A paper given by Elizabeth Shaw tracing the beginnings of the studio jewellery movement in Queensland and JMGAQ. Deliveredat reSource: Prospects for Contemporary Jewellery and Object Making JMGA 2010 conference held in Perth April 2010.
There are a number of ideas and issues that have emerged recently in the broader community that have captured my imagination and informed my thoughts. I've had the opportunity in the last year to hear a diverse range of speakers discussing matters of societal change and shifts in thinking. Two in particular to illustrate the subject matter that I've found of interest are former politician turned academic, Cheryl Kernot speaking about A Participation Society and the former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson on Creating A World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism. There have also been a range of interesting texts that have emerged, in particular I'll mention Richard Sennett's 2008 book, The Craftsman, in which he eloquently and accessibly illustrates the benefits of open exchange and engagement drawing on a diverse range of examples.
In summary, what I have found of interest is that Sennett, Kernot and Robinson are placing value on societal systems and businesses that are driven by motivations other than financial; businesses that create profit to feed back into communities, companies that value exchange over competition, organisations that resist profit as becoming their primary aim. I see elements of these as being highly relevant to the JMGA, though I know at times, when in the thick of JMGA business, those sorts of attributes could appear ridiculously foreign.
Perhaps Human Resources wasn't the best term for me to adopt for this paper; as a term it is inextricably linked to its use in large organisations and corporations, something that is probably far removed from the immediate reality of most JMGA members. It is a term that in effect identifies staff as being a company resource to use in the same way as commodities or material and financial resources.
I'm interested in what Human Resources might mean for those who work outside of large workplaces, those who work as sole practitioners or in small collective studios, for example the average member of the JMGA. So I'm using the term to value humans within practice, as opposed to those items we readily think of as resources that we measure in financial terms, commodities such as metals, oils, timber, diamonds... These are things that in recent history have undergone significant changes in ascribed value, as the understanding of cost is expanding to have meaning beyond the limited measurement of monetary terms. For example, the linking of societal and cultural impact to the understanding of cost and by implication to the value of diamonds is making main stream news, as exemplified by the 2007 Hollywood produced movie Blood Diamond.
Material resources and the associated shifts in thinking are unlikely to be far from relevance to the practices of most JMGA members. I've been interested in how the community of practitioners linked through the JMGA in Queensland has been responding. The inaugural Green Symposium held in November 2009 demonstrated that there is interest and willingness to exchange ideas. I certainly value that there is a community of practitioners to share information and discuss ideas with and I look forward to the 2nd Green Symposium which is scheduled for later this year.
I am interested in the role of the JMGA as a resource for and of practitioners. I'll call on historical references and examples though this is by no means intended as a history, though I intend that the examples I site are accurate.
It isn't too hard to understand that without a record things are easily forgotten or overlooked. I was reminded recently when a senior colleague commented that someone's practice was questionable as they didn't show up in a Google search. What I'm hoping to do is record an aspect of practice that hasn't been widely documented.
Anyone who undertook study or research prior to the turn of the 21st Century will understand how rapid the change to the internet as the dominant research tool has been. While the information available on the web is expansive there are huge gaps in what is covered. For example applying my colleague's google assessment of value will find that the history of the JMGA or the history of contemporary jewellery practice in Australia and my home state of Queensland is of questionable value, which is something I definitely do not believe. But if we base our understandings on the histories and records of practice that are made easily available, we could reach that conclusion.
We are aware of the prominent practitioners of our time, but the current culture of contemporary practice in Australia also owes its existence to the contributions of less recognised practitioners. While state and national galleries acknowledge the relevance of contemporary jewellery and metalsmithing by collecting contemporary works, this is a relatively new phenomena and focuses necessarily on works from a relatively few practitioners which of course belies the broad community. The JMGA has played a significant role in creating a meeting point for exchange and collaboration between practitioners and promotion of the craft for 30 years, and I want to reflect on that.
My paper is specifically about the Queensland scene, but I gather that while we in Queensland, due to our history of peculiar politics and our isolation from other centres, may feel we are distinctly different, and in fact the rest of Australia may well believe we are, I am confident there are inevitable parallels between what I'm talking about and occurrences in other states.
I joined the JMGA Qld branch in 1993 at the urging of my lecturer Jorgen De Voss. I attended my first meeting shortly after. What happened at that meeting I now understand is an experience that may well be familiar to a lot of JMGA members. I recall feeling perplexed. I turned up expecting the meeting to be something I could passively listen to and observe. Instead I found a group of around 6 people who seemed a little too pleased to see me. They gave me the sort of greeting that my gut instinct in any other context would have made me flee.
It seemed the group was in turmoil and my chance attendance at the meeting made me instantly very important to the group's future. More people arrived at that meeting including two more new members who were received with equal enthusiasm. I left the meeting, none the wiser about the group and now sharing two committee positions, one with someone I'd only just met. Sandra Appleby, one of the new members, was a recent graduate from ANU who had just arrived in Brisbane to do a Graduate Diploma. She'd attended the meeting as a way to make local contacts. Sandra and I left the meeting as the new Exhibition Committee and Ann Chadwick the other new member, and I were now the editors of the JMGQ newsletter.
I hate to think how many other people there are who have turned up to a JMGA meeting and have felt the desperation of the committee members so overwhelming that they've never attended another. I know in my time of involvement I have been present at many and have no doubt I've contributed my bit to the expression of desperation. I also know from my experience as a sole practitioner and anecdotally from others, that I am not the only artist who appreciates working alone, but values being part of a wider network. So with hindsight I am pleased that I didn't flee the first meeting I attended.
The JMGA is easy for us to identify as being intrinsically linked to contemporary practice but its history is relatively short and it was preceded by a growing contemporary practice in Australia for at least 20 years prior to its formation in 1980.
In the 1950s Francis Gill and John Lintern were teaching jewellery making in Perth Technical Colleges. In the mid 1950s Victor Vodika was employed to teach art/metalwork at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. In the early 1960s Matcham Skipper started teaching jewellery at Eltham Victoria, while Jewellery Making was established at the South Australian School of Art, and Jewellery and Silversmithing was established as a course at RMIT. In the late 1960s a Jewellery and Silversmithing course was established at West Australian Institute of Technology while Wal van Heeckeren started teaching private courses in jewellery making in Sydney and Ray Norman established the Sturt Metalcraft and Jewellery Workshop at Mittagong (Anderson 1988 p.160). I acknowledge Patricia Anderson's book Contemporary Jewellery in Australia and New Zealand as the source of those details, I appreciate that she researched them and made them available.
Courses and classes were being established in most parts of Australia. Their existence would have raised public awareness of the field of practice, and no doubt contributed to the eventual emergence of the JMGA. Aspiring practitioners were being educated and classes were providing a focal point and meeting place.
Queensland however was to wait until much later for its first tertiary course, it wasn't until 1977 when Canadian Lyle Tweeddale established the Gold and Silversmithing Department at Queensland College of Art that there was an option of formal study within the state. But then Queensland in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and I'm embarrassed to say, 1980s was a politically conservative state and was known to be behind the rest of Australia in a multitude of ways. The arts weren't top priority to government; rather they were viewed more as a 'social and political problem' (Flew T. 2008, p14).
Despite the lack of courses it seems that the roots of contemporary practice in Queensland started around 1960, emerging as several painters decided to explore the possibilities of jewellery as a form for artistic expression. Possibly the first to do so was Brisbane artist Verlie Just (1922 - 2000) an active member of the Queensland Contemporary Art Society, who found that the only jewellery making instruction available in Queensland was in the form of trade apprenticeships open to males only. Vocal in her frustration but not perturbed, Verlie began to teach herself from books imported from the USA. (Larner 1988, p.130). In 1962 the Johnstone Gallery in Brisbane which was known for showing the works of key Australian painters and leading Australian crafts practitioners hosted an exhibition of the jewellery and hollow-ware of Darani Lewers and Helge Larsen which was most likely the first exhibition of Australian art jewellery and hollow-ware in Queensland. They exhibited again in 1963 and 64, providing inspiration for artist Merv Muhling to turn his interest to making jewellery and in order to do so, he also turned to books.
Verlie Just 'held her first solo exhibition at the Moreton Galleries in 1963... '(Fridemanis 1991, p.88), three years after she'd decided to be an art jeweller. It was the first solo exhibition of jewellery made by a female in Queensland. Around the same time, Don Ross a Brisbane dentist and noted contemporary painter was experimenting with his dental skills and materials to make jewellery in his dental surgery. In 1969 Verlie was awarded a scholarship to study jewellery at the Haystack School in Maine and spent 5 months in the USA. She returned to Brisbane determined to improve the support in Queensland and was instrumental in 'the formation of the Queensland Branch of the Craft Association' in 1970 (ibid. p.18). The New South Wales branch had been established in 1964, the South Australian in 1966 and Western Australian branch in 1968 (Cochrane 1992, p113,115).
I met Verlie later in her life, unfortunately long after she had ceased making jewellery. She was running the gallery she had established, the Town Gallery and Japan Room, a gallery specialising in paintings and prints. I knew she'd had a jewellery background, but she had long turned her back on it, and had no desire to talk about it. To be honest her significance was lost to me at the time, even though I had contacted her in my attempts to find out more about JMGQ. From my research I now know that she was never a member of JMGQ or its earlier incarnation but she was very important in establishing the environment that led to the group's formation.
Verlie appears to have been incredibly driven and she seems to have performed an important role in establishing a culture of contemporary practice in Queensland. It is clear that she was involved in a bitter dispute with at least one other jeweller, news of which reached Queensland's daily paper, The Courier-Mail. The dispute was over ethics and led Verlie to strongly advocate for an ethics clause in the Crafts Council of Australia constitution when it was being developed in 1971 (Cochrane 1992, p.116). It seems the protracted and very public dispute led her to cease her practice as a jewellery artist and along with it her motivated advocacy and activism. One example of her activism that also captures the conservatism of Queensland at the time, I found in the History of the Artists and Aspects of the Contemporary Art Society Queensland Branch.
Verlie Just had also been struggling to have Queensland law changed so as to enable artists who hand-made functional items to be allowed to exhibit them in galleries, along with paintings, outside retail trading hours. She began her campaign in 1966 and partly succeeded in 1970 when a parliamentarian accepted the invitation to open the Craft Association exhibition in the evening. Her successful seven year campaign to remove restricted hours from art galleries culminated in the establishment of the Town Gallery. She organized an evening opening in 1973 which became the first legal function of its kind in Brisbane (Fridemanis 1991 p.17).
That seven year campaign alone contributed significantly to the creative art scene in Brisbane. Verlie was the inaugural President of the Craft Association of Queensland in 1970, a position she was to relinquish the following year 'disillusioned by the politics of the creative art scene.' As a final statement 'She closed her studio in protest in 1972' (Fridemanis 1991 p. 89). While the potters and textile artists already had groups and associations of their own in Queensland, the creative jewellers were disparate and disconnected. Pottery and Textiles were both established studios in colleges so their groups were supported with new graduates and active staff. Jewellers on the other hand had been working independently, most often teaching themselves, working their way through trial and error and through reference to any book they could find. They lacked a unifying meeting point.
The opening exhibition of the Craft Association included jewellery by Verlie Just, Frances Wildt, Merv Muhling and Don Ross (Fredimanis 1991 p.17). This was a group of jewellers brought together by Verlie and Don Ross recalls that prior to the Craft Association exhibition he really didn't know any other local jewellers apart from Verlie having met her through the Contemporary Art Society; similarly Merv Muhling recalled only knowing of Verlie (Cochrane 1992 p.185).
In 1971, the second year of existence of the Craft Association of Queensland (now known as Artisan and previously Crafts Queensland and prior to that the Craft Council of Queensland) there were enough member jewellers for the Vice President, Kit Shannon, a jeweller herself, to recognise the possibilities this created. She drew together the jewellers to form a media specific sub group, which grew to reflect the interests and enthusiasms of the participating members, creating opportunities to exhibit and to learn specific skills.
The group called themselves the Queensland Jewellery Workshop, which according to Grace Cochrane (1992 p.127) was 'the first self-help jewellers group' in Australia. The Queensland Jewellery Workshop (QJW) established itself with a core set of goals but despite the suggestion in its name, no actual workshop space. Rather the word workshop embodied the intention, the purposeful work that the QJW was committed to. A QJW report from 1976 prepared by Don Ross (1976 p.1) records that member, Ian Buttfield had relocated to Adelaide, telling of 'his efforts to interest Adelaide Craft jewellers in forming a workshop' similar to the QJW which were 'So far without success'. He concluded with a note saying that Queensland was 'the only state in Australia (with) such a workshop'.
