What is jewelry? What can it be?
Brian Fleetwood’s jewelry is alive. Fleetwood sits at a work desk, bent over a piece of metal. The metal glints in the setting sun that streams through the high windows in the jewelry studio, a yellow light that finds the dust motes suspended in the air on these early winter afternoons. Fleetwood pauses, unbends; he’s working on a piece of silver, but the metal isn’t uniform, isn’t smooth or flat, doesn’t have any uniform shape””it is organic. It is the silver ghost of a broken piece of honeycomb””ghost because the process that made it, centrifugal casting in which molten metal floods a plaster mold, burns away the original honeycomb, and leaves only its shadow for the metal to fill. But the silver is solid; when he hands it to me I can feel its weight in my hand, and Fleetwood works to even out hexagonal walls with a small steel pick. He plans to make this piece into a pendant.
This is jewelry. It is not “wearable sculpture” or “architecture for the body” or anything else but jewelry. At least, this is the case Fleetwood and IAIA jewelry instructor Mark Herndon are making: We shouldn’t have to feel the need to qualify jewelry with sculpture, or architecture, to raise its status when we see a piece we like””jewelry is an art of its own, as is sculpture, painting, drawing. To erase any idea that it is a “low art” is to open jewelry up to what it can be.
Fleetwood, who is Creek from Oklahoma, has a peculiar aesthetic. His pieces, like a carved leaf-shaped brooch, defy definition””they can be many shapes in one. But they do have a connection to the natural world; Fleetwood wants to see what the natural world looks like through jewelry. Before IAIA, he studied biology at Oklahoma State University.
“Science is using a set of tools to evaluate the truthfulness of a thing””its objective truthfulness,” says Fleetwood. “I’m not talking about metaphysics.”
But what kind of artist is this? Art as science isn’t the typical answer you get from an artist when asking about his artistic vision; usually there’s a reference to how art is metaphysical, or has some transcendent quality. But Fleetwood can speak about the unknowable, too, and its connection to his evolution as a jeweler.
“To understand the world we have to put it into language,” says Fleetwood. “This is taxonomy; we put the natural world into these groups””but they don’t exist in them naturally.” And what if the language isn’t sufficient? Art comes in””a new language.
Fleetwood is prolific as a jeweler, and once you see a few of his pieces, they begin to take on a language of their own. Take a look at any piece by Fleetwood and you see his signature. Rings, bracelets, brooches, made of carved wood””ebony, purple heart, blood wood””walrus ivory, cast iron, horn. And he uses more conventional metals like gold and silver, too. The pieces are often handle or mandril-shaped, or resemble pieces of insects or plants that you can’t quite place. They are anything but expected.
One piece Fleetwood submitted for a show recently was a carved wood bracelet with found beads set in a row of miniature craters””it resembled a caterpillar or some sort of crustacean. “Sea life informs a lot of my work,” he says. “I look for the least anthropomorphic life I can find. Ten people see it and call it 10 different things.”
Fleetwood is an advanced student at IAIA in his senior year but he began to develop his style at Oklahoma State. After Oklahoma, Fleetwood moved to Santa Fe and worked for a few professional jewelers, including renowned Creek jeweler Kenneth Johnson, where he developed skill and learned to work fast. So he knows what he’s talking about when, in answer to my question, ‘What is the story about IAIA jewelry?’ he says: “Mark Herndon may be the best metalsmith I’ve known.”
Redefining Native Jewelry
In his 30s, face scruffy with a week’s growth of beard, jaw-length straw-brown hair spilling from under a gray beanie, Herndon doesn’t look like your typical professor. He’s tall, 6’4”, Caucasian, and walks with a slight hunch in his shoulders. Herndon holds a graduate degree in sculpture and came to jewelry through his wife, a professional jeweler.
“His technical proficiency is second to none,” says Fleetwood.
Herndon’s jewelry classes have become popular in his seven years at IAIA, likely in part because of his openness (usually clean-shaven, Herndon grew his beard for a part in an IAIA student’s short film). He doesn’t turn students away if they come to him with a problem, Fleetwood explains. “He says, ‘Let’s see what we can do. He does what others say is impossible.”
