elderly patient of his. Miss Conroy, who made and sold work in the town's local gallery. She generously and patiently taught me to saw, file, solder and hammer silver. For 10 days of the school holidays I rode my bike the 4 kilometres to her garage and loved it.
After completing school I successfully applied to study at Sydney College of the Arts with a portfolio of portrait pictures of Aboriginal friends. However, my intention to major in photography was redirected by a term in the jewellery department during my foundation. It was there I realised my interest in people, objects and making could be combined. I decided to stay in that studio with its beautiful individual wooden benches and I majored in jewellery and object design.
2. For both of you, in your art practice and in your personal lives – there is a strong awareness of the environment and our responsibilities therein – can you talk about how you perceive the role of contemporary jewellery and your own work in moving towards addressing some of these issues?
Vicki - I’m interested in jewellery’s capacity to provoke a viewer to respond or interact with a worn jewel, and therefore the wearer. A dialogue can be opened up—jewellery then acts not only as a portable tool for the communication of ideas, but as a social object. Through utilising plants as symbols/motifs in my work and researching our relationship with plants today I’m attempting to embed my jewels with concepts I hope are thought provoking or not widely known.
Work from a recent solo exhibition The trees have names (2017) looked at trees in urban settings as reminders of the importance of the organic world in our predominantly hard surfaced densely built city environments. Tree cover in many Australian cities is declining and the long term sustainability of our urban environments is put at risk as space for planting trees and other vegetation is lost, due to the demand for land being high in urban settings. This means the benefits of, for example, the effect of trees in countering the heat island effect, improving health, giving shade, along with so many other benefits, are also lost. In Dry! (2016) I researched Australian indigenous plants that are dry-tolerant and suitable for use in domestic gardens. Australia is one of the driest countries in the world and a country where temperatures are on the rise. As a nation we need to be gardening more wisely to ensure we conserve precious water resources. I was aiming to draw attention to our need to adapt to our environment and so plant gardens that are in harmony with it.
Alice - Growing up in North Western NSW I was surrounded by the natural environment, much of it was farmed but closer to town there were beautiful areas that contained significance for local Aboriginal families. Together with the community, my family was involved in establishing an area of wilderness that would protect these sacred sites with designated pathways and fences to fend off feral pigs, motorbikes and vehicles. This act of doing what you can on a personal level with the aim of creating greater understanding by others has stayed with me and I now work to make jewellery items that connect people to particular memories, plants and environmental experiences one work and one client at a time.
3. What was it like working side by side at Bundanon? Both of you had different approaches to the residency – can you talk a little more about this and your different experiences in working this way?
Vicki - I was in Bundanon for two weeks, a very very short time for a residency. After a lot of reading prior to the residency I decided to develop a participatory jewellery project that I could roll out while there. People plants, place: worn connections (the title of the project) saw me make connections with Bundanon Trust staff. Three staff participated in the project enabling me to connect with a plant on the property that meant something to them and was/is part of their daily life. Spending time with these generous staff members, their chosen plant, doing research and drawing gave me a thread to work with so I could connect to this remote but very beautiful place. I became very aware of the process and history of naming and identifying plants while there, which in turn led me to develop the nameplate series.
Alice - Bundanon is unique as it offers artists the opportunity to be completely absorbed in their immediate art practice, alongside the experience of being with other artists. For me to be with another jeweller, Vicki Mason, who also loved plants and making was wonderful because we could walk and discuss ideas about our field. We divided access to the jewellery bench day by day - this allowed the other person to research, write and draw, as well as to use other processes and methods of gathering information. For me, I was interested in documenting the bush as I found it and then again immediately after the cool burn fire. This method of gathering information at the time and on return visits allowed my project to slowly develop in response to the experience of the residency in combination with my research.
4. Vicki, as part of Bundanon you’ve created a Plant Knowledge series that pokes fun at some of the more absurd common plant names while also asking people to think more about our valuing of botanical knowledge culturally– can you speak more about the origin of this series and its intent?
Vicki - Being overwhelmed by the 1000’s of specifies on the property and realising how few of these species I could identify led me to ask why is this? and what can I do about it? In my reading I came across a Megan Backhouse article that talks about plant knowledge and the ability to name plants being in decline in the general population.
I also read that in schools and universities plant identification and botanical education is increasingly neglected. The Junior Oxford Dictionary which removed many plant words from its 2012 edition such as acorn, fern, violet and willow was roundly criticised by international writers and thinkers who pointed out that we can’t care for what we don’t know.
Plants are not merely decorative background fuzz in our lives but are essential to our lives. In neglecting to nurture plant knowledge and the naming of plants we reveal we are not paying attention. Naming confers respect and recognition and if we can’t name our plants we risk their loss. The Plant knowledge series of jewels riffs on the nameplate necklace but with these ideas embedded.
5. Alice, while you’ve worked previously with porcelain, this new series marks a substantial new direction for you, forming and setting clay and silver. Can you speak to this choice of materials and in particular, how you’ve been drawn to reflect the life cycle of these plants? I’ve particularly fallen in love with the narrative aspect of each piece where the surface of your ring and brooch series will have the clay recreating the seeds of that plant, while the underside reveals the plant as its flower or leaf form.
Alice - My focus for this project was the aftermath of fires, specifically choosing to focus on the regrowth that occurred afterwards. In order to represent this, I used porcelain and coloured oxides as these materials offered an intensity of colour reminiscent of fresh plant regrowth.
The qualities of porcelain are very different to metal, its plasticity and tactility is refreshing after working for so long with metal. The porcelain once fired resembles stone, and the natural way to set a stone is with a bezel (an edge of metal). To further draw on the connections between plan and material, I explored the shape of the banksia leaf for the bezel setting - the edges reflecting the leaves, as well as reflecting the seed shapes, and plant thorns in the profile of each.
While my focus was on plant regrow after a cool burn, I was aware that part of this process is the seedbed lying dormant, or being dispersed by the plant as a result of the fire. As I selected, identified and researched each plant, I became fascinated by the layers of information uncovered beginning with the plants common name, Latin name and Dharawal language name. I then discovered how each plant was used and where in the environment it could be found, and what else could be found near by - i.e. a particular beetle and/or animal. By placing just one more piece of information about the plant on the back of the jewel I hoped I could let people in on part of this plant story.
7. Artist in Residency Programs represent an important opportunity for practice, presenting time and resources for reflection, experimentation and development. If you had to describe one thing which you took away from your time at Bundanon – what would that be for each of you?
Vicki - Serendipitous moments are gold.
Alice - Bundanon gave me the opportunity to make a personal connection with the place and its various woodland areas. As well as aspects of the Bundanon trust, including connections to Bundanon artists, employees and importantly the local indigenous people with connections to the land.
8. What was the most difficult aspect for both of you in creating this new body work?
Vicki - Making it while juggling a gazillion other things.
Alice - In Sydney I work in a tiny studio at home and I found isolation the most difficult part of the project. It is always difficult to work towards a shared exhibition outcome not knowing if the body of work would complement Vicky's work and vice versa. I just had to trust that our residency had set us each on a path and hoped it would all fit together in the end. Once up on the walls I thought each of our groups of work told part of the Bundanon story - from the top of the gum trees to the grass and seeds on the ground and I was very pleased with the outcome.
9. What’s next?
Vicki - Making work for a large touring jewellery exhibition.
Alice - My studio practice and website is always calling and there are usually several pieces of jewellery to be completed on my workbench. I will continue to work with aspects of the Bundanon project particularly watching and recording what grows back at Bundanon in the areas that have been cool burnt. I feel this project has some way to go. I'm not exactly sure where it will end up but I know it is not yet finished. I plan to continue with my exploration into porcelain and coloured oxide, and I'm looking at a collaborative project with a ceramic artist possibly in Europe.
If you would like to know more about Vicki Mason’s and Alice Whish’s practices you can fine them here and here. If you would like to read more about Bundanon and its residency program - please click through to their website here.