Printed and verbal lists differ as to who the founding members were, most lists were compiled long after the event, but Verlie Just was pointedly not a member and lists consistently include Kit Shannon, her daughter Jane, Merv Muhling, Don Ross and Frances Wildt. All had been primarily self-trained but Don Ross's formal training as a dentist had provided him with a range of skills and materials knowledge that he readily applied to jewellery and generously shared. In the early 1960s Don started experimenting with making jewellery. He had been intuitively drawn to the field through its links to his profession, a demonstration of the ideas Kevin Murray was exploring when he curated the 1994 exhibition, Symmetry: Crafts Meet Kindred Trades and Professions.
Frances Wildt had been establishing a career prior to joining QJW having exhibited in Germany, Japan and having had two solo exhibitions in Brisbane. In the mid 1970s she left Brisbane to undertake formal study at RMIT, which she followed with post graduate studies at Sir John Cass School of Art London. She returned to Brisbane in 1977 having also spent time working in Pforzheim West Germany and George Jensen's studio in Copenhagen. She began teaching and sharing her skills through the TAFE system. Merv Muhling's formal training was in ceramics, sculpture and painting, his initial jewellery skills were self taught then supplemented with training from the QJW. He established jewellery as a subject within the teacher education curriculum and in 1977-78 he completed a Masters of Fine Arts at Rochester University USA. Other early members included, Bill Dearden, Margaret Hastie, Glenda Chesney-Clarke, Sel and Lorraine Pilgrim, Gwenda Ayre, and Lyle Tweeddale. The members ran classes sharing their skills, with Don Ross proving to be a particularly generous, skilled and patient teacher using his inner city dental studio to introduce the QJW members to a range of skills from his profession including lost wax casting. The QJW also brought jewellers and silversmiths from interstate to teach classes including Helge Larsen, Wal van Heeckeren and Frank Bauer.
The group held an annual members exhibition and the catalogues from these record the changing membership base over the years. In about 1973 Sel Pilgrim a Gold Coast jeweller also self taught, joined the QJW and learnt he was not alone, and in his words that 'there were others out there' (Pilgrim 2006 p.2).
The QJW was promoting and facilitating practical skills development through workshops. Through the annual exhibitions it was developing an audience and cliental for locally made contemporary work. Through the combination of these activities the QJW was also developing a community of makers. Friendships were formed and the mutual sharing of information, opportunities and skills was core to this community.
Undoubtedly Brisbane's most celebrated contemporary jeweller today is Barbara Heath. Barbara arrived in Brisbane in mid 1983 and established an inner city studio. In 1984 she exhibited in the QJW exhibition. Sel recalls fond memories of 'Barbara... coming to Brisbane (and) joining the group... (He recalls) dropping her off after the QJW meetings to the boat she lived in on the Brisbane River. (Pilgrim. 2006 p.3) Barbara remains a member of JMGQ and her commitment to the community of practice in Queensland has seen her open her studio to visitors such as Christine Dhein and Catherine Salter and offering traineeships and employment opportunities to numerous emerging jewellers over the years. This has included, but is by no means limited to Sheridan Kennedy, Thomas Burless, Juan-luis Gonzalez, Marisa Molin, Justine Austen and Dan Cox.
The teaching and sharing ethic of the QJW seems to have permeated the practices of many involved. Sel Pilgrim continues to teach at the Gold Coast, Don Ross now 93 continues to teach privately. Frances Wildt until recently was teaching short TAFE classes. Merv Muhling dedicated most of his adult life to teaching and Lyle Tweeddale has only recently retired from it. The transition of the QJW to being JMGQ was not with out clashes, and I'm thankful I missed all of those to join much later when JMGQ was in a lull but relatively stable.
Grace Cochrane (1992, p.208) observed that the rotation of the responsibility to host the national biennial JMGA conference and the production of Lemel both strengthened state groups in the lead up and in turn exhausted them. When I joined JMGQ it was within 5 years of Queensland having hosted the 1988 conference and my research suggests that the group was still dealing with the exhaustion. Most who had been members of the QJW had lapsed their membership and I recognise now that my lecturer had been urging students to join the group motivated by a desire to keep it alive.
When I attended a JMGQ workshop with Charles Lewton-Brain in the 1990s I did so with the intention of learning Fold Forming. I was surprised to find there were people at the workshop who had established skills in the area and had previously attended a workshop on the same subject matter with Charles. What I was missing in my understanding was that workshop attendance was also about participation and exchange and I later found out that some of the older JMGQ members attended pretty much every workshop in order to participate in the group.