And what of Herndon’s status as a non-Native teaching native students?
“He has the respect and perspective of an outsider,” says Fleetwood. “If you want to experiment, he doesn’t say no.”
This gets at a touchy subject in Native American jewelry. The popular market for Native jewelry has an unofficial definition of what it should be: it has to be silver, turquoise, with southwestern motifs, like concho belts with geometric “tribal” designs, squash blossom necklaces. But there’s also a push from Native jewelers to broaden its scope. Experimentation isn’t always rewarded””neither by the market, or by critics, be they Native or not.
When asked the same question, about the story behind IAIA jewelry, Herndon answers, “the amazing students””I don’t see that at other schools.”
Herndon came to IAIA searching for a new approach to jewelry that did not relegate the art.
“I expected to come here, and unlike Western art, jewelry would be held up to the other arts: painting, sculpture, ceramics,” says Herndon. “But I came here and found it was like every other art school in the country: jewelry wasn’t valued. What’s valued is not the conceptual–the concept piece–but what’s pretty.”
Herndon says to have jewelry separate is a Western tradition””“You can narrow the moment this happened to the Renaissance period in Europe, when high art–painting, sculpture, drawing–became high art and low art–jewelry, ceramics, glass–became low art.”
“I feel like Native jewelry is neglected by contemporary Native arts,” Herndon says. In arts like painting, Native artists are celebrated for pushing boundaries and making concept-driven pieces, whereas “you don’t see it as honored” in Native jewelry, says Herndon.
In Indian art markets today, the category of “nonwearable jewelry” has popped up to describe silversmithing such as vessels and teapots””even though they have no relationship to the body.
Traditional Navajo silversmiths were jewelers, but they also were smiths; they made silverware, forks, spoons, containers, tobacco canteens, bridles and bits for horses. Now that side of jewelry has faded and jewelers stick to rings, bracelets and necklaces.
Fleetwood butts against convention whenever he sits down to make a piece. “Pan-Indianism really gets on my nerves,” he says, taking a break from the silver honeycomb and leaning back in his chair. “I think it’s important to recognize the distinct cultures within that””it’s not just one homogenous thing. Nothing against Southwestern jewelry, but that’s not all there is. People get accused of, ”˜Oh, that’s not Indian jewelry’ if they do their own thing.”
Fleetwood himself says he’s influenced by a history of Creek jewelry that few people know about. “We were shell carvers, wood carvers and worked gold and copper,” he says.
In a newly renovated room in the IAIA studio hall, where there used to be tables and chairs of a typical classroom, sit two large pieces of new machinery; large metal and glass boxes with aluminum tubes snaking up through the ceiling, they look like they should hold phantoms and gooey apparitions out of “Ghost Busters.” They are laser cutters. Beneath the glass, a laser mounted on a mechanical arm burns away, line by line, a design imported from a computer””much like a printer, except in this case the printer takes material away rather than adding it.
But is this art? Are the things it produces sculpture? Jewelry? These aren’t the right questions to ask.
“It’s just another tool we can use to make art,” says Herndon, who admits to questioning the machine’s place in art before converting and facilitating its purchase. “In 2-D art you do drawings, you take photographs and the camera is just another tool for the artist. This is like that.” Students are starting to take notice and explore what it can do.
This is the new, what is only now being explored as a way to make art. Is it traditional? No. But it can open doors, and artists like to walk through doors.
“Combining aspects of the traditional and the experimental you get really exciting stuff,” says Fleetwood, going back to the honeycomb. “And that’s something that doesn’t happen elsewhere.”
He examines the silver, takes the steel pick to it, the tool looking small in his hands. The dust dances in the yellow light coming through the high windows, a light that now has a hint of orange. Above the sound of hammers snapping against copper, the pop of a torch catching the spark, the beltsander’s whir, I can just make out a hum that might be a laser cutting through glass.