Makers Metier exhibition opening (work by Helen Britton, Cynthia Cousens, Karl Fritsch, Elizabeth Turrell and Lisa Walker).

14th Jewellers and Metalsmiths Group of Australia Biennial Conference
re-Source—prospects for contemporary
jewellery and object making
9–11 April 2010, Perth, Western Australia

Earlier this year, jewellers from across Australia and around the world converged on Perth, one of the world’s most geographically isolated cities, for the 14th Jewellers and Metalsmiths Group of Australia Biennial Conference. This conference focused on the past, present and future of contemporary jewellery and objects in Australia and the Pacific and further, with a particular emphasis on West Australia’s practitioners and history.

Re-Source – prospects for contemporary jewellery and object making was the first JMGA to be hosted by Perth since 1992. With a program of 11 exhibitions and several social activities running from the evening before the official commencement of the conference, there was much to see, do and consider. Including the exhibitions in the day’s planned activities ensured that delegates attended the shows together, allowing plenty of opportunity for  discussion and critique, but leaving little time for quiet moments of reflection at the end of a packed program.

The conference’s 21 speakers covered the themes of the event— unearthing the past, materials exploration and prospecting future directions—some with more relevance than others, but overall considered a balanced blend of topics, with some interesting and perhaps surprising links.

The opening address by professor Ted Snell, chair of the visual arts board of the Australia Council, discussed the value of good design and what it is to be a designer today, considering functionality and sustainability. Though some practitioners may take issue with being classified as a designer, Snell’s statement that ‘good design is a statement about consideration, caring and respect’ rings true for jewellers and designers alike.

Snell, previous dean of art at Curtin University of Technology and current director of the cultural precinct at the University of West Australia, also highlighted the importance of the current and future state of arts education. This issue is becoming more and more pertinent as art schools attached to universities are combined with schools such as architecture, contact hours and facilities are cut across the board, and universities increasingly focus as much on revenue as on the responsibility of educating tomorrow’s artists. Art schools are focused on the individual, however—they simply cannot operate on the same scale as a school such as business, for example, which disseminates the same information to hundreds of students simultaneously, thus making it by default a more economical proposition for the university.

Another element in the importance of education was raised by Elizabeth Turrell, senior research fellow at the University of the West of England, Bristol. Discussing her exploration of enamel processes and uses, Turrell raised the issue of the loss of skills through secrecy, lack of people to take them on and technology replacing the handmade. Turrell is committed to passing on her knowledge to any and all takers and clearly, many delegates were intrigued by her findings. Her paper and two workshops were met with much enthusiasm and have already had a significant influence on a number of jewellers, reinvigorating enamel practice and changing the way people approach its use.

Cynthia Cousens discussed her practice and how landscape is an integral part of it for her. Each person, she said, has their own resources in their creative process.

From a more commercial background, goldsmith Glenice Lesley Matthews spoke about the resources of Western Australia: gold, diamonds and pearls. It is important to acknowledge where these precious materials come from, particularly for practitioners who have come into the jewellery world more recently. Gone are the days when metal was available only in granules. We now have access to a broad range of ready-to-use materials, from sheet metal and chenier (tube) to pre-cut stones.

Matthews’ paper highlighted (if perhaps unintentionally) that the sourcing of these materials can often be an unfortunate case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Illustrating this idea, Matthews presented photographs from her time working with the one of the gold mines —graphic images of huge banks of earth, gouged into and demolished, leaving behind only a vague idea of the mountains they once were. These preceded an in-depth explanation of the way oysters are cut from the ocean floor, forced to breed pearls and discarded when no longer producing—usually after only two or three pearls. This was a distressing feature of the presentation, particularly at a time when sustainability within our practice is such a prevalent concern. As such, it seemed unusual that there was little (or no) mention of the ethical issues we face as jewellers, knowing what is done to the earth and wildlife in the processes of mining and farming. The mention of the Argyle Diamond Mine’s practice of replacing the dirt and creating lakes with water used and the brief discussion at the end of the paper did little to decrease an almost palpable air of tension in the room as Matthews spoke.

Oron Catts, artist, researcher and director of SymbioticA, the Centre for Excellence in Biological Arts, was an engaging and entertaining speaker. Through his explanation of the research undertaken at SymbioticA, a disturbing connection to pearl farming surfaced. The intervention with life, using life as a material like plastic or metal, as something we can alter to suit us, was at once fascinating and unsettling.

Given the freshness and vibrancy of many of the ideas presented, it came as a disappointment that some speakers re-used papers already presented in Australia in recent years. Although it is not unheard of for a speaker to give the same paper more than once, the jewellery community is relatively small in terms of opportunities for group discussion, particularly in Australia. In this context, as international speakers brought to WA as keynotes, it may have been more appropriate had they specifically addressed the themes of the conference with new material. An exhibition of particular interest was FORM Gallery’s Signs of Change: jewellery designed to make a better world, which considered jewellery and design as a catalyst for or indication of change. Curated by FORM’s Elisha Buttler and writer/ curator Kevin Murray, 20 artists from Australia, England, Germany, Japan, New Zealand and Sweden were represented. For exhibitor Vicki Mason, ‘small local gestures, such as sharing gardens, bring home the potential of change through national independence’1. Her Broaching Change project considers the possibility of an Australian republic creating a new sense of community. Mason has made three brooches representing various flora, to be sent to three people at random at the end of the exhibition. Each recipient is meant to be only a temporary guardian of the piece, obliged to pass it on, with instructions, to anyone who expresses an interest in it. In this way, each brooch is capable of generating a new community. In a similar vein, Areta Wilkinson’s Stars in My Eyes uses jewellery as a medium for intercultural appreciation. Wilkinson created an installation of multicoloured satin star brooches, made using traditional Maori weaving techniques. Viewers were encouraged to take a brooch or an instruction sheet to make their own, and replace it with a photograph of themselves wearing it, leaving behind a record of the people who are carrying the jewellery around the globe. Jayne Wallace’s sensitive works made as part of her Personhood project, use jewellery as a vessel for memories. Working closely with an English woman (and her family) coping with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, Wallace created interactive and highly personal pieces designed to both store and trigger memory. One of these pieces, a music box of sorts, allows the woman, her family and friends to record and replay memories of their life together—a beautiful example of the role that jewellery can play in the emotional lives of people, not just as adornment.

A rich workshop program accompanied the conference in the days preceding and week following. Seven local and international artists ran workshops ranging from enamel, casting and professional and personal development. The close proximity of the venues allowed participants the chance to look in on what others were up to and created further opportunity for discussion and skill sharing.

The committed and hardworking team of volunteers responsible for re-Source should be proud of a job well done. The conference was well-organised, engaging and a great source of inspiration and lively discussion. A great achievement for any conference is to have the sessions run on time and to schedule, with no technical issues of note. This high-calibre event no doubt leaves attendees looking forward to the next JMGA conference, set for Queensland in 2012.