In 2000 Queensland hosted the National conference again, and for the following few years the groups activities slowed, but the group managed to escape the full impact of post conference exhaustion. Instead problems arose in 2005 when Griffith University advised that the insurance cover would no longer be a part of the groups long standing memorandum of understanding which entitled the group to use of meeting rooms and studio space at Queensland College of Art free of charge. Exhaustive investigations into insurance options resulted in multiple quotes for cover that were all far more than the sum of the collected annual membership dues. The group was looking at well over a $1500 per year to cover four meetings and one workshop, the bare minimum of events we thought would keep the group going.
The insurance issue appeared an insurmountable problem. The group had already been struggling to keep workshop fees reasonable while meeting the rising fees that visiting teachers were quite rightfully requesting. Adding a huge increase to membership fees didn't seem equitable when half of the membership were unlikely to ever attend a meeting or workshop due to their remote location or their consciously passive participation. We also suspected that the increase required would probably lead to mass attrition in membership numbers.
The board at the time, and I'll admit to being the President then, made the difficult and not overly popular decision to stop organising workshops, knowing the history of the workshop program and the key role it had performed in the JMGQ community. Some who expressed concern hadn't ever attended a workshop, but they clearly understood the value of the service within the group.
I was a sessional lecturer at QCA at the time and tried to find ways around the insurance clause and ways to run workshops for JMGQ within the university system. It seemed that if JMGQ were to donate some seeding funds or sponsorship then I could set up a program that entitled JMGQ members to a discount.
In December 2003 one of the founding members of the QJW Merv Muhling had died. Merv had been a colleague of my father and a family friend. His widow Val and daughter Cathy decided that I should inherit his studio tools. This was a very generous bequest; Merv had been a tool appreciator and collector which meant that I was in possession of more than triple my own existing studio, far more tools than I could possibly have a need for. I spent a lot of time sorting through and thinking about what to do with the tools that were surplus to my needs. Aware of Merv's commitment to education, I considered various ideas about donating the tools to the college or to students.
Considering Merv's earlier involvement with the QJW and JMGQ, and in discussion with his family, I passed on the surplus tools to JMGQ for auction. Purchases were only open to JMGQ members or QCA students with the reserves kept low, the idea being that the tools would be distributed widely and the proceeds could be donated to the QCA J&SO studio to be the seeding funds for establishing a program of master classes.
The Auction was held in September and the first master class in the program, Torch Fire Enamel with Catherine Large was offered in November. There were 10 spots offered and the class sold out in 2 days so a second was organised which sold out in 3 days, which was followed by a third which sold out in 4 days.
That was five years ago, and JMGQ membership numbers are strong. The demand for spots in master classes remains high. Enrollment in Master Classes is open to all practitioners with discounts available to QCA students and JMGQ members only, the discount for being a member makes it worthwhile becoming one, which is possibly why there has been a 25% increase in memberships. It has also added a new dimension to the dynamic of the group. While there are around 100 JMGQ members, the mailing list for the master classes includes hundreds of others from the wider community of practice. This has expanded the community of exchange and has also meant that a wider range of classes have been run. No two workshops have had the same group of attendees. There are now multiple workshops per year, with the minimum offered being five. Last year there were ten stand alone events not including some that ran twice to meet demand. As the master class program is managed by QCA, JMGQ no longer has to find a volunteer to be the workshop co-ordinator . It also means that QCA covers any incidental expenses that may arise mid workshop, in previous years unanticipated mid workshop expenses had been known to challenge budgets.
In summary, the QJW emerged while its original members were emerging themselves. The group created the environment in which the members could develop and pursue their practices. It helped promote the works of members and address the situation of no local educational opportunities. Almost 40 years on the priorities and motivations of today's members are undoubtedly different; there are numerous options available for anyone wanting to learn skills and techniques and there are plenty of real and virtual outlets to promote work, but the group continues to play a relevant role. The community that has developed around it is constantly evolving but the exchange that occurs between individuals has the potential to extend far beyond its immediate purpose. JMGQ works on this principal, though perhaps not always consciously. Individually we benefit from the direct and indirect exchange the group inspires. I value the community that exists and recognise that it is the people that are core to this.
Elizabeth Shaw is a Brisbane based artist and academic. Her work investigates aspects of societal and cultural values and the meanings associated with objects of material culture. She exhibits regularly, has been the recipient of grants and awards and has served on the boards of state and national arts organisations. Her work is represented in public and private collections.
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