Sense of Place
This insightful exhibition explores the important role jewelry plays in our lives to reflect our identity, ideas and stories
As a portable art form, jewellery frequently takes on the role of representing something, someone or place that we hold dear. The works in Sense of Place continue this tradition. They are quietly evocative, they suggest a place without specificity, but it is a place we all know. “Place refers to an environment that becomes a reference point and source for identification for people who live in or near it, and it is charged with emotion and memory.” When translated into jewellery the relationship to place can be made visible and can be carried far from its origin. The particular place that the works in this exhibition refer to is the coastline of Australia.
An aerial view of Australia reveals how the population clings to the edges of this big island that we inhabit. As award winning nature author Harry Sadler has noted “More than 80% of the population lives near the coast. The sea and the coast are embedded deep in our national psyche.” It is not without reason that images of the coastline feature heavily in official marketing promotions of Australia to the world.
The exhibiting artists’ motivations are far removed from creating an idealised view for marketing purposes, rather theirs is a response to the lived relationship to a place they consider precious. Mia Wells, Maddison Bygrave and Kristina Gittins approach their works in quite different ways, yet there is a common thread between the ideas they are exploring. They share a respect for the ocean and coastal environments and their works emphasise the preciousness of this place that is part of the greater Australian Identity.
Kristina Gittins’ concern about the impact of plastic waste on the environment in general became focussed on the ocean and in turn marine life. Widely shared images and scientific reports have made it hard to ignore the information that plastic waste has made it into the ocean in vast quantities. Professor Andrew Holmes, polymer chemist and emeritus professor at the University of Melbourne noted in 2017 that “The plastic waste in the oceans is disastrous for marine and bird life, and the human race has to avoid disposal of this waste in a way that enables it to enter drains, rivers, and eventually the ocean”. Gittens uses waste plastic that would otherwise be likely destined for landfill. Through careful handling and treatment plastic becomes an important detail in her works, echoing the ubiquitous nature of plastic.
Maddison Bygrave has been inspired by the insights archaeologists have gained from ancient shell jewellery and artworks. The distance that shells have been found from their origins can be evidence of migration or trade. For example archaeologist Kim Akerman notes that “pearl shell artefacts from North Western Australia are… the most far-flung of exchange items that traverse the traditional trade routes” . While “pearl shell is found along more or less the entire length of the coast of tropical Australia, it appears that it is only the shell from the northwest that is held in high esteem continentally.” It is the knowledge of the important information a shell can hold that has led Bygrave to develop an approach to work with impressions from shells she finds so she can return the actual shells back to the site where she found them. This is striking dedication when you consider how many collected shells languish on window sills, in boxes, pot plants and landfill, collected and then forgotten. Bygrave’s works are softy finished, the impression of the shell becomes a tactile memory prompt, these are pieces that are destined to be worn and cherished.
For Mia Wells walking along the coast line is a reflective activity, it is where she finds her inspiration through observation and consideration. Her necklaces are in turn a record of her perambulations, resembling a drawing of the path followed with the individual elements suggestive of beach finds. Wells has used a combination of recycled and upcycled materials, some conventionally valuable (such as sterling silver) and others valued more for what they represent (for example driftwood), in the works they hold equal importance and value. These are bold works that have an unmistakable connection to the beach.
For all of the artists, while sterling silver is their starting medium of choice, they are open to the values and meanings other materials can bring to their works. All share a concern about the responsible use of materials and this is manifested in their choice to prioritise the use of recycled sterling silver, and the reuse and repurposing of materials. There is time and consideration required to hand make a piece of jewellery. Gittins, Wells and Bygrave have independently decided to focus their attention on capturing the essence and acknowledging the importance of the place that is so important to Australian identity, the place that Australians hold dear.
Dr Elizabeth Shaw
Convenor of Jewellery and Small Objects
Queensland College of Art Griffith University
Image Credit: Maddison Bygrave, Ocean Landscape Series, 2019, sterling silver, sapphire and pearl, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist.