ACAD jewelry design grads forge a niche in the market

To some observers all jewelry exists within the realm of “fashion accessories” — something used to ornament the body with only a few obvious factors distinguishing one piece from another. Those who have delved into the field a little more deeply however know that jewelry design is an art form in its own right.

“Jewelry is the absolute crème de la crème of mixed media” says Shona Rae.

The work created by Calgary artists like Rae Charles Lewton–Brain and Sarabeth Carnat goes well beyond the commercial offerings found in most stores. They make handcrafted one–of–a–kind “art jewelry” that often incorporates non–traditional materials and expresses the unique aesthetic of its creator. Furthermore Lewton–Brain says it often deals with “meaning context and narrative.”

There are a number of art jewellers operating in the city thanks in no small part to the Alberta College of Art and Design’s (ACAD) jewelry and metals program one of only a handful of such programs in Canada.

“Nationally there are almost no jewelry and metals programs” says Lewton–Brain who heads up ACAD’s department which he rates as among the top two in Canada. (The other is at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design.)

Indeed many students come to ACAD specifically to study with Lewton-Brain a highly respected innovator — earlier this year he was presented with a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts for his contributions to the field. These include the invention of a new technique for shaping sheet metal called fold forming and co-founding an Internet–based information and discussion site for jewellers called The Ganoskin Project.

Of the approximately 20 students who graduate annually from the four–year bachelor of fine arts program Lewton–Brain estimates about 75 per cent remain working in the field. He attributes this in part to the program’s attention to the dual worlds of industry and art.

“We respect and teach a complete spectrum of practice — from people who want to work in industry to people doing extremely odd things…. This position is kind of unusual. We do it all” says Lewton–Brain.

Fellow instructor Carnat concurs.

“There are no cookie-cutter graduates” she says adding that the faculty encourages each student to develop his or her individual artistic voice.

“We have graduates in every single manufacturing shop in town which is very unusual for an art school where skill sets are not as thoroughly addressed” says Lewton–Brain

Many graduates also set up their own design practices. Graduates such as Kari Woo who developed her jewelry lines while still a student at ACAD.

“Calgary has an entrepreneurial spirit and having ACAD in Calgary is this huge anchor” she says.

Woo along with fellow ACAD grads Rae and Devon Clark (and furniture designer Herb Sawatzky) also founded Influx Gallery in 2004 a space dedicated to contemporary art jewelry one of the institutions local artists credit with helping build a community for practitioners in this city.

“In North America I would place them in the Top 10 for contemporary jewelry galleries so they are quite important” says Lewton–Brain.

While Woo and her partners sold the business in 2011 its new owner Amanda Clark is also an ACAD graduate and of the 40 artists Influx represents 14 are from Calgary.

The gallery also hosts exhibitions and serves as a locus for art jewellers an important function in and of itself because as creative-metal artist Crys Harse says “metal people are often isolated” due to the nature of their work.

Harse and fellow ACAD grad Linda Chow have also started an initiative to further strengthen Calgary’s community called Arts Inform All where artists come together to discuss their work and share information.

It’s reasonable to assume that one of the items on their agenda involves staying competitive. In order to make money most art jewellers offer lower–priced pieces alongside those on the upper end of the price scale.

“We usually have one-of-a-kind pieces at price points that aren’t accessible to everyone. But most jewelry artists in order to make some sales basically look at doing small production lines as well” says artist and ACAD instructor Joan Irvin.

A “small production line” still means the work is handcrafted but each piece takes less time to produce than a jeweller’s more involved items and will often use less expensive materials.

“The last few years have been fairly lean…. In my own practice I do fewer high-end commissions now. Instead I do more production work” she says adding that she likes to work with “non-traditional processes” that add colour to metal including anodizing niobium and titanium and contemporary enamelling.

Chow also divides her practice into two kinds of work: jewelry for her “soul” and jewelry to pay her bills. The kind Chow creates to make money tend to be custom-design pieces and repair work for clients.

Only occasionally does she have a chance to make pieces that speak to her beliefs. When she does however she looks to the prairie landscape the environment and times past for inspiration.

For example Chow created a series of sculptural rings which she titled Vanishing Prairies. One ring features tiny silver hoodoos atop a polished stone that resembles the arid landscape of southern Alberta. Another titled The Reading Room sports an intricate silver outhouse.

Rae is also known for her highly conceptual sculptural rings part of a series titled Fairytales Folklore and Mythcommunications.

Each ring in the series “depicts a fairy tale from western culture that has a relationship with archetypes found in the Higher Arcana of the Tarot” Rae explains of her whimsical creations made from sterling silver gold and assorted other materials including tagua nut and caribou vertebrae.

In fact some of Rae’s sculptural rings are on display in the Glenbow Museum gift shop until the end of November.

“It’s not about being functional. It’s about talking about what the ring is about what are fairy tales about…. There are lots of questions raised. This is the purpose of art” Rae says.

Carnat is also moving into more overtly narrative work to complement her traditional goldsmithing pieces. In fact she’s currently working on a sort–of diorama about her father in which she is embedding items of jewelry.

There are some art jewellers of course who don’t focus as intently on producing highly narrative work.

ACAD grad Andrea Blais for example is someone who creates beautiful “classic” work using argentium sterling silver pearls and gold that is functional and wearable in its design while fellow artist Gillian Hillerud has a production line of sterling silver jewelry suitable for everyday wear.

“Getting into more practical everyday stuff it’s easier to make money doing it. For the really out-there stuff there is only a small niche of people who are willing to pay for it” she says.

Like Woo Hillerud came up with her principal line — one which mixes sterling silver with paper gold and gemstones — while still a student at ACAD.

“I created more of a production-type line using that method because it was selling well and people were asking for it” she explains.

But Clark has also started using non–conventional materials in her practice including laminate usually reserved for flooring.

She says she has observed that each city has its own aesthetic something which impacts what jewelry will sell and what won’t. For example she says jewelry inspired by nature generally sells better in Calgary than in Toronto where sculptural geometric work tends to be more popular.

Whatever the design Rae says her experience in Calgary has demonstrated that “educated people are tired of mass-produced objects.”

“I found a real thirst for work that is unique” she says.

Lewton–Brain adds that all the ACAD grads who are now active in the field are shaping more than jewels and metals.

“They have work in galleries across the country. It’s not just the Calgary scene they change but they go out and change things nationally” he says.

Above — student workshops at ACAD

Above — Charles Lewton-Brain at different stage of giving his ornament shape.

Above — Kari Woo at work at different stations in her studio.

Photos by Jessika Hunter